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Canada’s Allegations Will Bring Unwanted Attention on Indian Immigrants Abroad

Western governments will not be oblivious to the growing right-wing activism among the diaspora and the efforts of the BJP and the Modi government to harness that energy for political support and to stave off criticism of India.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has brought Narendra Modi’s exuberant post-G20 atmospherics to a halt by alleging in parliament that agents of the Indian government were involved in the murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian national, in June this year.

“Any involvement of a foreign government in the killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil is an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty,” Trudeau said. The Canadian foreign ministry subsequently expelled an Indian diplomat, who was identified as the head of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s foreign intelligence agency, in Canada.

Trudeau’s announcement was immediately picked up by the international media and generated quite a ripple across social media. This is big because the Canadians have accused the Indian government – not any private vigilante group or organisation – of murder in a foreign land.

Trudeau and Canadian state services seem to have taken this as seriously as the UK did when the Russian émigré Alexander Litvinenko was killed, allegedly on orders of the Kremlin. It is extraordinarily rare for a Western democracy to expel a diplomat from another democracy on these grounds.

In theory, this ought to be a major embarrassment for Modi. Western media headlines will not be flattering for a few days but he is bound to weather this. In fact, the altercation with Canada is likely to serve him politically well at home.

This is because Nijjar, the Sikh leader who was killed, is accused of being a terrorist by India. New Delhi claims that he was the mastermind of the separatist militant group, Khalistan Tiger Force. Nijjar was an accused in several terrorist cases and named in an Interpol notice as a “key conspirator” in a 2007 bombing of a cinema in Punjab.

Modi gains from this because his base has a tendency to celebrate aggressive initiatives against adversaries. Modi’s fans were jubilant when the Indian Air Force conducted airstrikes in the Pakistani territory after the terrorist attack in Pulwama in 2019. The alleged act of organising a terrorist’s assassination in a foreign land would seem quite redolent of Mossad’s ways, which Modi’s fans adore. Expect Modi to be hailed, those involved to become heroes, and perhaps a movie script may follow.

The Indian media will explain this away as Trudeau pandering to the Sikh vote in Canada. Trudeau’s move may not be bereft of political calculation; he may also be caught between the findings of the Canadian law enforcement – that he would have to act on – and the official need to maintain ties with India.

From Canada’s point of view, the Modi government did transgress established norms between political elites. There are processes about dealing with terrorists residing in other countries. Trudeau’s view would be that you just don’t take out people if those processes do not work for you. There are rules to follow and colleagues in the governing class do not create domestic political situations and problems for each other.

That said this controversy should make no difference to the West’s public affirmation of Modi, however indignant they may be in private. Its leaders have been perfectly happy to deal with him and consume his platitudes about democracy, so long as he buys their weapons and provides market access. And this is reflected in their reaction to Trudeau’s move. The US and Australia expressed “deep concern” about the allegation, while the UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly did not name India in his tweet on the matter.

The Washington Post reported that Canada’s allies refused to join Ottawa in publicly condemning the murder.

Unwanted attention

However, this controversy will not be without its costs and consequences for Indian immigrants more broadly. Around 18 million Indians currently live abroad; over 210,000 of them took permanent residency in Canada in 2021 and 2022.

This kind of a story brings unwanted attention on Indians living abroad – as any scrutiny into the activities of a foreign government on home soil is bound to bring along a measure of focus on the diaspora, as Chinese nationals living in Western countries know very well.

Trudeau noted in his statement that his country “was working closely and coordinating with [its] allies on this very serious matter.” Canada is a signatory to the Five Eyes intelligence sharing agreement along with the US, the UK, Australia and New Zealand – and it is not inconceivable that law enforcement authorities in these countries will be together keeping an eye on organised diaspora activity and its links to Indian parties and government in the light of dramatic developments like these.

Western governments will not be oblivious to the growing right-wing activism among the diaspora and the efforts of the BJP and the Modi government to harness that energy for political support and to stave off criticism of India.

The West can arguably live with a measure of diaspora mobilization but not entirely look away when it is disrupting civil peace and the social climate in their own countries.

There have been, to be sure, several unsavoury incidents in recent times involving Indian-origin immigrants. There were bulldozers at a parade in New Jersey that symbolically supported the demolition of Muslim homes in India by the BJP government. There were violent communal clashes in Leicester, the UK, last year. There were Sikh-Hindu clashes in Sydney this year. And reports have emerged of findings by police in Queensland about the defacement of Hindu temples in Australia.

Foreign governments will be keen to assess if such incidents develop organically or were provoked by foreign actors.

Intensified Sikh-Hindu schism

Trudeau’s statement is likely to intensify the divide among various Indian-origin diaspora groups. Sikh and other minority groups will organise against Hindu nationalist organisations and pressure foreign governments to act against them – the Hindu Right will counter-mobilise and lobby. All concerned will be in the crosshairs of Western bureaucratic interest and regulation. If Indians were to bring their domestic politics and divisions into other countries, it is only natural that governments of those lands would be more engaged in their surveillance of diaspora communities.

The Indian middle class can scarcely afford to be drawn into unhelpful transnational political projects, especially when just about every Western country is seeing anti-immigrant opinion on the rise.

Indians are largely known abroad for quietly getting on with their migrant lives. Importing illiberal norms and methods and reshaping the political cultures of host countries in undesirable ways is bound to provoke anti-immigrant sentiment that Indians have managed to avoid so far.

Sushil Aaron is a writer and policy analyst. He tweets @SushilAaron