Murder of Sikh Separatist Leader in Canada Sparks International Crisis
Maria Tavernini 26 September 2023

The murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian citizen and a prominent Sikh separatist leader in the western province of British Columbia who was shot dead on June 18, 2023 by two masked gunmen outside the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara (temple) in Surrey, near Vancouver, has sparked an international crisis. On September 18th, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau made an incendiary statement to the Canadian Parliament that Ottawa was looking into “credible allegations potentially linking” India to Nijjar’s murder. India has denied any role in the killing, calling the allegations “absurd and motivated”. Trudeau’s statement, coming just days after the conclusion of the G20 summit in the Indian capital, which highlighted growing tensions between Ottawa and New Delhi, is likely to deal a major blow to the bilateral relations between the two countries.

Unlike other Western leaders, Justin Trudeau did not hold formal bilateral meetings with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the G20 summit, but the two leaders raised serious concerns with each other on the sidelines. While relations between India and Canada have traditionally been driven by commercial and defense interests, as well as a large Indian diaspora in Canada, they have slowly but steadily deteriorated in recent years. India has repeatedly accused Canada of continuing anti-India activities by harboring “Khalistani terrorists and extremists”, who are considered a threat to Indian national security, while Canada has accused India of interfering in its internal affairs: Canada is strongly committed to democratic values and freedom of expression. The United States and other Western powers now fear a diplomatic row that would jeopardize their relations with India, which is seen as a key player on the geopolitical chessboard.

“Any involvement by a foreign government in the killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil is an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty,” Trudeau told Parliament. He also said that Canada would press India to cooperate with the investigation into Nijjar’s killing. “We are not looking to provoke or escalate,” he told reporters, “We are simply laying out the facts as we understand them.” The son of Hardeep Singh Nijjar said his family had always suspected that the Indian government was behind his father’s killing and has asked Trudeau’s government to take “this a step further” and identify the killers of his father and separatist leader. Nijjar was running a plumbing business but he was also the head of the pro-Khalistan outfit, Khalistan Tiger Force and the Canadian arm of Sikhs for Justice (SFJ).

Nijjar was listed as a terrorist by the Modi government in July 2020. He was accused of supporting attacks in India’s Punjab state, where separatists seek to create an independent Sikh homeland, which they call Khalistan. Indian authorities sought his extradition in 2022, when he was linked to the killing of a Hindu priest in Punjab. Punjab is one of India’s richest states and has the largest number of Sikhs – more than 57 percent of its 31.6 million people, according to the latest census. But, across India, the estimated 20 million Sikhs are a minority of only 1.7 percent of the population, while Muslims make up about 14 percent, Christians 2.3 percent, Buddhists 0.7 percent, Jain 0.4 percent and Parsi 0.006 percent. Canada has the largest Sikh population after India, with nearly 800,000 people or 2.1 percent of the country’s population, followed by the United Kingdom and the United States with about 500,000 each and Australia with 200,000.

Sikhism is a relatively new religion that originated in the Indian subcontinent around the end of the 15th century. The Sikh separatist movement for an ethno‐religious sovereign state called Khalistan flourished in the Indian state of Punjab between the 1970s and the 1980s with financial and political support from the Sikh diaspora abroad. The insurgency lasted for more than a decade until it was crushed by the Indian forces, killing thousands of people, including prominent Sikh leaders. In 1984, Indian forces raided the Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest site, where separatists had taken refuge in Amritsar. The infamous Operation Blue Star killed about 400 people, according to official figures, although Sikhs claim the victims were in the thousands. On October 31, 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who had ordered the raid on the temple, was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards. The assassination sparked a wave of riots that became one of the worse massacres of Sikhs in post-partition India: the official toll is 2,800, while independent sources estimate it to be at least three to five times that number.

“The significance of today’s announcement cannot be understated for Sikhs. Today, the Prime Minister of Canada has publicly stated what Sikhs in Canada have known for decades – India is actively targeting Sikhs in Canada. It should now be clear to all Canadians that the government of India is a terrorist state that has brazenly engaged in extrajudicial killings not only on its own soil, but also on Canadian soil,” said Tejinder Singh Sidhu, President of the World Sikh Organization of Canada (WSO), a non-profit with a mandate to promote and protect the interests of Canadian Sikhs. “There are other Sikhs in Canada who face an ongoing threat to their lives. Every possible measure must be taken to ensure their safety. The Sikh community will not be intimidated or frightened by the actions of the Indian government. Sikhs will continue to fearlessly advocate for Khalistan and against Indian human rights abuses, as they have the right to do”, he added.

The presence and influence of Sikhs in Canada has long troubled India. While the Khalistan movement is nearly dead in India, it still thrives in the diaspora in countries such as Canada, Australia and the UK. Relations between India and Canada continue to deteriorate after Trudeau accused the Indian government of being involved in Nijjar’s murder. Following India’s denial, both countries expelled senior diplomats while India has recently suspended visas for Canadians as the row continues to escalate. According to Muqtedar Khan, a professor of International Relations at the University of Delaware, relations between the two countries are heading to a dangerous place and, if the situation continues to devolve, it could have a major impact on India’s relations with the entire Western world.

“Modi’s government has used a very masculine and aggressive foreign policy. This year, when India hosted the G20 summit and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, its soft power was thriving. Now, the question facing Indian foreign policy is, if India really did this, then what happens to its image and its growing proximity to the G7 countries, which are liberal and democratic?” says professor Khan. “Some voices in India are comparing the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW, the Indian intelligence agency) to the Mossad, but rather than Israel, India might be seen as Iran or Russia that have killed dissidents in foreign countries. India is projecting itself as the Vishwaguru, or the ‘global teacher’, and extrajudicial killings do not quite fit the role of the world’s moral leader. In India there is a practice called encounter – or the extrajudicial killing of criminals or political opponents. Domestically, the government has actually used means that do not even meet the standards of the Indian course. The fact that they feel emboldened to do the same abroad is partly because Western leaders in recent years have played to Mr. Modi’s ego and are unwilling to assess the record of domestic human rights abuses and declining democratic traditions in India”.

Members of the Five Eyes alliance – which includes Canada, the US, the UK, Australia and New Zealand – have urged India to cooperate and said they are deeply concerned by the escalation of the dispute, but did not go further than that. While Canada has yet to provide hard evidence to Trudeau’s allegations, India’s involvement in the killing of Nijjar “is based on surveillance of Indian diplomats in Canada, including intelligence provided by a major ally of the Five Eyes”, according to an unnamed source who spoke to the Associated Press. As diplomatic tensions between India and Canada rapidly escalate, relations between the two countries are hitting their lowest point in decades.



Cover photo: a man with Sikhs for Justice joins other Indian-Americans in protest of President Joe Biden’s decision to welcome Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a state visit to the White House (photo by Allison Bailey / NurPhoto / NurPhoto via AFP.)


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