The current rift between Canada and India, arising from the killing of Indian political dissident Hardeep Singh Nijjar within Canadian borders, has reached one of its worst points in the two country’s histories, as 41 Canadian diplomats have been recalled and visa supplies between the two countries have become tighter. In June 2023, the 45 year old India-born Sikh Canadian was murdered in a Vancouver neighborhood. This happened three years after India labeled Mr. Singh Nijjar as a terrorist leader of the separatist pro-Khalistan militant group Khalistan Tiger Force. Four months later, on 18 September 2023, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau revealed in Parliament that there were “credible allegations” linking Indian government agents to the crime. The fallout of these accusations have since soured diplomatic ties between the two countries, even as cross-national connections have never been closer; tens of thousands of Indian tourists visit Canada each year, and a plurality of Canada’s foreign exchange students are Indian.
If true, India’s alleged assassination would clearly violate international law. As Professor Leah West of Carleton University’s School of International Affairs explains, there are not many more clear cut examples of a “violation of sovereignty”. This violation would not lie in the word of treaties, but rather in “customary international law,” which, according to Professor Marko Milanovic of the University of Reading, refers to “international obligations arising from established international practice”. The killing would also violate the UN Charter, which states that its members shall refrain “from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state,”, and the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights, a treaty that India and Canada are both signers of, which enshrines the “right to life”.
However, this form of espionage and subterfuge does not come without caveats of national security. Canada and India especially have acknowledged before the threat of Sikh separatists, also referred to as the Khalistan movement, a movement proposing the establishment of an ethnically Sikh state of Khalistan in and extending the Indian state of Punjab, the only Sikh majority state in India. The two countries have worked cooperatively on this issue in the past, especially afterthe deadliest terrorist attack in Canadian history, which was perpetrated by British Columbian Sikh separatists. After Prime Minister Trudeau revealed that Canada had “substantive evidence” of India’s connection to the assassination of Mr. Singh Nijjar, India’s response included a refrain that Canada had not held up its end of the bargain and was harboring dangerous separatists who were a threat to India’s national security. Professor Reeta Tremblay of the University of Victoria notes that the scars of persecution, that occuredafter the assassination of former Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, remain fresh in the memories of the Sikh diaspora. This means many immigrants in western countries have sympathy for the Khalistani separatist movement, out of which a small minority is vocal in their support. However, she also notes that it would be incorrect to “label all the Sikh community [in Canada by] saying that they are terrorists and they are actively pursuing [this],” a view that is generally consistent with the Canadian government’s belief on its own Sikh population.
Now, the focus of both countries has shifted back to re-establishing friendly diplomatic relations. As of October 25th, India started resuming visa services to Canada, after initially suspending all travel to Canada for purported security reasons. Given the current focus on reconciliation as well as the preoccupation of the world’s international institutions on the Israel-Palestine conflict, it appears unlikely that Canada will further pursue this matter in a court of international law. If they were to do so, it would likely be through the UN Human Rights Court or the International Court of Justice, though that would also require more substantive proof of India’s involvement in the murder of Mr. Singh Nijjar then has so far been provided. Ultimately, it appears that little of the underlying tension between Canada and India over the issue of Sikh separatists will be resolved, though with time diplomatic ties between the two countries should at least partially mend themselves.
Hanrui Huang is a junior majoring in International Comparative Studies.