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Indo Canadian Diplomatic Row: Punjab's Diaspora Caught in the Crossfire

As historical grievances resurface, the Indo Canadian relationship is tested, affecting Punjab's diaspora. The recent allegations and counter-allegations between both nations reveal deeper concerns, extending far beyond diplomatic circles, touching the lives of everyday citizens and students abroad.

By Ravinder Singh Robin
New Update

Indo Canadian Row

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Delhi | Photo courtesy: @narendramodi | Twitter 

The recent Indo Canadian row is not just another instance of international diplomacy gone awry; it's a testament to how two nations' unresolved historical issues can re-emerge and affect diaspora communities across the globe.

Punjab, the vibrant heartland of India, is once again engulfed in a wave of unease, and this time the reason is far from home. It's the escalating tensions between India and Canada, a far-reaching consequence of unresolved historical grievances, and the global dynamics of the Khalistan movement.

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The undercurrents of the Indo Canadian discord are deeply rooted in the fears and anxieties of Punjab's youth, many of whom reside in Canada. Their distress is not about political gambits, but about the tangible reality of families left behind, who too are engulfed in the rhetoric of geopolitics.

The recent accusations by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, linking the Indian government to the killing of prominent Khalistani leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar who had migrated to Canada and embraced Canadian citizenship, is not just a mere allegation. To many, it seems like a conflation of domestic politics with international diplomacy. The immediate and sharp rebuttal from India paints a vivid picture of the depth of the divide.

While on the surface, this might appear as two nations locking horns, the ramifications of such a row extend beyond diplomatic circles. The retaliatory actions – be it expulsion of diplomats, or the far-reaching consequences of suspending visa services – are not just administrative; they're affecting the common people, the very diaspora that forms the bridge between these nations.

Furthermore, this clash is inadvertently fanning the flames of the Khalistan movement, especially in the West. It's essential to see it for what it is – a reminder of how global events can breathe life into regional sentiments, with Punjab bearing the brunt of it.

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The land of Punjab, rich in cultural tapestry and marked by its stoic resilience, has always responded with a quiet strength to challenges thrown its way. From confronting the likes of formidable invaders such as Nadir Shah and Alexander to enduring the heart-wrenching pain of the Partition, the spirit of Punjab has remained unbroken.

As with many regions globally, economic aspirations led a sizable portion of Punjab's youth to journey West in the 1950s. Driven by dreams and the promise of a better life, they ventured to the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and, notably, Canada.

Indo Canadian Row

When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited the Golden Temple in Amritsar in 2018 | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement 

Over the past few decades, Canada has become more than just a country of opportunity for many Punjabis; it's practically an extension of their homeland. While the surge of Punjabi students opting for Canadian education has given a substantial boost to the country's academic sector, it has also inadvertently led to a burgeoning industry of immigration agencies in both lands.

However, there's a darker side to this tale. Canada's welcoming stance towards diverse communities, while commendable, has also paved the way for certain divisive elements to take root. The Khalistan movement, for instance, which seeks a separate homeland for Sikhs, has found traction among a fraction of the Punjabi youth in Canada. The ease with which Khalistani ideologues have been able to influence and mobilise certain segments of the diaspora is alarming.

Furthermore, questions arise when known fugitives and individuals involved in criminal activities in India find safe haven in Canada. Why, one wonders, does the Canadian government appear hesitant to address India's concerns and expedite the extradition of these individuals?

The relationship between India and Canada has always been an intricate tapestry of diplomacy, overshadowed by the Khalistani movement and counter-narratives. The recent developments, including allegations and counter-allegations, have only added layers of complexity to an already complex problem.

Karima Baloch, a renowned Pakistani human rights activist, was found dead in Canada in 2020, sparking myriad questions about the nature and extent of investigations into her death by the Canadian authorities. Amidst this background, it was indeed startling for many when Prime Minister Trudeau named India without concrete evidence for the killing of Nijjar. 

The bond between Punjab and Canada is undeniable. Today, the confluence of Punjabi culture with Canadian ethos is so profound that even political developments in Canada, such as the separation of Prime Minister Trudeau from his spouse, find resonance and debate in the households of Punjab. It’s a testament to the cultural bridges built by Punjabis who've made Canada their home.

Justin Trudeau's visit to the Sri Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple in Amritsar) in 2018 is emblematic of this very sentiment. The Golden Temple, a beacon of peace and serenity, witnessed an outpouring of love and warmth for the Canadian Prime Minister, contrasting sharply with the alleged lukewarm response from Indian governmental entities.

However, the G20 summit brought forth the pressing concerns both nations harbour. India's apprehension about Khalistani activities gaining momentum in Canada and Trudeau’s subsequent claim about the alleged involvement of Indian officials in the death of Nijjar is an indication of the underlying rift. Experts monitoring the situation closely believe that the current tensions are inadvertently rekindling the Khalistani movement globally.

The announcement by Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) about the forthcoming referendum for Khalistan in Surrey is a significant escalation. SFJ, despite being banned in India, has been operating unfettered in the West, pushing its agenda of a separate Sikh state. This not only strains the diplomatic ties between India and Canada but also serves as a potent reminder of Punjab's tumultuous past. With the National Investigation Agency (NIA) pushing Canada to designate SFJ as a terrorist entity, it will be intriguing to see how Canada navigates its commitment to freedom of expression with its global counter-terrorism responsibilities.

As Indo Canadian relations deteriorate, a major question arises about their trade ties. Canadian investment represents about 0.5% of India's total foreign direct investment (FDI) during this period. In 2022, India was Canada's ninth-largest trading partner, with services and infrastructure sectors making up a substantial 40.63% of the total FDI from Canada to India.

Amidst all this, what's most alarming is the noticeable absence of assurance by the Canadian leadership towards the Indian student and worker community, who do not hold Canadian citizenship. For thousands of Indian families, Canada represents a land of opportunity, where their children can pursue quality education and promising careers. The safety and well-being of these students and workers is paramount, and any indication of negligence or oversight can cause significant distress back home in India, especially in Punjab.

It's imperative for the Indian government to step in at this juncture. By assuring the families of the safety of their kin in Canada, they could significantly ease the anxiety and tensions simmering in Punjab due to the ongoing Indo Canadian crisis.

In the face of escalating Indo Canadian row, both countries must rise above individual incidents and work collaboratively to ensure the security and prosperity of their citizens. This will not only be a testament to the maturity and strength of their bilateral ties but also an assurance to thousands of families looking towards a hopeful future.

Ravinder Singh Robin

Ravinder Singh Robin is an independent journalist who contributes to BBC World Services, SBS News (Australia) and Zee tv networks. With over 20 years of experience in journalism, he has extensively covered issues related to national and international affairs, global Sikh community and terrorism.

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