The murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar in a suburb of Vancouver has caused a nervous breakdown in Indo-Canadian relations. Justin Trudeau’s very public suggestion that the Indian State was complicit in his murder and the ministry of external affairs’ counter-advisory, designating Canada as a country that harboured people guilty of committing, celebrating and planning hate crimes, feels like an inflection point in Indian geopolitics. It’s either a transition from passive neutralism to virile self-assertion or a slide from rules-based diplomacy into rogue State vigilantism. Depending on your point of view, India is either the new Israel or Putin’s Russia.
Indian responses to Trudeau’s allegations have ranged from furious official denial to online trolls celebrating this new willingness to take out India’s enemies. Shashi Tharoor spoke for many when he called out Western hypocrisy on targeted assassinations. Israel and the United States of America are notorious for their readiness to kill their enemies abroad using covert teams and lethal, remote-controlled weaponry. The Anglosphere’s lack of self-consciousness in this matter is embedded in its founding assumption: due process is wasted on lesser breeds without the law. To disrupt the rule of law in sovereign, orderly Western nations, however, is outrageous and rogue State actors must be called to account.
The realpolitik question — whether this allegation will cause any collateral damage to India’s geopolitical standing — has been repeatedly answered. The consensus early on was that this quarrel was a passing storm that would make no appreciable difference to efforts by Western nations to cosy up to India in their bid to contain China. This was a view shared by Indian ‘realists’ and their Western counterparts. An opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal concluded that “Canada will back down. The only way for India to save face — which has to happen to safeguard the free world’s anti-China alliance — is for Canada to lose some.”
This hasn’t happened yet. Instead, the suspicion has grown that Canada’s intelligence was supplied to it by its Five Eyes partners, either the United Kingdom or, more likely, the US. The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has made it clear that he expects India to cooperate with Canada’s investigation and the National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, has made it clear that there would be no special exemptions for any country for “actions like these” and that the US would like to “… get to the bottom of exactly what happened.” The latest statement from S. Jaishankar on this issue was less than a categorical denial. “One, we told the Canadians that this is not the government of India’s policy,” he said. “Two, we told the Canadians that look, if you have something specific, if you have something relevant, you know, let us know — we are open to looking at it.”
The realists may yet be borne out, but this polite, publicly-voiced scepticism about India’s denials and the insistence that India engage with Canadian investigators is not the position that India’s Establishment expected to find itself in in the afterglow of the G20 Summit. The transition from the ‘Mother of Democracy’ to ‘Mujrim of the Month’ is not a foreign policy coup. How did we get here?
Joe Biden fist-bumped Mohammed bin Salman, a despot who, Western intelligence believed, had ordered the extra-judicial murder and the dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, then a columnist with The Washington Post. Why would he be more fastidious about the killing of Nijjar, given that the circumstances of his death were not explicitly established?
There are several answers to this question. The first is that the US response to Canada’s complaints is no more than the performative concern owed to a close ally. After a decent interval, the American foreign policy Establishment is likely to move past this bump in the road in the same way as Biden’s indignation in the immediate aftermath of Khashoggi’s murder gave way to a pragmatic acknowledgment of Saudi Arabia’s geostrategic importance. This lies in the future and remains to be seen, but it’s worth noting that keeping company with a rogue Establishment led by a murderous despot cannot be a foreign policy goal.
The second explanation for this seeming inconsistency goes back to an earlier point; it is one thing to kill an enemy of the State in Turkey, an illiberal Eurasian Muslim country, quite another to do the same thing in Canada, a Western liberal democracy. The first is explained away as barbarism in its natural context, the second is unforgivable because it signals the export of lawlessness to an evolved realm secured by the rule of law.
This is a plausible explanation which doesn’t do justice to the bond between Canada and its Five Eyes fellows. There is a reason why this intelligence gathering alliance consists exclusively of countries that make up the white, English-speaking world. This is the Anglosphere, less a strategic alliance than a historical and cultural communion, the embodiment of Churchill’s “English-speaking peoples”.
The relationship among Canada, the US, Britain, New Zealand and Australia is familial, not geopolitical. This sense of kinship allows Biden to invent a Pacific alliance with Britain and Australia, AUKUS, at the expense of France, which besides being a close ally has some claim to being a Pacific power, thanks to its overseas territories. It allows Britain, with Biden’s blessing, to steal a contract to supply submarines to Australia originally awarded to France. It allows Australia to deceive France with virtually no consequences because it has the protection of the US, the karta or doer of the Anglo Undivided Family.
The Anglosphere is not a communion of equals. The US runs it and expects the others to follow its strategic lead. Canada, for example, arrested Huawei’s CFO and heiress, Meng Wanzhou, at America’s bidding and suffered for it as China took Canadian hostages in retaliation. The quid pro quo, though, is that in a spat like the one about Nijjar’s murder, the US will likely take Canada’s part even if it involves costs that exceed ‘realist’ accounting.
If the Indian State did covertly assassinate Nijjar and then rebuffed Canadian attempts to sort things out discreetly, it made a diplomatic mistake because Justin Trudeau might be a political lightweight, but Canada’s membership of the Anglosphere allows it to punch above its weight. No serious observer of the Punjab has written of the resurgence of Khalistani separatism; the controversy has, however, allowed Canadian advocates of Khalistan to defend their cause in the language of self-determination and present themselves as victims of extraterritorial violence.
If the Indian State didn’t order the assassination, it beggars belief that India’s external affairs minister is reduced to saying “... if you have something specific, if you have something relevant, you know, let us know — we are open to looking at it.” Would-be wolf warriors can’t sound like cautious Clouseau. If l’affaire Nijjar is remembered as an inflection point in Indian diplomacy, we must hope that it wasn’t the kind where the curve turned sharply downward.