Skip to content

Indian envoy warns of 'big red line,' days after charges laid in Nijjar case

OTTAWA — India's envoy to Canada insists relations between the two countries are positive overall, despite what he describes as "a lot of noise.
High Commissioner of India to Canada Sanjay Kumar Verma speaks to reporters during an interview in Ottawa on Thursday, August 31, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle

OTTAWA — India's envoy to Canada insists relations between the two countries are positive overall, despite what he describes as "a lot of noise." 

During his first public remarks since the RCMP arrested three Indian nationals in the case, High Commissioner Sanjay Kumar Verma seemed to link the case to domestic crime.

But he warned that Sikh groups in Canada who call for the separation of their homeland from India are crossing "a big red line" that New Delhi sees as a matter of national security. 

"Indians will decide the fate of India, not the foreigners," Verma told the Montreal Council on Foreign Relations.

Earlier on Tuesday, Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly stood by allegations that the Indian government was complicit in the slaying of a Sikh Canadian last year.

Hardeep Singh Nijjar had long advocated for the creation of a Sikh country called Khalistan. 

He was shot dead last June outside his temple in Surrey, B.C. 

Nijjar was under an arrest warrant in India, but Canada never extradited him due to a lack of credible proof that he committed any serious crime.

The killing sparked a wave of protests, with some Sikh groups circulating posters that threatened Indian diplomats in Canada by name.

Ottawa paused trade negotiations with India last August, a month before Trudeau publicly linked New Delhi to the case. 

The diplomatic strain continued into the fall as India forced Canada to remove two-thirds of its diplomats from the country, threatening to strip them of diplomatic immunity, and temporarily halted processing visas for Canadian visitors. 

The three men charged in the case made a virtual appearance in court Tuesday. Police say they are still investigating whether India's government was involved in the killing.

Verma said the deeper problems underneath the recent "negative" developments have to do with Canada's misunderstanding of "decades-old issues," which he blames Canadians of Indian origin for resurfacing. 

He said his chief concern is "national-security threats emanating from the land of Canada," noting that India does not recognize dual nationality, so anyone who emigrates is considered a foreigner.

New Delhi deems it unconstitutional to call for separation from India, but Canada has long said Sikh people in Canada are entitled to free speech if they're not inciting violence.

"Foreigners having, if I can call it, (an) evil eye on the territorial integrity of India — that is a big red line for us," he said.

He did not specify whether he was referring to foreigners being involved in the Nijjar case or the issue of Sikh separatism more broadly. 

Verma added that unspecified media reports have been "a bit coloured," though he acknowledged "there would be some facts" in them.

Over the weekend, Indian Foreign Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar had reacted to the RCMP arrests by accusing Canada of welcoming in criminals from his country.

But Verma struck a conciliatory tone on Tuesday, saying the two countries are "trying to resolve this issue."

"We are ready to sit down at the table any day, and we are doing that," he said.

Hours before those remarks, Joly said her goal is still to conduct diplomacy with India in private.

She said she would let the Mounties investigate instead of providing any new commentary on the case.

"We stand by the allegations that a Canadian was killed on Canadian soil by Indian agents," Joly said on Parliament Hill.

"The investigation by the RCMP is being done. I won’t further comment and no other officials from our government will further comment."

Verma focused his Tuesday speech on "so many positive things" happening in the relationship. 

He noted the annual value of two-way trade is $26 billion, and in the past 11 months, there has been a 75 per cent jump in Canadian lentil exports and a 21 per cent increase in Indian prepared medicines reaching Canada.

Vina Nadjibulla, the research vice-president for the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, said India has increasing importance for Ottawa and many of its peers.

"Canada at the moment is an outlier, when it comes to that kind of strategic deepening of partnership with India," she said.

"We do need to stabilize and improve that relationship, because that is in Canada's national interest."

She noted that Canadian businesses and provinces have been seeking stronger ties. Alberta Premier Danielle Smith welcomed Verma in March.

And Saskatchewan announced last week it had convinced New Delhi to reinstate the province's envoy in India, saying their official was among the Canadians who had to leave during the fall.

New Delhi hasn't allowed the other Canadian diplomats to return.

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe met Jaishankar last February and spoke at the Raisina Dialogue, a major foreign-policy conference in India.

Nadjibulla attended the same conference. She observed that India displayed "tremendous confidence" over its rising economic power, population and regional clout. 

"There are many partners and suitors at the moment showing up in New Delhi," Nadjibulla said.

Despite the Nijjar case, she said Canada should consider reopening trade talks with India. 

"There's a lot we can be doing together," she said.

Not everyone agrees. On Tuesday, the group Sikhs for Justice called for Verma's speech to be cancelled, citing the Nijjar case and allegations of foreign interference by India.

The group's New York-based lawyer Gurpatwant Singh Pannun was named by U.S. prosecutors as an assassination target in a failed plot they allege was orchestrated by an Indian government official. The claim has not been tested in court.

India is in the midst of a months-long national election.

Nadjibulla said she expects Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to continue ramping up his rhetoric.

Last month, Modi twice made statements in Hindi about his country's ability to kill those abroad who challenge the country's territorial integrity, in comments that were more broadly related to Pakistan.

Last week, Jaishankar lamented that "our biggest problem right now is in Canada," referring to Sikh separatism. 

Federal cabinet minister Harjit Sajjan, who has been painted by Indian officials as a Sikh nationalist, suggested on Tuesday that he doesn't take India's claims at face value.

"We take any allegations and information by any country very seriously when it comes to any type of criminal activity," he said.

"There has been significant misinformation and disinformation by India on individuals in this country, including on myself and my family."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 7, 2024.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press