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Canada and India are in a standoff over a Sikh separatist leader's assassination


As world leaders meet in New York, two nations whose relations have been strained for a while find themselves in a very public diplomatic faceoff. Canada's Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has accused the Indian government of ordering the assassination last June of a Canadian citizen, the Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar, on Canadian soil. Nijjar, who emigrated from India, has lived two decades in British Columbia. India condemns the allegation, calling it absurd. New Delhi accuses Ottawa of harboring Sikh separatists, describing them as terrorists and extremists. Each country has expelled the other's senior diplomats. Meanwhile, the U.S. has expressed concern about the allegations but has generally stayed pretty quiet.

Now to dig deeper on this, we've called on Milan Vaishnav, senior fellow and director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Now, before we talk about the Biden administration's place in the story, let's get a broader picture here. How large is the community of Sikhs of Indian descent outside of India?

MILAN VAISHNAV: Well, we have about 23 million Sikhs inside of India and about 3 million outside, of which around 800,000 or so reside in Canada. So it is a small but pretty significant minority in Canada, specifically because it's concentrated in certain pockets of the country. So come election time, the Sikh vote is something that all parties across the political spectrum in Canada really seek to mobilize.

MARTÍNEZ: What about how active is the Sikh independence movement within India - the movement for an ethno-religious Sikh state?

VAISHNAV: Well, today, there are really only limited pockets of support for a sovereign Sikh state within India. Of course, India has had a period of significant insurgency in the state of Punjab, which is the North Indian state that is home to the majority of the country's Sikhs. This gained steam in the 1980s, but really ended in the 1990s. But it's important to point out that this idea still retains significant traction among elements of the diaspora in places like Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, where there are large concentration of Sikh immigrants.

MARTÍNEZ: And what's the tone of the Modi government's relationship with India's Sikhs?

VAISHNAV: Well, you know, I would say that it's a mixed bag. There have been - there's been a real uptick in tensions between the community. You may recall that a few years ago, there were very large farmers' protests that really emerged from the northern states of Haryana and Punjab, again, where there is a very large Sikh population. In an effort to put down those protests, many affiliated with Prime Minister Modi's party and his government use pretty harsh language, describing the Sikhs as anti-nationals, as anti-India, as anti-Hindu. And that certainly raised the volume on tensions between two communities that really, for the vast majority of the last 75 years since India gained independence, have lived and coexisted peacefully.

MARTÍNEZ: So just how important then is the Sikh community for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as a political constituency?

VAISHNAV: So I think it's quite important. You know, Prime Minister Trudeau likes to boast when he meets Prime Minister Modi that he has more Sikhs in his cabinet then Prime Minister Modi does. There are many quite vocal Sikh community organizations, religious groups, gurdwaras, or Sikh temples, that are active not just in politics, but also in, you know, the civic life. And so this is something that is going to be an animated political issue in Canada, undoubtedly. But it's also really soured tensions between these two governments.

MARTÍNEZ: And I mentioned how the Biden administration has stayed pretty much quiet on this. What have you gleaned from their particular position on this, and why do you think it's been so silent?

VAISHNAV: Well, look; the United States is in a very sticky spot. You know, the administration has gone to extraordinary lengths to consolidate a strategic partnership with India. They view India as a vital democratic counterbalance to a rising China. You know, now the White House finds itself needing to walk a fine line between demonstrating solidarity with a major NATO ally, which is Canada, while not alienating one of its most valuable strategic partners, India. So the U.S. has cautiously acknowledged Canada's concerns but refrain from any direct criticism of India.

MARTÍNEZ: Milan Vaishnav directs the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Thanks.

VAISHNAV: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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