Fragile Ties~III

In his bid to move forward, he took note of India’s declaration of a moratorium on further tests and New Delhi’s readiness to begin discussions on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). N

Fragile Ties~III

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It was only after Lloyd Axworthy’s exit from the Foreign Office (and also from politics) two years later, that fresh attempts were made by John Manley, Canada’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, to improve relations with India; economic considerations outweighed the post-Pokhran political stance of his predecessor. In his bid to move forward, he took note of India’s declaration of a moratorium on further tests and New Delhi’s readiness to begin discussions on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

He removed all economic sanctions in 2001. Two years later when Paul Martin took over as the Prime Minister of Canada replacing Jean Chretien, he gave a further boost to Canada’s efforts to expand cooperation by identifying India as an emerging market. But it was the government of Stephen Harper (2006-2015) that had intensified the efforts to enhance cooperation with India. It is not without significance that during his premiership there were 19 ministerial level visits to India, including his own State visits in 2009 and 2014. It was during his first visit that the two sides announced the decision to set up a Joint Study Group to study the feasibility of a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement while negotiations also began for an Agreement for the Promotion and Protection of Foreign Investment.

In 2010 Trade Minister Peter Van Loan visited India and launched negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA).These develoments indicated that both sides were prepared to intensify economic cooperation. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Canada in 2010 to attend the G-20 Summit and on the sidelines of the Summit an Agreement was signed for Civil Nuclear Co-operation, which was described by him as ‘breaking new grounds’ in the history of cooperation between the two states in this sector.


Harper’s government had placed India, an emerging market, at the centre of Canada’s Indo-Pacific Outlook. Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Canada in 2015 and was hosted by Harper. Both sides emphasized the need for strengthening and expanding bilateral ties, and mutual cooperation on a wide range of international issues where their interests converged. Particularly important was the agreement to revive cooperation in the nuclear energy sector, as Canada is rich in uranium resources and is one of the biggest suppliers of nuclear technology; cooperation with Canada in the development of nuclear energy would reduce dependence on fossil fuel.

MoUs were also signed between the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and the Canadian Space Agency for cooperation in space research, and between the Indian Railways and Canada’s Department of Transport for Technical Cooperation in rail transportation.

These indeed were encouraging developments. In the elections held in Canada in 2015, the Liberal Party swept to power and in a bid to sustain the momentum of developments in India-Canada relations, Prime Minister Modi invited Mr. Justin Trudeau, who had succeeded Harper as Prime Minister, to visit India.

But developments during the post-Harper years moved along a different trajectory as Trudeau’s style of functioning, his eagerness to cultivate the Liberal Party’s vote bank in the Indian diaspora, particularly among the Sikhs, and his naïve arrogance cast a shadow on India-Canada relations. Charismatic, young and handsome, his visit to India in 2018 turned out to be a diplomatic disaster. Usually his international tours received favourable media coverage; but this time around things went wrong as the Prime Ministerial delegation was received at the airport by a MoS ~ not even by a Cabinet Minister ~ which was viewed by political observers as a calculated snub.

The reason behind this cold reception may be attributed to Trudeau’s domestic poiltics, his government’s attitude towards terrorists and extremists. In 2017, when he attended a Khalsa Day parade in Toronto and delivered a speech, he was photographed in front of the yellow-and blue flag of Khalistan. It is important to note that his predecessor Harper never attended such events, as they were overtly anti-India displaying floats, posters and shrines dedicated to terrorists; and speakers often espoused violent upheavals in India for establishing Khalistan.

Trudeau had aligned his party with the powerful World Sikh Organisation and appointed several of its supporters to high ranking government positions. These matters did not endear him to the Indians. What is worse, during the India visit his entourage included a convicted assassin and a former terrorist, Jaspal Atwal. When matters became public, his government was in denial mode and blamed a backbench MP for the diplomatic impasse and claimed that the ‘invitation’ to Atwal had been rescinded.

But this was too late, as Atwal was already in India and his official invitation to the dinner to be hosted by the Canadian High Commission had been doing the rounds in social media as were his photographs with top Liberal Party officials and with Trudeau himself, and his wife Sophie. In fact, Jaspal had close links with the Liberal Party. A former activist and donor to the Party, he was for some time even a Liberal board member for the electoral district in Surrey, British Columbia. It is indeed surprising that the Prime Minister of Canada could have any connection with a former terrorist and a convicted assassin, giving substance to India’s allegation that Trudeau’s government was ‘very permissive’ towards terrorists.

This adversely affected bilateral ties between India and Canada. Back home, Trudeau’s India visit was criticised as lacking in official business, and providing excessive importance to photo-ops in Indian clothing. During the height of tensions in India-Canada relations last year, Trudeau said at a news conference in Montreal on 29 September 2023 that given India’s rising prominence in the international stage it is extremely important for Canada and its allies to keep up a ‘constructive and serious dialogue’ with India.

This was an unexceptionable statement, but had he been really serious about it, he should not have publicly arraigned India for the Nijjar killing, without providing substantive evidence. It is unfortunate that India’s ‘friends’ ~ including the US and the UK ~ do not always take serious note of New Delhi’s concerns about the patently anti-India activities of separatists living in those states. Speaking at an event in Washington D.C. Dr. Jaishankar said: “This has been an issue of great friction for many years with Canada.

But in the last few years it has come back very much into play because of what we consider to be a very permissive Canadian attitude towards terrorists, extremist people who openly advocate violence…….. Today, I am actually in a situation where my diplomats are unsafe going to the embassy or to the consulate. They are publicly intimated….’ The Canadian Sikh activist’s killing brought into focus the role of India’s intelligence agency, RAW. Nijjar’s killing took place at a time when there had been a surge in pro-Khalistan activities in Canada, the UK, the US, Pakistan and Australia.

It is also important to note that as India tries to deal with this surge in separatist activities, four former top Khalistani terrorists have died in six months under mysterious circumstances in Canada, UK and Pakistan. In February 2021, at a UN meeting convened to discuss the legality of pre-emptive strikes in self-defence, the Indian Ambassador to the UN said that Article 51 of the Charter “is not confined to selfdefence in response to attacks by state actors only.

The right of self-defence applies also to nonstate actors, referring to organisations or individuals not affiliated with, directed by, or funded through a government.” If there be even a grain of truth in Prime Minister Trudeau’s allegations against India, could this be explained with reference to India’s attempt to develop a strategy, within the ambit of Article 51 of the UN Charter, especially in dealing with threats to India’s security posed by non-state actors in states that are impervious to India’s security concerns?

Finally, Canada’s source of information about India’s involvement in Nijjar’s killing was the US. But why could the Canadian government not provide actionable inputs to the Indian government? Is it because the US Embassy in Canada or the government of Canada was eavesdropping on the phones of officials working in the Indian High Commission which itself is an illegal act? The answer to these questions may unravel the truth.

(The writer is Professor (retired) of International Relations and a former Dean, Faculty of Arts, Jadavpur University)