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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 45 November 4, 2023

US & UK’s Support for Canada Against India: Cosmetic Diplomacy? | Nilofar Suhrawardy

Saturday 4 November 2023, by Nilofar Suhrawardy


The Diplomatic stand of India towards Canada may change again in near future. At present, it is marked by probably a shift from what was being displayed earlier. The apparent shift was first suggested by External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar hinting at the resumption of Indian visa operations in Canada “very soon.” India had halted these around a month ago and was currently reviewing the “security situation” around India’s missions in Canada. In his words, “Some weeks ago, we stopped issuing visas in Canada because it was no longer safe for our diplomats to go to work to issue visas. So their safety and security was the primary reason we had to temporarily stop the issue of visas.” Please note the usage of certain words. In addition to India’s concern for its diplomats’ “safety and security” being presented as a “primary reason,” the apparent emphasis on the issue of visas being stopped “temporarily” said more than was probably New Delhi’s diplomatic intention earlier. Not surprisingly, the Indian High Commission in Canada announced the resumption of visa services to Canadians for select categories on October 25, 2023. “After a considered review of the security situation that takes into account some recent Canadian measures in this regard, it has been decided to resume visa services for the following categories with effect from October 26, 2023. (a) Entry visa, (b) Business visa, (c) Medical visa, and (d) Conference visa,” the Indian High Commission in Canada posted on X.

One is naturally prompted to analyse the possible factors suggesting a “shift” in diplomatic attitude displayed by India towards Canada earlier. When India halted its visa operations in Canada and also asked Ottawa to withdraw its 41 diplomatic personnel from India, these diplomatic moves were meant only for Canada. In other words, India probably did not expect other countries to react. Definitely, India had valid reasons to be agitated by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s comment on a “potential link” between murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar and India. Nijjar, a Canadian citizen, allegedly linked with Khalistan, was killed this year on June 18, by two unidentified assassins, outside a Gurdwara in Surrey. Nijjar was labelled as a terrorist by India. Soon after Trudeau made the controversial comment regarding India’s role in his murder, Canada expelled an Indian diplomat and India did the same.

Subsequently, displaying a harder stand, India asked Canada to cut down its diplomatic staff within India or else they would be deprived of their diplomatic immunity and New Delhi, as mentioned earlier, halted its visa operations in Canada. After withdrawing 41 diplomats from India, Canada stopped in-person facilities for Indian nationals at three consulates. Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau described decision of India to revoke diplomatic immunity to Canadian diplomats as a “violation of Vienna Convention governing diplomacy.” He also expressed that it would affect “millions of Canadians who trace their origins to the Indian subcontinent.”

India asserted through a Ministry of External Affairs’ press release that it had not violated Vienna Convention. The release, dated October 20, 2023 states, “The state of our bilateral relations, the much higher number of Canadian diplomats in India, and their continued interference in our internal affairs warrant a parity in mutual diplomatic presence in New Delhi and Ottawa.” Pointing out that India’s actions are “fully consistent with Article 11.1 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations,” the release states, “We reject any attempt to portray the implementation of parity as a violation of international norms.”

Defending India’s stand on parity with Canada’s diplomatic strength, Jaishankar stated, “We invoked parity because we had concerns about continuous interference in our affairs by Canadian personnel. We haven’t made much of that public. My sense is that over a period of time, more stuff will come out and people will understand why we had the kind of discomfort with many of them which we did.” Jaishankar made these comments at an interaction on October 22.

Perhaps, within a few hours of its press release asserting its stand towards Canada and regarding the Vienna Convention, India was caught off-guard by what seems a strong support displayed by the United States and the United Kingdom for Canada and their criticism of New Delhi. “We are concerned by the departure of Canadian diplomats from India, in response to the Indian government’s demand of Canada to significantly reduce its diplomatic presence in India,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller expressed in a press statement, dated October 20.

Miller also pointed out, “Resolving differences requires diplomats on the ground. We have urged the Indian government not to insist upon a reduction in Canada’s diplomatic presence and to cooperate in the ongoing Canadian investigation. We expect India to uphold its obligations under the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, including with respect to privileges and immunities enjoyed by accredited members of Canada’s diplomatic mission.” The last line suggests that US officially supports Canada’s stand on India having “violated” or not having upheld its obligations under the Vienna Convention.

It isn’t surprising that the Foreign Office of United Kingdom did not refrain from displaying a similar stand in favour of Canada. Britain’s Foreign Office spokesperson stated on October 20, “We do not agree with the decisions taken by the Indian government that have resulted in a number of Canadian diplomats departing India.” It has also been expressed, “We expect all states to uphold their obligations under the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. The unilateral removal of the privileges and immunities that provide for the safety and security of diplomats is not consistent with the principles or the effective functioning of the Vienna Convention.” The spokesperson also pointed out, “We continue to encourage India to engage with Canada on its independent investigation into the death of Hardeep Singh Nijjar.”

Diplomatic support from US and UK seems to have prompted Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau to voice his stand against India at a televised press conference in Brampton, Ontario on October 20. Apart from stating that India’s decision to revoke diplomatic immunity to 41 Canadian diplomats in India was a violation of the Vienna Convention, he expressed, “The Indian government is making it unbelievably difficult for life as usual to continue for millions of people in India and in Canada. And they’re doing it by contravening a very basic principle of diplomacy.” “It’s something that has me very concerned for the wellbeing and happiness of millions of Canadians who trace their origins to the Indian subcontinent,” Trudeau said.

The timing of Trudeau’s comments and three official releases from India, US and UK are worth noting. They are dated October 20, 2023. Equally significant is the timing and wording of Jaishankar’s comments (October 22). Now, would he have expressed the same if the USA and UK had not expressed their respective stands officially through their press statements? The apparent shift in New Delhi’s stand is marked by his words pointing to India’s concern for the “safety and security” of its diplomats being a “primary reason” for the issue of visas having stopped “temporarily.” Within three days, as mentioned earlier, India resumed special visa services in Canada.

Irrespective of when and how diplomatic ties between India and Canada edge towards becoming normal, one hard fact cannot be ignored by New Delhi. India cannot afford to be over-confident about its relations with the United States as well as United Kingdom. Yes, earlier this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was given a ceremonial welcome at the White House. Modi’s hug diplomacy towards US President Joe Biden too bears its importance. To a degree, the same may be said about British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Indian roots.

But the marked difference between diplomatic priorities and cosmetic diplomacy of the US and UK stands out strongly in their stand towards India and Canada over differences displayed by these two. Rather than stay away from their bilateral diplomacy, they have gone overboard in asserting their stand, which hardly favours India but by which Canada is certainly pleased. It is not just the question of “colour” having guided their diplomacy. India cannot risk aligning with them on quite a few issues. It cannot risk its ties with Russia. Besides, India’s diplomatic priorities don’t match theirs on several issues. From another angle, diplomatically as well as economically, strengthening ties with India cannot be ignored by US and UK, in lieu of their rival China’s standing in Asia. It is possible, that they have chosen the issue of diplomatic tension between India and Canada deliberately to assert their being hardly pleased by New Delhi’s present diplomatic stand towards Ottawa. But practically speaking, these are hardly suggestive of there being any actual disturbance in their ties with India, irrespective of their having different opinions regarding the violation of the Vienna Convention. Certainly, India has not totally ignored these diplomatic missiles being probably equivalent to balloons floated for cosmetic display.

This may be interpreted from India’s latest decision to resume visa services for certain categories in Canada. At present, New Delhi has apparently responded marginally to the US and UK’s diplomatic moves by resuming only visa services for certain categories in Canada!

(Author: Nilofar Suhrawardy is a senior journalist and writer with specialization in communication studies and nuclear diplomacy. She has come out with several books. These include:— Modi’s Victory, A Lesson for the Congress…? (2019); Arab Spring, Not Just a Mirage! (2019), Image and Substance, Modi’s First Year in Office (2015) and Ayodhya Without the Communal Stamp, In the Name of Indian Secularism (2006))

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