Trudeau and Modi Struggle to Overcome Diaspora-Induced Hostilities 

  • After a Canadian Sikh was gunned down in Vancouver, Trudeau and Modi’s relations have been particularly tense, diplomats on both sides were expelled and trade negotiations have been suspended. 
  • Trudeau and Modi both have a lot to gain in terms of domestic popular support from taking a tough stance toward the other 
  • India’s foreign policy is becoming increasingly assertive on the global stage
Modi and Trudeau
The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi with the Prime Minister of Canada, Mr. Justin Trudeau, at Hyderabad House, in New Delhi on February 23, 2018. / Prime Minister’s Office

Why is Trudeau in Hostility with Modi? 

Answer: Trudeau linked the killing of a Sikh separatist on Canadian soil to Indian intelligence, causing a diplomatic row and deepening the rift between Canada and India. 

In June of 2023, the Canadian citizen Hardeep Singh Nijjar was shot and killed outside a Sikh temple in Vancouver. Nijjar was a well known advocate for the creation of Khalistan, an independent state for the Sikh people in India. In India, Nijjar was considered an extremist and a Khalistan terrorist; bounties were out for his arrest. No Canadian arrests have been made in the case and little is known about potential suspects. 

Trudeau stirred the pot in early October when he announced that Canadian intelligence authorities had credible allegations pointing to the involvement of India in the killing of Nijjar. On the same day, Canada expelled an Indian diplomat of India’s intelligence agency.  Delhi dismissed the accusations as absurd and similarly announced that 42 of the 62 Canadian diplomats in Canada had to leave India within a week. India also suspended its Visa services in Canada with the justification that it was no longer safe for Indian diplomats in Canada. 

The situation has panned out to a diplomatic rift. Trudeau tried to calm the situation by arguing he has no intention to provoke, but wants to work with the government of India and that India ought to take the matter seriously

The situation didn’t just escalate out of nowhere, in fact Canada and India have a long history of tensions over Sikh separatism in Canada. Roughly 800.000 people of Sikh heritage currently live in Canada, making it the largest group of Sikh diaspora. While not all Sikh’s in Canada are necessarily supportive of an independent Khalistan, there is a relatively thriving Sikh separatist movement of which Nijjar was a prominent figure. India has long criticised Canada for harbouring terrorists and arguing that this large Sikh diaspora poses a genuine national security threat to India

What does Trudeau want? 

Answer: Above all, Trudeau wants to keep Sikh diaspora in Canada on his side for the sake of electoral votes. 

Trudeau has been explicit about the gravity of the incident. He publicly stated that the involvement of a foreign government killing a Canadian citizen is in complete violation of Canada’s sovereignty, continuing that it goes against the fundamental rules of democratic societies to which India and Canada both subscribe. While it’s not necessarily common for a state to be involved in attacks on individuals outside their territory, it’s certainly not unique and recent years have witnessed multiple similar incidents. 

Even if the Indian government was in fact involved in the death of Najjir, it can be questioned why Trudeau deemed the situation grave enough to allow for an escalation of diplomatic ties to the extent that they have. The answer seems to be more simple than you might think: votes. The large Sikh diaspora community represents roughly 2% of Canadian voters

While 2% might not necessarily sound like a significant amount of votes, it is relevant because the Sikh diaspora in Canada is primarily concentrated in two electoral districts  in Vancouver and Toronto. In the Canadian electoral system each district is represented by a member of parliament; a district is won on a winner-takes-all basis. This means that a party only needs a plurality – not a majority – of votes to win the entire district.

Sikh-dense districts have historically voted in Trudeau’s favour and he thus has a good reason to appeal to the Sikh diaspora and thereby maintain this portion of this voter bloc. In 2020, he also reinforced this appeal by supporting farmer protests, which are linked to the Sikh diaspora.

What does Modi want? 

Answer: Modi wants to clamp down hard on Sikh separatism and thereby boost votes for his nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party during the upcoming general elections. 

Modi is part of the Bharatiya Janata Party, a highly Hindu nationalist party which strongly advocates for placing Hindu values at the basis of Indian culture and is often critical of secular policies. He thus strives toward establishing India as an assertive Hindu state, a stance that somewhat conflicts with India’s religious diversity such as in the regions of Punjab and Kashmir. In appealing to his Hindu nationalist voters, who are generally critical of the Khalistan independence movement, clamping down hard on Sikh separatism domestically as well as internationally is likely to increase his support. This is further illustrated by the growing perception of Anti-Sikhism in the BJP. 

The Indian government has for many years watched in frustration as the Khalistan independence movement continued to thrive in Canada.  Modi’s government views Sikh activism in Canada through a terrorist lens and therefore wants the Canadian government to alienate themselves from the minority of Canadian Sikh’s supporting the Khalistan independence movement. Modi told Trudeau on the sidelines of the recent G20 summit in New Delhi that their bilateral relations could not progress without mutual respect, while simultaneously seeking his cooperation in combating Sikh terrorists in Canada. 

Modi has been pursuing an increasingly assertive Indian foreign policy throughout his time in office, the aim being to demonstrate India’s strength and establish itself as the primary security provider in the Indian Ocean. There are reasonable grounds to argue that he wants to establish the Khalistan movement in Canada as a serious security threat. By then addressing that security threat head-on, Modi is able to show his strength as India’s leader. This strengthens the BJP’s as well as his own credibility and support for the upcoming elections in 2024. 

What is Trudeau doing? 

Answer: Trudeau has expelled Indian diplomats and halted the negotiations for a new trade agreement with India. 

The expulsion of a top Indian diplomat in the aftermath of the allegations was a way for Trudeau to symbolise the gravity of the allegations. While the 1961 Vienna treaty on Diplomatic Relations stipulates that a state can expel diplomats without having to explain its decision, it doesn’t just happen for no reason and illustrates the extent to which diplomatic ties are strained between Canada and India. When expulsions do happen, they are usually for political reasons as in this case, or for accusations of serious crimes. 

Similarly, a new trade agreement between Canada  and India seems farther away than ever despite many rounds of negotiations. Canada has halted the negotiations in light of the diplomatic tensions for the foreseeable future, a trade mission to India in the fall has thus been cancelled. Canadian officials did not provide a more detailed explanation behind the reasoning of suspending trade talks, but the aforementioned partisan benefits for Trudeau to maintain frosty relations with India likely play a strong role.  

Who is winning and what about you? 

Answer: Modi seems to have the upperhand as he has the least to lose but the most to gain. The Indian government is steering its foreign policy to be increasingly assertive on the world stage. 

Now that we have established that both Trudeau and Modi seem to be mostly occupied with their domestic affairs, the question is about who is gaining the most. From that angle, Modi has the upper hand. The situation has truly served Modi the opportunity to flex his nationalist assertiveness and thereby strengthen his domestic political needs. Modi has the ability to advocate for strong relations whilst also calling upon Canada to take Indian allegations of terrorists  seriously, a position that can be considered a win-win.

Trudeau on the other hand is somewhat backed into a corner. The inability of Canadian officials to get to the bottom of the killing infringes on the credibility of the allegations. Simultaneously, his minority government is dependent on Liberal Sikh voters as well as the “supply-and-confidence” agreement with the NDP party led by Canadian Sikh Jagmeet Singh. 

In addition to the (temporary) suspension of trade agreement negotiations at the governmental level, there is talk in India regarding the boycotting of Canadian companies and the inability for Canadian citizens to obtain Indian visas further complicates the conduct of fruitful business.

In the grander scheme of things, the diplomatic showdown gives us a peek at the direction Modi is taking Indian foreign policy. He is clearly taking a more assertive stance on the world stage, is  more willing to take a stance against issues infringing on their sovereignty and status, and is more willing to retaliate when deemed necessary. If the allegations turn out to be true, it would also show that the Indian intelligence services increasingly represent an operational element of Indian foreign policy. 

Celine Leurs

R&A Intern