Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told parliament on Sept. 18 that “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.”
While Trudeau’s official statement was careful to use the word “allegations,” privately Canadian officials were leaking to the media that Canada had credible evidence and had already consulted with its closest intelligence-sharing partners – the Five Eyes partnership that includes the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand.
In subsequent days, Canada’s partners have offered less than full-throated support to the Canadian claim about the June 18 shooting of Nijjar outside a Sikh temple in British Columbia, mostly underlining the seriousness of the allegation and urging India to cooperate with Canada’s investigation. The government of India, for its part, “rejected” the allegations as “absurd.” Since the initial statements, the countries have taken several steps up the diplomatic escalatory ladder. Both have evicted intelligence officials attached to the other countries’ respective embassies in Ottawa and New Delhi, while India has halted visa services in Canada and hinted that it will be seeking a reduction in staffing at Canadian embassies and consulates in India.
The pressure is building from Canadian opposition parties for the Trudeau government to release more evidence, though Canada’s official position is it is wary of releasing evidence that might harm an open criminal inquiry. This stance is likely untenable. Expect more leaks, perhaps accompanied with official releases of evidence, to be forthcoming.
We don’t know whether the allegation is true…
In the runup to this incident, Trudeau reportedly had an unpleasant experience at the G-20 in New Delhi earlier this month, and the government of India released a harsh statement summarizing concerns about “anti-India activities of extremist elements in Canada” following the Canadian prime minister’s meeting with his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, at that time.
Could India’s denial of any involvement in the killing be sincere? The suspicions within Canada’s Sikh community make it unsurprising that at least some evidence – even mere rumor – would have emerged alleging India’s involvement. Trudeau’s Liberal party has traditionally relied on the Indian Sikh diaspora vote in certain constituencies – and perhaps Trudeau had a motivated reason to believe ambiguous evidence and/or claim the evidence was more solid than it truly was.
…but many commentators think India may be involved
Trudeau would be on thin ice if parliamentary oversight and law enforcement investigations found the evidence implicating India to be insubstantial. Canadian analysts have argued that Trudeau likely did not desire this public confrontation with India and at least one cabinet minister has said publicly that Trudeau only informed parliament because the media had already learned of Ottawa’s suspicions of Indian government complicity.
And there’s evidence that Modi has been willing to consider targeted killings when Indian national security requires. In that light, commentators note that the possibility of Indian government involvement in Nijjar’s death seems broadly consistent with prior statements by Modi and his national security team over the last decade.
In the months before becoming prime minister in 2014, for example, Modi criticized the previous Indian government for talking about operations to kill or capture terrorist fugitive Dawood Ibrahim (assumed to reside in Pakistan) rather than actually killing or capturing him. “Why is the Indian government not able to get Dawood? Do these things happen through the medium of newspapers? Did the U.S. issue a press note before they killed bin Laden?”
Indian national security reporter Praveen Swami wrote at the time that Modi’s remarks reflected “a growing view” within the intelligence community “that India must learn a new language of killing.” The man Modi selected to serve as his national security advisor, Ajit Doval, has repeatedly said that India needs to go on the offensive to deal with terrorism rather than merely try to defend against terror attacks. One of Modi’s former defense ministers, Manohar Parrikar, argued in 2015 that sometimes it was necessary to “remove a thorn with a thorn,” in what many interpreted as a remark about the necessity of using covert violence to respond to terrorist groups targeting India.
Historically, this rhetoric has not been a staple of Indian public discourse. Such a policy of targeted killing, if adopted recently or earlier in Modi’s term, likely would reflect a meaningful shift from prior Indian prime ministers in the 1990s and 2000s who reportedly held an aversion to clandestine violence.
India’s denials could reflect the government’s innocence, but clandestine violence often remains unacknowledged officially because of the legal implications of doing so. Just as people say hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, it is similarly the case that refusing to officially acknowledge extrajudicial killing is the tribute the intelligence community pays to international law. Doing something secretly – even with weak deniability – is a sign that a government is aware of international norms, and hopes to control escalation.
Relatedly, some political scientists, drawing lessons from the U.S. policy shift from prohibiting assassinations to permitting them after 9/11, have argued that such normative shifts can be facilitated by policies of “quasi-secrecy”– that is, “a combination of official secrecy with leaks, selective disclosure, and de facto public awareness.” If India did undertake the killing, quasi-secrecy about the affair is now more likely than a press release acknowledging it.
If India was involved, what are the implications?
With the caveat that evidence is so far inadequate to pass judgment, it is worthwhile to consider the broader implications of the allegation, were it to be true.
If India was involved in Nijjar’s killing, any international consequence would likely be modest and manageable for India. International politics is not a morality play and influential nations frequently do not suffer for acts that others find immoral or illegal. The reactions of Canada’s allies overwhelmingly suggest no other government is eager to harm its relations with India.
This preference is likely not to be shaken by even credible evidence of Indian involvement. Many countries did not downgrade their ties with Saudi Arabia over credible allegations Saudi agents killed a long-term U.S. resident, Jamal Khashoggi, in 2018. Governments that did downgrade bilateral relations largely already had other grievances with Saudi Arabia for which the Khashoggi incident served as a metaphorical last straw. Even countries that were troubled by Khashoggi’s murder have largely worked to improve bilateral ties in subsequent years, including the U.S. government under the Biden administration.
If India was involved, would the killing have the intended effect?
Are such killings likely to work (if indeed India were the culprit)? Here the evidence is very thin since it is not clear whether the alleged victim in this case was involved in active plots against India. Political scientists have shown that targeted killings in the midst of an active terror campaign, whether such attacks are carried out through drone strikes or other types of targeted violence, do appear to reduce subsequent terrorist or militant violence, but are not “a silver bullet.”
While governments may hope that going on the offense will defang threats, sometimes they have a more minimal goal – to be seen as doing their utmost. In polling my colleagues and I conducted last year, we found that Indian Prime Minister Modi remains overwhelmingly popular and that large majorities of Indians are confident that he will protect them from foreign and domestic threats.
These latest allegations are unlikely to shake that assessment and may well bolster it among the Indian public, which is due to head toward national elections in the next year.
Trudeau photo credit: CC-BY-4.0 © European Union 2022 – Source: EP; Modi photo credit: 2130779joshitha.n, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons