What Are the Root Causes of the Khalistan Issue in India-Canada Relations


The relationship between India and Canada finds itself in turbulent waters, primarily due to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s alarming allegations regarding the Khalistan activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar’s death. This recent strain, however, is not an isolated incident but rather the culmination of historical antecedents and contemporary political dynamics that have long affected the rapport between these two nations.

India Canada flags together on Khalistan Issue

Historical Roots of the Khalistan Issue in Canada:

The Khalistan movement’s link with Canada dates back to the early 1980s when Surjan Singh Gill established the ‘Khalistan government in exile’ office in Vancouver, even issuing Khalistani passports and currency. Despite these efforts, the movement struggled to gain substantial local Sikh support at the time.

However, the turbulence in Punjab during the early 1980s reverberated in Canada, notably with then Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s refusal to extradite Talwinder Singh Parmar, accused of killing two police officers in Punjab in 1982. Tragically, the infamous Air India Kanishka bombing in 1985, orchestrated by the Babbar Khalsa, resulted in the loss of 331 civilian lives, marking Canada’s most devastating act of terrorism and deepening the Khalistan issue’s connection with the country.

Changing Governments and Influences:

The trajectory of the Khalistan issue often mirrors the shifting political landscapes of India and the subcontinent. Relations between India and Canada showed signs of improvement during the tenure of Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, with hints of reconciliation emerging.

The leadership of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper (2006-2015) witnessed a robust India-Canada relationship characterized by numerous high-level visits and cooperative efforts across various domains.

Tensions between India and Canada escalated in recent years, primarily due to perceived Canadian leniency towards Khalistan supporters and Trudeau’s perceived proximity to Khalistan sympathizers. Trudeau’s appointment of four Sikh ministers in his 30-member Cabinet in 2015, outnumbering Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ministry in terms of Sikh representation, ignited controversy.

These tensions reached their zenith during Trudeau’s visit to India in 2018, marked by a chilly reception and criticism over his invitation to Jaspal Atwal, convicted of attempting to assassinate an Indian Cabinet minister in 1986. The strained relations worsened when Canada removed all mentions of Khalistan and Sikh extremism from its 2019 ‘Public Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada,’ a move that drew strong rebuke from Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh.

G20 Humiliation:

The recent G20 summit in New Delhi served as a backdrop for India to express its “strong concerns” about the “continuing anti-India activities of extremist elements” in Canada. This exchange underscores the persistent tensions in the India-Canada relationship, particularly pertaining to the Khalistan issue.

Repercussions of the Spat:

The ongoing discord and the prominence of the Khalistan issue have led to a significant increase in asylum claims by Indian nationals in Canada, surging by an astonishing 246%. Experts suggest that this may be a tactic employed by immigration agents.

While interest in the Khalistan issue has somewhat diminished in recent times, its impact on trade and economic relations remains significant. In 2022, the trade between India and Canada surpassed $13.7 billion, positioning India as Canada’s 10th largest two-way merchandise trade partner. Nevertheless, recent developments have halted trade talks and resulted in the cancellation of a planned trade mission to India.

The complexities surrounding the Khalistan issue and its impact on India-Canada relations continue to evolve. Historical roots, political transitions, and diaspora dynamics all contribute to the intricate interplay between these two nations. Challenges persist, but the potential for cooperation remains, provided both countries navigate the path toward common ground with sensitivity and diplomacy. The way forward lies in acknowledging past grievances and fostering an environment conducive to productive dialogue and reconciliation in the context of the Khalistan issue.

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