Sikh separatism sinks Canada-India ties to lowest point in years

In this file photo, taken on September 10, 2023, Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (left) walks past Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as they take part in a wreath-laying ceremony at Raj Ghat, Mahatma Gandhi's cremation site, during the G20 Summit in New Delhi. (AP/File)
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Updated 20 September 2023

Sikh separatism sinks Canada-India ties to lowest point in years

  • Two countries are swapping allegations, expelling each other's diplomats over killing of a Sikh separatist leader
  • New Delhi’s anxieties about Sikh separatist groups in Canada have long been a strain on its relations with Ottawa

NEW DELHI: Canada-India relations have sunk to their lowest point in years as the two countries are swapping accusations and expelling each other's diplomats over the killing of a Sikh separatist leader. Experts said it remains to be seen if it will create a lasting rift between the two U.S. allies, but it's nonetheless an awkward situation for western countries seeking woo New Delhi as a counterweight to China and win his cooperation on the Ukraine war.

Five years ago, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau captured headlines in India for enthusiastically embracing the country's culture during a weeklong trip with his family. He donned a series of colorful, glittering traditional Indian suits, visited monuments and even received Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s signature bear hug — a sign that their relationship was on the up.

Those days seemed gone for good when Trudeau said Monday that his government is investigating “credible allegations” that India may have been tied to the killing of a Canadian Sikh independence activist in British Columbia in June. India rejected that as “absurd” Tuesday and accused Canadian diplomats of interfering in “internal matters.”

New Delhi’s anxieties about Sikh separatist groups in Canada have long been a strain on the relationship, but the two have maintained strong defense and trade ties, and share strategic interests over China’s global ambitions.

Signs of a diplomatic rift emerged at the G20 Summit hosted by India earlier this month.

Trudeau skipped the official dinner hosted for the G20 leaders and local media reports said he was dealt a snub when he got a quick “pull aside” meeting with Modi, instead of a sit-down bilateral meeting.

Modi raised concerns that Canada's government was soft on Sikh separatists, according to an Indian statement released at the time. Trudeau's trip ended with even more awkwardness when his plane broke down, forcing him to stay in New Delhi for some 36 hours longer than planned.

On Monday, Trudeau revealed a likely reason for the chill, saying he confronted the Indian prime minister at the summit with Canada's suspicions about an assassination.

Canada has yet to provide evidence of Indian involvement in the slaying of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a 45-year-old Sikh leader who was killed by masked gunmen in Surrey, British Columbia.

India, though, has accused Canada for years of giving free rein to Sikh separatists, including Nijjar who was a leader in what remains of a once-strong movement to create an independent Sikh homeland, known as Khalistan.

While the active insurgency ended decades ago, the Modi government has warned that Sikh separatists were trying to stage a comeback and pressed countries like Canada, where Sikhs make up more than 2% of the population, to do more in stopping them.

In June, India summoned Canada's highest diplomat to complain about a parade float seen in a small Canadian town that commemorated the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi at the height of the Sikh insurgency. In late 2020, it did the same to complain after Trudeau made sympathetic comments about protests by farmers from Punjab, where Sikhs are a majority.

The issue never dominated ties between the two countries, but some experts say that could change.

“While both don’t want a rupture in relations, they’re going to have trouble finding offramps after events of the last few days,” said Michael Kugelman, director of the Wilson Center’s South Asia Institute.

The tensions likely sparked Canada to recently halt talks with India on a new trade deal, a sign that “their relationship isn’t as resilient and foolproof as many would like it to be,” added Kugelman. The two countries are relatively minor trading partners, but proponents had argued that a trade deal could boost jobs and GDP for both.

The unsavory allegations could also hurt Modi's growing soft power in the west, Kugelman said, but values and morals don’t necessarily drive foreign relations.

“We’re not going to see the Western democracies try to remove India from their strategic calculus, especially in terms of countering China. The strategic convergences are too strong,” he added.

So far, allies like the United Kingdom and the United States have expressed concern about the killing, but have stopped short of commenting on India’s alleged role.

On Tuesday, Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong said Canada’s allegations were “concerning,” and that Canberra was monitoring developments and had raised the issue with India.

Some Indian experts said Modi’s confrontational response to the allegations reflects a pattern of hyping separatist threats to consolidate its Hindu nationalist base.

“It is unprecedented, but not entirely unexpected, because of the way this government has held its foreign policy hostage to domestic politics,” said Sushant Singh, a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in India.

Modi has sought to cast India as a rising global power, adept at juggling ties with developing countries and Russia on one hand, and the West on the other.

Singh said the incident will “put India under pressure and it will have to devote a lot of energy to contain that fallout.”

A number of Indian news sites and TV channels ran headlines like: “India trashes Canada’s big charge” or referred to India’s “savage reply” to Canada. Social media users criticized Trudeau for not taking India’s separatism concerns seriously.

Some Indian commentators have also been skeptical over the allegations, saying Trudeau didn’t offer hard evidence and suggested he was trying to appeal to Sikh constituencies for political points.

But to many other Indians, especially students, Canada is more relevant as an attractive destination overseas. In 2022, the country had nearly 300,000 Indians students pursuing higher education.

Prabhjit Singh, a 21-year-old student in New Delhi, said he hoped the strained ties don’t affect the dreams and careers of young Indians like him. “Many people from India go to Canada for study and work — I also want to go there for a better future. I hope peace prevails between the two countries,” he said.

G7 says will try to use frozen Russian assets to help Ukraine

Updated 3 sec ago

G7 says will try to use frozen Russian assets to help Ukraine

STRESA: he G7 will explore ways of using the future income from frozen Russian assets to help Ukraine, finance chiefs from the Group of Seven industrial democracies said on Saturday, according to a draft statement seen by Reuters.
The G7 froze some $300 billion of Russian assets shortly after Moscow invaded its neighbor in February 2022.
“We are making progress in our discussions on potential avenues to bring forward the extraordinary profits stemming from immobilized Russian sovereign assets to the benefit of Ukraine,” the draft statement said.
The statement will not undergo significant changes before a final version to be released later on Saturday, a G7 source said.

India’s massive election faces heatwave challenge in penultimate phase

Updated 3 min 16 sec ago

India’s massive election faces heatwave challenge in penultimate phase

  • Next-to-last phase of voting with temperatures forecast to surge to 47° Celsius in the capital New Delhi
  • More than 111 million people in 58 constituencies across eight states and federal territories are eligible to vote

NEW DELHI: Millions of Indians are voting Saturday in the next-to-last round of a grueling national election with a combined opposition trying to rattle Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign for a third-consecutive term for himself and his Hindu nationalist party.
Many people lined polling stations before the start of voting at 7 a.m. to avoid the blazing sun later in the day at the peak of Indian summer. The temperature soared to 43 Celsius (109.4 Fahrenheit) in the afternoon in the Indian capital.
Lakshmi Bansal, a housewife, said while the weather was hot, people usually went out to shop and even attend festivals is such heat.
“This (election) is also like a festival, so I don’t have a problem voting in the heat,” Bansal said.
Saturday’s voting in 58 constituencies, including seven in New Delhi, will complete polling for 89.5 percent of 543 seats in the lower house of Parliament.
The voting for the remaining 57 seats on June 1 will wrap up a six-week election. The votes will be counted on June 4.
President Droupadi Murmu and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar were among the early voters. Opposition Congress party leaders, Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul Gandhi, also voted in New Delhi.
Mehbooba Mufti, a former top elected official of Indian-controlled Kashmir, held a protest with her supporters Saturday claiming that scores of her party workers were detained by the police to prevent them from voting. Mufti, the chief of the People’s Democratic Party who is contesting the parliamentary election in the Anantnag-Rajouri district, said she complained to election officials.
In West Bengal state, workers belonging to the All India Trinamool Congress party, blocked the car of Agnimitra Paul, one of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party candidates, as she proceeded to vote in Medinipur constituency. The two parties are rivals in the state and their workers often clash on the streets.
This election is considered one of the most consequential in India’s history and will test Modi’s political dominance. If Modi wins, he’ll be only the second Indian leader to retain power for a third term, after Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first prime minister.
A less-than-expected voter turnout in the previous five rounds of voting seems to have left both sides guessing about the outcome of the election.
Election authorities said they are taking steps to ensure voters’ comfort, such as setting up fans and tents and providing drinking water.
Most polls predict a win for Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which is up against a broad opposition alliance led by the Indian National Congress and powerful regional parties.
Modi was involved in a highly acrimonious and mudslinging campaign with the opposition, led by Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family that has produced three prime ministers.
“When the polls began it felt like a one-horse race, with Modi leading from the front. But now we are seeing some kind of shift,” political analyst Rasheed Kidwai said. “The opposition is doing better than expected and it appears that Modi’s party is rattled. That’s the reason you see Modi ramping up anti-Muslim rhetoric to polarize voters.”
Kidwai said the opposition has challenged Modi by centering its campaign narrative on social justice and rising unemployment, making the contest closer than expected.
Modi ran his campaign like a presidential race, a referendum on his 10 years of rule. He claimed to help the poorest with charity, free health care, providing toilets in their homes, and helping women get free or cheap cooking gas cylinders.
But he changed tack after a poor turnout of voters in the first round of the election and began stirring Hindu nationalism by accusing the Congress party of pandering to minority Muslims for votes.
Hindus account for 80 percent, and Muslims nearly 14 percent, of India’s over 1.4 billion people.
Manish Bhatia, a New Delhi voter, said that “politics on the basis of caste and religion is dangerous for the country,” adding that voting should be based on how candidates perform.
Nearly 970 million voters — more than 10 percent of the world’s population — were eligible to elect 543 members to the lower house of Parliament for five years.
Voters’ relative apathy has surprised some political analysts. In the five rounds of polling the voter turnout ranged between 62.2 percent to 69.16 percent — averaging 65.9 percent. By comparison, India’s 2019 national election registered the highest-ever voter turnout — 67.11 percent. Modi’s BJP won 303 seats in parliament in 2019.
Modi’s inauguration of a massive Hindu temple for the most revered Lord Rama, his massive roadshows, and big public rallies raised the BJP’s hopes of a massive a surge of voters in its favor.
The current prim minister came to power in 2014, dislodging the Congress party that governed the country for nearly 55 years after India won independence from British colonialists in 1947.
Before the election, the opposition INDIA alliance was seen bickering, but it has since held together, particularly after two chief ministers of two opposition-controlled states were sent to jail on corruption charges. Both deny the accusations.
One of them — New Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal — has since been released on bail and returned to the campaign trail.
In March, Gandhi completed a 6,713-kilometer (4,171-mile) walk across the country, starting in the violence-hit northeastern state of Manipur, to raise awareness on issues of poverty, unemployment, and democracy with voters.
“The walk helped Gandhi boost his image as a serious politician among the voters, and that is helping the opposition,” Kidwai, the political anaylast, said.

Taiwan calls China’s military drills a ‘blatant provocation’ to world order

Updated 25 May 2024

Taiwan calls China’s military drills a ‘blatant provocation’ to world order

  • The drills were launched three days after Taiwan’s President Lai Ching-te took office
  • Exercises involved simulating strikes targeting the island’s leaders as well as its ports and airports

TAIPEI: China’s two-day military drills around Taiwan were a “blatant provocation to the international order,” Taipei said in a statement Saturday after the war games encircling the self-ruled island ended.
The drills were launched three days after Taiwan’s President Lai Ching-te took office and made an inauguration speech that China denounced as a “confession of independence.”
China, which claims Taiwan as part of its territory, regards Lai as a “dangerous separatist.”
By Friday evening, a presenter for state-run military news channel CCTV-7 said the Chinese army had “successfully completed” the operation dubbed “Joint Sword-2024A.”
In a statement, Lai’s presidential spokesperson Karen Kuo reiterated that ensuring peace and stability across the region was “related to the common interests of the international community.”
“However, China’s recent unilateral provocation not only undermines the status quo of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait but it is also a blatant provocation to the international order, triggering serious concern and condemnation from the international community,” she said.
Kuo added that Taiwan hopes “China will take the safety and happiness of the people on both sides into consideration, pursue mutual benefit, coexistence... stop all kinds of political and military intimidations on Taiwan and the region.”
Self-ruled Taiwan has its own democratically elected government, military and currency, but Beijing has said it would never renounce the potential use of force to bring the island under its control.
Chinese military analysts told state news agency Xinhua that the People’s Liberation Army vessels had inched “closer than ever before” to Taiwan’s shores during the two-day military drills.
The exercises involved simulating strikes targeting the island’s leaders as well as its ports and airports, they said.
In regards to China’s various military actions, Kuo said that “the president and the national security team have a full grasp of the situation” and called for the public to “rest assured.”

Utah man declined $100K offer to travel to Congo on ‘security job’ that was covert coup attempt

Updated 25 May 2024

Utah man declined $100K offer to travel to Congo on ‘security job’ that was covert coup attempt

  • American Daniel Gonzalez said one of his friends from West Jordan, Utah, was among the 6 killed last week during a foiled coup attempt in DR Congo
  • He said the offer was made by the son of coup leader Christian Malanga, who was killed by Congo security forces while resisting arrest

SALT LAKE CITY: The friend of a prominent Congolese opposition leader’s son said he turned down a six-figure offer to travel there from the US as part of the family’s security detail in what turned out to be a failed coup attempt.

Marcel Malanga, the 21-year-old son of eccentric coup leader Christian Malanga, was detained by Congolese forces Sunday morning, along with a former classmate from their hometown of West Jordan, Utah, after his father was killed in a shootout while resisting arrest. His high school football teammate, Tyler Thompson, 21, was one of two other Americans arrested after an ill-fated attack on the presidential palace in Kinshasa.
Six people were dead and dozens arrested, including the three Americans, following that attack and another on the residence of a close ally of President Felix Tshisekedi, the Congolese army spokesperson, Brig. Gen. Sylvain Ekenge, said.
Daniel Gonzalez, a former teammate of the two Utah residents caught up in the foiled coup, told The Associated Press that Marcel had offered him $50,000 to $100,000 to spend four months in Congo as a security guard for his politician father. The 22-year-old FedEx worker strongly considered it, but said it lacked concrete details. He ultimately declined so he could spend the summer with his girlfriend.
“I feel really sad for Tyler and Marcel but, at the end of the day, I can just be grateful that I didn’t go because I would be stuck in the same scary situation,” Gonzalez said.
Marcel’s lucrative offer to Gonzalez sheds light on how he might have enticed Thompson to come along on what his stepmother, Miranda, said was supposed to be a vacation.
It was one of many propositions the coup leader’s American son made to former football teammates in what many described as a desperate effort to bring someone with him to Congo. He pitched the trip to some as a family vacation and still to others as a service trip to build wells in drought-stricken communities.
Although it’s unclear whether Thompson was offered money, multiple teammates told the AP that he had alluded to such incentives, telling one friend that the trip could be a “big financial opportunity.”
Thompson’s family insists he’s a political pawn who was dragged into an international conflict under false pretenses. They’ve had no direct communication with their son since the coup and are worried for his safety, his stepmother said.
Marcel’s mother, Brittney Sawyer, said her son is innocent and had followed his father.
Christian Malanga, the slain leader of the Congolese opposition political party, considered himself president of a shadow government in exile, which he called the “New Zaire.” He described himself on his website as a refugee who settled in Salt Lake City with his family in the 1990s, pursuing business opportunities in gold mining and used car sales before eventually moving back to Congo to fight for political reforms.
While campaigning for the Congolese Parliament, he claimed he was jailed and endured torturous beatings. He later published a manifesto detailing plans to reform Congo’s security services and described his movement as an effort to organize fellow emigres against the “current Congolese dictatorship government regime.”
“Marcel was pretty secretive about his dad. He didn’t even know him well until he spent last summer in Africa,” Gonzalez said. “There’s no way Marcel had any idea what he’d be getting us into or he never would’ve offered. He’s one of the best friends a person could have.”
In the early hours Sunday, Christian Malanga began livestreaming video on social media from inside the palace. He is seen with his armed son, who hastily pulls a neck gaiter over his face, looking around wide-eyed. Congo officials have not commented on how the attackers were able to get inside.
Gonzalez, of Herriman, Utah, said he had communicated with Marcel about the financial offer over Snapchat, in messages that have since disappeared, in the months leading up to the coup attempt. He was shocked to learn how the trip played out.
Marcel had told Gonzalez that his father was letting him hire a friend so he would have company during his summer abroad. He seemed excited to be able to offer such a substantial amount of money to a close friend who needed it, Gonzalez explained.
The Malangas had promised on-the-job training, full coverage of travel expenses and the chance to explore a new part of the world while making an income, he said. Marcel insisted repeatedly that it was safe, but didn’t share details about his father’s background.
Neither Gonzalez nor his mother thought the trip would be unsafe, he said, despite the US State Department strongly discouraging travel to Congo — but he turned it down when his girlfriend asked him not to leave for four months.
He later saw private Snapchat videos filmed by Marcel that showed Thompson looking frightened as armed Congolese soldiers surrounded their vehicle. In Gonzalez’s final Snapchat exchange with his friend before their capture, he asked whether Thompson was OK and urged them to stay safe.
Marcel assured him that they were.
Other former football teammates, including Luke Barbee and Jaden Lalor, had heard different pitches about the trip and wondered why Marcel seemed so desperate to bring someone along. Neither could fathom their friends’ possible involvement in a violent attack.
“I consider Marcel a brother to me and Tyler a friend, and I truly believe Marcel’s father must have pressured them for his own wants,” Lalor said. “I just want them back safely.”

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin resumes duty after undergoing procedure at Walter Reed

Updated 25 May 2024

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin resumes duty after undergoing procedure at Walter Reed

WASHINGTON: Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin underwent a medical procedure at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center Friday evening and has resumed duty after temporarily transferring power to his deputy, Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said in a statement.
Austin is continuing to deal with bladder issues that arose in December following his treatment for prostate cancer, Ryder said.
The procedure was successful, elective and minimally invasive, “is not related to his cancer diagnosis and has had no effect on his excellent cancer prognosis,” the press secretary said.
Austin transferred authority to Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks for about two-and-a-half hours while he was indisposed, the Pentagon said.
The Pentagon chief returned home after the procedure. “No changes in his official schedule are anticipated at this time, to include his participation in scheduled Memorial Day events,” Ryder said.
Austin, 70, has had ongoing health issues since undergoing surgery to address a prostate cancer diagnosis. He spent two weeks in the hospital following complications from a prostatectomy. Austin faced criticism at the time for not immediately informing the president or Congress of either his diagnosis or hospitalization.
Austin was taken back to Walter Reed in February for a bladder issue, admitted to intensive care for a second time and underwent a non-surgical procedure under general anesthesia at the time.
The Pentagon has notified the White House and Congress, Ryder said.