'By making it so public in the House of Commons, you know the reaction in India... Mr Modi is not very happy about it; you're kicking out Canadian diplomats; you suspended visa services for Canadians...'
On Thursday, October 19, 2023, Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly said Canada had withdrawn 41 diplomats and their family members from India after New Delhi threatened to strip them of their diplomatic immunity in the wake of the diplomatic row over the killing of Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in British Columbia on June 18.
Journalist Robert Fife is the Ottawa bureau chief for Canada's The Globe and Mail newspaper. He had informed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government that his newspaper would publish a report that pointed fingers at Indian agents of being involved in Nijjar's murder.
This, it is said, provoked Trudeau to make his statement in the Canadian parliament on September 18, 2023, blaming India for the Nijjar murder.
"The (Canadian) prime minister's office had asked us (The Globe and Mail) to wait a week before we publish (the report). I said, no, we'll give them (the Canadian government) 24 hours," Fife tells Prasanna D Zore/Rediff.com in an exclusive interview.
"And they (the Canadian government) rushed and announced it (the allegation that Indian agents were involved in Nijjar's murder)," says Fife.
"I'm a little bit surprised the way they (Trudeau and his government) handled this," says Fife.
"I would have thought that they would have simply let us publish the story and then come out and said, 'For national security reasons and because of an ongoing criminal investigation, we can't comment on these allegations. But we've talked to the Indian authorities and we've talked to our allies, but we're not going to have any further comment'."
How credible do you think are Prime Minister Trudeau's allegations?
Well, obviously they have to be serious allegations or he wouldn't have stood up in the House of Commons and made the allegations.
They obviously have to be serious because the United States, Great Britain, Australia and our other Five Eyes (including Canada and New Zealand) allies have said that the allegations are serious and that the Indian government should cooperate in the investigation.
How thick is the line between making credible allegations and providing hard evidence?
Well, I don't know, I haven't seen the evidence that they have. But I have to believe that the US Secretary of State (Antony Blinken), Jake Sullivan, the US national security advisor, have all said that the allegations made by Canada are serious.
The US ambassador has said that some of the intelligence was provided by one of the Five Eyes. I assume it was the United States that provided intelligence to Canada, although the Canadian government has intelligence involving communications with Indian diplomats.
But we don't know exactly what the allegations are specifically and we are probably not going to be able to know this until the police investigation is complete. That's my understanding. But the Opposition leader, Pierre Poilievre has said that it's important for the government -- if they're going to make serious allegations like that -- to release the allegations (evidence).
We've seen this happen before when Russian agents tried to kill people in the United Kingdom and they showed pictures of them; when there was the Khashoggi murder in Turkey by (spies of) Saudi Arabia (who) went into their embassy and killed the Saudi journalist, the Turks provided not only pictures of him (Khashoggi) going in, but also audio recordings of him being killed in the embassy as well.
The United Arab Emirates did the same thing when they found out that eleven Israeli agents were trying to kill a Hamas leader in a hotel and they showed pictures of them changing into disguises and what not.
So, one would hope that at some point, if these allegations are serious, the Canadian government will put the evidence forward.
Unless, of course, the Indian government decides to cooperate with the (Canadian) government and admit that if there were (Indian) agents who may be involved in this (murder), they (the Indian government) can say, well look, these were rogue elements (from Indian intelligence agencies) who did this (murdered Nijjar).
Obviously, Prime Minister (Narendra D) Modi would not have known about this, but we just don't know (who is actually involved in Nijjar's murder) at this particular point.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police are still investigating the murder. Would you then think that Trudeau jumped the gun by going public with his allegations?
I had found out that this was the reason why the Canadian government cancelled free trade talks with India or postponed them.
They (free trade negotiations) were moving along at a pretty rapid pace, they were cancelled and then they (the Indian government) cancelled a Canadian trade mission to India.
I did a lot of phoning around and talking to people, and I found out that, in fact, the reason why this (the trade deal between India and Canada) was cancelled was because of the allegations that India had a role in the killing of Mr Nijjar.
The (Canadian) prime minister's office had asked us (The Globe and Mail) to wait a week before we publish (a report that pointed fingers at Indian agents of being involved in Nijjar's murder). I said, no, we'll give them (the Canadian government) 24 hours.
And they (the Canadian government led by Prime Minister Trudeau) rushed it out and announced it (the allegation that Indian agents were involved in Nijjar's murder).
I'm a little bit surprised the way they (Trudeau and his government) handled this. I would have thought that they would have simply let us publish the story and then come out and said, 'For national security reasons and because of an ongoing criminal investigation, we can't comment on these allegations. But we've talked to the Indian authorities and we've talked to our allies, but we're not going to have any further comment.'
This would not have painted Prime Minister Modi into a corner. It might have allowed the (Canadian) government to be able to cooperate with the Indian authorities and working with our allies to try to get whoever was responsible for this murder was brought to justice.
But by making it so public in the House of Commons, you know the reaction in India... Mr Modi is not very happy about it; you're kicking out Canadian diplomats; you suspended visa services for Canadians, which is going to have a big impact because we have a large Indian population in Canada. They want to go home to see their family.
And we have a lot of business people wanting to go to India because it's such a thriving market now, and it's a place where everybody wants to do business because India is a rule-of-law society.
People speak English, and you have a really growing and vibrant high tech industry as well. And so companies are pulling out of China and wanting to settle in India.
Would you believe in a conspiracy theory that somebody wanted to scuttle the trade deal between India and Canada and so this row over Nijjar's murder was engineered?
No way. The murder was engineered?
Not the murder. But the Canadian prime minister going whole hog and blaming India publicly for Nijjar's murder?
There's no conspiracy theory. Everybody in the country wants a trade deal with India. It's really important. We want a trade deal. There's no conspiracy on that. Goodness.
Canadians have been trying to get a trade deal with India for a very long time. And it's a really important country, and we have such close ties with India.
We have a large Hindu and Sikh population in this country, and I don't believe that (conspiracy theory to scuttle the trade deal) at all.
- Part 2 of the Interview: 'They could have been hired hitmen, who knows?'