Canada has withdrawn 41 diplomats and their families from India after New Delhi threatened to revoke their diplomatic immunity amid a deepening dispute over the assassination of a Sikh activist.
The move follows a series of tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions between the two countries following the June killing of Canadian citizen and prominent Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar, who was gunned down by two masked attackers in British Columbia.
A rift between the countries opened up after Canadian leader Justin Trudeau claimed his intelligence services were pursuing “credible allegations” that the killing was potentially linked to agents of the Indian government. India has vehemently denied any involvement in Nijjar’s death and called the claims “absurd and motivated.”
In addition to the tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions, India has suspended visa services for Canadian citizens over what it says are “security threats” against diplomats in Canada.
Last month India indicated it would ask several Canadian diplomats to leave the country, in a bid to establish diplomatic “parity.”
Commenting on the withdrawal of the 41 diplomats on Thursday, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said India’s recent actions had been “unreasonable.”
“The safety of Canadians and of our diplomats is always my top concern. Given the implications of India’s actions on the safety of our diplomats, we have facilitated their safe departure from India,” Joly told a press conference in Ottawa.
Joly said those diplomats and their families had already left India while 21 Canadian diplomats remained in the country.
Joly added the Canadian government would not retaliate in kind, saying that to do so would be a violation of international law.
“The only thing we’re encouraging India to do is respect international law,” Joly said.
Who was Hardeep Singh Nijjar?
Nijjar was an outspoken supporter of the creation of a separate Sikh homeland that would include parts of India and be known as Khalistan.
According to the World Sikh Organization of Canada, Nijjar often led peaceful protests against what the advocacy group called the “violation of human rights actively taking place in India and in support of Khalistan.”
The Khalistan movement is outlawed in India and considered a national security threat by the government – a number of groups associated with the movement are listed as “terrorist organizations” under India’s Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).
Nijjar’s name appeared on the Home Ministry’s list of UAPA terrorists.
In 2020, the Indian National Investigation Agency accused him of “trying to radicalize Sikh communities across the world in favor of the creation of ‘Khalistan,’” adding that he had been “trying to incite Sikhs to vote for secession, agitate against the government of India and carry out violent activities.”
Nijjar’s supporters have rejected the terrorist label, which they say is being used to discredit Nijjar, whose death both shocked and outraged the Sikh community in Canada, one of the largest outside of India and home to more than 770,000 members of the religious minority.