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When allies go rogue

On September 18, Canadian PM Justin Trudeau stood before his parliament and made an astounding declaration – that the Indian government had been involved in the extrajudicial killing on Canadian soil of a Canadian citizen of Indian-Sikh descent. The murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar had taken place in June in Vancouver, Canada.

It is rare for a democracy to accuse another democracy of engaging in seriously unlawful acts such as extrajudicial and extraterritorial killing. Media reports and discussions since then have presented a wide range of perspectives. From “Trudeau facing cold reality alone”, as in a BBC opinion piece, to “India is testing America’s friendship” by The Economist, many have commented on the muted response to the accusation by the US and the UK, such as their statements of ‘grave concern.’

The fact is that extrajudicial and extraterritorial killings by democracies is not a new phenomenon. Back in 1988 Al-Wazir, a member of the Palestinian parliament in exile in Tunis was killed in his home by Israeli agents. This was written off as an act of ‘Israel’s right to self-defence’, even if such an assertion about this specific killing in Tunis stretched credulity.

The US government itself has engaged in acts of extrajudicial killing during much of the post 9-11 period. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of civilian victims of US drone attacks in the tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan remain unnamed and designated as collateral damage.

Perhaps even more disturbing was the US drone killing in Yemen of Anwar Al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, both US citizens. Anwar Al-Awlaki was engaged in spreading hate and urging violence against the US. It is not clear why these American citizens – father and son – could not have been brought back to the US to stand trial for their alleged crimes.

There have also been instances of Russian dissidents and defectors being killed in Europe by Russian government agents. Such killings are usually designated as acts by undemocratic, rogue states.

All of this brings into sharp focus the unique circumstances of the killing of Mr Nijjar in Canada. PM Trudeau has made the accusation based on “credible allegations”. It has also been reported that the accusations were made based on intelligence provided to Canada by US intelligence. If so, one can only say the plot thickens.

These accusations against the Indian government come at a time when friendship with India is being courted by many of the most prominent countries in the West. India has in recent months ‘been called America’s new best friend.’ PM Modi was the guest of honour in this year’s Bastille Day parade in Paris.

Many reasons are given for the pursuit of relations with India. India is seen as a counterweight to the rising influence of China, despite the large difference in the size and clout of the two economies. It is also one of the fastest growing large economies with much business potential.

In speaking about India, Western leaders often refer to it as a country with ‘our shared democratic values’, even though democracy watchers such as V-Dem of Sweden have been documenting India’s serious slide away from basic democratic institutions such as a free, independent press and judiciary. The reasons behind the attractiveness to the West of close relations with India are complex. Commenting on the Canada-India affair, BBC opinion columnist Holly Hendrick may have articulated it the best – she wrote on Sept 25 that “the decisive stuff is all force, power and money”.

How exactly the Western powers choose to deal with this episode, assuming incontrovertible evidence is presented in due course of time, will determine how India moves forward to take its position as an influential player in the world. And, how much more Mr Modi feels he can get away with.

In some ways this presents a true challenge to Western democracies, particularly the US, that routinely lecture the world on the supremacy of democratic values and respect for human rights. Many egregious violations of minority rights and even violence against religious minorities under the watch of the ruling BJP in India have been glossed over in pursuit of other larger goals. Should this happen again it would be a serious step back in the efforts to establish a rules-based order at least in the democracies of the world.

S Qaisar Shareef, "When allies go rogue," The News. 2023-09-28.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Extraterritorial killings , Democratic , Parliament , PM Modi , PM Justin Trudeau , Canada , India , BBC