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Escalating Tensions Between India and Canada


Tensions between India and Canada escalated after Canadian Prime Minister accused India of involvement in the killing of a Khalistani leader in Surrey in June 2023. India denied the allegations and accused Canada of sheltering Khalistani extremists.


GS II: International Relations

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. What is the Khalistan movement?
  2. Recent Anti-India Activities in Canada
  3. Impact of Khalistan Radicalism on India-Canada Relations
  4. History of Khalistan Movement and Terrorism in Canada:
  5. Way Forward

What is the Khalistan movement?

  • The Khalistan movement is a fight for a separate, sovereign Sikh state in present day Punjab (both India and Pakistan).
  • Over the years, it has survived in various forms, in various places and amongst different populations.
  • The movement was crushed in India following Operation Blue Star (1984) and Operation Black Thunder (1986 and 1988), but it continues to evoke sympathy and support among sections of the Sikh population, especially in the Sikh diaspora in countries such as Canada, the UK, and Australia.

When and why did the movement start?

  • The origins of the Khalistan movement can be traced back to India’s independence and the subsequent Partition along religious lines.
  • The Punjab province was divided between India and Pakistan during Partition, leading to communal violence and the displacement of millions of Sikhs and Hindus to the east.
  • Lahore, the capital of the Sikh Empire under Maharaja Ranjit Singh, went to Pakistan, along with holy Sikh sites like Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism.
  • Despite being a minority in India, with only around 2% of the population being Sikh, the community began a political struggle for greater autonomy, starting with the Punjabi Suba Movement for the creation of a Punjabi-speaking state.
  • The States Reorganisation Commission rejected this demand in its 1955 report, but after years of protests, the state of Punjab was eventually reorganized in 1966 to reflect the Punjabi Suba demand.
  • The erstwhile Punjab state was trifurcated into the Hindi-speaking, Hindu-majority states of Himachal Pradesh and Haryana, and the Punjabi-speaking, Sikh-majority Punjab.

Recent Anti-India Activities in Canada

Operation Bluestar Anniversary Parade (June 2023):
  • Location: Brampton, Ontario.
  • Description: A parade appeared to celebrate the assassination of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. It featured a blood-stained figure and advocated revenge for the attack on Darbar Sahib.
Pro-Khalistan Referendum (2022):
  • Conducted by Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), a pro-Khalistan organization.
  • Location: Brampton.
  • Description: SFJ organized a so-called “referendum” on Khalistan in Brampton, claiming significant support for the cause.
Sanjh Savera Magazine (2002):
  • A Toronto-based Punjabi-language weekly.
  • Event: In 2002, the magazine greeted Indira Gandhi’s death anniversary with a cover illustration celebrating her murder and glorifying those responsible.
  • Transformation: The magazine received government advertisements and has evolved into a prominent daily newspaper in Canada.
Indian Concerns Over such Activities:
  • Diplomatic Concerns: Indian diplomats in Canada have repeatedly expressed concerns about Canada’s failure to address “Sikh extremism” and the ongoing harassment of Indian diplomats and officials by Khalistani supporters.
  • High-Level Discussions: The Indian Prime Minister raised strong concerns about Sikh protests in Canada during discussions with the Canadian Prime Minister on the sidelines of a G20 summit in New Delhi.
  • Trade Implications: As a result of these concerns, Canada has halted discussions on a proposed trade treaty with India.

Impact of Khalistan Radicalism on India-Canada Relations

Diplomatic Strain:
  • Allegations and counter-allegations related to Khalistan radicalism can strain diplomatic ties, potentially affecting the overall relationship between India and Canada.
  • Erosion of Trust: Trust and confidence between the two nations may be eroded, making it challenging to collaborate on various bilateral and international issues.
Security Concerns:
  • Khalistan Movement as a Threat: The Khalistan movement is viewed as a security threat to India’s sovereignty, gaining ground in foreign countries.
  • Arrest of Sikh Separatist Leader: India’s arrest of a Sikh separatist leader in April 2023 for allegedly reviving calls for Khalistan has raised concerns about potential violence in Punjab.
  • Discontent over Indira Gandhi Depiction: Earlier in 2023, India criticized Canada for allowing a float in a parade depicting the assassination of Indira Gandhi, interpreting it as glorification of Sikh separatist violence.
  • Demonstrations and Vandalism: Frequent demonstrations and vandalism by Sikh separatists and their supporters at Indian diplomatic missions in multiple countries, including Canada, pose a threat to Indian sovereignty and integrity.
Trade Relations:
  • Potential Impact: Accusations related to Khalistan could affect business partnerships and investment flows between India and Canada.
  • Caution and Reassessment: Businesses may exercise caution or reassess their engagement due to heightened political tension.
  • Trade Growth: Bilateral trade in goods between India and Canada reached approximately USD 8.2 billion in 2022, showing significant growth compared to 2021.
  • Emphasis on Services: Bilateral services trade, valued at around USD 6.6 billion in 2022, was emphasized as a significant contributor to the relationship.
Global Cooperation:
  • Challenges in Alignment: Cooperation on critical global challenges such as climate change, counter-terrorism, and international security might be adversely impacted.
  • Alignment Difficulty: Both countries may find it challenging to align their positions and work together effectively on these shared concerns.
Travel and Interactions:
  • Impact on Citizens: Escalating tensions could affect travel and interactions between Indian and Canadian citizens, potentially making it more cumbersome or less appealing to travel to each other’s countries.
Immigration Policies:
  • Review by Canada: Canada may review or tighten its immigration policies, especially concerning individuals associated with Khalistani separatism, in response to India’s concerns about sheltering such elements.
Long-term Effects:
  • Lasting Impact: The recent tensions could have a lasting effect on long-term bilateral cooperation and partnerships.
  • Rebuilding Trust: Reestablishing trust and reestablishing a constructive relationship may require substantial efforts and time.
  • Historical Relationship: India and Canada have a long-standing bilateral relationship based on shared democratic values, multiculturalism, and strong people-to-people contacts, dating back to 1947.

History of Khalistan Movement and Terrorism in Canada:

Origin of Khalistan Movement:

  • The Khalistan movement can be traced back to the establishment of the ‘Khalistan government in exile’ office in Vancouver in 1982 by Surjan Singh Gill. Initially, it had limited local Sikh support.

Repercussions of Punjab Militancy:

  • The militancy in Punjab during the 1980s had repercussions in Canada, as it became a focal point for Sikh separatist activities.

Handling of Terror Suspects:

  • Canada’s handling of individuals like Talwinder Singh Parmar, accused of terrorism in Punjab, was criticized by India. The perception of sheltering such individuals added to tensions.

Air India Bombing (1985):

  • Canada witnessed a horrific act of terrorism with the bombing of Air India Kanishka in June 1985, orchestrated by the Babbar Khalsa, a Khalistani outfit. This tragic incident further strained relations.

Previous Instances of India-Canada Tensions:

Early Tensions (1948):

  • Strained relations between India and Canada trace back to 1948 when Canada supported a plebiscite in Kashmir, reflecting early discord.

1998 Nuclear Tests:

  • Relations took a significant downturn when Canada recalled its high commissioner to India following India’s nuclear tests in 1998.

Recent Developments:

  • Recent tensions include the Canadian Prime Minister’s expressions of concern regarding India’s response to farmers’ protests and his Liberal Party’s alliance with the New Democratic Party (NDP), which endorsed the Khalistan Referendum, further fueling tensions.

Way Forward:

Economic Development in Punjab:

  • The Indian government should invest in the economic development of Punjab, ensuring that it receives its fair share of resources, opportunities, and benefits.

Addressing Societal Issues:

  • Address problems like unemployment, drug abuse, environmental degradation, and agrarian distress in Punjab to alleviate grievances.

Justice and Reconciliation:

  • Ensure justice for the victims and survivors of the violence and human rights violations that occurred during the Khalistan movement.

Open Communication:

  • Maintain open lines of communication at various levels of government to discuss concerns and grievances openly.

Constructive Dialogue:

  • Engage in constructive and respectful dialogue to address the Khalistan issue, clarify each other’s perspectives, and find common ground to promote a more harmonious relationship.

-Source: The Hindu

December 2023