Sikh activist’s killing threatens Narendra Modi’s relations with Canada

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau ignited a firestorm on Monday when he told parliament that authorities were investigating whether “agents” of New Delhi were behind the June killing of a prominent diaspora Sikh activist in a Vancouver suburb.

The allegations over the death of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, if corroborated by evidence, would put the world’s largest democracy in the company of governments that have carried out assassinations on foreign soil — including the recent likes of Russia and Saudi Arabia.

“India has never been accused of carrying out an assassination of a dissident abroad,” said Brahma Chellaney, a professor emeritus at the Centre for Policy Research, a New Delhi think-tank. “This is something that authoritarian regimes do.” 

Trudeau’s claim, which India flatly rejected as “absurd”, has already triggered tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions and inflamed strained ties between the Commonwealth countries. It came barely a week after a G20 leaders’ summit in New Delhi, where Trudeau was scolded by India’s leader Narendra Modi for tolerating Sikh extremism in Canada, in remarks the Indian prime minister’s office made public.

The allegations will fuel a febrile domestic political environment in India months ahead of a general election, where Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party will seek a third term.

They also drew global attention to the cause of Sikh separatists who advocate the creation of an independent “Khalistan” state in northern India — a notion fiercely opposed by Indians across the political mainstream and which has resurfaced as a point of diplomatic friction for New Delhi over the past year.

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According to Indian security analysts, there is more support for Khalistan overseas — notably in the UK and Canada, home of the largest diaspora population, where many Sikhs emigrated decades ago to flee violence in Punjab.

Sikh separatists’ grievances against the Indian state surged after 1984, when then-prime minister Indira Gandhi ordered the storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the religious minority’s holiest shrine, where Sikh separatists had barricaded themselves.

Gandhi was assassinated that year by two Sikh bodyguards, sparking retaliatory killings of Sikhs in Delhi and elsewhere and unleashing security crackdowns and violence in Punjab that killed thousands. India has accused Pakistan of supporting Sikh separatism. 

Punjab, India’s only Sikh-majority state, suffers from widespread drug abuse and a failure of its agricultural sector. This year, Amritpal Singh, a pro-Khalistan extremist, led police on a month-long manhunt that was widely followed by Sikhs abroad. 

Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau addresses parliament on Monday
Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau on Monday said national security services were pursuing ‘credible allegations’ of links between India’s government and Nijjar’s death © Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press/Zuma/dpa

Émigré Sikhs have staged a string of protests this year in the US, Canada and the UK, where they triggered a diplomatic objection after tearing down a flag at the Indian High Commission in London. In June, pro-Khalistan separatists in Brampton, outside Toronto, angered Indians on social media by staging a parade with a float depicting Gandhi’s assassination with dummies of two armed men and the slain leader in a blood-soaked sari.

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In July, Indian officials voiced concern about posters circulated by organisers of another Canadian protest that said “Kill India” and showed pictures of two Indian diplomats, who were described as “Shaheed [martyr] Najjar’s killers in Toronto”.

Relations between India and Canada had already soured after Trudeau urged New Delhi in 2020 to show restraint against disruptive protests by farmers, many from Punjab, who blocked roads in Delhi and forced Modi to scrap a planned agricultural reform.

His intervention prompted some Indian commentators to cry hypocrisy after Trudeau had taken a hard line against truckers who blocked streets in cities across Canada the same year to protest against mandatory Covid-19 vaccinations.

At last week’s G20 meeting, Modi and Trudeau met on the sidelines and briefly clasped hands for a photo, but did not hold a formal bilateral meeting. Modi’s office later released a statement saying the Indian leader had voiced concerns about “continuing anti-India activities of extremist elements in Canada” that were “promoting secessionism and inciting violence against Indian diplomats”. 

Trudeau’s team told journalists that Canada’s prime minister had “raised the importance of respecting the rule of law, democratic principles and national sovereignty”.

Trudeau’s departure from the G20 was delayed by a maintenance problem on his aircraft that left the Canadian leader stranded in Delhi for two days and kept the acrimony between the leaders in the headlines. The countries suspended talks on a proposed free trade agreement last week.   

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One Indian security analyst expressed surprise that Canada would publicise allegations blaming India rather than publish evidence, and claimed “gang-related activities” among Khalistani extremists might be responsible. 

Chellaney of the Centre for Policy Research said: “A more prudent way of going about this for Canada would have been to arrest the suspects and present evidence of any Indian government involvement in court.”

India’s government had accused Nijjar, a Sikh nationalist, of terrorism and posted bounties for his arrest. The World Sikh Organization of Canada called his killing by unidentified assailants an “assassination” and called for a police investigation. 

Some pro-Khalistan activists have alleged that Nijjar’s death is part of a suspicious pattern, after the deaths of two other Sikh activists. Paramjit Singh Panjwar was shot dead in Lahore, Pakistan in May, while Avtar Singh Khanda, an aide to the fugitive Amritpal Singh, died in hospital in Birmingham, UK in June. 

While some supporters claimed Khanda had been poisoned, West Midlands police said in a statement that “a thorough review was undertaken” and that “there were no suspicious circumstances” in his death.

In recent years, “almost every major security incident that occurred in Punjab has been carried out by organised crime, not by individuals who are motivated by the Khalistani ideology,” said Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi.

“It is increasingly gangsterism which is being promoted by both Khalistanis and gangs in the diaspora, with Canada being an important area where this happens.”

Additional reporting by Robert Wright in London