Indian envoy warns of ‘big red line’, days after charges filed in Nijjar case


India’s envoy to Canada insists that relations between the two countries are generally positive, despite what he describes as “a lot of noise.”

During his first public statements since the RCMP arrested three Indian nationals in the case, High Commissioner Sanjay Kumar Verma appeared to link the case to domestic crimes.

But he warned that Sikh groups in Canada calling for their homeland’s separation from India are crossing “a big red line” that New Delhi views as a matter of national security.

“Indians will decide India’s destiny, not foreigners,” Verma told the Council on Foreign Relations in Montreal.

Earlier on Tuesday, Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly defended accusations that the Indian government was complicit in the murder of a Sikh Canadian last year.

Hardeep Singh Nijjar had long advocated the creation of a Sikh country called Khalistan.

He was shot and killed last June in front of his temple in Surrey, BC.

Nijjar had a warrant for his arrest in India, but Canada never extradited him for lack of credible evidence that he had committed any serious crime.

The killing sparked a wave of protests, with some Sikh groups circulating posters threatening Indian diplomats in Canada by name.

Ottawa halted trade negotiations with India last August, a month before Trudeau publicly linked New Delhi to the case.

Diplomatic tension continued throughout the fall when India forced Canada to expel two-thirds of its diplomats from the country, threatening to strip them of their diplomatic immunity, and temporarily halted visa processing for Canadian visitors.

The three men charged in the case appeared virtually in court on Tuesday. Police say they are still investigating whether the Indian government was involved in the murder.

Verma said the deeper issues underlying recent “negative” developments have to do with Canada’s misunderstanding of “decades-old issues,” which he blames on Indian Canadians for resurfacing.

He said his main concern is the “threats to national security emanating from Canadian soil,” noting that India does not recognize dual nationality, so anyone who emigrates is considered a foreigner.

New Delhi considers calling for separation from India unconstitutional, but Canada has long said that Sikhs in Canada have the right to free speech if they do not incite violence.

“For foreigners to have, if I can call it that, (an) evil eye on the territorial integrity of India, that is a big red line for us,” he said.

He did not specify whether he was referring to the foreigners involved in the Nijjar case or the issue of Sikh separatism in general.

Verma added that the unspecified media reports have been “a little coloured”, although he acknowledged that “there would be some facts” in them.

Over the weekend, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar reacted to the RCMP arrests by accusing Canada of harboring criminals from his country.

But Verma struck a conciliatory tone Tuesday, saying the two countries are “trying to resolve this issue.”

“We are willing to come to the table any day and we are doing so,” he said.

Hours before those comments, Joly said his goal remains to conduct diplomacy with India in private.

He said he would let the Mounties investigate rather than provide new comment on the case.

“We stand by the allegations that a Canadian was murdered on Canadian soil by Indian agents,” Joly said on Parliament Hill.

“The RCMP investigation is ongoing. I will have no further comment and no other official in our government will comment further.”

Verma focused her speech Tuesday on “so many positive things” happening in the relationship.

He noted that the annual value of two-way trade is $26 billion, and in the last 11 months, there has been a 75 percent increase in Canadian lentil exports and a 21 percent increase in Indian prepared medicines that They arrive in Canada.

Vina Nadjibulla, vice-president of research at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, said India is of increasing importance to Ottawa and many of its peers.

“Canada right now is an outlier when it comes to that kind of strategic deepening of the partnership with India,” he said.

“We need to stabilize and improve that relationship, because it is in Canada’s national interest.”

He noted that Canadian companies and provinces have been seeking stronger ties. Alberta Premier Danielle Smith welcomed Verma in March.

And Saskatchewan announced last week that it had convinced New Delhi to reinstate the province’s envoy to India, saying its official was among the Canadians who had to leave during the fall.

New Delhi has not allowed the other Canadian diplomats to return.

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe met Jaishankar last February and spoke at the Raisina Dialogue, a major foreign policy conference in India.

Nadjibulla attended the same conference. He observed that India showed “tremendous confidence” in its growing economic power, population and regional influence.

“Right now there are a lot of partners and suitors appearing in New Delhi,” Nadjibulla said.

Despite the Nijjar case, he said Canada should consider reopening trade talks with India.

“There are a lot of things we can do together,” he said.

Not everyone agrees. On Tuesday, the group Sikhs for Justice called for Verma’s speech to be cancelled, citing the Nijjar case and accusations of foreign interference by India.

The group’s New York-based lawyer, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, was targeted by US prosecutors for assassination in a failed plot they allege was orchestrated by an Indian government official. The claim has not been proven in court.

India is in the midst of months-long national elections.

Nadjibulla said he hopes Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will continue to step up his rhetoric.

Last month, Modi made two statements in Hindi about his country’s ability to kill those abroad who challenge the country’s territorial integrity, in comments that were more broadly related to Pakistan.

Last week, Jaishankar lamented that “our biggest problem right now is in Canada,” referring to Sikh separatism.

Federal Cabinet Minister Harjit Sajjan, whom Indian officials have described as a Sikh nationalist, suggested Tuesday that he does not take India’s claims at face value.

“We take any allegations and information from any country very seriously when it comes to any type of criminal activity,” he said.

“There has been a lot of misinformation from India about people in this country, including about me and my family.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 7, 2024.

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