Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Security personnel stand guard in front of the High Commission of Canada, in New Delhi, on Sept. 19.ARUN SANKAR/AFP/Getty Images

Just hours after Ottawa expelled a senior Indian diplomat amid allegations that New Delhi was involved in the killing of a Sikh activist on Canadian soil, India responded in kind Tuesday, dismissing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s claims as “absurd” and “unsubstantiated.”

Mr. Trudeau told Parliament Monday that Canada has credible intelligence that “agents of the government of India” carried out the fatal shooting in mid-June of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a prominent Sikh separatist leader in British Columbia.

Ottawa then promptly expelled Pavan Kumar Rai, the most senior member in Canada of India’s Research and Analysis Wing, the country’s foreign intelligence agency.

India quickly responded in kind, expelling an as-yet unidentified “senior Canadian diplomat.” In a statement, the country’s Ministry of External Affairs said the person “has been asked to leave India within the next five days,” adding that their expulsion reflected the government’s “growing concern at the interference of Canadian diplomats in our internal matters and their involvement in anti-India activities.”

Cameron Mackay, Canada’s High Commissioner to India, was summoned by the ministry Tuesday to receive the news.

In a separate statement posted online, New Delhi described Mr. Trudeau’s allegations, which he also made in person to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the G20 summit earlier this month, as “absurd” and part of a pattern of supporting the separatist Khalistan movement, which seeks to create a homeland for Sikhs in India’s northern state of Punjab.

“Such unsubstantiated allegations seek to shift the focus from Khalistani terrorists and extremists, who have been provided shelter in Canada and continue to threaten India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the Ministry of External Affairs statement said. “The inaction of the Canadian government on this matter has been a long-standing and continuing concern.”

It expressed “deep concern” that Canadian political figures have “openly expressed sympathy” for Sikh separatists and accused Canada of giving space “to a range of illegal activities including murders, human trafficking and organized crime.”

What is the Khalistan movement, and how was Hardeep Singh Nijjar involved?

‘I can say goodbye once justice is done’: Family, friends react to revelation on Sikh leader’s death

Canada is home to more Sikhs than anywhere else outside India and a major hub for the independence movement, something that has long attracted the ire of New Delhi, which has outlawed the Khalistan movement and regards adherents as extremists or even terrorists.

Prior to his death, Mr. Nijjar had been accused by India of terrorism and conspiring to kill a Hindu priest in Punjab. New Delhi had offered a reward equivalent to $16,200 for information leading to his arrest.

Mr. Nijjar, who promoted Sikh independence and urged Indians to vote in a non-binding referendum on the issue, was alerted by Canadian intelligence as early as last year about a potential plot to kill him, according to his lawyer and the World Sikh Organization of Canada (WSOC).

“India is very scared of Sikhs in Canada and their influence,” Balpreet Singh, a spokesman for the WSOC, told The Globe and Mail earlier this year. He said there was “real fear” among the community that India was engaged in targeted killings, pointing to a number of suspicious deaths around the world of people linked to the Khalistan movement.

The issue of Sikh activism has long been a thorn in India-Canada relations, which have worsened significantly under Mr. Trudeau. New Delhi regards Ottawa as soft on terrorism and wants to see it do more to rein in the separatist movement, while Canadian officials argue that as long as Khalistan activists are peaceful, they are simply exercising their civil rights and there is nothing the government can do to stop this.

In India, the media often blame Sikhs in Canada for unrest in Punjab. During the G20 summit, Mr. Trudeau did not get an official bilateral meeting with Mr. Modi and appeared to be given short shrift by the Indian leader, a purported “humiliation” that was played up in the local press.

Ahead of the summit, some analysts suggested the Khalistan issue was overblown, pointing to growing ties between Canada and India, as well as work on a new trade deal. But on Sept. 1 talks on that agreement were suspended, and no announcements of progress were made while Mr. Trudeau and Trade Minister Mary Ng were in New Delhi, a sign that tensions on the political side of the relationship had begun to weigh on economic ties.

Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Modi had a tense exchange on the sidelines of the summit, during which the Indian leader accused Sikhs in Canada of “promoting secessionism and inciting violence against Indian diplomats, damaging diplomatic premises and threatening the Indian community in Canada and their places of worship,” according to an Indian readout.

What we know about the killing of Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar

The killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar: A timeline of events

Ottawa said Mr. Trudeau had briefed both U.S. President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak about the allegations regarding Mr. Nijjar’s killing, and Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly will discuss them with her G7 counterparts at the United Nations in New York.

The White House has yet to comment. Speaking Tuesday, a British government spokesperson said London was in close contact with Ottawa, while Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs said it was “deeply concerned” over Mr. Trudeau’s claims and had conveyed this to India.

When the United Kingdom accused Moscow of attempting to kill double agent Sergei Skripal in Canterbury in 2018 with a Novichok nerve agent, multiple countries, including Canada, expelled Russian diplomats in protest. The United States and other countries have also offered strong support to Ottawa regarding allegations of Chinese interference in Canadian politics.

Countries may be less willing to take a hard line against India, however. Many Western powers have courted New Delhi both as a potential political counterweight to Beijing and as a new economic partner, one whose economy has boomed since the lifting of pandemic restrictions while China’s has struggled.

With files from Robert Fife and Steven Chase in Ottawa, and Reuters.

The killing of a Sikh leader and Indian foreign interference

    Hardeep Singh Nijjar, the president of a Sikh temple in Surrey, B.C. and an outspoken advocate for Sikh separatism, was shot and killed outside the gurdwara on June 18, 2023. The homicide prompted a flare-up of old tensions that have simmered since the Air India bombing involving Sikh extremists in 1985.
    Three months after the shooting, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused Indian government agents of killing Mr. Nijjar, citing credible intelligence from Canadian national-security authorities. The Government of India denied any involvement and dismissed Mr. Trudeau’s claims as “unsubstantiated.”
    Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly expelled the head of Canadian operations of India’s foreign intelligence agency. Hours later, New Delhi responded in kind, expelling an as-yet unidentified “senior Canadian diplomat.”
    The World Sikh Organization of Canada, a non-profit that says it advocates for the interests of Canadian Sikhs, said it had alerted Ottawa that India actively targets Sikhs in Canada.
    The Nijjar slaying has cast a chill over Canada-India relations. Canada suspended talks on a trade deal with India, and Ottawa said an early October Canadian trade mission to India has been postponed.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe