Indian interference claims by Canada politically motivated, says envoy

By Promit Mukherjee

OTTAWA (Reuters) - India has said a report by Canadian legislators alleging interference by New Delhi is politically motivated and influenced by Sikh separatist campaigners.

Already chilly bilateral ties cooled further last month when a group of parliamentarians, citing intelligence reports, alleged some elected Canadian officials had been "witting or semi-witting" participants in foreign interference operations.

India and China were the main foreign threats to Canada's democratic institutions, it said.

Sanjay Kumar Verma, India's envoy to Canada, said the report was biased, did not give a fair hearing to India and did not give an opportunity to cross-examine witnesses.

"It has been influenced by anti-India elements ... you need to come out with infallible evidence. I don't see any hint of that," he told Reuters.

"This is all politically motivated ... if Canadian institutions are bent upon harm(ing) bilateral relations with India, that will happen."

His remarks were the first formal response by India to the report, which triggered demands by opposition legislators for the government to name those under suspicion.

New Delhi accuses Canada of harboring Sikh separatists who seek to create a homeland in India known as Khalistan.

Last year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau cited credible allegations of Indian government involvement in the murder of a Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar, who was gunned down in the Canadian province of British Columbia in June 2023.

"There is a lot of political space given to Khalistani terrorists in Canada and therefore I would expect them to have influenced the entire process through their representatives," Verma said.

The special committee of legislators, asked about Verma's criticism, said the "committee speaks to and through its reports" and noted it had spoken to the country's two intelligence agencies, the police service, the public safety ministry and studied 4,000 documents.

The offices of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Minister Melanie Joly referred queries to the public safety ministry, which said it would allow the committee to speak to the report.

The World Sikh Organization of Canada, an Ottawa-based Sikh advocacy group, called Verma's remarks "baseless and unprofessional" and said the committee had operated with complete independence.

Canada is pressing India to cooperate with the investigation into the murder of Nijjar.

Verma said Canada had yet not shared any evidence with India, following media reports that Canadian intelligence agency officials visited India twice this year.

Last month, the Canadian police arrested and charged four Indian men on suspicion of Nijjar's murder.

The killing prompted Canada to pause talks on a proposed trade treaty. The two nations had been talking off and on since 2010 about a comprehensive economic partnership agreement.

"If Canada decides to (ask) us to resume talks ... we will take a call," Verma said.

Even as diplomatic relations deteriorate, bilateral trade in goods and services surpassed $25 billion last year, Verma said, adding it would grow this year.

(Reporting by Promit Mukherjee; Editing by David Ljunggren and Alison Williams)