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Welcoming Narendra Modi to Washington in June, Joe Biden said: “There’s an overwhelming respect for each other because we’re both democracies.” The joint statement issued by the US and Indian leaders stressed their common belief that “the rules-based international order must be respected”.
The Nijjar killing got little international attention at the time. But that has changed dramatically, following Canada’s allegation that India was linked to the killing of the Sikh activist, who India regarded as a terrorist.
India rejected Canada’s charges as “absurd” and there is already plenty of gleeful commentary anticipating the humiliation of Canada and its prime minister, Justin Trudeau. This view seems to rest on two ideas. First, that Canada has not produced the evidence to justify its claims. Second, that Canada’s closest allies — above all, the US, but also Britain and Australia — are so heavily invested in their relationship with India that they will do their utmost to brush any unpleasantness under the carpet. This would leave Canada dangling.
That Indian assessment might yet be proved right. But I doubt it. Trudeau may sometimes come across as a lightweight, but he is highly unlikely to have made a charge of this gravity without evidence. Indeed, it seems that much of the initial intelligence actually came from the US. So these allegations are unlikely simply to disappear into thin air.
It is clearly true that the US sees countering China as its most important security challenge and that India is regarded as an indispensable partner. Australia and Britain are also ardently courting the Modi government.
But allowing India to commission a murder on Canadian soil — if that is what happened — would pose a much more immediate danger to national security than a temporary setback in efforts to counter China.
If the Indian government concluded that it now has a free hand to go after its enemies — foreign and domestic — wherever they are living, that would create a really dangerous precedent for multicultural societies such as Canada, Britain and Australia.
Who would be next in the line of fire? And which other countries might decide that they also fancied committing a few murders in the west? China, for example, accuses Britain of harbouring criminals fleeing justice in Hong Kong. Like the Indians, the Chinese often seem to blur the line between support for secession and support for terrorism. If Britain or other western nations refuse to hand over Hong Kong activists — or Tibetans or Uyghurs — might China conclude that, in the emerging world order, it can safely have them kidnapped or killed?
It is believed that there are over 250 different ethnicities represented in the populations of both London and Toronto. Among them are many people who are mistrusted or hated by the governments of the countries they have left behind. Turkey, for example, regularly accuses western nations of harbouring Kurdish terrorists. Tensions between different immigrant communities could also easily be ignited by the importation of political violence.
Despite Modi’s endorsement of the “rules-based international order”, many Indian policymakers take a cynical view of the idea. Like the Russians and the Chinese, they believe that, in reality, the US both makes and breaks the rules according to its own needs and whims.
Shashi Tharoor, a prominent Indian opposition politician and former UN official, gave voice to this sentiment when he mocked western condemnation of the alleged Indian role in the Nijjar killing, arguing that: “The two foremost practitioners of extraterritorial assassinations in the last 25 years have been Israel and the US.”
But this argument misses a vital point. The US killed dangerous enemies, such as Osama bin Laden, when they were in countries where it was regarded as futile to try and use the local justice system. But the Americans do not kill alleged terrorists when they are on the territory of allied democracies. Even the Israelis are not believed to have assassinated anybody in the west since a killing in Paris more than 30 years ago.
Indian frustration over Canada’s alleged tolerance for Sikh terrorism reminds me of the rage felt in Britain in the 1980s and 1990s over Irish-American support for the IRA. Deadly bombs were regularly going off in the UK at the time, and the IRA twice came close to wiping out the top levels of the British government. Despite that, it would have been inconceivable for the UK to send a hit-squad on to the streets of Boston — or Vancouver for that matter.
The fawning tone adopted by many western governments, when dealing with Modi, might have given New Delhi the impression it can get away with anything. Anthony Albanese, the Australian prime minister, has called Modi “the boss”. Gina Raimondo, the US commerce secretary, called him “unbelievable, visionary” when she visited Delhi.
There is no doubt that the US and its allies badly want to get along with India. But if Canada provides convincing evidence of an Indian role in the Nijjar killing, then there will be legal and diplomatic processes unleashed that cannot simply be wished away. The “rules-based order” may turn out to have some meaning, after all.