Why expulsion of Indian diplomat from Canada is departure from norm

Most expulsions of Indian intelligence operatives by a foreign country have involved either Pakistan or China, and similar cases in Western nations have been discreet affairs that were never accompanied by public announcements, people familiar with the matter said on Tuesday.

A sign outside the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara temple after the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada. (REUTERS)

The people said it is rare for a country to publicly name intelligence operatives being expelled, as was done by Canada on Monday in the case of a senior Indian official who was asked to leave over the killing of Khalistani leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in June.

Soon after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told Canada’s Parliament that there are “credible allegations of a potential link” between Indian government agents and the killing of Nijjar, foreign minister Mélanie Joly announced the expulsion of a “top Indian diplomat”. Her office identified the official as Pavan Kumar Rai, head of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) in Canada, according to public broadcaster CBC.

The Indian side has rejected the claims by Trudeau and Joly as “absurd and motivated”, with the external affairs ministry saying that such “unsubstantiated allegations seek to shift the focus from Khalistani terrorists…who have been provided shelter in Canada and continue to threaten India’s sovereignty”.

Over the decades, India and Pakistan have expelled dozens of officials on charges of espionage but both sides have rarely named them in official statements. In some instances, the names of expelled officials may have been leaked to the media.

The people cited above said there had been an instance of China naming two Indian officials posted in Beijing who were declared “persona non grata” in the early 1960s but noted this was an exception. The Chinese side had subsequently not named any Indian nationals who were expelled.

There have also been some instances of Indian intelligence operatives being expelled by Western countries, as in the case of one official who was told to leave a European capital for his contacts with Baloch leaders, but these cases have been handled very discreetly.

“In most cases, the Indian side received notes verbale or some other form of official communication asking for an official to be ‘withdrawn’. The term expelled wouldn’t be used in most such communications,” said one of the people cited above, a former intelligence operative with long experience of operations abroad.

The people said a case such as the one in Canada is extremely rare as two countries that have long-standing security cooperation do not name the official being expelled as an acknowledgment of the sensitive duties handled by such operatives.

India and Canada established a joint working group on counter-terrorism in 1997 and the website of the Indian High Commission in Ottawa states that there is “substantial engagement on counter-terrorism issues”, particularly through the framework of this group. Security cooperation between the two sides was further enhanced with the Framework for Cooperation between India and Canada on Countering Terrorism and Violent Extremism signed in February 2018.

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