Nijjar’s killing is a mere blip in Indo-American ties

Canada and America have traditionally been close allies, as members of several international alliances, including the Five Eyes. But India serves other interests for the US in the Indo-Pacific

Canada alleged Indian agents may be tied to the killing of Khalistani separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar. It is the subject of an upcoming referendum, as advertised by the poster held up by a Sikh man in the image (photo: DW)
Canada alleged Indian agents may be tied to the killing of Khalistani separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar. It is the subject of an upcoming referendum, as advertised by the poster held up by a Sikh man in the image (photo: DW)

Ashok Easwaran

Pierre Trudeau, former Canadian prime minister and father of current prime minister Justin Trudeau once said that being America’s neighbour is “in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.” 

Canada and America have been traditionally close allies who share the world’s longest border and are both NATO members. Both nations share common security goals. In 2018, Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou, a senior executive of the company Huawei on an American charge of conspiring to circumvent US sanctions on Iran. In retaliation, China arrested two Canadians who were freed in a barter deal for Meng’s release.

Although the Canadian prime minister’s information on the alleged link between Indian government agents and the murder of the Khalistani separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar came from American intelligence agencies as part of the Five Eyes alliance, subsequent statements from spokespersons of President Joseph Biden’s administration have been rather muted.

John Kirby, one of the spokespersons, noted that the government was “deeply concerned”. He expressed the hope that “the perpetrators of this attack need to be brought to justice”. Other statements have projected moral righteousness with delicate ambiguity.

Given the imperatives of global politics today, it is unlikely that Trudeau’s accusation in the Canadian parliament will spill over to Indo-American relationships.

In today’s fractured world, it is expediency rather than righteousness which pays diplomatic dividends. There are domestic compulsions too. Biden, who is facing low poll ratings at home, has frequently declared that “the battle between democracy  and autocracy is the defining struggle of this era”. In 2020, he called the Saudia Arabian monarch Mohammed Bin Salman an international “pariah” for personally orchestrating the murder and dismemberment of the Washington Post correspondent Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.

President Richard Nixon’s secretary of state Henry Kissinger had famously declared, “The United States does not have permanent friends, only permanent interests.” Barely two years after his criticism of Salman, Biden was photographed fist bumping and warmly shaking hands with him. The Saudi Arabian king is an essential player in Biden’s efforts to bring about a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel in an effort to counter Iran.

For the United States, India too is an increasingly valuable ally in its ramped-up efforts to combat the aggression of Russian president Vladimir Putin and Chinese president Xi Jinping. In addition to the escalating tensions with China over Taiwan, the US is also concerned over recent attacks by Chinese Coast Guard vessels on Philippines naval supply ships in the South China Sea. (As part of its Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the Philippines, the US recently announced the establishment of four more bases in that country.)

Addressing the Council on Foreign Affairs in New York this week, Indian external affairs minister S Jaishankar noted the increased Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean, adding that it would be better if the QUAD countries worked together to deal with this.

On Nijjar’s murder, Jaishankar said that he has asked the Canadian government for specific evidence linking Nijjar’s murder to the Indian government, which was apparently not forthcoming.

Even as investigations are on, witnesses from the Surrey gurdwara where Nijjar was shot have told journalists that there was a time lag of 20 minutes between a call being made to the police and their arrival. (In comparison, the arrival time for a New York patrol car after a level 1 emergency call is reported to be 9.1 minutes.) Moreover, Surrey has a population of under 600,000 and the gurdwara was in a heavily patrolled area. When the cops finally arrived, there was a further delay caused by a jurisdictional turf war.

One social media comment by an Indian American advised Trudeau, “Apne gireban mein bhi jhank kar dekho (search your own conscience/set your own house in order too).”

While Trudeau accuses India of complicity in Nijjar’s murder, it is worthwhile looking back on the Canadian investigations following the 1985 bombing of Air India Flight 182, Kanishka. Only one of the conspirators, Inderjit Singh Reyat, has been convicted several years after the event. A Canadian judge, Justice John Major, has stated that several law enforcement agencies in the country including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had numerous warnings to the effect that the Air India flight was a “high-risk target” for Sikh terrorists. Despite this, there were several security lapses that led to the tragedy, which Major called “inexcusable”.

In 2010, after the investigation report was released, then-prime minister of Canada Stephen Harper offered a public apology to the families of the victims, saying, their “legitimate need for answers and indeed, for empathy, was treated with administrative disdain". The Air India bombing was the largest terrorist attack before 9/11, with a flight originating in Canada and with Canadian conspirators. But critics say that for long, the Canadian authorities did not treat it as a Canadian tragedy.

If evidence does indicate that India carried out Nijjar’s killing, it will not be the only such instance in the international community. 

Both Israel and the United States have carried out numerous assassinations on foreign soil. In November 2020, recently enough, Israel’s secret service engineered the killing of an Iranian nuclear scientist—Mohsen Fakhrizadea—using a remote-controlled machine gun operated from a thousand miles away, in Israel.

The United States constitution and international law both prohibit killing outside armed conflict zones. Nevertheless, the United States continues to carry on 'targeted killing' operations against perceived enemies abroad, which are outside executive purview. The list is apparently decided in secrecy by the CIA and other intelligence agencies. Some reported cases have been in Pakistan, an ally, as well as Somalia and Yemen.

Caesar’s wife, apparently, need not be above reproach!

Ashok Easwaran is a senior journalist who has covered North America for over three decades.

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