Canada-India relations improving after decision to expel diplomat based on 'emotional element': Indian high commissioner
India’s decision to expel a Canadian diplomat and strip the diplomatic immunity of dozens of other envoys was retaliatory and based partially on “an emotional element,” but relations between the two countries are better than they were two months ago, India’s high commissioner to Canada says.
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Sanjay Kumar Verma told CTV’s Question Period host Vassy Kapelos, in a wide-ranging exclusive interview airing Sunday, that things have improved between the two countries since September thanks to ongoing “constructive” discussions.
This, after he said “the emotional element was a factor” in India’s decision to expel a Canadian diplomat.
He insists, however, that the move to strip the diplomatic immunities from dozens of other envoys in October was largely for the sake of parity, to have the same number of Canadian diplomats in India as there were Indian diplomats stationed in Canada.
It’s been a tense two months between Canada and India, after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced in the House of Commons in September there were “credible allegations” the Indian government may have been involved in the killing of Canadian Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in B.C. in June.
India has denied the allegation — with Verma insisting India was “absolutely” and “decidedly” not involved — but has thus far refused to cooperate with any investigation.
Verma said India’s “main concern” in its relations with Canada remains that “some Canadian citizens are using Canadian soil to launch attacks on (India’s) sovereignty and territorial integrity,” referring to the Sikh separatist movement. He added from that “core issue” come “security concerns” for Indian diplomats and officials working in Canada, himself included.
Later, when asked by Kapelos whether he is overblowing the risk Sikh separatists pose for domestic political advantage in India, the high commissioner said his government has presented “documentation” to the Canadian government “through a mutually agreed channel” to prove Sikh separatists living in Canada are engaging in criminal activity in both countries.
When pressed on the timing of relations between the two countries going sour, and the quid-pro-quo expulsion of diplomats taking place shortly after Trudeau’s allegation in the House of Commons, Verma said “emotions became very high” at that time.
“Since one of our principal diplomats was expelled from here as persona non grata, so yes, we did retaliate on that,” he said. “Any action will have reaction, and similarly, we declared persona non grata on one of the Canadian diplomats who was at the Canadian High Commission in New Delhi, and others are in a process of evaluation.”
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly, in a statement at the time, called India’s actions “completely unreasonable and escalatory.”
When asked why having parity in terms of the number of diplomats in both countries did not seem to be an issue prior to September, Verma said Trudeau’s allegations impacted the Indian government’s assessment.
“The emotions became very high once the statements were made from Ottawa,” he said. “And a bit of emotional elements will be there, and the decisions are taken.”
“The events which unfolded after the (prime minister’s) statements were made, we did not feel it was very friendly,” he also said.
Verma also said, however, that Canada and India are working on “more dialogue” to sort out how to “facilitate a better diplomatic presence” in both countries.
And when asked whether he sees a path to some form of solution and improved relations between the two countries, Verma said “of course.”
“I would say that, yes, the relationship is better than what it was a couple of months back,” he also said, in response to a question about what should be inferred from India’s decision to reinstate electronic visa applications for Canadians.
Verma in his interview also discussed that decision this week to reinstate some visa applications for Canadians, why India is cooperating with an American investigation but not Canada’s, and the Sikh separatism movement in Canada more broadly.
Watch the full interview on CTV’s Question Period Sunday at 11 a.m. ET.
This transcript of Verma's interview with Vassy Kapelos for Sunday's episode of CTV's Question Period has been edited for length and clarity.
Vassy Kapelos: I want to start off with the latest news this week that India restored electronic visa services for Canadians. What should be interpreted from that?
High Commissioner Verma: When we suspended the e-visa services, and other visa services as well, the main concern was our security and safety, and the security of not only myself, in person, my console generals and other consular staff, other diplomatic staff. So we did a continuous evaluation of the situation. And during the last evaluation, we came to a conclusion that now the security situation is relatively better than what used to be when we suspended the visa services. And therefore we decided to resume e-visa services.
Kapelos: Is there a reason for that assessment? Is there additional security, for example, that's been provided to you and your colleagues?
Verma: There is additional security, of course, provided. But it's a huge matrix. So there are many other factors which are taken into consideration in this matrix in order to reach a conclusion. So conclusion is, of course, that it is a bit better than what it used to be, safety and security of my colleagues. And therefore we were ready to reinstate where we were earlier.
Kapelos: Should Canadians interpret at all from the decision that things between Canada and India, in terms of the relationship between the two countries, are improving?
Verma: There's a lot of conversation going on, a lot of dialogue between the two governments, and I feel that most of it is very constructive. And therefore I would say that, yes, the relationship is better than what it was a couple of months back. And it's moving more towards more and more dialogue, and probably taking it to the next step.
Kapelos: The impression, I think, at the time of the suspension of those visa services among the public in Canada was that the decision was made as a retaliatory measure for the accusation that the Prime Minister levied against the Indian government. Can you respond to that?
Verma: Not really. If you look at the main concern, which we have, and what is India's main concern in Canada, that some Canadian citizens are using Canadian soil to launch attacks on sovereignty and territorial integrity, which is against any international law. India and Canada are both members of the United Nations. United Nations, Article 24 very clearly states, and the spirit is that that no country should allow its oil to be used to target other countries’ sovereignty and integrity, or territorial integrity. So that is the core issue, which still remains there. But from this core issue, a lot of security concerns come up. And those security concerns are more current, and therefore they are being taken care of, to some extent, and we feel relatively safe.
Kapelos: So I just want to be clear on that. And we'll get into that core concern that you've outlined in a second, because I certainly do want to explore it. But the timing of all these decisions, for example, to kick diplomats out of India or remove their immunity, so they effectively had to leave, to suspend the visa services, to issue a travel warning, all of that followed in succession right after the prime minister rose in the House of Commons on that day, and levied the accusation. Are Canadians really to believe that none of that was in retaliation, that it's all just out of security concerns?
Verma: So on the retaliation side, of course, since one of our principal diplomats was expelled from here as persona non grata, so yes, we did retaliate on that. Any action will have reaction. And similarly, we declared persona non grata on one of the Canadian diplomats who was at the Canadian High Commission in New Delhi, and others are a process of evaluation. Since the emotions became very high once the statements were made from Ottawa, and a bit of emotional elements will be there, and the decisions are taken. But again, the core concern remains there. And therefore, we will keep talking to our interlocutors here to see what further can be done.
Kapelos: When it comes to the decision to remove immunity for the diplomats, what would it take to restore that? Is there any conversation taking place about that? Is there any possibility of those diplomats returning to India, from from where you sit?
Verma: If I look at the Vienna Convention of diplomatic relations, there is a particular article which is known as article 11. For those who are in international law, that article very clearly states that if there is no specific agreement, then the receiving state can decide the size of the mission, the purpose of the mission. At the moment, there is no specific agreement between India and Canada. Some countries have. So we will look at more dialogue and see how we can facilitate better diplomatic presence of Canada in India and better Indian diplomatic presence in Canada.
Kapelos: But to be clear, the decision to remove their immunity was because of high emotions? And is that really a rational approach, given the significance of our two countries’ relationship and the number of citizens affected on on both sides?
Verma: Not only. What I said was that the emotional element was also a factor. But if I can go beyond what I have said, we have about 13 Indian diplomats in Canada, altogether. Others are either administrative staff, or they are considered agents. We have two non-resident diplomats who live in Washington, defence services people but accredited to Canada. So even if I take at the maximum level, we have 15 of us, Canada has 60-plus. So therefore, there has to be some kind of resemblance.
Kapelos: Why? Why was that not a concern prior to September?
Verma: Because the events which unfolded after the statements were made, we did not feel it was very friendly.
Kapelos: So may I ask then, short of a resolution on those elements, is there no possibility of the number of diplomats from Canada in India increasing until there is resolve on that matter?
Verma: I won’t say that, because that matter was still there when Canada had a larger number of diplomats in India. So it all depends on how the diplomatic conversation continues, how our concerns are understood in Canada, how Canadian concerns are understood in India. So it will be a package wherein we will have to have mutual respect for each other and then find a solution, which will be beneficial for both of us.
Kapelos: And do you do feel like there's a path there?
Verma: There is a path there, of course.
Kapelos: Okay, let’s get into those concerns that India has expressed. But also, I would like to begin with the concerns that Canada has. And high commissioner, I'd like to ask you very bluntly, the accusation from the prime minister is that the government you represent is culpable to some degree in the murder of Mr. Nijjar. Was the Indian government a part of any of that in any capacity?
Verma: Absolutely not. Decidedly not. And what we have said at that time as well, that this is a motivated and absurd allegation. And this is still allegation. Whether we call it credible allegation, that's the choice of word, but it's an allegation. So from the Indian government’s side, I can assure you and your viewers that there was no government hand in the shooting of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil, as it is always called.
We are a country of rule of law, and all the freedoms and everything has been given in the Indian Constitution, which was in 1950, when we adopted our Constitution. So they are our pillars. Will not go beyond that. So, therefore, what I feel is that, the space which is available, on some pretext or other to these elements, needs to be evaluated.
Vassy Kapelos: I would like to ask you, though, mister high commissioner, if in fact India has no role in any of this, why is your government not cooperating in the investigation?
Verma: So there are two points on that. One is that even without an investigation being concluded, India was convicted. Is that rule of law?
Kapelos: The allegation was raised, how was India convicted?
Verma: Because India was asked to cooperate. And if you look at the typical criminal terminology, when someone asks us to cooperate, which means that you have already been convicted, and you better cooperate. So we took it in a very different interpretation. But we always said that if there is anything specific and relevant, and communicated to us, we will look into it. And that had been said from day one. So we have never said, of course, we have not used the word cooperate, because we feel that's humiliating. But we have always said, that give us something specific and relevant, and we’ll look into it.
Kapelos: The national security adviser, for example, for this country, was in India for a total of nine days, I believe, over August and September. Are you telling me that no specificity was shared with the Indian government by the national security adviser? That not a single specific allegation was presented to the Indian government and asked for cooperation?
Verma: So conversations took place. But we needed something specific and relevant to go back to our legal authorities to seek permission to do investigation that we would have wanted to do. So until the time that those kinds of inputs are not there, in a country of rule of law, it will not be possible for us to move forward on the investigations.
Kapelos: I see what you're saying about cooperation and the ask for cooperation. But I'm also thinking of criminal trials that take place here, for example, when something has been alleged and nobody has been convicted. The person who is accused has to cooperate in some way with the legal proceedings that take place, right? It's not necessarily a de-facto conviction. It's just asking, for a very serious allegation to be taken as such, and India to do all it can, if in fact, as you claim, the government is completely innocent of any of the accusations, to do all that it can to prove that?
Verma: Absolutely. We have never said no. All we're asking is give us something specific and relevant to move ahead. Unless that is there, what do I follow up with?
Kapelos: Well, I just have a hard time believing that our national security adviser, the top security official in this country, would go to your country for nine days, and not say ‘here's what we know, here's what we think happened, can you please substantiate this one way or the other?’
Verma: Listen. Until the time it is not specific or relevant to the case, we will not be able to respond to it. There could be a lot of conversation. Conversations could have allegations, conversations could have some facts of the case, but allegations and facts do not make it specific and relevant. So we need to have those facts. And we are always ready to do that. If you look at the most recent incident to where there are some allegations put out in one of the newspapers against India, the U.S. did provide us inputs. And we have already started following up on that.
Kapelos: I was going to ask, what are they, so I can contrast them?
Verma: Those inputs are a nexus between gangsters, drug peddlers, terrorists, and gun runners in the U.S., and there is a belief that some of the Indian connections — now when I say Indian connections, I don't mean the government of India connections, there is 1.4 billion people, so some of the Indian connections are there — they are ready to investigate. Because we have got inputs, which are legally presentable.
Kapelos: Can you explain what you mean? I guess I'm just curious what that means, compared to what you're saying Canada has not presented. So, what are inputs? Are they documents, for example, that they've presented you? Intelligence that they've shared with you? And are you saying that Canada has not done anything similar?
Verma: I don't oversee India-U.S. relations. My mandate is India-Canada, so I'll not be able to go in depth in that. But what I'm telling you is from the statement, which has been issued from India. And if I read this statement, which is in front of me, during the course of recent discussions on India-U.S. security cooperation, the U.S. side shared some inputs pertaining to nexus between organized criminals, gunrunners, terrorists and others. The inputs are a cause of concern for both countries. And they decided to take necessary follow up action. On its part, India takes such inputs seriously, since it impinges on our own national security interests as well. Issues in the context of U.S. inputs are already being examined by relevant departments in India.
Kapelos: The accusation that you're referencing there --- the statement. I just want to make sure our viewers understand that there was a report this week from the London-based Financial Times newspaper, which cited unnamed officials, who said U.S. authorities had stopped a conspiracy to assassinate Sikh separatists Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a dual Canada-U.S. citizen.
The Financial Times also said that the U.S. thwarted did the plot to kill that individual, who was a lawyer in New York, who was among the organizers of a symbolic referendum on Sikh separation and was a personal friend actually of Mr. Nijjar here in Canada. The newspaper said that the U.S. authorities had filed criminal charges related to the matter and India was investigating. Can I take from that it is the filing of the charges that separates this, because there have not yet been charges filed in Canada, that prompted different action from India and that is informing the Indian decision not to cooperate in Canada?
Verma: One is that the investigation in the case of the U.S., as far as I know and understand, because again, I don't oversee India-U.S. relations is at a much advanced stage. And therefore, I presume that there would be better information shared within India.
Kapelos: So once again, just for the record, I want to make sure you're saying none of that information --- no intelligence, no evidence, nothing underlying the very serious accusation the Prime Minister --- I don't think would have made unless he thought the allegations were credible --- None of that has been presented to the Indian government?
Verma: So I'll again repeat my position that there is no specific or relevant information for us to look into.
Kapelos: Okay, I want to ask about the broader concerns that you have raised around Sikh separatism and the degree to which those separatist forces are mobilizing in Canada. Everything --- and I tried to do a lot of research on this --- everything that I've read shows that in India right now, that sentiment is not really a serious threat. So I'm wondering why your government is so concerned about the movement here in Canada, among the diaspora population and whether it's just to further political domestic advantage, not
Verma: Not really. Most of the known criminals and terrorists who are in Canada from Khalistani mindset … many of them are running their own gangs in India. They are doing drug trafficking. They are running arms. They are running guns. They are running human trafficking activities. So therefore, although their activities are here, it is it has crossed the borders. As long as there's a domestic issue in Canada, how do we care? But it has crossed the border that unfortunately, has reached India, where a chief minister of state was killed by one of those who started these activities from Canada.
Kapelos: But have you presented the proof of that to the Canadian government, as you have asked for evidence and proof and inputs? Have you done the same because I have borne witness over the past number of years to a Canadian government who, for example, arrested Meng Wanzhou and this country greatly suffered because we adhere to the rule of law, right? They have not backed away from doing so. So have you presented the specifics to them?
Verma: Yes, we have and it is through a mutually agreed channel...These are red corner notices, which went through the Interpol. And by the way, one of the recording notices was for Mr. Nijjar, who was shot down. So we have shared all these things and Interpol certainly will not forward anything without the evidence being submitted. So we have given all the documentation that we had and I hope to hear back from Canada soon.
Kapelos: Do you believe though that --- I mean, given the adherence that this country has shown to the rule of law, that if the evidence did meet a bar --- would Canada not act on that? And again, I'll go back to my original question, which was, you've called it a drop in the bucket yourself, the number of separatists in this country. Are you overblowing, is your government overblowing the risks that they pose in order to create essentially a political narrative domestically in India that works better for the current government.
Verma: Not really see, if you look at the number of Sikhs in India, the largest number of Sikhs are in Punjab, Punjab undergoes an election every four or five years. There is not even a single candidate who talks about Khalistan.
Verma: So in India, there is no traction. But we are treating these guys like terrorists, not as separatists. They are terrorists because they are raising their funds in Canada, sending it across to the gangsters and gangs in India, who are doing illegal activities in India. So our main concern is not the separatism, but they being terrorists. And that is why we have been asking Canada ---
Kapelos: But if Canada believed there were terrorists on our soil, do you not feel they would act? And the view the government has expressed so far is that we might have a separate view of what free speech means from your country.
Verma: That is not my reading of the Canadian law. I'm not an expert. But Canadian law also limits freedom of speech. And limitation on free speech is for having hate speech, spoken for incitement to violence.
Kapelos: But saying you want to separate is not hate speech, holding a referendum is not hate speech.
Verma: See, the referendum, if you do it for Canada domestically, I'm fine. How are you allowing your citizens to do a referendum to bifurcate India
Kapelos: Because there's nothing that that binds anybody to it, right? It's an expression.
Verma: Which means that any country can start doing referendums and illegal activities to divide Canada. And that will ---
Kapelos: Not illegal activities. But I'm saying, for example, if there was a Quebec population in India that wanted to hold a referendum that everybody knew was not ---
Verma: They are Canadian citizens. They're not Indian citizens. So this is a point we should miss all the time. They are Sikh, yes. Their forefathers originated from India, yes. But today they are Canadian citizens. So if they are using Canadian soil for challenging the territorial integrity of India, which international law in the world will support that.
Kapelos: But you've just said that it doesn't actually challenge it, that the separatist movement in Punjab is virtually non-existent. So are how is what they're doing actually causing that to happen if it's not?
Verma: I'm not saying that they will succeed. What I'm saying, they're challenging the status quo, which is the territorial integrity of India today, is being challenged. When will they succeed? Absolutely, no. India is a very strong country. We know our ethos, we are a rule of law country. We are the largest democracy in the world. These 5,000 people, will they succeed? No, but their criminal activities need to be recognized by the state where they are living. And these criminal activities need to be punished. Today there is a target on my back. And those billboards are out in Surry, those billboards are out in in Brampton and Mississauga. Is it a criminal activity or not? They have their freedom of speech, where is my freedom of movement? Where is my freedom of speech? So therefore, we have to clearly recognize that the activities which are criminal in nature, under any international law, and therefore, both the countries should see to it, that we do not do each other things that we don't want to be done to ourselves.
Kapelos: Okay, on that note, High Commissioner, I'll leave it there. I appreciate your time today very much. Thank you.
Verma: Thank you very much.