Canada tried to get Five Eyes allies to agree joint condemnation of India over Sikh leader’s killing – report

Western leaders reportedly didn’t want to spoil India’s ‘coming-out party’ at G20

Shweta Sharma
Wednesday 20 September 2023 12:04 BST
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US president Joe Biden (left), Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau (centre) and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen speak with each other at G20 Summit in Delhi
US president Joe Biden (left), Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau (centre) and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen speak with each other at G20 Summit in Delhi (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Canada tried getting the support of the Five Eyes nations for a joint condemnation of India over its alleged role in the killing of a Sikh leader just days before Justin Trudeau went public with the accusations, it has been reported.

The Canadian prime minister triggered a major diplomatic row on Monday as he declared that there were “credible allegations” of agents of the Indian government being involved in the murder of Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar three months ago.

Weeks before world leaders of the most powerful economies were set to meet for the G20 Summit held in New Delhi, Canada approached its closest allies of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing nations to jointly raise the issue at the summit, Western officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity told The Washington Post.

But Ottawa’s requests were turned down as Western leaders did not want to spoil India’s moment at the G20, seen as an “important coming-out party” for Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, they said.

The Canadian foreign ministry’s spokesperson, however, has denied courting the Five Eyes for their support against India, saying in the statement to WaPo that the claims that “Canada asked allies to publicly condemn the murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, and were subsequently rebuffed, are false”.

Nijjar was shot dead on 18 June in the parking lot of a gurdwara in British Columbia’s Surrey. Exactly three months later in the House of Commons on Monday, Mr Trudeau alleged “agents of the Indian government” were involved in the murder.

The claim was dismissed by India as “absurd and motivated” and its foreign ministry said it had “growing concern at the interference of Canadian diplomats in our internal matters and their involvement in anti-India activities”.

Shortly after Mr Trudeau’s announcement, Canada booted an unnamed Indian diplomat identified as the senior intelligence officer at the embassy, while India expelled one of Canada’s most senior diplomats in a furious tit-for-tat move.

Trudeau walks past Narendra Modi and Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo as they take part in a wreath-laying ceremony at Raj Ghat (Mahatma Gandhi's cremation site) during the G20 Summit
Trudeau walks past Narendra Modi and Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo as they take part in a wreath-laying ceremony at Raj Ghat (Mahatma Gandhi's cremation site) during the G20 Summit (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press via AP)

The Five Eyes alliance is an intelligence-sharing grouping consisting of the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

It is described as one of the world’s most successful intelligence alliances after it evolved during the Cold War era to gather intelligence on the Soviet Union and share classified intelligence.

Canada prime minister Justin Trudeau delivers a statement in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa
Canada prime minister Justin Trudeau delivers a statement in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa (AP)

In May 2020, the alliance reached a consensus to broaden its mission beyond mere security and intelligence, embracing a more public commitment to upholding human rights and promoting democracy.

Even as Canada’s foreign ministry denied approaching the Five Eyes, it confirmed Mr Trudeau did raise the issue with US president Joe Biden and British prime minister Rishi Sunak this week following Monday’s extraordinary statement in parliament.

Foreign minister Melanie Joly said she will also discuss the assassination claims with her fellow G7 counterparts this week on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.

Mourners carry the casket of Sikh community leader and temple president Hardeep Singh Nijjar during Antim Darshan
Mourners carry the casket of Sikh community leader and temple president Hardeep Singh Nijjar during Antim Darshan (AP)

Canada is working “very closely” with the US on the intelligence linking Indian agents to Nijjar’s murder and the evidence will be shared “in due course”, a Canadian government official was quoted as saying to Reuters.

“We’ve been working with the US very closely, including on the public disclosure yesterday,” the source said.

Jonah Kaplan, a London-based Asia analyst at geopolitical and security intelligence firm Dragonfly, told The Independent that the priority of Western countries would be to defuse the issue rather than punish India.

“Several Western governments, such as the UK and the US, have sought to expand economic ties with India, and are unlikely to jeopardise this,” he said.

“Western countries see India as an important ally in growing strategic competition with China and hence, their priority will probably be to defuse the current bilateral dispute, rather than punish India, such as with sanctions.”

Mr Trudeau was presumably quite aware of the impact such a move would have on Canada’s relations with India, yet “decided that the issue was important enough to justify the cost”, said Jonah Blank, a professor at the National University of Singapore.

Though they did not join Canada in a public statement calling out India over Nijjar’s killing, the other members of the Five Eyes have since expressed concerns separately over the “serious” allegations.

The White House said the US was “deeply concerned” about the allegations. Washington believes it is “critical that Canada’s investigation proceed and the perpetrators be brought to justice”.

The British government, which has also faced calls from India to investigate so-called “anti-India activities” including the separatist Khalistan movement, said London will wait until the Canadian investigation concludes.

India raised the issue with the UK earlier this year after Sikh protesters pulled down the Indian flag at India’s high commission in London and smashed the building’s windows to protest the arrest of a popular Sikh preacher.

A man takes down Indian flag during from Indian High Commission in London
A man takes down Indian flag during from Indian High Commission in London (Screengrab)

James Cleverly told the BBC that the UK would “listen very, very carefully to the serious concerns that have been raised by Canada”.

But they will not suspend trade talks or take action as “both Canada and India are close friends of the UK, they’re Commonwealth partners”.

A spokesperson for Australia’s foreign ministry said Canberra was “deeply concerned” by the allegations and they have raised their “concerns at senior levels in India”.

“Look, these are concerning reports and I note that investigations are still underway,” Australian foreign minister Penny Wong told reporters.

“As I’ve said, we are monitoring these developments closely with our partners and we’ll continue to do so. Australia has raised these issues with our Indian counterparts.”

Prime minister Anthony Albanese said he would not comment on the activities of the Five Eyes alliance in public.

“I don’t talk about Five Eyes intelligence at a press conference... we don’t speculate on what intelligence is,” he said.

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