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The Indian dilemma for America and its allies

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No western government wants a clash with India. The country is seen as the market of the future and an essential counterweight to China. From Washington to Canberra and from Tokyo to London, Narendra Modi’s India is hailed as an important partner. But the allegations that India may have sponsored the killing of a Sikh leader on Canadian soil should not be swept under the carpet.

The first thing that needs to be established is what happened. Only then should the appropriate action be considered. Indian allegations that Canada and the UK have been too soft on Sikh separatists also deserve a hearing as part of this process.

The dilemma has come to the fore since last Monday, when Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau said Canadian intelligence had “credible allegations” that Indian agents were involved in assassinating a Sikh separatist in Vancouver in June. India has dismissed the allegations as “absurd”. It has subsequently emerged that US president Joe Biden and other western leaders privately aired concerns about these claims with Modi, India’s prime minister, at the G20 summit this month. If the allegations are confirmed, they will underline the price if not moral jeopardy of America’s and its allies’ approach of recent years in playing down questions about Modi’s record.

For nearly a decade the Hindu nationalist leader was barred from having a US visa for “severe violations of religious freedom” — a reference to his alleged failure to stop communal violence when he was chief minister of Gujarat. But since he took office nine years ago he has been increasingly warmly embraced; earlier this year he had red-carpet receptions in Paris and Washington. Modi is seen as a vital Asian ally at a time when Washington and Beijing are estranged. In recent years, any western misgivings have been kept under wraps. But, as one wise western policymaker has observed, if you turn a blind eye to something you are setting yourself up for a nasty surprise.

It will be tempting for western diplomats to argue that the best approach will be to limit their response to general statements of disquiet. Their contention will be that a workable relationship with Modi’s government is of paramount importance and that even if Indian complicity in the June killing is confirmed, after a year or so of a slight cooling in official language — ideally without any state visits in either direction — normal service can resume.

Supporters of this stance will cite as an analogy the cycle of the relationship with Saudi Arabia after the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul in 2018. The details of Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi consulate were so clear and graphic that Washington was impelled to speak out and distance itself from its old ally Riyadh. This phase did not last long. Saudi Arabia is now being assiduously courted by western governments and investors almost as if nothing had happened.

This is an understandable argument given the geopolitical context. But if it is the case that the Indian government was involved in the killing, then for the west to pretend nothing has happened will only encourage New Delhi to think it can act with impunity. It will also reinforce the argument of Beijing and Moscow that the west is utterly hypocritical — a belief that has underpinned the indifference of much of the developing world to the west’s pleas for support for Ukraine.

Foreign policy can be a messy affair. But sometimes values have to take precedence. This is such a case. Due legal process must take its course. Canada should release all the evidence it has to back up its allegations — and resist the arguments of those who may suggest it would best be kept in the shadows. Then it will be up to western democracies to decide how to proceed.

Letter in response to this editorial:

West aligns with India’s cit­izenry, not with a party / From Amit A Pandya, Sil­ver Spring, MD, US

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