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Monday, January 18, 2021

6 reasons why India-Canada relations have struggled for ages

India-Canada relations have struggled to prosper for ages. This is despite the two countries sharing various complementarities such as their democratic character and association in the Commonwealth. Read on to know more.

There is no end in sight for the farmers’ protests so far. And this protest may decide the future of India-Canada relations. Talks between farmers’ organisations and the government failed to make any headway till date. The government is seeking more time to come out with a concrete proposal. The farmer leaders, on their part, went on maun vrat (vow of silence) demanding a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer from the government on the repeal of the three laws. The next round of talks will be held on December 9. It is just a day after the Bharat Bandh call on December 8, by farmer organisations and backed by trade unions and independent federations.

India-Canada relations: The background

Amid such a scenario, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau repeated his support for the right of farmers in India to hold peaceful protests hours. On Friday, the government summoned the country’s High Commissioner to express its displeasure at his original remarks. “Canada will always stand up for the right of peaceful protests anywhere around the world. And we are pleased to see moves towards de-escalation and dialogue,” he told reporters in Ottawa. The reply came after a question about India’s warning that he could damage ties between the two countries. When pressed further about whether he was worried about the consequences, Trudeau coolly reiterated the first line of his statement.

India-Canada relations have struggled to prosper for ages. This is despite the two countries sharing various complementarities such as their democratic character and association in the Commonwealth. In this article, we shall look into the major roadblocks of the Indo-Canadian relationship.

6 reasons why India-Canada relations have struggled for ages despite their promises

1. Political differences since Cold War times

This episode has its roots in long back history. During the Cold War period, the personal equation between Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his Canadian counterparts, Louis St Laurent and later Lester Pearson, helped develop some strategic understanding between the two sides. During this period, India became the largest recipient of Canadian external assistance. Under the Colombo Plan, Canada provided grants to India’s civil nuclear programme. Canada believed it would highlight the importance of the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Moreover, Canada’s assistance was aimed at furthering bilateral cooperation by encouraging mutually beneficial research and industrial activities in both countries. However, Canada’s status as a founding member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was at odds with India’s Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) membership and its aim to maintain strategic neutrality between the two Cold War blocs.

2. India-Canada conflicting ideologies have a long history

The conflicts between India and Canada first emerged in 1948 when Canada supported a plebiscite, followed by a ceasefire, in the Indian state of Kashmir, a position that was antithetical to India’s interests. Differences over other issues of international importance further deepened the gulf between India and Canada. John Diefenbaker’s Conservative Party-led government in Canada was considered to be closer to Pakistan under the leadership of Ayub Khan than to India.

Moreover, while Canada was sympathetic to the US position on Vietnam in the International Control Commission established by the Geneva Conference in 1954, India was more sensitive to the interests of the Communist bloc. India’s commitment to the NAM—a key feature of its foreign policy during the Cold War—therefore, did hinder New Delhi from envisioning greater relations with Canada. Canadian security interests were anchored with those of the US; its strategic objectives aligned closely to the US’. Thus, despite considerable opportunity in areas of trade and people-to-people ties, Canada could not foster closer relations with India owing to the latter’s non-aligned status, which limited its outreach towards the Western bloc countries. India-Canada relations have always suffered setbacks over Cold War policies.

3. Canada always criticized India’s human rights violation issues

In 1995, Ottawa released its “Focus India” document, identifying India as “an emerging economic power.” Thereafter, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien visited Delhi in 1996, with a business delegation of 300 people from 204 companies. This was a significant indicator of Canada’s sincere interest to engage the economic dimension of its ties with India. During the visit, 75 agreements were signed, amounting to US$3.4 billion. However, in the absence of any follow-up visits from New Delhi, Canada struggled for a prominent place in India’s foreign policy

Despite some progress on the economic front, Canada’s bureaucratic view on India’s nuclear weapons, combined with an increasingly sophisticated political constituency, greatly hindered the growth of their bilateral relationship. At the same time, India’s desire to preserve its strategic autonomy in the bilateral relationship allowed China to gain traction in Asian trade. Consequently, Canada began to prioritise economic engagement with China over India.

Over the years, Ottawa’s restricted understanding of India’s worldview and diplomacy has obstructed the development of deeper ties. In its dealings with India, Canada has placed greater emphasis on issues of human rights and democratic values. During his visit to India, PM Chrétien was critical of the Indian policy on child labour; his statements attracted criticism from the Indian media. In 2002, following the Gujarat riots, Canada officially suspended relations with the state. New Delhi’s benign neglect of Canada thus partly stems from Ottawa’s lack of concern for Indian sensitivities. The two sides became further estranged under the leadership of Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy, who pursued the ‘human security’ agenda while in office from January 1996 to September 2000.

4. The famous Khalistani bone of contention of India-Canada relations

In the 1980s, India’s relevance in Canada’s foreign policy rose as Punjab accounted for a significant number of immigrants to Canada, a dynamic that was encouraged by the Liberal government policy to make family reunification the basis for immigration. However, India soon expressed concerns regarding the activities of Khalistan sympathizers in Canada, who espoused Punjab’s secession from India. This again created tension in the bilateral ties, which reached one of its lowest ebbs in 1985, when Sikh extremists blew up Air India Flight 182 as it left Vancouver airport for India, killing all 329 passengers. Canadian agencies faced the accusation of negligence and for causing significant delays in the investigation. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) faced the blame for not actively pursuing the case and filing missing reports.

Activities of a section of the Canadian Sikh diaspora population that espouses the Khalistan sentiments have contributed greatly to the India–Canada rift. India has shared its concerns with Canada on several occasions. It had protested the opening of the offices of Akali-Dal- a prominent political party in Punjab, in Canadian cities such as Vancouver, Ottawa, and Toronto. New Delhi also criticised the laxity of Canadian agencies in investigating the bombing of the Air India Flight 182 as well as the trend of leading political figures frequently attending events where pro-Khalistan sentiments are espoused. During a joint press conference with Trudeau, Modi indicated India’s displeasure regarding Ottawa’s attitude in dealing with the Khalistan sympathisers by categorically stating that India will not tolerate any attempt to undermine its sovereignty and unity.

5. India’s nuclear tests broke trust

In 1974, foreign-policy mandarins in Ottawa became infuriated when India carried out nuclear tests. They suspected that these tests were carried out using the Canadian CIRUS reactor. This had a major impact on the Indo-Canadian relations. The trust between both countries suffered a major challenge following India’s initiatives. Out of three research reactors India had, only the Canadian-designed and cooperatively built CIRUS provided for plutonium, a prerequisite for developing nuclear bombs. Up until then, Canada had believed that New Delhi shared its ideological opposition to the development of nuclear weapons. The Indian nuclear tests challenged this notion, making Canada reassess its perception of Asia’s emerging strategic dynamics.

India subsequently conducted nuclear tests in Pokhran, Rajasthan in 1998. A range of domestic and external incentives such as the emerging consensus between India’s political elites and the scientific community; the security threat posed by China, in light of the 1962 Sino-Indian war; and China’s nuclear tests in Lop Nor drove the move. In the aftermath of the nuclear tests, India’s relations with Canada, and indeed much of the West, deteriorated.

Canada viewed the Pokhran event as an act of betrayal by India. Policymakers in Ottawa were concerned that Indian nuclear tests would motivate other non-nuclear states to pursue similar capabilities. Consequently, Canada suspended tentative nuclear cooperation with India. Then Foreign Minister Mitchell Sharp lamented that the “trust between the two countries was gone.”

6. China, a constant competition

India never enjoyed the status that China has with Canada. In the background of emerging structural realities such as China’s growing political and economic clout in its neighborhood, Ottawa has always sought a stable balance of power in Asia and supports “freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific.” But Canada refrains from taking a critical view of China. This is partly due to its expansive trade relations with Beijing. While Canada has engaged with China on issues ranging from extradition, free trade and cyber-security cooperation, it does not accord the same treatment to its relations with India. China plays a significant role in informing Canada’s economic policies. However, this has not prevented Ottawa from including India in its economic strategy for Asia.

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