Canada is claiming that India’s far-right government was involved in the murder of one of its citizens. The extraordinary allegation has set off a diplomatic firestorm.

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi, India. (Vipin Kumar / Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

The murder of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil has put the country on the front pages of newspapers and the front of the minds of political observers around the world. In June, masked gunmen shot and killed Hardeep Singh Nijjar outside of a Gurdwara in Surrey, British Columbia. Last Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canadian intelligence had heard “credible allegations” of a link between the assassination and the government of India.

Trudeau made the extraordinary charges in the House of Commons. He claimed there was evidence connecting India to the killing, but he has yet to present proof. Reports suggest Canada has been raising the matter with allies — and India — for weeks. They’ve been working particularly closely with the United States, which has expressed concern about the murder and is asking India to cooperate with the investigation. India denies any involvement.

Both sides have taken retaliatory actions, including the expulsion of diplomats. India has suspended visa applications for Canadian travelers and warned its nationals to exercise caution in Canada. India has also accused Canada of harboring terrorists. The whole affair has taken on the quality of a high-stakes drama with lives, livelihoods, migration, and billions of dollars in trade hanging in the balance.

Trudeau’s Allegations

Nijjar was an activist for an independent Sikh state in Indian territory known as Khalistan. While the Khalistani movement has waned in recent years, several decades ago it constituted a major international source of contention. The movement was implicated in the 1985 terrorist bombing of an Air India flight that originated in Canada and the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards a year earlier, following a deadly government raid on the Golden Temple complex, a sacred site for Sikhs. Today, the Narendra Modi government in India faces criticism for its treatment of non-Hindu minorities, including Sikhs and Muslims, and is watchful of Khalistani politics both within the country and abroad.

Critics of Trudeau’s allegation demand to see proof and wonder why he raised the matter when he did, in the way he did. The Occam’s razor explanation seems to be that the story was coming out one way or another and Trudeau wanted to get ahead of the news cycle. Globe and Mail reporter Robert Fife had the scoop and was prepared to run it. Other organizations had the story, too. The government preempted them all, took control of the story, and sent a message that it had control of its foreign policy and intelligence, not some ink-stained reporter, thank you very much. It was keen to do so after being beaten to the punch in recent months by leaks to media about Chinese interference into Canada’s domestic affairs.

No one ought to take Trudeau’s allegations of Indian extrajudicial murder on foreign soil as an article of faith. It’s not only healthy in a democracy to question the motives and pronouncements of leaders — it’s essential. But it’s just as important to use one’s critical capacities and inductive reasoning to draw conclusions, rather than relying on partisan commitments or cheap conspiracy thinking to do the work of sifting through the facts.

Extrajudicial Killings and International Law

At some point, the government will present its evidence, albeit likely after ongoing investigations have advanced, ensuring the safety of intelligence assets. In the meantime, we know that Trudeau made an extraordinary allegation. We also know the United States and others have expressed their concern and brought the matter up with India, suggesting they find the allegation credible — even if they aren’t prepared to risk their geopolitical and trade goals by alienating New Delhi any more than they must.

We also know that Nijjar had likely been in contact with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service through weekly meetings before his death, suggesting that there was an unusual and credible threat to his safety. Furthermore, considering Modi’s authoritarian tendencies, domestic repression of minorities, and adventures abroad — particularly in Pakistan — it’s far from unfathomable that someone, somewhere along the ranks, decided to extend the government’s reach and enact its own form of justice. But it is unfathomable, or nearly so, to think Trudeau would go all in on such an accusation, with all that’s on the line, if what is alleged to be a state-sanctioned assassination was merely a gangland turf war, random violence, or a renegade hit.

On Thursday, we learned that Canada has human and signals intelligence backing up its claim — and so does one of its allies, presumably the United States. This includes intercepted communications involving Indian diplomats discussing the matter. The pendulum appears to be swinging in Trudeau’s favor.

As partisan and skeptical as many reactions to Trudeau’s claim may be, those rushing to the defense of an extrajudicial foreign murder and violation of state sovereignty have set the bar even lower. Modern advocates or apologists of extrajudicial killings are the inheritors of a long line of specious “ticking-bomb” utilitarian ghouls from the realist foreign policy school, including one who’s currently running for president of the United States. Others are mere fools or tools of power, keen to believe any partisan justification for whatever wretched act suits their side’s goal of the week.

We ought to stand against India’s action as a violation of state sovereignty and a violation of due process.

International law and the United Nations Charter are clear that the Nijjar killing by India is unequivocally illegal. We ought to stand against India’s action as a violation of state sovereignty and a violation of due process. We ought to also stand against it as we would, and do, when it’s the United States off on a foreign misadventure in the Global South — or any other state for that matter. The United States has a long history of foreign meddling and extrajudicial killings, murders that continued despite a Senate investigation and a presidential executive order. We ought to be consistent in our values and expectations, full stop.

Yes, Due Process Matters

Without clear and firm borders on foreign meddling and murder, we invite a global system in which the powerful will take maximum advantage of transnational raids to fulfill their domestic and geopolitical goals. It’s naive to think such practices don’t occur now, but the fact that such things happen doesn’t make any single instance, including India’s murder of Nijjar, any more acceptable.

Indeed, taking a firm stance against such practices primarily benefits vulnerable states and activists against oppression at home and abroad. Taking the side of extrajudicial murder is taking the side of imperialist or quasi-imperialist power, and it undermines the due process, flawed as it is, that is essential to protecting fundamental individual rights.

Whether the world rallies to condemn India and support Canada’s bid for justice for Nijjar will depend on the usual domestic and geopolitical considerations. The United States wants to court India to counter the rise of China. The post-Brexit United Kingdom wants — or rather, needs — a free trade deal with a rising economic power. Australia places great significance on its Indo-Pacific ties with New Delhi, a sentiment shared by Canada, underscoring the gravity of India’s transgression.

Yet, while it’s fair to be cynical about the global response to the assassination, it’s not inconceivable that international pressure leads to Modi holding someone at home to account for the murder. After all, no other state, including the United States, the UK, and Australia, wants to see extrajudicial killings in their territory. Moreover, there is comfort in taking an unambiguous stance against a heinous crime — and that stance has the added benefit of being morally correct.

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