India has rejected allegations by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that the Indian government has links to the killing of a Canadian Sikh leader as "absurd and motivated" and expelled a Canadian diplomat amid spiraling tensions between the two countries.
India’s action came hours after Canada expelled an Indian diplomat.
Hardeep Singh Nijjar, who had campaigned for an independent Sikh homeland, was gunned down on June 18 outside a Sikh temple in British Columbia. He had been designated as a "terrorist" by India.
Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau said in parliament on Monday that Canadian security agencies have been “pursuing credible allegations of a potential link between the agents of the government of India” and the killing of Nijjar.
"Any involvement of a foreign government in the killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil is an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty," he said.
Trudeau said he had raised the issue of the murder and the allegations of Indian government involvement in it with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the recent G20 summit in New Delhi and had asked for India to cooperate in the investigation.
Responding to his comments, the Indian foreign ministry said in a statement that Modi had dismissed these accusations when they were raised by Trudeau. "Similar allegations were made by the Canadian Prime Minister to our Prime Minister, and were completely rejected."
The statement said, "we are a democratic polity with a strong commitment to rule of law."
The Indian foreign ministry underlined India’s concerns that Canada provides a safe haven to Sikh "extremists."
According to the statement, "such unsubstantiated allegations seek to shift the focus from Khalistani terrorists and extremists who have been provided shelter in Canada and continue to threaten India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity."
Urging the Canadian government "to take prompt and effective legal action against all anti-India elements operating from their soil," New Delhi said it remains a matter of concern that "Canadian political figures have openly expressed sympathy for such elements.”
India's expulsion of a Canadian diplomat came a day after Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly said Ottawa had expelled India's intelligence chief in Canada in apparent concerns over Nijjar's killing.
Nijjar, a prominent Sikh leader in British Columbia, had publicly campaigned for the creation of Khalistan, the name given by activists to an independent homeland for Sikhs that they want carved out of India’s northern state of Punjab.
Demands for Khalistan led to a bloody insurgency in India in the 1980s and early 1990s and the death of thousands of people, including many top officials. But the movement has lost steam and has little support in Punjab now.
The cause of Khalistan remains a rallying cry, though, among some sections of the Sikh diaspora in countries like Britain and Canada, which have sizable Sikh populations – Canada has the largest Sikh population outside India’s Punjab state.
Groups that support the creation of an independent Sikh homeland in these countries have angered the Indian government and New Delhi has been urging their governments to rein in what it calls Sikh “extremists."
Nijjar was designated by India as a "terrorist" in July 2020. Promoting the cause of Khalistan has been outlawed in India.
According to reports, Nijjar was organizing an unofficial referendum in India for an independent Sikh nation at the time of this death. Indian authorities had also announced a cash reward last year for information leading to his arrest, accusing him of involvement in an alleged attack on a Hindu priest in India.
The United States has expressed concern over the allegations made by Trudeau. "We remain in regular contact with our Canadian partners. It is critical that Canadian investigation proceed and the perpetrators be brought to justice,” White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement.
Britain and Australia have also expressed concern over the accusations.
Meanwhile, the intensifying diplomatic row between India and Canada has also cast tensions over trade negotiations between the two countries, which have been put on hold.
After Canada postponed a trade mission that was due to arrive in India next month, India’s Commerce Minister, Piyush Goyal, told news website Firstpost, “We have given the trade dialogue with Canada a pause. We need to make sure that geopolitically and economically we are on the same page.”