India’s diplomatic rollercoaster: A year-end review of key crises

As 2023 draws to a close, India finds itself at the center of several significant diplomatic storms, highlighting the complex challenges the nation faces on the international stage. Among the most notable crises were the diplomatic rows with Canada and the tensions with the US surrounding the alleged Khalistani separatist Gurwant Singh Pannu ‘murder plot’.

India-Canada diplomatic row

Diplomatic relations between India and Canada soured when, in September, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused “agents of the Indian government” of being involved in the June killing of Khalistani terrorist Hardeep Singh Nijjar. India promptly dismissed these allegations, deeming them “absurd and motivated.”

Following Trudeau’s accusations, both Ottawa and New Delhi engaged in reciprocal expulsions of diplomats. In response to the Canadian Prime Minister’s claims regarding India’s role in Nijjar’s killing, India temporarily halted the issuance of visas to Canadian citizens.

Additionally, India requested that Canada reduce its diplomatic presence in the country to maintain diplomatic balance. Consequently, Canada withdrew 41 diplomats along with their family members from India.

On 5 November, Indian High Commissioner to Canada, Sanjay Kumar Verma reiterated New Delhi’s stand on the diplomatic standoff with Canada, urging Ottawa to release evidence backing up its allegation regarding the killing of Nijjar. He said that India has not been shown concrete evidence by Canada or its allies about India’s alleged involvement in the Nijjar killing, ANI reported.

The Indian envoy also noted that New Delhi has made 26 requests to Ottawa over the past five or six years to extradite people from Canada to India.

On the India-Canada diplomatic row, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said there is room for diplomacy to address the issue and that both sides have been in touch and hoped that a way would be found to resolve the row. At the same time, he asserted that “sovereignty and sensitivity” cannot be one-way streets.

“I feel that there is room for diplomacy here. I know that my counterpart in Canada has also expressed the same position. So, we have been in touch,” he said at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit.

“My hope certainly would be that we find a way…Sovereignty, sensitivity – these cannot be one-way streets. They may have their concerns. I have never ever with any country said that I am not willing to talk to them about their legitimate concerns,” he said.

“But it cannot be that the conversation is completely dismissive of my concerns and my sensitivities,” he added.

Officials and experts have said that mending frayed diplomatic relations between India and Canada will be a long process after each side adopted maximalist positions, despite New Delhi’s surprise move to ease some visa curbs on Canadians, as reported by Reuters.

Canada has the largest Sikh population outside Punjab, with 770,000 people reporting Sikhism as their religion in the 2021 census. India is by far Canada’s largest source of foreign students, accounting for 40 percent of study permit holders – a vital source for Canada’s fast-growing international education business, contributing over C$20 billion ($15 billion) to the economy annually.

US charges Indian in Pannun ‘murder plot’

The US Department of Justice on 29 November, in an indictment filed in a federal court in Manhattan, claimed an Indian official was working with an Indian citizen, Nikhil Gupta, also known as Nick, who was arrested by Czech authorities on June 30 this year and has been charged with murder-for-hire and conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire.

The Justice Department said the man allegedly targeted in the killing “is a vocal critic of the Indian government and leads a US-based organisation that advocates for the secession of Punjab,” a northern Indian state with a large population of Sikhs.

Gupta, who lives in India, was arrested by authorities in the Czech Republic under US extradition orders.

Earlier, the Financial Times, citing multiple sources, reported that the US “thwarted a conspiracy to assassinate” Khalistani separatist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun on American soil and “issued a warning to India’s government over concerns it was involved in the plot”.

Responding to the development, Prime minister Narendra Modi said India will investigate any evidence provided regarding an alleged plot to kill a Sikh separatist in the United States.

“If someone gives us any information, we would definitely look into it,” PM Modi said in an interview to Financial Times, in his first comments on the issue.

“If a citizen of ours has done anything good or bad, we are ready to look into it. Our commitment is to the rule of la,” he added.

Ministry of External Affairs had earlier said it has set up a “high-level” inquiry committee “to look into all the relevant aspects of the matter”.

“As regards the case against an individual that has been filed in a US court, allegedly linking him to an Indian official, this is a matter of concern. We have said that this is also contrary to government policy,” said MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi.

“On November 18, 2023, the Government of India constituted a high-level Enquiry Committee to look into all the relevant aspects of the matter. The Government of India will take necessary follow-up action based on the findings of the Enquiry Committee,” Bagchi added.

China-India tension over renaming places in disputed Arunachal 

In a move signaling an increasingly assertive stance, the Chinese government in April announced the “standardization” of names for 11 locations in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, a region also claimed by China.

The renaming, viewed by India as largely symbolic, involves designating the areas as part of China’s Tibet Autonomous Region. India dismissed the move, asserting Arunachal Pradesh’s integral status.

The list, released by the Ministry of Civil Affairs in Beijing, includes mountain peaks, populated areas, land sections, and rivers, with names provided in Mandarin, Tibetan, and English. While the action appears symbolic, it underscores a hardened Chinese position on territorial disputes and heightens tensions in the longstanding India-China border talks.

The renaming follows a new State Council rule on place name management, implemented in May 2022, emphasising strict control and standardisation. Analysts suggest that these moves, along with the recently enacted border law, exemplify China’s commitment to protecting national sovereignty amid regional tensions.

This marks the third such instance of China renaming places in Arunachal Pradesh, each coinciding with periods of strained relations. Despite the symbolic nature, these actions contribute to the complexities of the border dispute, raising concerns about the already challenging prospects for a resolution between the two nations.

With inputs from agencies

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