Pankaj Saran: ‘the Canada Row Won’t Impact India-US Ties. We Need Each Other, Have Bigger Issues to Tackle’

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India had issued a red corner notice on Nijjar. Canada more than anyone else should know that there is both a national law and an international law.

Pankaj Saran, former Deputy National Security Advisor and Convenor, NatStrat, on the implications of the diplomatic row over Khalistan and its effect on India’s standing, particularly with the US. The session was moderate by Diplomatic Editor Shubhajit Roy on October 18.

On the Khalistan movement as a disruptor

When the Khalistan movement began in India in the late ’70s and the early ’80s, it was linked to internal politics, the Partition and the reorganisation of States. Undivided Punjab had gone through a lot of turbulence — in terms of territory, identity and constitutional status within the Indian Union. From the beginning itself, you had Chandigarh, which was also to be the capital of Haryana and a Union Territory, as the capital of Punjab. This was necessary as Lahore, Punjab’s earlier capital, went to Pakistan.

The landmark was the Anandpur Sahib resolution of the early ’70s, which demanded more autonomy for Punjab. The unenforced resolution led to disgruntlement which the Congress and the Akali Dal used for their political ends. Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) also played a role in fomenting trouble to disturb Punjab. Finally, Indian troops stormed the Golden Temple in June 1984 under Operation Bluestar. But we did not see any wave of Khalistani activity in Canada, which was a haven for migrants in search of better livelihood, till the Air India Kanishka bombing in 1985, which killed 329 people. Of those involved in the conspiracy, only one was charged and that too on grounds of perjury. Another acquitted person, Ripudaman Singh Malik, was killed last year, also in British Columbia under mysterious circumstances. Some of our agencies believed that Khalistani separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar had a role to play because Malik was trying to move towards a more moderate position, vis-a-vis the Indian government and the state. The feeling was that his killing was a signal to the moderates in Canada.

As things started to improve on the ground in Delhi and Punjab in 1993-94, the movement died down but erupted again from the early 2000s, concentrated around gurdwaras in two provinces — British Columbia and Ontario — where the bulk of the Sikh population lives. This, along with the entry of some pro-Khalistanis into Canadian mainstream politics, has given the movement a new lease of life. Lastly, we’ve had a new generation of Sikh extremists, who are Canadians by birth but have had no connection with either India or Punjab in the last 40 years.

In 2015, 19 Indian-origin MPs were elected to the Canadian Parliament, many of them Sikhs. All political parties, be they conservative or liberal, and the third force, the National Democrats, have representatives of pro-Khalistan supporters. The reason is that the Sikh community is large in number, fairly well-to-do and control the gurdwara money. There are, of course, Hindu and Muslim Indians. But there is a minuscule minority within the Sikh population which has become politically hyperactive, become ideologues and have got mixed up with the narcotics circuit and gangs in Punjab. So you have gurdwara money, mixed with drug money, gang warfare, and the support of the Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), which sees this as a golden opportunity to foment a separatist movement in India.

On Canadian PM Justin Trudeau’s provocative statement implicating India in the killing of Khalistani extremist Hardeep Singh Nijjar

India had issued a red corner notice on Nijjar. Canada more than anyone else should know that there is both a national law and an international law. We have a legally binding extradition treaty with Canada, which means it is obliged to follow international law and respond to India’s requests for extradition under a treaty. So that argument speaks of complete double standards.

Canada is providing a safe haven or an ecosystem that would give sanctuary to extremists. This is precisely what we have accused Pakistan of doing and this is unacceptable in today’s day and age by any international standard.

On the global community’s response to Canada’s claim

We live in an unequal world. Whatever happens in a G7 country automatically gets prominence in the global mass media. Second, with Canada being part of the Western alliance, it would be logical for its allies to stand in solidarity. Still, they’ve been very careful in the kind of words they have used. This business about India interfering in someone else’s affairs is quite absurd because it is India which is the victim here. We find that foreign nationals, in this case, Canadian nationals, are masterminds, plotting gang wars, working with drug-related syndicates and so on. These were actions intended to sow chaos and any government, whether the current or the previous one, will have no option but to take every step to protect India.

But again, there are double standards. Western nations have exterminated people they view as enemies of their state, calling it self-defence. For example, the Iranian military commander Qasem Aoleimani was shot dead in cold blood. I’m not even getting into how Hamas leaders have been shot dead in third countries. In India, we have to talk about equality in terms of how all incidents are treated, without getting into differentiation — who is a good terrorist, a bad terrorist, an alleged terrorist or a proven terrorist.

Had Canada not given such a sanctuary, or not created this convenience of a human bridge between Punjab and Canada, where you commit a crime in Punjab or any other part of India, and you have the satisfaction of a safe sanctuary in Canada, then we would not have reached the stage. All we are asking Canada is to help us deal with these people. If you’re a democracy, so are we. What is preventing them from responding?

On the blow to bilateral relations

The India-Canada relationship has been going through troubled times ever since the Liberal Party took office in Canada. We had made fairly good progress with the Conservatives under Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Both the Prime Ministers (Harper and then PM Manmohan Singh) visited the Kanishka Memorial in Canada. There were breakthroughs, for example, in the civil nuclear deal. The current government is supported by the National Democratic Party led by Jagmeet Singh Dhaliwal. This government seems to be heavily reliant on the Khalistani support base and are reluctant to take any action. The relationship has suddenly reached one of its lowest points, what with death threats to Indian diplomats in Canada, sharp words being exchanged between governments and so on.

But there is a lot at stake in the bilateral relationship. You still have about 1.4 million Canadians of Indian origin living there. Canada is one of the richest countries in the world. It is the source of some of the biggest natural mineral and energy resources, including oil, gas, uranium, lithium, timber and even fresh water. We want to settle some basic issues and the rules of business before we move forward. We do not want to escalate or blow this up.

Audience Questions

On the India-US relationship getting impacted

I don’t see much of an impact on the India-US relationship. Because of the huge stakes involved, both for us and for the Americans, in keeping the relationship in good shape, we have bigger issues to tackle. Both the US and India need each other. It’s a tough act because the US and Canada are allies, so there will be a certain amount of balancing that India will have to do when it comes to the US. We will be dignified but have zero tolerance on matters of the preservation of India’s unity and integrity.

On de-escalating the situation

What we would expect is evidence and inquiry and publication of the inquiry. Some acts of good faith must be done by the Canadians to respond to the several dossiers and red corner notices that we have issued. Some public statements from Canada would be essential to restore some trust in the government in India. We as Indians cannot agitate or be emotional about this whole thing. We have to continue our conversation, and where possible, persuade Canada’s allies to cooperate with us.

Source: Indian Express