Canada’s accusation that India had a hand in the murder of a Sikh separatist in British Columbia has not only created a diplomatic crisis between India and Canada, but has far-reaching implications for both domestic and foreign policy in Australia.
For Canberra, the large geopolitical bet that it has made on India has been complicated (if it wasn’t already complex). Given New Delhi’s jealously guarded strategic autonomy, unique set of interests, and realignment of values under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the partnership with India was never going to be as intimate as with other Australian relationships. But the hope was that Australia and India have enough shared interests – especially concerning China – to at least be reasonably cooperative. Extrajudicial killings within friendly countries – if the accusation proves to be true – makes this far more difficult.
Australia has decided to try to balance its desire to forge stronger relations with India and its commitments to its Five Eyes partner, Canada, by not being drawn into the issue with any substantial rhetoric. On a deeper level, Canberra is also trying to balance the clash of perspectives between India and Western countries over the issue of Sikh separatism within the diaspora.
On India’s part, there is a failure to understand that those advocating for a separate Sikh state called Khalistan are able to do so freely in Western countries like Canada or Australia. This doesn’t mean that Ottawa and Canberra endorse the idea of Khalistan – they most certainly would not, recognizing that it would add an extra layer of complexity and potential instability to an area just south of Kashmir, where three nuclear powers have competing territorial claims. It simply means that citizens of these countries have the right to advocate for what they like, as long as they remain non-violent (a small number of Sikh separatist have used violence – the Air India bombing of 1985 being the most prominent example).
Yet, similarly there is a failure on the part of Western countries to take seriously India’s concerns over territorial integrity. The scars of Partition remain raw in India and the idea that the country could be further divided is a non-starter in New Delhi. India is also so internally complex – in a way that no other country is – that traction gained by one separatist movement could easily spark others. Countries like Australia and Canada need to develop a much greater awareness of the history and nature of India and be more sensitive to New Delhi’s perspective. There is an obvious tightrope to walk here of doing so while also protecting liberal democratic principles.
Australia is invested in this issue, not only due to its foreign policy priorities, but due to its own internal demography. Indian Australians have rapidly become the country’s second largest migrant group, and India is the largest current source of migrants. This migration is overwhelmingly a positive occurrence, bringing important new skills and connections to the country. Yet has also come with some complications due to the emotional pull that Indian domestic politics has within some of the diaspora.
Australia has seen conflict between Sikh groups and supporters of the BJP break out on the streets of Melbourne and Sydney, as well as the vandalism of temples with political slogans. Last week the Queensland police released documents that indicated they believe that vandalism of a Hindu temple in Brisbane with slogans calling Prime Minister Narendra Modi a terrorist, and a reference to the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom, was probably committed by elements looking to frame Sikh groups. These are actions Australian governments need to find ways to subdue.
Any form of instability between Indian diaspora groups threatens public support for Australia’s migration program – one of the central pillars of the country’s national strategy. The implicit bargain at the core of Australia’s migration program has been that culture is welcome, but conflict is not. The vast majority of migrant groups to Australia have understood this, but in an era where it is easy to remain engaged in the media and politics of your country of origin, commitment to this bargain can weaken.
The recent public vote on the issue of Khalistan conducted by the U.S-based organization Sikhs for Justice had a large turnout in Australia. These votes have no official endorsement and the results will have no influence inside India, but they are an irritant to New Delhi. The concern for Australia would be that even the perception of Indian involvement in the killing of a Khalistani separatist in Canada will inflame separatist passions within Australia, strengthening the movement, and making New Delhi more interested in Australian citizens.
Australia is heavily invested in both its relationship with India and the success of its Indian diaspora. The present state of Canada-India relations is something that Canberra is keen to avoid. The BJP’s Hindutva ideology does nothing to soothe communal tensions, yet for Canberra the party’s power is the reality it has to deal with. The best tool Australia may have is to provide an environment that strives for freedom from conflict and hope that people take up the offer. But in an era of heightened cultural passions, Australia’s culture of dispassion may be a weak hand to play.