Saturday, March 2

Canada assassination claim sparks rare consensus in India’s polarised politics and media | India

When Justin Trudeau stood up in Canadian parliament last week to announce there were “credible allegations” that agents linked to the Indian government had been involved in the assassination of a Sikh activist in a suburb of Vancouver, it sent reverberations across the world.

Countries from the US to the UK expressed concern at the allegations, urging India to cooperate with the investigation. Inside India, the response was defiant. The government called the allegations “absurd” and politically motivated and attempted to turn the tables, accusing Canada of being a rogue state that is a “safe haven for terrorists”.

It was a mood of obstinance that has since echoed across Indian media and politics, even as more details have emerged of the allegedly incriminating intelligence that led to Trudeau taking the unusual step of going public with the allegations.

An array of politicians – of the governing BJP and the opposition – as well as news anchors, political commentators and former ambassadors have pushed an unusually unified narrative across Indian media that Trudeau is making the allegations for political gain and to disguise his own failings and that Canada is harbouring dozens of dangerous violent militants associated with the separatist Khalistani movement.

“PM Justin Trudeau has made these absurd and malicious charges only to cater to his domestic political compulsions,” said the Punjab BJP president, Sunil Jakhar, while former diplomat Rajiv Dogra said that “Justin Trudeau has been in trouble for some time now … he has been trying to divert domestic attention to other issues”.

The attacks have also been highly personal against the Canadian prime minister. Deepak Vohra, a former Indian ambassador to Sudan, made an entirely unsubstantiated allegation to a popular Indian news network earlier this week that the reason that Trudeau’s plane was grounded in India for two days after the G20 summit was not due to technical issues but because drugs were found.

A member of United Hindu Front organisation holds up a banner condemning Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau. Photograph: Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images

Vohra’s only source for the information appeared to be rumours and his wife, who had apparently seen the Canadian prime minister “depressed and stressed” in Delhi airport, but that was enough for it to be presented as news on Zee network.

Unusually, opposition politicians and leaders have also leapt to the government’s defence, creating a rare consensus in India’s otherwise highly polarised politics. “Our country’s fight against terrorism has to be uncompromising, especially when terrorism threatens India’s sovereignty, unity and integrity,” said Jairam Ramesh, a spokesperson for the Congress party.

Meanwhile Ravneet Bittu, a Congress MP, alleged that Trudeau’s party was funded by elements who are “involved in the drug trade”.

Anti-western sentiment

The attempts to discredit Trudeau and Canada have also been evident across Indian media. A show called #TrudeauBacksTerror aired on the inflammatory rightwing channel Republic TV, accusing Canada of condoning anti-India terrorist activity, while news site NDTV – owned by a businessman with close ties to the government – ran a column describing Canada as a country “of rising drug addiction and a slew of highly concerning medical policies, including medical assistance in dying”. Another newspaper wrote of “Gangland Canada: Trudeau’s back yard global hub of eight Indian crime lords”.

“The problem is Canadistan” ran the headline on a Times of India article written by former government adviser Brahma Chellaney, who alleged that “without curbing its Khalistani militancy, Canada could one day become the Pakistan of the west”.

Following India’s presidency of G20 this year and the recent leaders’ summit held in Delhi, Indian media had been awash with coverage about prime minister Narendra Modi’s growing alliances with western powers. Yet Trudeau’s accusations have also prompted a sharp pivot and this week the pages were heavy with anti-western sentiment and allegations of hypocrisy by countries such as the US.

“They are so quick to judge other countries, so blind to their own,” said Congress MP Shashi Tharoor. “Hello? The two foremost practitioners of extraterritorial assassinations in the last 25 years have been Israel and the US. Any mirrors available in the west?”

The rare cross-party solidarity and nationalist fervour stirred up by the incident raise the possibility that Modi could try to capitalise further on the Khalistan issue – a banned separatist movement that fights for an independent Sikh state in India – in the upcoming election in 2024, when he will be seeking a third term. In the two previous elections, Modi successfully used national security issues and retaliatory action against Pakistan to project himself as a strong leader, and some analysts say he could use similar rhetoric and actions against supposed Khalistanis, on which the opposition will be unable to challenge him.

“If the allegations are true, it is unlikely this was the primary motive,” said Walter Ladwig, a senior lecturer in international relations at King’s College London. “But the fact is that this can be exploited for domestic political gain.”



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