Students navigate the uncertainty and turmoil from the breakdown of Indo-Canadian relations.
By Desiree Menezes, Staff Writer
Canada is an intricate tapestry of cultures woven from the traditions of different national groups. One such group is the 1.4 million Indian nationals residing in Canada (Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, 2023). However, Canada’s recent bombshell accusation of an Indian-masterminded plot to assassinate Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar has instigated political hostility between the two countries.
Indo-Canadian Diplomatic Relations:
India and Canada have a longstanding, bilateral diplomatic relationship based on mutual beliefs of democracy and multiculturalism. Over recent decades, these nations have collaborated at different intergovernmental platforms, like the United Nations and the Pacific Alliance, to galvanize their rapport. The stipulations of this diplomatic agreement are underpinned by its developed commercial relationship. As stated by the Government of Canada website, as of 2022, India was Canada’s 10th largest trading partner. Equally, Canadian investors have injected copious funds into the Indian economy since the year 2000 to promote its sustainable economic development. (Canada, G.A., 2023).
Escalation of tensions:
The trigger went off on September 18th, 2023, when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau alleged in an address to the House of Commons that the Indian government assassinated the pro-Khalistan leader. India has vehemently denied these accusations, asserting that they are wholly unfounded. However, according to CTV News, David Cohen, the U.S. Ambassador to Canada, corroborated Canadian claims of using shared intelligence among the “Five Eyes partners” to inform Trudeau on this matter (Pisharody, 2023). Five Eyes Partners is an alliance of secretive intergovernmental intelligence agencies. As of yet, there has not been credible evidence put forward yet to substantiate these claims.
The Khalistan movement (also called the Sikh independence movement) advocates for an independent Sikh state. In the 1970s and 1980s, waves of sectarian violence orchestrated by Sikh militant leader Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale paralyzed the state of Punjab. These insurgencies culminated in 1984 with the occupation of the Golden Temple, the holiest site of Sikhism, in Amritsar, which led to a deadly clash with the Indian military ((The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica, 2023). This confrontation further exacerbated the tensions between the Sikh population and the Indian government. The phantom of this violent period continues to haunt the political scene in India today.
For decades, the Khalistan movement has been a cause of friction between the two nations, with the Indian government often criticizing Canada for being lenient towards the activities of pronounced Sikh terrorists, essentially offering them refuge. In fact, Nijjar had been labeled a terrorist under India’s Terrorism Act due to his purported inception of the Khalistan Tiger Force (KTF), a militant organization in India.
The Sikh community in Canada is the largest outside of Punjab in India. The population has been successful in amassing significant political influence in the nation with 18 out of the 388 MPs in Canada being Sikhs (House of Commons of Canada, 2023). This support for the Khalistan movement subverts the electoral campaign of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who presents himself as a guardian of India. Hence, this potential secession poses a significant threat to his political agenda.
The notion of a nation’s government committing a foreign assassination of another nation’s citizen is antithetical to the core values of democracy. The fallout of this crisis has spilt over into diplomatic relations with other Western countries. The United States, for instance, has issued cautious statements in response, in an attempt to preserve relations with both countries.
The spat between the nations has worsened as both nations have driven out senior diplomats in a tit-for-tat maneuver. Arguably, the most significant was the suspension of negotiations towards a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), which had the potential to boost bilateral trade by up to CAD$8.8 billion ((Rozario, 2022).
These problems are particularly dire for the international students in Canada hailing from India, who contribute to around CAD$ 20 billion in Canadian GDP every year ((ET Online, 2023). Instead of midterms and assignments being a burden on students’ minds, the question of their safety was eclipsed during this period of uncertainty. Around 100 protestors gathered in Toronto to express their sentiments towards the Indian government by beating a cardboard effigy of Indian PM Modi with their shoes.
The University of Toronto hosts around 2,400 students from India (Canada, G.A., 2023) with diverse perspectives on these diplomatic tensions. Trinity Times discussed the various facets of this case with Trinity College students from India.
Aditya Mukarji, a second-year student speaks to the consequences of these claims on India’s political prestige:
“Making a claim before Parliament without giving proof is something which is unacceptable on a diplomatic sphere […], the actions taken by the government have led to a perceived decline in the standing of India on the global front without any proof.”
Moreover, on the topic of safety concerns, especially those expressed by family back in India. Aditya stated:
“My parents did voice a little bit of concern telling me to avoid certain places, which may end up becoming trouble spots.”
This reflects the anxiety among parents about the uncertainty of the future of their children studying and living in Canada. Arhaan Lulla, the Trinity College Meeting (TCM) President, comments on this but offers his insight instead on the role of local media in India, which tends to heighten the concerns of its citizens regarding this crisis:
“What I’ve seemed to understand is that there’s a lot of sensationalization in the media at the moment, which is why people are made to feel that the relations are super bad, and Indians are at risk.”
Safety on campus has been at the forefront of the minds of many Indian international students. The consensus is that the atmosphere at the University of Toronto is generally safe. Arhaan concisely summarizes:
“I don’t think there is any kind of a risk to my safety. The university is doing its best at keeping Indians safe and recognizing the fact that the relations are not the best.”
In the long run, this impasse is likely to subside. From the perspectives put forth by students, it is evident that there is a long road to reconciliation between the two nations. The flurry of emotions ranging from anxiety and anger is only further heightened by the media firestorm surrounding this crisis.