On Father’s Day this year, two heavyset men were loitering near a Sikh temple in British Columbia. Then the president of the temple, a Canadian citizen and an activist named Hardeep Singh Nijjar, stepped out and climbed into his pickup truck to drive home for dinner with his family.
The two waiting men, wearing masks, fired through Nijjar’s window about a dozen times. Temple members bravely ran after the gunmen, who escaped in a getaway car driven by a third man.
Now Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada has publicly asserted that the Indian government may be responsible for murdering Nijjar — an explosive allegation that, if found to be true, should be a warning to Western countries in their dealings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his increasingly authoritarian government. India denies the accusation and calls it “absurd.”
In his initial statement, Trudeau was cautious and spoke of “credible allegations of a potential link” between the murder and the Indian government. But in a visit to The New York Times on Thursday, Trudeau seemed completely confident that the Indian government had been involved.
Trudeau said bluntly that he wanted to see “a number of people thrown in jail,” plus “a series of lessons learned and changes made to the way Indian intelligence services operate.”
While Trudeau would not share the evidence tying the crime to India, I’m betting it’s solid. Nijjar, who was born in India, advocated a separatist state called Khalistan to be carved from Punjab, a proposal that infuriates many Indians because in the 1980s the campaign for it involved terrorism. In 2020, India labeled Nijjar, without evidence, as a terrorist and later offered a cash reward for information leading to his arrest.
Trudeau is seeking to work with India on an investigation of the incident, but the Modi government has escalated the tension. It stopped issuing visas to Canadians and ordered Canada to cut its diplomatic staff in India.
This episode should be a warning to Western leaders, including President Biden, who have fawned over Modi. The last couple of decades of travails with Vladimir Putin should have taught us something about the difficulties of trying to reform nationalist authoritarians, or the perils of granting them impunity.
As Trudeau noted in his visit to The Times, he had an obligation to act. “When we have credible reasons to believe that this happened, you can’t shrug it off,” he said.
“If we, as we do, want India to continue down its path of democracy, of successful rising world power, we need to make sure we are clear about the responsibilities and the expectations that come with that,” Trudeau added.
The paradox is that Nijjar doesn’t seem to have been any threat to India today. There was a violent separatist movement supporting Khalistan in the early 1980s, and I met its leaders when I was a law student backpacking through India then and sleeping on the floor of the Sikh Golden Temple to save money. But that movement has fizzled, and the dream of Khalistan seems more alive in the Sikh diaspora than in India itself.
If India is caught lying about its role in the killing, it will have damaged its international standing far more than Nijjar ever could have.
A foreign country can overcome an assassination in a Western democracy — but only if it comes clean. In 1984, gunmen in California assassinated a Taiwanese-American journalist, Henry Liu, after he wrote a critical biography of Taiwan’s dictator at the time. Taiwan eventually prosecuted a chief of military intelligence for the crime and sentenced him to life imprisonment — and Taiwan and America moved past the incident.
In this case, though, Modi isn’t showing any sign of investigating and seems to be trying to profit politically, by inflaming the prickly nationalism that has carried his career forward so far. He portrays himself as defender of India’s Hindu majority from Muslim jihadis or Sikh separatists — or sanctimonious Western imperialists — and this dust-up might actually help him in next year’s Indian elections.
Modi is a complicated figure. He is one of the most popular leaders in the world today, and as I wrote during a visit to India earlier this year, he deserves credit for economic pragmatism and significantly raising living standards. But Modi’s government has also made India less free, cracking down on the press and stirring a fiery Islamophobia that has led to Muslims being lynched. I worry that, like the Pakistani general Mohammad Zia ul-Haq almost half a century ago, he is unleashing religious extremism that could ultimately destabilize his country.
India is so important that other nations will be tempted to avert their eyes and not get involved in Canada’s quarrel with Delhi. In 2018, in response to a Russian assassination on British soil, the United States expelled 60 Russians, and 14 European countries took similar steps; that won’t happen this time. But we shouldn’t give assassins a pass just because they come from a country we’re courting.
To its credit, the Biden administration did support Canada and called on India to cooperate in the murder investigation — although it would help if this came publicly from Biden himself. Elsewhere, there has been mostly silence and fecklessness: Australia’s prime minister declined to comment at all, and Britain’s foreign secretary tweeted pablum that did not even mention India.
Without prejudging the results, Western countries should categorically stand with Canada in calling for a fair investigation of the murder and justice for those responsible. The current international silence is conspicuously loud.
Canadians deserve better from us, and so do Indians.
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