Trudeau says he’s sensed a ‘tonal shift’ from India since U.S. reported alleged murder plot


Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he believes India’s relations with Canada may have undergone “a tonal shift” in the days since the unsealing of a U.S. indictment alleging a conspiracy to murder a Sikh activist on American soil.

The prime minister made the remarks in an end-of-year interview with the CBC’s Rosemary Barton.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government reacted with scorn and flat denials when Trudeau stated publicly in the House of Commons on September 18 that there was credible intelligence linking India to the June 18 shooting death of Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar outside a temple in Surrey, B.C.

Last month, a U.S. indictment alleging that Indian government agents were both the instigators and the financiers of a murder plot in New York City was unsealed. The indictment said that American authorities had thwarted an assassination plot linked to India in their own territory — one with ties to Nijjar and a scheme to kill Canadians.

Last week, Trudeau said he went public with the allegation after weeks of fruitless quiet diplomacy in order to “put a chill on India” and deter any Indian agents who might be thinking of carrying out further attacks on Canadian territory.

WATCH | India open to working with Canada to investigate alleged murder, Trudeau says:

India open to working with Canada to investigate alleged murder plot: Trudeau

In a year-end interview with CBC News chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says a U.S. indictment alleging multiple Indian assassination plots across North America has resulted in an ‘understanding that (India) can’t bluster their way through this.’ The high-profile killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar triggered a diplomatic rift between Canada and India.

A shift in India’s messaging

While Modi himself stayed above the fray, Indian government officials — including Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar — initially suggested that the Canadian government was making things up and had no evidence to back its allegations.

That tone softened somewhat when the Modi government saw other G7 countries — particularly the United States — line up behind Canada in the dispute.

The White House leaked the fact that U.S. President Joe Biden raised the issue directly with Modi during their bilateral meeting at the G20 summit in New Delhi, a week before Trudeau made his explosive allegation in the House.

Biden and Modi chatting closely, seated at a table
U.S. President Joe Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attend a White House meeting in June. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

The public didn’t know at the time that the U.S. was pursuing its own investigation of a plot to assassinate Sikh activist and U.S.-Canadian dual citizen Gurpatwant Singh Pannun.

The indictment alleges that Indian officials in New Delhi offered $100,000 to a drug dealer named Nikhil Gupta to hire a hitman to kill Pannun in New York.

The indictment says that U.S. authorities have intercepted phone conversations and video conferences between Gupta and officials in New Delhi in which they discussed the Pannun plot and, at one point, debated tasking Gupta with the Nijjar hit.

The indictment says that, within hours of Nijjar’s murder, an Indian government contact texted Gupta a photo from the crime scene and told him he could stand down.

India more open to ‘collaborating,’ Trudeau says

The U.S. indictment appears to have convinced the Modi government to adopt a more sober tone, said Trudeau.

“I think there is a beginning of an understanding that they can’t bluster their way through this and there is an openness to collaborating in a way that perhaps they were less open before,” he told Barton.

“There’s an understanding that maybe, maybe just churning out attacks against Canada isn’t going to make this problem go away.”

The U.S. indictment is much more detailed than Canada’s allegation, and lays more of its evidence on the table — reflecting the fact that the U.S. criminal investigation is at a more advanced stage.

But the main difference as far as India is concerned may be simply that the U.S. is a much more powerful country than Canada — and tensions with Washington have more potential to do harm to India and the Modi government.

A sign bearing the words, 'India attacked Canada's sovereignty.'
A person holds a sign during a protest outside the Indian consulate in Vancouver on Sept. 25, 2023, after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said there were ‘credible allegations’ linking India to the June killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar on Canadian soil. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

The U.S. has continued to show concern about the alleged murder-for-hire plot, which was a topic of conversation between the two countries again last week when FBI Director Christopher Wray visited New Delhi.

On November 29, India’s Ministry for External Affairs announced that it had set up a high-level commission of inquiry to look into the Pannun case. A spokesperson claimed the commission had begun its work on November 18.

Although both the U.S. and Canada have focused their messages to India on the need to investigate, officials in both countries say privately that they do not believe the Modi government was really unaware of the alleged assassination — which bears the hallmarks of a state-directed operation and does not appear to be the work of rogue agents. 

At the end of last week, the Biden administration gave a confidential briefing to the “Samosa caucus,” a group of five influential Indian-American members of Congress. They emerged from that briefing to issue a warning to the government of India.

“We believe the U.S.–India partnership has made a meaningful impact on the lives of both of our people,” said the five Democrats. “But we are concerned that the actions outlined in the indictment could, if not appropriately addressed, cause significant damage to this very consequential partnership.”

Trudeau had a similar message for India in his CBC year-end interview.

“We don’t want to be in a situation of having a fight with India right now over this,” he said. “We want to be working on that trade deal. We want to be advancing the Indo-Pacific strategy. But it is foundational for Canada to stand up for people’s rights, for people’s safety, and for the rule of law. And that’s what we’re going to do.”

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