Can Ottawa get India right?

Divisions within the Indo-Canadian diaspora over Kashmir have made Canada tiptoe around India, argues Karthik Nachiappan. Here’s how to move forward.

By: /
10 December, 2019
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the G7 summit in Biarritz, France, August 25, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
Karthik Nachiappan
By: Karthik Nachiappan
Research Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore

In early August, the Narendra Modi-led BJP government stripped Kashmir, India’s critical Muslim-majority state, of its special status granted under Article 370 of the Indian constitution.

Under Article 370, Kashmir was guaranteed, on paper, political autonomy except on matters of defence and foreign affairs. Laws concerning citizenship, property ownership and rights of Kashmiris were left under state control even as this autonomy was eroded by Indian governments over decades. Nonetheless, Kashmiris valued the unique constitutional arrangement until when they would ostensibly have a greater say over their political status. Previous Indian governments sustained Kashmir’s special status, as it legitimized India’s claim to be a secular democracy that resolved its quarrels within a liberal framework even as it, sometimes coercively, whittled that commitment. With the nullification of Article 370, Kashmir, specifically the status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, has been extricated from bilateral discussions with Pakistan, effectively invalidating Islamabad’s claims of the state being contested territory.

Canada’s official response to the Modi government’s actions, which include the imposing of a curfew, a communications blackout and the detention of Kashmiri political leaders, has been anodyne. On August 13, then foreign minister Chrystia Freeland issued a reticent statement noting Canada’s concern for the Kashmiri population while calling for all parties to ‘maintain peace and stability.’

In contrast, the New Democratic Party responded forcefully; leader Jagmeet Singh lambasted New Delhi for the move while endorsing support for the local population. “I want the people of Kashmir to know that I stand with you,” he said in September. “I stand against that injustice and I denounce what India is doing to the people of Kashmir.”

The official response is understandable, given that federal elections were on deck and Canada did not want to take a strong position that could alienate certain elements of the Indo-Canadian community, notably Hindu Canadian groups who appear sympathetic to Modi’s cause vis-à-vis Article 370. It is also possible Ottawa did not issue a stern statement given the current state of Canada-India relations that has yet to recover from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s India trip in February 2018. Trudeau’s visit was marred by a series of fiascos tied to the Liberal Party’s struggle to differentiate between Sikh-Canadian elements that advocate for Sikh rights and a separate Sikh state in India and those that do not.

Kashmir presents an opportunity to craft an India policy less focused on the Indo-Canadian diaspora and more on India as a rising power.

The problem facing Canada-India relations is however larger. Domestic politics constrain Canada’s diplomatic relations since these considerations have been the lever through which Ottawa has preferred to view and engage with New Delhi since the Harper years. That must change. Kashmir presents itself as an opportunity for Ottawa to craft an India policy less focused on the Indo-Canadian diaspora and their seemingly irreconcilable concerns and more on India as a rising power worth investing in for the future. In other words, Ottawa needs to view India from a more strategic point of view since, as the Kashmir imbroglio exemplifies, there is no one diasporic position anymore.

Ideologically, most Hindu-Canadian groups adhere to the Modi government’s idea of an India that is culturally Hindu but tolerant and open. They wish for Ottawa to engage with the totality of India as an influential Asian power and not solely through the lens of aggrieved Sikhs whose views of India have remained vitriolic. But can Ottawa do so?

Opportunities for better Canada-India relations

So far, Ottawa has been largely unable to see India strategically — as a rising Asian power that merits sustained diplomatic investment and not just as a source of Canadian immigrants who matter politically at home. The politics of Khalistan or the clamours for a separate Sikh state carved out of India’s Punjab — and Canadian Sikh elements that propound that idea continue to mar Canada’s ties with India (that was laid bare during Trudeau’s visit in 2018). With Trudeau re-elected, the government must decouple its India policy from the politics of Khalistan, something that Canadian firms and provinces are keen to do. Depoliticizing ties will come down to prioritizing areas of strategic interest that matter to Canada and India. Simply put, Ottawa should think broadly, not purely in terms of votes and dollars. Opportunities to elevate the relationship exist.


Canada’s relationship with India is vital. Security-wise, Canada and India benefit from having Ottawa actively engaged as another partner in the Indo-Pacific that can perhaps serve as a bulwark to China by deepening maritime cooperation with regional powers like Japan, Australia and the United States. Right now, Canada does not feature on the regional security map. In his June 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue keynote address, Modi underscored the importance of the Indian Ocean to India’s future, highlighting the region spanning from the African continent to the Americas. Modi underlined India’s burgeoning security ties with countries like Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Vietnam, the United States and Russia, noting how India sees itself as a node connecting nations across the Indo-Pacific. Canada didn’t receive a mention.

It is time Canada meaningfully pivots from the North Atlantic to the Pacific. Though Canada’s naval activities across the Pacific have increased, of late, they are piecemeal and not driven by a coherent strategy; moreover, expecting regional partners to focus on trade and investment rings hollow without adequately engaging on security issues. The world’s centre of gravity has shifted to the east and Ottawa must realign its security priorities. Betting on India is one way to execute this alignment given New Delhi’s involvement and pronounced interest in maritime security cooperation — bilaterally with countries like Vietnam, Australia, France, Indonesia and Singapore; through trilateral frameworks like the Japan-US-India dialogue; and multilaterally with mechanisms like the Quadrilateral security dialogue alongside Australia, Japan and the United States. Both countries can also establish strategic dialogues combining defence and foreign ministers, something that India holds with Japan and the United States through their 2+2 ministerial dialogues.

Another way for Ottawa to move forward is to build regional security links with India through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), specifically countries like Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore, who are all engaging with the Indo-Pacific concept through various multilateral trade and security mechanisms. Ottawa’s unflinching buy-in to the Indo-Pacific, that has thus far been sporadic and inconsistent, sends a clear message to the region of its commitment to a rules-based order and of their collective security. Canada also gains leverage when dealing with China with the backing of other Indo-Pacific nations. A clear commitment to the Indo-Pacific also redounds to Ottawa’s benefit when managing similar tensions in the Arctic with a resurgent Russia. As of now, Canada’s engagement with the Asia-Pacific region has been largely economic, with a focus on bilateral and multilateral trade agreements like the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP); Ottawa’s regional interactions must evolve to include security issues.


The economic side of the Canada-India relationship rests on trade in goods. Ottawa has an opportunity to fundamentally reorient this approach toward trade in services with an emphasis on technology. A technology-centric economic policy toward India could pay greater dividends, given the stubborn nature of India’s economic bottlenecks, particularly in terms of land, energy and labour. In Modi’s first term, his government eased structural constraints throttling domestic and foreign investment. Several reforms were introduced from 2014-2019 — a national goods and services tax, new bankruptcy regulations, reformed labour laws, increased financing for small businesses and expanded welfare services by expanding financial access. New policies were introduced to boost domestic manufacturing and digital services, and to widen healthcare access. Macroeconomic fundamentals improved. Despite ambitious reforms, it remains difficult for Canadian merchandise goods to enter India given various logistical constraints; according to Statistics Canada, data on trade in goods indicates that 1700 Canadian firms exported goods to India for a total of $3.5 billion in 2016, which roughly amounts to $2.2 million per firm. This figure is substantially below the $10 million average Canadian firms generate when exporting to other global markets.

A technology-centric economic policy could pay greater dividends, given the stubborn nature of India’s economic bottlenecks.

One way for Canadian companies to expand market presence in India and generate additional revenue while avoiding existing bottlenecks is to target investments toward India’s burgeoning technology sector, which is teeming with companies producing apps and services for Indian consumers. The Indian economy is rapidly digitizing. By 2026, India’s e-commerce market should hit $200 billion from expanding internet and smartphone penetration. India is expected to have 840 million users online by 2022, when the e-commerce sector will be worth around $71 billion. Canadian companies should target this booming sector where a litany of services are provided through the digital medium. Synergies exist. Canadian firms have advanced capabilities in technologies that enable the Internet of Things (IOT), data analytics and wireless communication systems. Such technologies can be applied to address myriad development gaps as India digitizes further. Opportunities in this space will deepen with India’s growing market size and Canada’s expertise in technology development and deployment.

Climate action

Ottawa and New Delhi can also deepen collaboration on global challenges like climate change. Trudeau’s policies belie pronouncements made on climate progress. Climate Action Tracker, which tracks and ranks country emission rates, rates Canada’s climate commitments as insufficient or inconsistent with “holding warming to below 2°C, let alone limiting it to 1.5°C as required under the Paris Agreement.” India, on the other hand, has been rated as a “global leader” on climate change with policies classified as compatible with Copenhagen’s 2°C goal, despite plans to build coal plants to meet growing energy demands.

Bilateral climate cooperation does not just entail working to reduce carbon emissions; both countries can collaborate to reduce carbon emissions through multilateral organizations like the United Nations, development agencies like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, and mini-lateral frameworks like Germany’s Alliance of Multilateralism launched at the UN General Assembly last month. The strategic thrust behind the Indo-Pacific now extends to climate change. India and the United States have launched a clean energy initiative called the Flexible Resources Initiative (FRI) that aims to ‘strengthen energy security, increase energy diversification and trade, and expand energy access across the Indo-Pacific.’ Concurrently, India is working with Pacific-Island nations on solar energy projects working out of Delhi’s leadership in the International Solar Alliance. Considerable potential exists for Canada and India to orient climate cooperation around geo-engineering particularly given Ottawa’s emphasis on carbon capture and storage technologies.

The Trudeau government has an opportunity to craft an India policy that is strategic, focusing on issues like maritime security, climate change, and trade and technology, which deeply matter to India’s rise. This approach entails reconfiguring how India is conceptualized at home — not merely as an extension of domestic politics or a pawn to persuade minority-rich communities to vote a certain way, but as an Asian power whose rise necessitates sustained diplomatic investment.

Of late, Canadian foreign policy toward India has been driven by domestic passions that distort, not clarify, national interests. The defence and advancement of Canada’s national interest vis-à-vis India requires a sober and dispassionate understanding of the broader Indo-Pacific and where rising powers like India fit in. Doing so is in Canada’s interest writ large.

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