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India, Canada expel diplomats in spat over Sikh leader murder

Published : Wednesday, 20 September, 2023 at 12:00 AM  Count : 180

Atlanta, Sept19: Canada's accusation that India may have been involved in the assassination of a Sikh activist on its soil has triggered a growing spat with Ottawa and New Delhi both expelling senior diplomats, sending relations between the two countries plunging.

The tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions came after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada was investigating "credible allegations" linking India to the June killing of Canadian citizen and prominent Sikh leader, Hardeep Singh Nijjar.

"Over the past number of weeks, Canadian security agencies have been actively pursuing credible allegations of a potential link between agents of the government of India and the killing of a Canadian citizen Hardeep Singh Nijjar," Trudeau said in parliament on Monday, adding his government would take all steps necessary "to hold perpetrators of this murder to account."

Canada said it had kicked out an Indian diplomat, who foreign affairs minister Mélanie Joly described as the head of the Indian intelligence agency in the country.

"Today we're acting by expelling a key diplomat, but we will get to the bottom of this," she told reporters in Ottawa, adding Trudeau has raised this issue with both US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

India's foreign ministry on Tuesday responded in kind, saying it had expelled a senior Canadian diplomat based in India.

"The concerned diplomat has been asked to leave India within the next five days," it said in a statement. "The decision reflects Government of India's growing concern at the interference of Canadian diplomats in our internal matters and their involvement in anti-India activities."

Nijjar was a prominent Sikh leader in western Canada, and according to local police, he was gunned down in his truck in June by two masked gunmen outside a Sikh temple in Surrey, British Columbia.

His 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.

Following Trudeau's comments, two prominent Sikh community groups in Canada, the British Columbia Gurdwaras Council (BCGC) and Ontario Gurdwaras Committee (OGC), urged the Canadian government to "immediately suspend all intelligence, investigative and prosecutorial cooperation with India."

"Canada's comprehensive response must reflect the gravity of India's role in the premeditated murder of a Sikh dissident living in Canada," the groups added in a joint statement.

Nijjar's son, Balraj Singh Nijjar, spoke with reporters on Tuesday from the parking lot where his father was killed. The 21-year-old thanked Trudeau and other Canadian politicians.

"It was just a matter of time for when the truth would come out," the younger Nijjar said, according to Canadian broadcaster CBC. "When we heard the news today, it was a sense of relief that it's finally coming to the public." he said.

Hardeep Singh Nijjar was an outspoken supporter of the creation of a separate Sikh homeland known as Khalistan, according to a statement from the World Sikh Organization, and 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.

Amritpal Singh leaves the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, March 3, 2023.

Khalistan: The outlawed Sikh separatist movement that has Indian authorities on edge. In 2020, the Indian National Investigation Agency accused him of "trying to radicalize Sikh community across the world in favor of 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."

India on Tuesday said it rejected Trudeau's allegations, calling them "absurd and motivated."

"We are a democratic polity with a strong commitment to rule of law," a statement released by the country's foreign ministry said.

"Such unsubstantiated allegations seek to shift the focus from Khalistani terrorists and extremists, who have been provided shelter in Canada and continue to threaten India's sovereignty and territorial integrity. The inaction of the Canadian Government on this matter has been a long-standing and continuing concern."

The White House is "deeply concerned" about the allegations, National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement.

"We remain in regular contact with our Canadian partners. It is critical that Canada's investigation proceed and the perpetrators be brought to justice," she said.

Canadian police have not arrested anyone in connection with Nijjar's murder. But in an August update, police released a statement saying they were investigating three suspects and issued a description of a possible getaway vehicle, asking for the public's help.

A spokesperson for Australian foreign minister Penny Wong said the country is also "deeply concerned" by the allegations.

"We are closely engaged with partners on developments. We have conveyed our concerns at senior levels to India," a statement shared with CNN said.

"We understand these reports will be particularly concerning to some Australian communities. The Indian diaspora are valued and important contributors to our vibrant and resilient multicultural society, where all Australians can peacefully and safely express their views."    �CNN

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