Two Other Solitudes

The India-Canada relationship has taken a long time to develop.

The year 2011 has been declared “the year of India in Canada,” offered by Delhi as an opportunity for Canadians to experience the civilizational pull of that great nation through shows by top Indian classical and contemporary artists, even rock bands. Trade shows and cultural performances will roll out from Halifax to Victoria in months to come. All this on the heels of the announcement late last year of the start of negotiations for a Canada-India Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (similar to a free trade pact but not quite).

The million or so Canadians of Indian extraction—a number that is five times greater proportionately than in the United States—will undoubtedly be pleased by all the attention. But for those with a sense of history, a question arises: why are India and Canada now so cozy? After all, we spent several recent decades at odds, in dispute over terrorism (specifically, private Canadian funding and support for Sikh terrorism) and the Indian development of nuclear weapons.

Some (Indian) History

The first connections between our countries were established through the British Empire, which Canadians (Quebecers and First Nations excepted) tended to view as benign while Indians had little reason to do so. Transplanted Europeans in Canada were viewed in Britain as cousins (however rustic), but Indians were seen as belonging to a lesser race whose improvement God had ordained Britain to achieve under the Raj. Our very different experiences of imperial Britain explains why our early links did not draw our governments as close as Ottawa might have expected.

Much more than we realize, Canadians have been brought up to view India’s history through Britain’s colonial lens. Yes, we are aware that, in antiquity, the Indian subcontinent gave rise to a number of brilliant civilizations; that it spawned several of the world’s greatest religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and, much later, Sikhism) while hosting several others that continue to flourish there (Islam and Christianity, and Zoroastrianism, originally from Persia); and that, under the Mughals, in the 16th and 17th centuries, it could boast both greater wealth and tolerance than could anywhere in Europe. But uppermost in our imagination are the 200 years, from the mid 18th to 20th centuries, during which Britain dominated India, first through the British East India Company and later through direct rule from London.

British involvement in India and eventually its appropriation of the subcontinent as the crown jewel of its empire was above all an economic project. Early on, European traders in India mostly entertained only commercial aims, but with the British conquest of Bengal between the 1750s and ’60s, collection of land revenue in the company’s Indian territories was initiated and soon became its major source of income.

Britain relied heavily on two institutions of state in India. One was its massive standing army, and the other was the establishment of centralized civilian bureaucracy in the last decades of the 18th century, headed up by an executive governor general, later described as the viceroy. Under a thin patina of benevolence, the Raj was in reality uncompromisingly white, authoritarian and managed for the benefit of Britain. The British government relied heavily on its Indian army in campaigns to crush resistance movements in Egypt (1882), against the Mahdi in Sudan (1885–86) and in the “Boxer war” in China in 1900. The army was the ultimate instrument for British control of India, through a policy of divide and rule along religious and ethnic fault lines. As Sir Charles Wood put it in 1862: “I wish to have a different and rival spirit in different regiments, so that Sikh might fire into Hindoo, Goorkha into either, without any scruples in time of need1.”

The approach to Indian civilians was similar. The creation of “separate” municipal electorates increased tensions between Hindus and Muslims. British secretary of state for India Lord George Hamilton wrote to the viceroy, Lord Elgin, in 18972:

I am sorry to hear of the increasing friction between Hindus and Mohammedans in the North West and the Punjab. One hardly knows what to wish for; unity of ideas and action would be very dangerous politically, divergence of ideas and collision are administratively troublesome. Of the two the latter is the least risky…

The economic drain of wealth from India to Britain helped fuel the rise of nationalism among Indians, as did British racism. The defining year of British history in India was 1857, when a large-scale mutiny seriously challenged colonial rule. The revolt failed, but it took a fortune—and hideous brutality—to quell it. The cost for suppressing the uprising was included in the Indian debt, which the crown Raj had to pay back to London as part of its annual home charges. These events were pregnant with consequence, some positive, as historian Ramachandra Guha argues: “While the British conquered India through the vilest of motives … they gave us a wake-up call, which was salutary. Indian traditions of nationalism and social reform were a direct product of the provocations and challenges of colonial rule3.”

Other British projects in Asia tend to surprise those unfamiliar with their methods in the 19th century. When British goods failed to sell in China, London realized that Indian products, mainly raw cotton and later opium, could find a market there, funding British purchase of tea and silk at Canton. After 1823, opium became the primary staple in this triangular trade. Until the 1920s, 20 percent of British India’s revenue was generated through the opium trade. Amitav Ghosh, author of the stirring novel Sea of Poppies, speculates that “this export of contraband may have incalculably influenced the way the Chinese perceive India”—disastrously so4.

While the British triumphed in 1857, the galvanizing impact of what many Indians call their “first war of independence” ordained the eventual failure of the British project in India. Its doom was hastened by the First World War, which seriously weakened Britain. During that war, as during the Second World War, Britain drew heavily on Indian resources and troops, further impoverishing the subcontinent and undermining locally the legitimacy of London’s rule. From the 1920s onward, M.K. Gandhi provided momentum to the nationalist movement, moving well beyond nationalist Indian elites to mobilize even marginalized sections of Indian society, culminating in the demand of the 1940s that the British simply “quit India.”

It took the Second World War to finish off colonial rule in India, much to the distress of Winston Churchill, a fierce critic of Indian pretensions. A parting gift of the Raj was the dizzying administrative neglect that greatly aggravated the famine of 1943 in West Bengal, which claimed approximately three million lives.

To sum up the British record in India, Angus Maddison estimated in 2003 that while in the early 1700s, India accounted for roughly one quarter of the world’s economic output, by 1947, it produced approximately 2 percent of global output5. During the two centuries of British domination, the economic growth rate of the country was, on average, zero, while the industrial revolution in England, fuelled by cheap Indian commodities, made Britain comparatively wealthy.

These sorry facts were to influence the outlook of Indians following independence and that of their foreign policy. Independence in 1947, involving a painful partition of territory, bloody riots, the relocation of about eleven million Hindus and Muslims, and hastily drawn borders, was seriously mismanaged by the diminished departing colonial power, just as was its disengagement from Palestine during the same period. Shell-shocked Britain, reeling from the Second World War, barely cared.

India and Canada, Early On

By this time, Canada had emerged as a major economic contributor to Allied victory in World War Two and was at the apogee of its international influence. Soon, India and Canada were quietly (and, occasionally, at the United Nations, not so quietly) at loggerheads over several international crises. India harboured early hopes of developing comity with the new communist regime in Beijing after 1949, hopes that coloured its approach to the Korean crisis—to Ottawa’s discomfort. India’s strongly anti-imperialist bent also induced in Delhi much more sympathy for the anti-colonial struggle in Indochina than it did in Ottawa, where, during the 1950s and early ’60s, many officials viewed the conflict as one between godless communism and those defending their freedom of (Christian) religion. The two countries toiled, often joylessly together, along with Poland, at the International Control Commission charged with monitoring the 1954 Geneva agreements that were meant to settle the conflict in Indochina, hewing to their respective prejudices and predispositions.

Ottawa and Delhi also disagreed over the 1956 Hungarian and Suez crises, in which the ideological penchants of each were on display, with India seen in the West as, at best, applying double standards. India’s subsequent drift away from non-alignment into a close partnership with the Soviet Union, cemented in a Treaty of Friendship in 1971, further alienated Canada6.

But it was India’s nuclear test of 1974, in response to that of China in 1964, that awoke sharp anger in Ottawa. The test was enabled by nuclear technology Canada had provided to India for expansion of its lagging energy capacity. Canada, which could have become a nuclear weapons state itself as of 1945 but renounced the option believing nuclear proliferation dangerous, was not just shocked to have contributed to proliferation by another country, but also furious at having been duped. It joined Washington and others in erecting a new international pariah status for countries like India (other than the five nuclear weapons states recognized in the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty) that chose to develop such weapons.

Canada’s moral indignation was soon matched by Delhi’s on a different issue. Nationalist fervour among some Indian Sikhs in Punjab (and their cousins abroad) took on a separatist hue in the 1970s, culminating in several tragic events including: a showdown between the Indian army and militants in June 1984 within the Golden Temple of Amritsar, the holiest shrine of the Sikh faith, with hundreds killed; the subsequent assassination of Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi by several
of her Sikh bodyguards; and the destruction of Air Canada flight 182 en route from Montreal to Delhi on June 23, 1985, claiming more than 300 lives. This latter incident, linked to Canadian Sikh supporters of Punjabi separatism, occurred long after Indian officials had complained to the Canadian government about financial and other support flowing from Canada to insurgents in Punjab. The botched RCMP investigation and several largely inconclusive inquiries fed not just significant outrage in New Delhi, but also among Punjabis who rejected the insurgency, which started to wane soon thereafter. Many Indians find it incomprehensible that a modern police force such as the RCMP could have accumulated the errors of process and judgement that have again been laid bare in the June 2010 report by John Major, and view RCMP neglect as having been inspired by latent racism, while Canadians would mostly incline to the theory of incompetence.

Canada and India were now engaged in a frosty mutual sulk and were to remain so for roughly two decades.

India and Canada Today

How did the stalemate end?

Our American friends, particularly those in the corporate world, scanning the globe for commercial advantage, detected long before Canadians did that Indian economic reforms in 1991 were paying off with significantly enhanced growth rates, recently touching on 9 percent. Seizing on India and Pakistan’s nuclear tests of 1998, and the Kargil border war between them in 1999, Washington initiated a conversation with Delhi about ending the estrangement between the United States and India. Although the clock ran out on the Clinton administration, and concrete results were achieved only years later under President Bush, the auguries for Ottawa were clear: Washington was now determined to bring India, which it had earlier so stigmatized and isolated, back into the fold.

By the middle of the last decade, with signs that Washington and Delhi would likely achieve an agreement on nuclear cooperation, Ottawa had dramatically increased attention to India, signalled by non-stop (often rather aimless) Canadian trade missions and visits by Canadian prime ministers, premiers, ministers and many others. Better late than never, perhaps. But, actually, it was very late—by 2005 the whole world was courting India, seeking access to its rapidly expanding markets and newly aware of the geostrategic role it could play in a “great game” in Asia and in nearby sea lanes.

What Do the Countries Have in Common?

In very different ways, India and Canada are among the world’s most successful multi-ethnic, pluralistic and federal societies in which diverse religions, philosophies and political orientations coexist, generally amiably. Contrary to the image of India as a land teeming with the “hopeless poor,” the poor in India struggle mightily to create a better life and, in particular, to educate their children. They travel the breadth of their country in search of better jobs. When Indian communities do clash, as happens every now and then, sometimes on a horrific scale, the violence is generally politically fomented. For centuries, particularly prior to the Raj, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and transplanted Indians all over the country lived peaceably with each other. Relative to the size of the population, this is still overwhelmingly true. With occasional lapses, India’s secular republic has served its citizens well in accommodating so many potentially incompatible cultures, traditions and modern trends (including the recent decriminalization of homosexual relations).

It is not surprising, then, that Canada’s inclusive social model, a very egalitarian one by Indian standards, is generally admired by sophisticated Indians. They tend to see Canada as presenting an attractive face of a western world that had long treated them with racist condescension. Poorer Indians are more likely to have experienced seriously racist attitudes in Canada, or to have heard about them from their previously migrated cousins. The experiences of the first Indian migrants (to British Columbia) in the late 19th century were not promising. Anti-Asian riots in Vancouver in 1907 contributed to a ban on Sikh immigration
in 1908. But those admirable Punjabis toughed it out. Today, a different problem about Canada concerns families in the Punjab: sending their daughters to be married into situations of domestic violence. The chief minister of Punjab inveighed to me plaintively in 2007 when I was Canada’s high commissioner to India: “Please tell Canadians that we love our girls and want them treated decently.” Reader, I did—to the satisfaction of several women in a Vancouver audience but eliciting stern gazes from some several gentlemen.

What Can Canada Offer India?

Naturally, the Indian business community, which in the form of traders spread around Asia millennia ago and migrated to every continent during the 19th and 20th centuries, is interested in Canada. Our natural resources are tantalizing for a country with an already very large population that will continue to grow (albeit at slower rates) well into coming decades: our agricultural commodities regularly fill gaps in Indian supply. Several Indian companies have engaged in sizeable takeovers of Canadian firms and multinationals with Canadian brands, while others have invested heavily in niche markets, such as pulp and paper in New Brunswick. Our location, within the NAFTA zone, offering access to the rich U.S. market, is also attractive. Indians have been entrepreneurial in other ways here, as clients of the Indian private bank ICICI could attest. The Canadian private sector in India has lagged (with notable exceptions).

While India has struggled to provide access to education for its vast population, and has registered some success at the primary and secondary levels, quality throughout its public and much of its private educational system remains seriously deficient, particularly at the university level. Some elite options exist, of which Indians are justly proud, but nowhere near what demand would justify. This is why so many Indians look to study abroad, principally attracted by the United States. But U.S. universities are very expensive, not all are very good and visas are not always on offer. The United Kingdom is also popular, but has become increasingly ambivalent about foreign students as economic misery bears down on the country. Australia has marketed its educational assets brilliantly in India, routinely reeling in well over ten times as many Indian students as Canada has in its best year. But recent attacks on Indian students in Australia, which have been interpreted in India as driven by racism (even though several of the attacks were reportedly perpetrated by others of South Asian ancestry), have set Australia back.

Canada has done very poorly in India in promoting its strong university and college sector. Why? First off, until demographic trends in Canada shifted, our higher education institutions had little need of foreign students. Now, it is a matter of survival for many of them. Furthermore, in a globalized world, every top research university courts the very best academics and students from all over the world in order to compete. Second, our provinces promote themselves individually, and often ineffectively, in India where their names mostly evoke no recognition whatsoever. And the federal government has yet to develop an effective, well-funded strategy to promote the sector internationally. Several Canadian universities have achieved name recognition in India, and several of our university presidents, notably Indira Samarasekera of the University of Alberta and David Johnston (now governor general, formerly the president of the University of Waterloo) have been splendid ambassadors in India for their institutions. But overall, our performance has been dismal.

What Does India Hold Out to Canada?

Canadians have travelled to India for many reasons: its tremendous cultural appeal, stupendous monuments, glorious mountain ranges and its spiritual aura. Indeed, Canadians are to be found all over the country, engaged in various forms of economic, social and other non-profit activity, some simply in search of karma. But, until recently, save for Scotiabank, SNC-Lavalin, Bombardier and Sun Life, our large corporations were mostly absent (while some smaller, intensely entrepreneurial ones cleaned up in sectors ranging from oil and gas to film animation). India’s business culture is, at its top—in companies such as the Tata group and Infosys—very similar to that of the West. But others engage in sharper dealings with more short-term agendas. The regulatory environment is unpredictable, and often driven by political factors. Corruption is a major national challenge, as exposed relentlessly in the Indian parliament and media.

Canadian companies naturally want to maintain Canadian standards in their global activities, but this is not always easy in Asia. It often requires local partners with keener instincts than our own to navigate India’s challenging business environment without resorting to corrupt practices that Canadian law criminalizes. India is an intensely disputatious country. Nothing is certain for long. Success is never guaranteed. But Canadian firms in India tend to do very well, once initial barriers to entry are overcome. Our trade figures (boosted by commodities) are respectable—at roughly 10 percent of those of the United States, pretty well what one might expect. And, while Canadian investment in India has been pitiful, India’s overall investment in Canada (including takeovers, which are not recorded as investment in our statistical data) has been quite impressive. But the Canadian private sector has yet to really test its potential in India. Governments can do only so much to encourage trade. Business, ultimately, is the business of business.

Among Indian elites, aspects of Canadian culture are better known than we might imagine. The Toronto International Film Festival has been tremendously welcoming to Indian film and it represents an important annual milestone on India’s entertainment agenda. In India, authors Rohinton Mistry, M.G. Vassanji, Anita Rau Badami and filmmaker Deepa Mehta are much discussed. Michael Ondaatje’s writing induces swoons. Canadians not of South Asian extraction are sometimes highly regarded, but simply cannot elicit the level of interest that South Asian voices do throughout the subcontinent. Successive Canadian governments have not understood what a bridge between our two countries these artists could be if more public encouragement were offered. But that, it seems, is our way.

So, where does this leave us? Canada is tagging along a global surge of interest in India. Our politicians visiting the country tend to do so with domestic political objectives in mind. Several premiers have a strong sense of India and transcend this dimension in their travels. Dalton McGuinty and Jean Charest stand out in this regard. Several federal politicians have bonded well with their Indian counterparts because they have tried to understand them, their political needs and the specificities of India. They occasionally switch from “send” mode, urged on them by their talking points, to a more sympathetic “receive.” Embarrassingly, not all do.

Personal relationships are intensely important in South Asia, indeed throughout Asia. They guarantee little, but without them little is possible. The gift for personal outreach and connection (as opposed to decency, politeness and civic engagement) is not notable in all Canadians. If we want to go global, we will need to work harder to integrate more of this into our DNA.

Finally, rather than thinking narrowly about what we can get out of India, might we think more broadly? While I was in Delhi, a young relative of a French friend came on exchange to an Indian business school. He did not cleave much to the school, but he very much enjoyed his Indian classmates. He travelled prodigiously, in third-class train carriages, getting to corners of India I failed to reach. While taking an unsentimental view of India’s failings, particularly toward its poor, he focused on the positive. Later, on graduation from his French business school, he got a rare offer from one of the most desirable global investment banks. He was surprised. “Why?” he asked. “You love India, and we need more colleagues who love India” came the reply.


  1. Hira Lal Singh, Problems and Policies of the British in India, 1885–1898 (Asia Publishing House, 1963), page 140. 

  2. Sumit Sarkar, Modern India, 1885–1947 (Macmillan, 2001), page 21. 

  3. Correspondence with the author. 

  4. Kunal Diwan, “A Seasoned Dilliwallah Is Back Home,” The Hindu, June 18, 2008. 

  5. Angus Maddison, The World Economy: Historical Statistics (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2003). 

  6. One of my predecessors in Delhi, Escott Reid, wrote an excellent, rather sympathetic, book about Indian policy between 1952 and 1957: Envoy to Nehru (Oxford University Press, 1981). It is still much cited in the Indian literature of international relations.