©Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A mural depicts the image of late Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar, who was killed on September 18, 2023 on the grounds of the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara Temple in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada. REUTERS/Chris Helgren/ file photo
By YP Rajesh
NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India’s main opposition Congress party on Wednesday backed the government’s rejection of Canadian suspicions that New Delhi’s officers were linked to the killing of a Sikh separatist leader and urged a stand against threats from the sovereignty of the country.
India quickly dismissed Canada’s claim as absurd, in a move that worsens already poor relations between the two members of the G20 grouping as each has expelled one of the other’s diplomats.
The dispute followed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s comments that Canadian intelligence agencies were actively pursuing “credible allegations” linking Indian agents to the shooting of 45-year-old Hardeep Singh Nijjar in British Columbia.
On Wednesday, India’s foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment, but a government source said New Delhi had nothing new to add.
Congress spokespeople supported what they called India’s “fight against terrorism” and criticized Trudeau.
“Trudeau’s defense of declared terrorist Hardeep Singh Nijjar is absolutely shameful and shows how much the current Canadian regime is in bed with Khalistani sympathizers,” Abhishek Manu Singhvi, a senior Congressman, wrote on social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter.
Khalistan is the name of an independent Sikh state whose creation was the aim of a bloody Sikh uprising in the 1980s and 1990s in the northern Indian state of Punjab, in which tens of thousands of people were killed.
As the then ruling party, Congress led the fight against the separatists and eventually suppressed the campaign, but New Delhi remains wary of any revival.
“The interests and concerns of our country must be paramount at all times,” Congress chief spokesperson Jairam Ramesh said in a post on X.
“The Indian National Congress has always believed that our country’s fight against terrorism must be uncompromising, especially when terrorism threatens the sovereignty, unity and integrity of India.”
The uprising also claimed the lives of key Congress leaders, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984, and Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh, who was killed in a bomb blast by Sikh separatists in 1995.
Canadian officials have so far declined to say why they believe India could be linked to Nijjar’s killing.
While there is scant support for the insurgents in India, small groups of Sikhs in Australia, Britain, Canada and the United States support separatist demands and occasionally organize protests outside embassies.
New Delhi, which has urged Ottawa to act against anti-India elements, has long been dissatisfied with Sikh separatist activities in Canada.
It was strange that Trudeau had announced the expulsion of an Indian diplomat in Parliament, said AS Dulat, former head of India’s external spy agency, the Research and Analysis Wing.
“We don’t do these things,” the Economic Times newspaper quoted Dulat as telling the Press Trust of India news agency. “We don’t go around killing people, let me make this very clear.”
Canada has the largest population of Sikhs outside the Indian state of Punjab, with approximately 770,000 people reporting Sikhism as their religion in the 2021 census.
India has been particularly sensitive to Sikh protesters in Canada, with some Indian analysts saying Ottawa is not stopping them because Sikhs are a politically influential group there.
“Trudeau appears to be engaging in toxic domestic politics by catering to the extremist fringe of the Sikh diaspora,” the Indian Express newspaper said in an editorial calling for a resolution to the dispute.
“The first step toward detente is to pause the current escalation and get national security advisers from both sides to have a frank discussion,” it added.
Both sides have said they are halting lengthy talks on a possible trade deal. Canada and India have tried to boost low levels of two-way trade, which accounted for just $10.2 billion of Canada’s total of $1.13 trillion in 2022.
($1=1.3452 Canadian dollars)