India has strongly rejected Canada’s allegations and accused Trudeau of trying to win votes from Canada’s large Sikh population, which it believes has become a global hub for separatists, some of whom do have a history of violent extremism.
The Sikh militant organisation Babbar Khalsa was responsible for the bombing of Air India Flight 182 from Montreal to Delhi in 1985. Sikh bodyguards assassinated then-prime minister Indira Gandhi in 1984. But since then, the separatists have become part of a relatively obscure movement campaigning to establish a Sikh state of Khalistan in the northern Indian region of Punjab.
So far, Modi’s concerns about the campaign have met lukewarm responses from some of India’s most important partners – including Australia and the United States – based on their own intelligence assessments. Canada’s intelligence agencies had relayed some of its findings to their counterparts in the United States and elsewhere before Trudeau’s brief encounter with Modi in Delhi.
Washington and Canberra have made clear that they view local separatists as part of a relatively peaceful movement rather than a violent threat and will allow them to continue protesting in their own countries.
“I think the Indian diaspora has a range of views, and you know, we have made clear in relation to democratic debate in Australia that the peaceful expression of different views is a key part of Australia’s democracy,” Foreign Minister Penny Wong said in New York on Wednesday.
In India, the situation has festered through domestic political calculations that have transformed the separatists into an existential threat to build Modi’s national security credentials.
With an Indian election due early next year, the tightrope between Modi’s G20 vision of India as a democratic global player (vital to managing the rise of China) and his own pursuit of a Hindu nationalist state is about to become narrower for India’s partners.
The CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour put this to Wong as world leaders gathered for the United Nations on Wednesday.
“Prime Minister Modi received kind of a hero’s welcome in Australia when you had him in May. He received a very warm welcome at the White House, he received a very warm welcome on Bastille Day in France,” Amanpour said.
“The G20 was just held in India. How troubling is this allegation and how does it cause you, either to calibrate or not, how closely to hold Modi, how tightly?”
Wong said the allegations were “deeply concerning for all of us” but evaded the broader point about whether Anthony Albanese will still be calling Modi “the boss”.
The investigations may not be finalised for months but whatever the outcome, Modi will take comfort from the welcome Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman received at the G20.
Five years ago, the CIA concluded he ordered the dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
US President Joe Biden vowed he “would pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are”.
Last week Biden, Modi and bin Salman clasped hands on stage in New Delhi.
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