India may have been behind a brazen assassination on Canadian soil, Justin Trudeau said on Monday night.
Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a prominent Sikh leader in British Columbia, was shot dead by two masked gunmen in the province on June 18.
The Canadian prime minister said his country’s intelligence agencies had identified “credible allegations” that New Delhi was involved in the murder.
He called it an “unacceptable violation of our sovereignty” in a rare and indignant address to Parliament that could set off a diplomatic firestorm.
He said he “personally and directly” conveyed that message to Indian prime minister Narendra Modi “in no uncertain terms” at the G20 summit last week.
India’s foreign ministry on Tuesday morning hit back at the claims, calling them “absurd and motivated”.
“Similar allegations were made by the Canadian prime minister to our prime minister, and were completely rejected,” the ministry added.
“We are a democratic polity with a strong commitment to rule of law.”
Ottawa has expelled a top Indian diplomat as a result and New Delhi responded in kind on Tuesday morning, citing the “interference of Canadian diplomats in our internal matters and their involvement in anti-India activities”.
Speaking in the House of Commons on Monday, Mr Trudeau said Canadian security agencies have been “pursuing credible allegations” linking “agents of the government of India” to Nijjar’s murder.
“Any involvement of a foreign government in the killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil is an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty,” he said.
He added: “Canada has declared its deep concerns to the top intelligence and security officials of the Indian government.”
Nijjar, a prominent activist and vocal backer of an independent Sikh homeland, was gunned down outside a temple in Surrey, BC.
The killing set off protests against the Indian government in Canada and further afield, in London, Melbourne and San Francisco.
The incident has brought to light the demands of groups, including the separatist Khalistan movement.
Canada has the highest population of Sikhs outside their home state of Punjab in India. Sikhs make up about 2 per cent of India’s population.
Nijjar is third prominent Sikh to die in recent months
India has strongly opposed the Khalistan movement and claimed Nijjar, 45, was a “terrorist” and led a militant separatist group, claims his supporters said were “unfounded”.
Nijjar is the third prominent Sikh figure to have died suddenly in recent months - including one death the UK.
Avtar Singh Khanda, reportedly the head of the Khalistan Liberation Force, died in Birmingham in June.
According to the BBC, Khanda’s death occurred in what has been described as “mysterious circumstances” that some believe could be related to poisoning.
A third man, Paramjit Singh Panjwar, was shot dead in May in Lahore, the capital of Pakistan’s Punjab province.
Mr Trudeau said his government has been working closely with Canada’s allies on the case.
He raised it with US President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
The explosive allegation is likely to further strain relations between India and Canada.
Ottawa had already paused talks on a proposed trade deal with New Delhi, just three months after the two sides said they aimed to seal an agreement this year.
Mr Modi, who held formal bilateral meetings with many world leaders during the G20 summit, declined to hold one with Mr Trudeau.
However, the Indian prime minister did convey his strong concerns about protests in Canada against India, according to a statement released by his government.
Mr Trudeau pressed New Delhi to “cooperate with Canada to shed light on this situation”.
He said: “It is contrary to the fundamental rules by which free, open, and democratic societies conduct themselves.”
He added: “As you would expect, we have been working closely and coordinating with our allies on this very serious matter.”
He said some Indian-Canadians are feeling “angry” and “perhaps frightened right now” but urged calm.
Canadian foreign minister Mélanie Joly described the Indian official it has expelled as the “head” of Indian intelligence in the country.
“If proven true this would be a great violation of our sovereignty and of the most basic rule of how countries deal with each other,” Ms Joly said.
Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc said Canada’s national security advisor and the head of Canada’s spy service travelled to India to meet their counterparts and to confront the Indian intelligence agencies with the allegations.
He called it an active homicide investigation led by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Canada’s opposition Conservative leader, Pierre Poilievre, said if the allegations are true they represent “an outrageous affront to our sovereignty”.
The British government said it was in close contact with its Canadian partners about the “serious allegations”.
“It would be inappropriate to comment further during the ongoing investigation by the Canadian authorities,” a Downing Street spokesperson said.
The White House, meanwhile, said it was “deeply concerned” by the allegations.