Justin Trudeau dropped a bombshell before Parliament last week when he accused the government of India of assassinating a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil. Hardeep Singh Nijjar was a Sikh dissident living in British Columbia when he was gunned down by assailants outside his place of worship. Nijaar had long agitated for an independent Sikh state apparently putting him in the crosshairs of Narendra Modi’s government. The idea that a democracy like India would carry out a hit on North American soil is a major development — and one that will complicate American foreign policy as well.
Joining me to discuss this situation is Justin Ling, a Canadian journalist and author of the Bug Eyed and Shameless Substack. We kick off discussing what we know thus far about these accusations and then have a longer conversation about what this means for Canadian diplomacy and American foreign policy going forward.
Who Was Hardeep Singh Nijjar,the Sikh Activist Canada Accused India of Assassinating?
Mark Leon Goldberg Can you remind listeners who was Hardeep Singh Nijjar?
Justin Ling So Hardeep Singh was a fairly prominent civic activist just outside Vancouver in British Columbia. He was, I think, a plumber by trade. He has spent years kind of in and around the movement for an independent khalistan what some may call Punjab in India. He fits in neatly to a number of organizations that have been out there for years that have been trying to push for either greater autonomy or full independence for the region from India. And by all accounts, it was pretty well respected in the community. He was the president of a local Gurdwara. On the other side of that, the Indian government designated him as a terrorist a number of years ago. They identified him with a bombing campaign that took place in the early 2000. The evidence for which is quite honestly, quite shaky, we haven’t really seen all of that. But for a number of years now, the Indian government has basically accused Canada of harboring him and has alleged that he is part of basically an extremist network that has launched a violent campaign, an insurgency against the Indian government and in some cases against other sticks in the area. So he carries a lot of significance, I think, for the Indian government. But locally in Canada, he was not quite as controversial a figure, I’ll put it that way.
Mark Leon Goldberg Yeah. I mean, it seems perhaps from a Canadian perspective, if the allegations of supporting terrorism were unfounded, he was just exercising his, you know, Canadian rights of freedom of speech to advocate for Sikh independence.
Justin Ling Yeah. And certainly the Indian government has a much different perspective on basically what is allowed speech in this context. For the past number of years. Sikh organizations, have pushed for a global referendum on the future of Punjab or Khalistan. And basically it’s actually gearing up just in a matter of weeks. At this point, they’re gearing up to hold this international vote. The Indian government considers that vote itself as an illegal act and has basically demanded a crackdown from Canada on those activists who have been organizing this referendum and has demanded it for a vast number of years. And indeed, a number of other activists, both in Canada and elsewhere, have been very public that they’re worried about retaliation from the Indian government over this referendum. And indeed, there’s some indication that in the weeks before his murder, the knee jerk himself was basically acknowledging that he was at risk. We hear from other members of that community, from other leaders, that he was getting briefed by our security services on possible threats to his life. So this is certainly a difficult situation. I mean, the Indian government has been patently unreasonable for a while now when it comes to demanding that Canada intervene, basically to quell what is a legitimate, for the most part, independence movement that is both here. It’s in the U.K., it’s in the U.S. and it’s in India. And they have been vocal in their outrage that Canada won’t do so.
What Do We Know About the Murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar in British Colombia?
Mark Leon Goldberg What do we know about the circumstances of his murder?
Justin Ling Not a lot. We know that the day in which he was murdered earlier this summer, he was leaving the good world where he was the president, that he made it to his car. Based on some reporting, it’s possible that his car was actually boxed in or blocked from leaving. We know from some security camera footage that two heavyset men approached his vehicle, the driver’s side door. They shot him multiple times and they made off with a third man in a getaway car that for months actually was about all we knew. This story had not really gained national attention. It was obviously top of mind for many in the area. But his killing was not exactly a national or even international news story. But there was suspicions from the very beginning in the community that the Indian government had played a role. In fact, if you look at some of these organizations, both based in Vic Hoover and New York and elsewhere, they have made the allegation from day one that the Indian government and in particular the Indian consulate, had had a role to play in his killing. They went so far as to name a number of the diplomatic officials who they believe were responsible. They actually added a question to this referendum that’s taking place in October, asking six if they believed that Nero’s killing was done at the behest of the Indian government. So for many people in the community, the. It seemed very, very clear for the rest of the country. They were barely aware it happened. And it really wasn’t until the Prime Minister emerged in the House of Commons to reveal that they had intelligence pointing at the Indian government that this really exploded into a national and international story.
Mark Leon Goldberg And that was just a true bombshell. The prime minister of Canada accusing another democracy, India, of orchestrating a hit of a dissident on its soil. What did Trudeau say exactly and what evidence thus far has the Canadian government given to back up this claim?
Justin Ling So this is quite interesting. So when the prime Minister emerged to make this allegation, it was preceded by a newspaper report in the Globe and Mail that basically outlined the allegations. They caught everyone off guard for the most part. It didn’t carry a lot of details. It was conclusive. I mean, the language in which the prime minister used was pretty direct. He said bluntly that he had confronted and had promoted the Indian prime minister with these allegations. He had made it clear that they had raised this with Indian officials. And within about 24 hours of this accusation, they had identified the head of the Indian Foreign Intelligence Agency in Canada and expelled him from the country. He was using diplomatic cover in the consulate. I think he had the title of community affairs minister, but the Canadian government identified him as an intelligence asset. And the allegations, like I said, were pretty conclusive, but they didn’t carry a lot of evidence. But we’ve learned more in recent weeks about the details that kind of precipitated the direct accusation. Canada has been basically aware of the allegations for, at the very least weeks. It, as we understand it, obtained some pretty hard evidence more recently, and that has come in the form of some text messages, we believe, interceptions between the consulate or the high commission, I should say, here in Canada, and potentially those who may have been responsible for the killings. We believe, again, based on some news reporting, that they also have human intelligence sources backing up India’s involvement in this plot. And what’s really interesting about this is that some of these details actually made it to Canadian journalists even before Trudeau headed to India for the G20 summit. There had been journalists who had approached the prime minister’s office basically with copies of some of these text messages. We don’t really know what’s in them at this point, but text messages that seemed to point to the Indian High Commission as being responsible for the killing. The Prime Minister’s office basically asked for leeway of having a bit of time. In the days that followed. They made it to India. They made New Delhi. They levy this accusation directly at Prime Minister Modi. They obtained intelligence from the US government backing up this claim, augmented it with their own intelligence, and basically levied this accusation pretty directly. As we know, the Indian government has sort of denied the claim, but has also sort of returned the allegation with all these recriminations and allegations against the Canadian government. So, you know, this is all to say that I don’t know. We’re going to get the full story yet. It may take some time. Canada doesn’t quite operate like the US does. We don’t have those sort of speaking indictments that you always see laid by the DOJ or the FBI that sort of fully details all the allegations from the get go. The full revelations will probably take some time. But based on the reporting we have thus far, Canada has ample intelligence, both from its own security services and from American intelligence. It seemed to have the benefit of direct allegations or evidence or details coming from the community, and it was common enough not just to raise it publicly, but to raise it directly in person, the leader to leader with India.
What Evidence is there that the Indian Government Murdered Sikh Dissident Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada?
Mark Leon Goldberg It is significant to me that some of the intelligence, as you said, came via that Five Eyes partnership that the United States has with Canada, Australia and New Zealand and the United Kingdom, this kind of elite intelligence sharing mechanism, and as he noted reporting, has suggested that the United States did share some of this intelligence leading to Prime Minister Trudeau to accuse the Indian government of orchestrating this hit. You sort of insinuated just now that India has stepped up its recriminations of Canada in the wake of Canada’s accusation of India, of orchestrating this hit. What has been India’s response thus far and how has that been perceived in Canada over the last week or so?
Justin Ling This is such a deeply complicated issue, not least of which because the deadliest act of terror to ever take place in Canada was carried out against India. The Air India bombing was. The most significant act of terror in history is 1985. Some 329 people died in Canada despite having good intelligence pointing to the plot. Despite having identified many of the masterminds and the bomb makers, or at least the suspected masterminds and bombmakers, a failed to prevent the plot subsequent to the plot failed to actually secure convictions on virtually every single one of those identified as part of the project. So there has always been a sore spot here. The attack was likely carried out by Khalistani separatists and it was carried out basically designed to kill as many Indian civilians as possible. So the fact that such an enormous attack was not stopped and there was not justice brought by Canada has always been a really sore spot in that relationship. It has gotten better in the decades since, but it’s always sort of hanging over the Canadian Indian relationship now. In subsequent years, things have gotten better. There has been efforts to try and strike a free trade agreement between the two countries. There is deep, deep ties. I mean, there’s a number of Indians in the parliament. They’re well-represented in the Canadian cabinet. So there is improving ties, to say the very least, the strong personal ties. But over the last couple of years, the Canadian government has gotten a little bit more forceful when it comes to Modi’s government. New Delhi has certainly moved away from being a more pluralistic democracy. In some cases, it has stepped up prosecutions of minorities, including the six. And that has certainly caused divisions with Canada, where we have the largest population outside of India and actually a higher percentage of citizens than even in India. So there’s been a growing divide, and that divide has been worsened by the fact that a lot of the major Sikh organizing is happening inside Canada, and India wants us to put a stop to it, essentially, and it has worsened that relationship to the point where that free trade agreement has largely been derailed, where clearly, if these allegations are true, India has been so frustrated that it has taken matters into its own hands, opting for an extraordinary step of assassination over diplomatic channels. So I think it’s remarkable how quickly it’s soured. I think that’s what I would say. We’ve all known it’s been getting worse. But what’s been so stark is just how quickly it has gone from being fairly jovial, fairly friendly, even if there’s disagreements, even at this point of contention, even if there’s a complicated history to immediately to so quickly carrying out such a brazen act in defiance of Canadian sovereignty so as to kill a Canadian citizen, it’s pretty remarkable.
How Has the Biden Administration Responded to The Accusation that India Assassinated a Canadian?
Mark Leon Goldberg What’s been the response by the U.S. thus far, I mean, seen from a U.S. foreign policy perspective, this would seem to put the U.S. in kind of a tough spot. Now, the U.S. has been courting India for several years now as a bulwark against China, reviving the so-called quad security architecture. Biden met with Modi just a few weeks ago or a few months ago, I should say, in the White House. What has been the U.S. response given, of course, that the United States and Canada are just so tightly aligned politically, historically and culturally?
Justin Ling To be honest with you, I don’t really think we know what the U.S. response is yet. And in fairness, I’m not really sure we even know what the Canadian response is going to be. Yes. In the weeks since this has been revealed, there has been a lot of tough talk. There’ve been a lot of demands. There’s been a lot of insistence that India has to come to the table and participate in the investigation. But we don’t really know where this goes next. I mean, yes, you’re right. The U.S. government has considered India a strategic partner in the Indo-Pacific, but Canada has thought of things the same way. And in fact, Canada has been dealing with a different foreign interference problem over the last year or so. And it’s had to do with China. There has been a massive national scandal involving details of a Chinese interference plot which has tried to co-opt members of the House of Commons that has tried to, in some cases pour money, illegal campaign donations into the coffers of Canadian politicians, including politicians in Trudeau’s own party. So trying to manage the fallout of that, which has also derailed any effort to repair the Canadian Chinese relationship, which is already pretty bad, which is also stepped up insistence that Canada get more serious about creating strategic partnerships in the Indo-Pacific to isolate China. And all of that was the background which also led Canada to consider India to be one of those strategic partners. All of that is now out the window as we’re trying to figure out what comes next with India. I can only imagine that there is a bunch of people around Trudeau who are praying that India comes to its senses. Admitted responsibility. Apologizes and tries to figure out what a repairing relationship would look like. But I don’t think that’s going to happen. So I don’t think Canada knows what it’s doing when it comes to the White House. Their response has been, suffice it to say, muted, Right? They have echoed the calls needed for a necessary investigation. We know or released based on reports we believe the US helped in the initial identification of the High Commission as being responsible or at least complicit. But we don’t know what happens next. I mean, it’s probably naive to think that America is going to jettison a incredibly important ally in the region over this one. Frankly, this one assassination, I mean, I think in the long term, isolating China is the largest. If you your goal here, even above preserving the sovereignty of nation states and dissuading nation states from conducting acts of assassination. But, I mean, that should be no surprise. I mean, America is still a strategic partner with Saudi Arabia.
What Are the Foreign Policy Implications of For Canada and the United States?
Mark Leon Goldberg Yeah. I mean, I was going to go there next. I mean, is there talk in Canada that one might be able to draw a straight line between the U.S. repairing its relationship with Saudi Arabia, even despite the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and then India feeling that it had the room to maneuver in such a way as to assassinate a Canadian on Canadian soil and not worry too deeply that they might have any serious repercussions from the United States. Given that the US’s top goal now is to isolate China internationally.
Justin Ling Yeah, I mean, how could you not come to that conclusion? To be really honest, whether we’re talking about the Russian poisoning of the Skripal family and its likely involvement in a number of assassinations around the world of either Russian oligarchs or dissidents or ex-patriots, or whether we’re talking about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi or whether we’re talking about many other plots, whether it’s North Korean, whether it’s Iranian assassination has become a part of the international toolkit. It’s mostly by, you know, rogue states. But, I mean, Israel has used assassination as part of its own domestic and foreign policy for decades, as we know. So it’s complicated, suffice to say. But it’s clearly in vogue right now. And it is a lot easier to do if you have nothing to lose. It’s a lot easier to do if you know you are of such strategic importance that you are indispensable as an ally. I think Saudi Arabia’s positioning, but I think there’s also, to some degree a testing of the limits. Right. And I think that’s what you’re seeing from India. I think they’re looking to see if they can get away with it. There have been allegations that I think are at this far unsubstantiated, that India has carried out other attacks of a similar nature in Pakistan and elsewhere. And I think there’s also allegations that Pakistan has carried out these sort of attacks against its dissidents in other countries. So I think there is a testing of the limits. They’re trying to figure out states that are, I think, toeing the line between pluralistic democracy and more authoritarian or hybrid. I think they’re testing the limits to see what is tolerated. And I think what Canada and the US in the U.N. to some degree, does now will determine whether or not that’s the case going forward. And frankly, I’m not super optimistic. Again, like I said, I think the strategic benefit of having India as an ally in the Indo-Pacific is probably greater than the benefit of holding them to account for this. But it does beg the question going forward, if India is willing to assassinate its own citizens and the citizen of a essentially friendly nation on foreign soil, then what will it do next? Right. Clearly, it’s not tremendously interested in the rules based order. Clearly, it’s not tremendously interested in civil liberties or freedom. So what to stop it from making a more ingrained overtures to China, especially if it can leverage more benefits from the US and others? I think there is a real problem going forward. How do you convince India to come back into the fold, to stop testing the boundaries, to stop trying to leverage a better deal for itself, to stop trying to deal with its domestic politics on the international stage? I don’t know the answer to that, but I don’t think capitulation and sort of walking back is going to be the answer here.
Mark Leon Goldberg So from a Canadian foreign policy perspective, it now seems that Canada’s ties with the two largest countries on the planet China and India have never been worse. I mean, I sort of view this incident with India somewhat in the context of what’s known in Canada as like these saga of the two Michaels, these two Canadians who were essentially kidnaped in China, held in prison as a consequence of the United States, asking Canada to extradite a alleged criminal who also happens to be a senior railway executive. That was. Eventually resolved. But it seems now that you have the situation in which Canada really only has the United States left, which is fine. It’s by far its most important international ally. But it seems that Canada’s growing international isolation can’t really help it down the road.
Justin Ling Yeah, I mean, listen, it’s an existential problem for the country, right? I mean, Canada has always considered itself a middle power. And while we rarely know what that means in practice, we’ve assumed it means trying to negotiate or mediate between big powers. That role largely declined in utility at the end of the Cold War. It definitely declined in utility as the sort of ubiquity of peacekeeping stopped in the early 2000s. And so we have been looking for what our role is in the international order for some time. The previous government, a Conservative government, tried a more sort of moralistic approach, tried to be more of a let’s say, an international people to some degree, you know, denouncing states that violate the rules based order, trying to build relationships and encourage good behavior in states that are sort of on the line. And I think it had some wins, it had some losses. This government has tried to return to traditional form and be more of a small l and a liberal mediator on the world stage, has tried to be friends with everybody. I mean, before the most recent round of hostilities in Russia that is embarked on an effort to improve relations with both Iran, North Korea and Belarus. All of those went upside down. It has tried to sign deals, like I said, with China, and India has tried to become a strategic partner to a number of repressive regimes throughout Africa. And all of this is sort of amounted to nothing. It’s amounted to embarrassment. And it been kind of cast as general naivete, which I think is quite right. So what is kind of to do now? I mean, it needs a reset. It clearly needs a foreign policy reset that may come under this government. I think more likely will come under whichever government defeats Justin Trudeau in the next elections due in the next year and a half or so. But what comes next is still far from clear. You know, it’s not true that the U.S. is our only strategic ally. Canada has ingrained itself more tightly with the European Union over the past few years, which has largely been good. There are arguments to be made that, you know, Canada is one of the most enthusiastic backers of the Ukrainian government and will likely be one of the most important partners as it tries to rebuild. And there may be a sort of utility for Canada in international development in figuring out what the what the sort of Marshall Plan looks like, both for Ukraine and elsewhere. There’s a lot of possibilities on the table, but it’s very clear that as Canada keeps sort of stepping on ranks in the international forum, it’s closing more and more doors for itself and is facing more time doing crisis management than actual kind of strategic visioning. So things are not good, suffice it to say, and a reset is so desperately needed.
Mark Leon Goldberg Well, Justin, thank you so much for your time, as always.