The killing of a Sikh separatist has set off a quickly escalating battle between two major allies of the United States.
First came the stunning allegation from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada on Monday that “agents of the Indian government” were involved in the assassination of the Sikh separatist, a Canadian citizen, on Canadian soil.
That was followed by vehement denials from India and allegations that Canada is a haven for terrorists, as both countries expelled diplomats.
The allegation about the killing, which shocked and angered Canadians, came after President Biden has spent much of the past few months courting Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, seeking to draw him closer to the American orbit at a time when India has refused to break with Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. India is seen as perhaps the most important of the so-called global south states that the United States is wooing in its geopolitical contests with Moscow and Beijing.
The rift between Canada and India now leaves Mr. Biden in an awkward position and may set back India’s efforts to become a force in global relations.
“If this was an operation sponsored by the Indian government, it certainly doesn’t help them to have come to light at a moment when they’re trying to position themselves as a kind of fulcrum in international affairs,” said Roland Paris, a professor at the University of Ottawa and a former foreign policy adviser to Mr. Trudeau. “Many Canadians will be looking to Canada’s closest partners to express the kind of outrage that many Canadians feel if, in fact, this murder was perpetrated by the Indian government.”
Mr. Biden did not mention the killing during his address to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday. A State Department official said on Tuesday that the United States has been in close contact with Canada.
“We’re quite concerned about the allegations,” the official said during a briefing at the United Nations. “We think it’s important there is a full and open investigation and we would urge the Indian government to cooperate.”
As he headed into a cabinet meeting on Tuesday morning before flying to New York for the General Assembly, Mr. Trudeau rejected India’s denial and again called on it to take his assassination allegation seriously.
“We are not looking to provoke or escalate,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa. “We are simply laying out the facts as we understand them, and we want to work with the government of India.”
As on Monday, when he first made his allegation in the House of Commons, the prime minister offered no details to support his charge that India was behind the shooting in June of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh separatist leader, near a Sikh temple in suburban Vancouver, British Columbia. He has only cited “credible allegations,” which he said have been pursued by Canada’s security agencies for several weeks.
A Canadian government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information, said the intelligence had been gathered by multiple countries. Canada is a member of the so-called Five Eyes, an intelligence alliance that includes the United States, Britain and Australia. The Canadian security agencies, noting the continuing police investigation into the killing and the need to protect intelligence gathering methods, have declined to offer any more details.
The official said it is likely the intelligence will be made public when the investigations are complete. The government decided, the official said, to reveal the extraordinary allegation on Monday, Parliament’s first day back from its summer break, because of inquiries from journalists.
Once investigations are complete, the official said, it is likely that the specific findings behind Canada’s charge will be revealed.
India has long claimed that Canada is harboring Sikh terrorists plotting from abroad to fracture the Indian state by providing funding and working to create a separate Sikh nation called Khalistan that would include portions of India’s Punjab region.
Mr. Nijjar was active in that independence movement, and his participation featured prominently in India’s adamant denial of involvement in his killing.
As the foreign ministry of India said in a statement that it rejected “any attempts to connect the government of India” to Mr. Nijjar’s killing, it took the opportunity to admonish Canada, accusing it of sheltering “extremists and terrorists” who “continue to threaten India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Mr. Nijjar had been a key organizer in rallying community members in British Columbia to vote to establish Khalistan. The nonbinding vote, organized by a Washington, D.C.,-based nonprofit group called Sikhs For Justice, is being held in multiple cities around the world.
“I am a Sikh nationalist who believes in and supports Sikhs’ right to self-determination and independence of Indian occupied Punjab through a future referendum,” Mr. Nijjar wrote in an open letter in 2016.
Sikhs For Justice has collected about 1.1 million ballots since it launched the voting campaign in 2021, said Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, its founder.
Mr. Pannun said that he spoke to Mr. Nijjar the day before he was killed. In Mr. Nijiar’s last speech at the temple, on the night of his murder, he urged its members to turn out at the vote on Sept. 10, Mr. Pannun said.
According to Mr. Pannun, Mr. Nijjar said: “I’m not sure if I’ll be alive by that time this voting happens, but I want the community to make sure that they vote.’”
Mr. Pannun said Mr. Nijjar had told him that he was warned by authorities in July 2022 and twice this past spring and that there was a threat to his life. They advised that he relocate and avoid being at the temple, he said.
Mr. Biden’s efforts to bring India closer to the United States have been extensive. He welcomed Mr. Modi to the White House in June with a pomp-filled ceremony on the South Lawn followed by a lavish state dinner. He then traveled earlier this month to New Delhi to attend a Group of 20 international summit meeting that was framed by the Indian prime minister as an important validation of his leadership in advance of coming elections.
Through all of it, Mr. Biden has soft-pedaled any criticism of the increasing suppression of minority groups and opposition voices in India and the encouragement of Hindu nationalism under Mr. Modi. Mr. Biden insisted both in June and this month that he had raised human rights with Mr. Modi in private, but devoted only a passing reference to it in public appearances.
Mr. Trudeau’s strong public statements and demands for India’s cooperation in the investigation may deflect criticism that his government failed to deal decisively with allegations of Chinese interference in Canadian politics and elections. Following a series of intelligence leaks to two news outlets on a scale rarely seen in Canada, a public inquiry into foreign influence began on Monday. While initially focused on China and Russia, the inquiry’s mandate will allow it to review India’s action.
Professor Paris said the allegations of India’s involvement in a political killing had created a sense of outrage throughout Canada.
“It’s a stunning and appalling set of allegations,” Professor Paris said. “If it’s true that India was behind this killing, then it represents the most offensive and appalling form of political interference in a democracy that would parallel the behavior of some of the worst authoritarian leaders in the world.”
On Tuesday morning in Surrey, British Columbia, people came to offer prayers and join in a meal service offered at the temple where Mr. Nijjar was president.
The previous evening outside the temple, Mr. Nijjar’s son, Balraj Singh Nijjar, said his father’s death remained a fresh wound for his family.
“He had even called home like five minutes before it happened to get dinner ready,” his son said, speaking to reporters. “It was kind of a big shock.”
Mihika Agarwal contributed reporting from Surrey, British Columbia.