Canada rejects Indian travel advisory amid probe of Sikh leader killing

Canada is investigating possible links between the killing of a Sikh leader and India’s government, tanking relations.

Sikh Canada
A sign advertising a tribute to Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar is posted outside the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara temple in Surrey, British Columbia [Chris Helgren/The Associated Press]

Canada has flatly rejected an Indian travel advisory urging “utmost caution” when visiting the North American country, in the latest sign of escalating tensions.

On Wednesday, Canadian Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc responded to the travel alert shortly after it was announced, telling reporters, “Canada is a safe country.”

Canada likewise updated its travel information this week, warning travellers to exercise a “high degree of caution” when stopping in India due to the “threat of terrorist attacks”.

The tit-for-tat over travel advisories comes in the midst of an ongoing political row between Canada and India.

On Monday, tensions skyrocketed when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced officials were probing “credible allegations of a potential link” between Indian government agents and the June killing of Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar.

India’s foreign ministry did not directly reference Trudeau’s remarks in its advisory on Wednesday. Instead, it said in a statement that New Delhi was concerned for the safety of its citizens in Canada due to “politically condoned hate crimes and criminal violence”.

“Threats have particularly targeted Indian diplomats and sections of the Indian community who oppose the anti-India agenda,” a ministry statement said. “Indian nationals are therefore advised to avoid travelling to regions and potential venues in Canada that have seen such incidents.”

Trudeau’s announcement of the investigation — made in dramatic fashion before Canada’s House of Commons — inflamed long-running tensions between Ottawa and New Delhi over the advocacy of Sikhs in Canada who support the creation of an independent Sikh state in India.

Sikh advocates have said they have faced persecution, surveillance and regular threats under the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while New Delhi has regularly accused the separatist movement of plotting violence.

‘Stay at home’

India has forcefully rejected any involvement in Nijjar’s killing, calling the suggestion “absurd”.

Two masked assailants fatally shot the activist and business owner as he left a Sikh temple in Surrey, British Columbia, on June 18.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, Nijjar’s 21-year-old son Balraj Singh Nijjar said his father had been meeting regularly with Canadian Security Intelligence Service officers to discuss threats to his life.

The younger Nijjar remembered he attended one meeting where his father was advised to “stay at home”.

In media interviews, family friends said that the late Nijjar peacefully supported the Sikh separatist movement and exercised his right to free speech in Canada.

“We need to put pressure on India. You can’t just come to a foreign country and kill a citizen who’s speaking against you,” his son said. “That’s like saying someone from Quebec wants a separate country and Canada kills them. That’s just silencing the matter, but it’s not right.”

Crumbling relations

According to media reports, however, Indian authorities had designated Nijjar a “terrorist” in 2020 and sought his arrest for an alleged conspiracy to commit murder.

Nijjar had denied those charges, according to the World Sikh Organization of Canada.

But India has long criticised Canada for harbouring those it considers Sikh “terrorists and extremists”.

That acrimony was on full display when Trudeau visited New Delhi earlier this month for the Group of 20 (G20) summit.

During a brief sideline meeting at the event, Modi confronted Trudeau over Sikh-led protests in Canada, one of which involved a parade float depicting a controversial assassination from Indian history.

In a statement at the time, New Delhi said the protesters were “promoting secessionism and inciting violence against Indian diplomats, damaging diplomatic premises and threatening the Indian community in Canada”.

The North American country has the largest Sikh population in the world outside of India.

US denies downplaying

For his part, Trudeau said he had informed Modi during their G20 meeting of the investigation into Nijjar’s killing and possible links to the Indian government.

While Ottawa has not released the evidence behind its investigation, Trudeau has doubled down on his choice to go public with the probe. He said on Tuesday the decision came after months of deliberation and consultation with allies.

The situation has put several of those allies, including the United States, United Kingdom and Australia, in an uncomfortable position. All three have sought to bolster ties with India in recent years.

Both Washington and Canberra have said they were “deeply concerned” by the revelations, and London explained it was “in close touch” with Canadian authorities.

On Wednesday, White House National Security Council Spokesperson Adrienne Watson pushed back on the notion Washington was seeking to downplay the situation or avoid condemning India.

“Reports that we rebuffed Canada in any way on this are flatly false,” she wrote on X, the website formerly known as Twitter.

“We are coordinating and consulting with Canada closely on this issue. This is a serious matter and we support Canada’s ongoing law enforcement efforts. We are also engaging the Indian government.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies