India wants to take on Trudeau. It’s taking down its own diaspora

The crisis with Ottawa is deepening fissures between Canadian Sikhs and Hindus, both of whom have been affected the most.

Flags and signs are seen as demonstrators protest outside India's consulate, a week after Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau raised the prospect of New Delhi's involvement in the murder of Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada September 25, 2023. REUTERS/Jennifer Gauthier
Demonstrators protest outside India's consulate in Toronto on September 25, 2023, a week after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau raised the prospect of New Delhi's involvement in the killing of Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in a Vancouver suburb [Jennifer Gauthier/Reuters]

India-Canada relations have been on the boil since Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau claimed last week that Indian government agents were involved in the assassination of Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar near Vancouver in June. Nijjar was a proponent of a Sikh homeland called Khalistan, which separatists want carved out of India’s Punjab state.

Anti-Canada rhetoric and personal attacks on Trudeau have been on overdrive in India from the government and from media houses that have followed suit. The Canadian prime minister has been accused of parroting Sikh separatist viewpoints to court the community’s votes – Sikhs represent about half of the country’s 1.3 million people of Indian origin.

A spokesperson for the Indian Ministry of External Affairs accused Canada of being “a safe haven for terrorists, for extremists and for organised crime”. Wild conspiracy theories have fed into the frenzy. On television, a former Indian diplomat cited unsubstantiated rumours that cocaine was found on Trudeau’s plane during his recent visit to India for the G20 summit and that he didn’t attend a dinner hosted by the president of India because “he was high”.

While this kind of rhetoric works for a domestic audience in India that has leaned ever more to the right, it makes India’s posturing look irresponsible globally. And it places India’s vast diaspora in the crosshairs of the tensions between the majoritarian Hindutva agenda of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government on the one hand and the ambitions of the country to emerge as a leading power on the other.

After Trudeau’s explosive comments on the assassination, New Delhi responded with whataboutery, claiming that the allegations only shifted the focus from Khalistani separatists, “who have been provided shelter in Canada and continue to threaten India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

When Canada expelled the head of Indian intelligence in the country, India responded by expelling a Canadian diplomat in New Delhi. India also suspended visas for Canadians at Indian missions globally, citing “security threats” to Indian diplomats.

India is also reportedly in the process of cancelling Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) cards for those who have supposedly carried out “pro-Khalistan activities and anti-India propaganda”. The OCI card provides lifelong, visa-free access to foreign citizens of Indian origin. Canada, on the other hand, has continued to issue visas to Indian citizens.

India’s tough stance is meant to somehow pressure Trudeau into backing out. Yet in a country where more than 3 percent of the population is of Indian origin and where hundreds of thousands of Indian students enrol in universities every year, the heat is being felt most by this vast diaspora community.

Canadian citizens of Indian origin who don’t have an OCI card and visit India regularly to visit family, attend social gatherings or attend to their businesses are now unable to travel. With diplomatic tensions on edge, a recent foreign ministry advisory cautioned Indian expats and travellers about “growing anti-India activities and politically condoned hate crimes and criminal violence in Canada”.

While Canadian officials have rubbished the advisory, there are growing concerns among family members of those studying and working in Canada about the impact the diplomatic row would have on the safety and security of their loved ones.

Indian citizens living in Canada are hesitant to travel out of the country because they fear Canada might reciprocate India’s visa ban with travel restrictions. Indian students are worried about delays in visa processing times at Canada’s diplomatic mission in New Delhi, which has been ordered to downsize, and are concerned that visa acceptance rates might drop.

India’s response has also deepened Hindu-Sikh tensions in Canada.

Over the past couple of years, we have witnessed a global rise of Hindutva hate speech and violence. We saw this in 2022 in Leicester, United Kingdom, where young Hindu men marched through the streets chanting “Jai Sri Ram” – a Hindutva war cry – and attacked Muslims.

But Sikhs have not been immune to this violence either. There has been a spike in anti-Sikh hate crimes in the UK and Australia. In Canada, Sikh schools have been routinely vandalised and sprayed with racist graffiti. Ron Banerjee, a Canadian Hindu nationalist, openly called for the genocide of Muslims and Sikhs last year.

India’s ongoing incendiary rhetoric and actions targeting Sikh residents of Canada has further irked members of the community. Indian authorities, experts and media outfits have been insistent in painting all Sikh activists and advocates of Sikh human rights as radicals. India’s federal counterterrorism outfit, the National Investigation Agency, has now begun seizing properties of Sikh activists in Canada whom Indian authorities consider to be fugitive Khalistani terrorists.

Meanwhile, Sikh activists in the United States have said the FBI warned them that they could be in danger after Nijjar’s assassination. And members of the Sikh Congressional Caucus in the US have publicly expressed concerns about “reports that India’s government is targeting Sikh activists abroad”.

But it isn’t just Sikhs who today face heightened security risks outside India. The spiral of religion-based politics that the Modi government has played in India and increasingly abroad has left others vulnerable too.

Across Canada, Sikh activists have led demonstrations outside India’s diplomatic missions in Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver, where protesters have burned Indian flags. Reportedly, posters calling for the killing of Indian diplomats as retribution appeared outside the gurdwara where Nijjar was killed. One Canadian Sikh separatist leader, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, also released a provocative video asking Canadian Hindus of Indian origin to “leave Canada, go to India.”

India has global ambitions. This was very much evident in the pomp and circumstance with which it hosted the recent G20 summit. But irrespective of whether India was indeed responsible for Nijjar’s assassination, its response to the allegations does not exactly paint the country as one that is ready for global leadership.

Instead, it punishes the diaspora and makes the toxicity of the Hindutva brand of politics harder to ignore for the international community as divisiveness with roots in India explodes globally.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.