Indian and Canadian diplomats didn’t directly address their countries’ row over the killing of a Sikh separatist leader, but they obliquely underscored some key talking points as they addressed world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday.
Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said that the world must not “countenance that political convenience determines responses to terrorism, extremism and violence.” Canadian U.N. Ambassador Robert Rae, by turn, insisted that “we cannot bend the rules of state-to-state relations for political expediency.”
Relations between the two countries frayed after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last week that India may have been involved in the June killing of a Canadian citizen in a Vancouver suburb.
Canada has yet to provide any public evidence to support the claim about the slaying of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, 45. Killed by masked gunmen, Nijjar was a leader in what remains of a once-strong movement to create an independent Sikh homeland, known as Khalistan, and India had designated him a terrorist.
India’s foreign ministry dismissed the allegation as “absurd” and accused Canada of harboring “terrorists and extremists.” It also implied that Trudeau was trying to drum up domestic support among the Sikh diaspora.
“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,” the ministry said in a statement last week.
India has accused Canada for years of giving free rein to Sikh separatists, including Nijjar. While the active insurgency ended decades ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has warned that Sikh separatists were trying to stage a comeback. New Delhi has pressed countries like Canada, where Sikhs make up more than 2% of the population, to do more to stop a separatist resurgence.
After Trudeau aired his claim, India suspended visas for Canadians, there were tit-for-tit expulsions of diplomats, and Ottawa said it might reduce consulate staff over safety concerns.
But the dispute is unfolding against a backdrop of geopolitical priorities for both countries. Canada and other Western countries have been seeking to strengthen ties with India as a way to counter Chinese power. Days after airing the allegation about Nijjar’s killing, Trudeau said Canada was “ not looking to provoke or cause problems.”
And India, which is trying to showcase its global stature after a fruitful turn heading the Group of 20 industrialized nations, wasn’t seen as keen to use the U.N.'s global platform to draw attention to Canada’s accusation and widen a rift that has already grabbed headlines internationally. Experts have said India likely would prefer to treat the matter as an issue just between the two countries involved.
India also has a habit, at the U.N., of keeping its criticisms veiled.
Hence Tuesday’s exchange of what could be read, at most, as subtle swipes.
Jaishankar’s mention of “terrorism, extremism and violence” echoed his ministry’s rhetoric last week about Canada’s claims. But it also resembled India’s frequent complaints about Pakistan. New Delhi accuses its neighbor of sponsoring terrorism by arming and training insurgents fighting for the independence of Indian-controlled Kashmir or for its integration into Pakistan. Islamabad denies it.
Rae’s comments, meanwhile, came after Trudeau told reporters Thursday that Canada was standing up for “the international rules-based order” and “the rule of law” in its approach to Nijjar’s killing. But Rae’s remarks didn’t name any nation that might be trying to “bend the rules.”
“But the truth is: If we don’t adhere to the rules that we’ve agreed to, the very fabric of our open and of our free societies may start to tear,” Rae said.
The remarks were tucked into a speech that dilated on climate change, immigration, gender equality, Haiti’s troubles, Russia’s war in Ukraine, and the need for the international community “to create unity where there is division.”
“We have to find inside ourselves the capacity to recognize the importance of accepting differences,” he said. “And if we can do that, then we can create a United Nations that will be worthy of the name.”
Jaishankar sought to spotlight his country’s aspirations on the world stage. The world’s most populous nation and an increasingly muscular economic power, India has held itself out as “the voice of the Global South” and of developing countries’ frustrations with a lopsided international order.
“When we aspire to be a leading power, this is not for self-aggrandizement, but to take on greater responsibility and make more contributions,” he said. “The goals we have set for ourselves will make us different from all those whose rise preceded ours.”