Canada’s Immigration Minister sought to reassure Indian nationals on Wednesday that it is safe to travel to this country even as a leader of the Sikh separatist movement makes plans for rallies in Canadian cities on Monday that seek the closing of New Delhi’s diplomatic missions here.
In the aftermath of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s assertion that agents of the Indian government were involved in the June 18 killing of a Sikh leader in British Columbia, India warned its citizens Wednesday to exercise the “utmost caution” when travelling in Canada.
An advisory from India’s External Affairs department warned of “growing anti-India activities and politically-condoned hate crimes and criminal violence.”
In particular, it urged students to “exercise extreme caution.” India is the largest source of international students to Canada, with Indians making up about 40 per cent of all overseas students.
In response to India’s travel advisory, Immigration Minister Marc Miller urged calm, telling reporters that “everyone knows how safe Canada is.”
“Look, I think everyone knows Canada is a safe country and given the events of the last two or three days and the seriousness of the allegations that – it’s important for everyone to stay calm,” he said. “Canada by any standard is one of the safest if not the safest country in the world that is governed by the rule of law. So, I think people should read that statement for what it is.”
He acknowledged that Canadian allegations of India’s involvement in the gangland-style shooting of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, who had advocated for a Sikh homeland in the Indian state of Punjab, have heightened tensions with the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“Given what the Prime Minister has said quite clearly to Prime Minister Modi, the allegations are very serious, and these are discussions that have to continue with India,” he said. “At the same time, emotions are running high and we’ve asked everyone just to stay calm given the seriousness of the allegations.”
Politicians across the spectrum in India have criticized Mr. Trudeau, who also attracted condemnation and ridicule in the Indian media.
“Trudeau’s defense of declared terrorist Hardeep Singh Nijjar is absolutely shameful,” Abhishek Manu Singhvi, a senior lawmaker with the opposition Congress party, wrote on social media. He accused the Canadian government of being “in bed” with people who seek the creation of an independent Sikh homeland known as Khalistan.
Manjinder Singh Sirsa, national secretary of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), told The Globe and Mail he had been “surprised and shocked” by Mr. Trudeau’s allegations.
“How can a prime minister get up in Parliament and make such an accusation without evidence?” he said. “If they had any evidence they should have arrested those involved, not say it could be or could not be with no clarity.”
Canada has “done the unthinkable,” and managed to find an issue that unites opposition parties and the BJP, said Harsh Pant, vice-president of the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi think tank.
Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, who heads Sikhs for Justice and was Mr. Nijjar’s New York-based lawyer, has called for Sikhs to rally outside India’s High Commission in Ottawa as well as consulates across Canada on Monday. Mr. Nijjar worked with Mr. Pannun on a non-binding international referendum the group is conducting among the global Sikh diaspora on whether the northern Indian state of Punjab should secede.
A day after Mr. Trudeau accused India of being responsible for the slaying of Mr. Nijjar, Mr. Pannun’s secessionist Sikhs for Justice group launched what it called a “Death to India – Balkanize” campaign that he said will call for the shutdown of India’s embassy in Ottawa and the expulsion of Indian High Commissioner Sanjay Kumar Verma. One poster produced by Mr. Pannun calls India’s missions in Canada “terror houses.”
Mr. Pannun explained that the phrase “Death to India – Balkanize” refers to his group’s desire to see the Indian state of Punjab break off from India and form its own country.
He said this group does not incite or promote violence. “Pro-Khalistan Sikhs are fighting India’s violence with votes and fighting Indian bullets with [a] ballot,” he said, referring to the referendum.
In an editorial Wednesday, The Hindu newspaper said the crisis “marks a new low” in Canada-India relations. It urged Mr. Trudeau to “publicly prove his very serious allegations, or admit he is unable to.”
“Unlike with Pakistan, where such allegations, name-calling and public confrontation have become routine, it is worth remembering that Canada is a part of the western NATO alliance, and home to Indians and Indian-origin Canadians, and the impact of the rupture will be felt wider,” the paper said.
Mr. Trudeau’s allegations led newspaper front pages and TV broadcasts, with many outlets not being anywhere near as respectful as The Hindu. Many commentators pointed to the Liberals’ poor showing in polls and accused Mr. Trudeau of pandering to Sikh voters.
On Tuesday, the Prime Minister said he had been “simply laying out the facts as we understand them.” Mr. Trudeau urged New Delhi to “take this matter with the utmost seriousness,” while adding he did not want to further escalate tensions with India.
Before going public with its claims, Ottawa briefed Washington and a number of other key allies, but so far, they have taken a cautious approach by expressing concern, but not condemning India.
The White House is “deeply concerned” about allegations that Indian agents were potentially involved in the murder of a Sikh leader in British Columbia earlier this year and encourages India officials to co-operate in any investigation, White House national security spokesman John Kirby said on Wednesday.
But Mr. Kirby also stressed the importance of India to the United States.
“I can just tell you that our relationship with India remains vitally important not only for the South Asian region but of course for the Indo-Pacific,” Mr. Kirby told reporters.
With a report from Reuters