India’s envoy to Canada to discuss bilateral relations after RCMP arrests


India’s envoy to Canada is scheduled to speak publicly today for the first time since the RCMP made arrests related to a homicide that has heightened tensions between the two countries.

High Commissioner Sanjay Kumar Verma will address the Council on Foreign Relations in Montreal on the topic of current and future relations between India and Canada.

His speech was first announced in April, months after a diplomatic row over the death of Hardeep Singh Nijjar.

Nijjar had long advocated the creation of a Sikh country called Khalistan in India, and was shot dead last June outside his temple in Surrey, British Columbia.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused New Delhi last September of playing a role in the murder, and the RCMP arrested three Indian nationals last Friday in connection with the case.

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

Vina Nadjibulla, vice-president of research at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, says that despite the tensions, India remains a strong trading partner, one of increasing strategic importance to 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.

The tension dates back to Nijjar’s death, which sparked a wave of protests. Posters were circulated threatening Indian diplomats in Canada using his name.

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

In response to Trudeau’s accusation, India forced Canada to expel two-thirds of its diplomats from the country, threatening to strip them of their diplomatic immunity.

New Delhi also temporarily suspended visas for Canadian visitors.

For months, Ottawa has demanded that New Delhi cooperate with the murder investigation. Until last week’s arrests, Verma had repeatedly said Canada must provide evidence.

India is currently in a months-long national election, during which Nadjibulla said the rhetoric of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government will increasingly be at odds with Canada.

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

India considers it unconstitutional to call for separation from India, but Canada says Sikhs in Canada have the right to free speech if they do not incite violence.

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.

Despite the gap, there are no signs that Canada’s trade with India has slowed, and provinces in particular have been seeking stronger ties.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith welcomed Verma in March.

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

Last week, the province announced it had convinced New Delhi to reinstate the province’s envoy, who Saskatchewan said was among the Canadian officials forced out by India.

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

The country has ambitions to be a global power through a foreign policy based on strategic autonomy, he said, meaning it is open to working with Europe, Russia and China without having to depend on any of them.

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

She contrasted this with China, with whom Canada maintains important trade ties but is increasingly at odds on security, global trade rules and regional defence.

Nadjibulla argued that Canada should consider reopening trade talks with India, despite the ongoing murder case.

“There are many things we can do together, and the momentum was there before the diplomatic crisis,” he said.

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

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

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