Trudeau Says India Likely Behind Murder of Canadian Sikh Leader

The Canadian government says it has evidence that agents of the Indian government may have been responsible for the assassination of a Sikh leader on Canadian soil this summer.

The allegations were revealed publicly by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the House of Commons on Monday afternoon. “Over the past number of weeks,” Trudeau told the House, “Canadian security agencies have been actively pursuing credible allegations of a potential link between agents of the government of India and the killing of a Canadian citizen, Hardeep Singh Nijjar.”

If the allegations are true, it would be an incredibly rare example of a targeted assassination on notionally friendly soil—perhaps the most brazen since the killings carried out by Israel after the 1972 Olympic massacre.

India’s alleged role in the murder has created a major diplomatic crisis between Ottawa and New Delhi, and may have knock-on effects for India’s broader relations, further complicating things in the Indo-Pacific.

On June 18, Nijjar delivered a speech at the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara, where he was president, in Surrey, British Columbia. Afterward, he walked to the parking lot and climbed into his car. Shortly after 8 p.m., two men in masks approached Nijjar’s car and opened fire. The two men escaped in a waiting getaway car. While the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have yet to announce the identities of the suspected gunmen, the homicide team did identify their vehicle.

Trudeau said he presented the accusations directly to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi “in no uncertain terms” when the two met in New Delhi during the Group of 20 summit last week. Ottawa has also raised the issue with Indian intelligence. “Any involvement of a foreign government in the killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil is an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty,” Trudeau said, demanding India’s full cooperation with the investigation.

On Monday, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly announced that Canada had expelled a “top Indian diplomat.” She later clarified that the expelled Indian official was the head of the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s foreign intelligence agency. Ottawa named the official as Pavan Kumar Rai—the Indian high commission in Ottawa lists Rai as the minister responsible for “community affairs.”

In a public statement sent to Foreign Policy upon a request for comment and attributed to High Commissioner Sanjay Kumar Verma, the Indian government rejected the accusation. “Allegations of Government of India’s involvement in any act of violence in Canada are absurd and motivated,” it reads.

It goes on to accuse the Canadian government of trying to “shift the focus from Khalistani terrorists and extremists, who have been provided shelter in Canada and continue to threaten India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” and of doing too little to tackle “anti-India elements operating from their soil.” India later announced that it had expelled a senior Canadian diplomat.

Opposition leader Pierre Poilievre told the House of Commons that the allegations, if they are true, represent an “outrageous affront to Canada’s sovereignty.”

India has, for years, expressed its frustrations with the presence of an organized—and, in some cases, radical—Sikh separatist movement in Canada, centered around the idea of an independent “Khalistan” in Punjab, the homeland of Sikhism.

Back in India, tensions between Sikhs and the Indian government have sometimes turned bloody. In 1984, Operation Blue Star, a military operation to remove Sikh militants from the Golden Temple, the spiritual headquarters of the faith, resulted in hundreds of deaths at the temple, the revenge assassination of then Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, and mass killings of thousands of Sikhs by angry mobs. A recent manhunt for Sikh separatist Amritpal Singh Sadhu fixated the country for weeks.

New Delhi blames the Sikh diaspora for funding and encouraging separatism in Punjab. Nijjar, in particular, was a point of contention with Canada. The Indian government laid charges against Nijjar in 2020 for his role in organizing a Khalistan independence referendum, and have added him to a list of terrorist individuals. New Delhi offered a reward of 1,000,000 rupees ($12,000) for his capture. Nijjar has denied being involved in any political violence.

The Modi government has also accused Nijjar of leading the Khalistan Tiger Force, a banned group that India says is a terrorist organization. They had been applying to have Canada extradite Nijjar since at least 2018. The Khalistan Extremism Monitor, a project of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management, maintains a page dedicated to Nijjar, alleging that he was “actively involved in training” Sikh separatists prior to his death.

Canada’s Sikh community publicly accused India of being behind Nijjar’s murder. One pro-independence group, Sikhs for Justice, directly accused India’s diplomatic staff in Canada and offered its own reward of 10,000 Canadian dollars ($7,400) for information on the assassination. British Columbia organizers for a global, nonbinding referendum on Khalistan independence went so far as to add a question to their ballot, asking whether India was responsible for Nijjar’s killing. Before his murder, Nijjar was described by a fellow independence activist as being “the face of the Khalistan Referendum in Canada.”

Protests in British Columbia, and the upcoming referendum, had already strained Canada-Indian relations. When Trudeau arrived in the nation’s capital for the G20 summit earlier this month, Trudeau was frozen out of joint photo opportunities and berated by Modi for hosting Sikh activists “promoting secessionism and inciting violence against Indian diplomats, damaging diplomatic premises and threatening the Indian community in Canada and their places of worship,” according to an official statement.

Things got progressively more awkward after Trudeau’s plane was grounded due to technical issues. The Canadian prime minister was forced to extend his stay by two extra days, while waiting for a replacement plane.

Canada has certainly played host to Sikh extremists. In 1985, a bomb aboard Air India Flight 182 exploded off the coast of Ireland, en route from Montreal, killing all 329 onboard. While the bombing was connected to Babbar Khalsa, an extremist organization under surveillance by Canadian authorities, Canada has not convicted a single person directly responsible for the attack. (A bombmaker was convicted in 2003 for the deaths of two baggage handlers after his bomb detonated in a Tokyo airport.)

On the other side, however, there is a growing concern with India’s targeting of Sikh activists. Inside India, Human Rights Watch has found Modi’s government responsible for “systematic discrimination and stigmatization of religious and other minorities” and singled out supporters of his Bharatiya Janata Party as being responsible for a rise in violence against minorities.

Sikh groups, in particular, have accused Modi’s government of stepping up repression. Earlier this summer, some Sikh activists alleged that New Delhi was carrying out a campaign of assassination, citing Nijjar’s murder in Surrey, the shooting of Paramjit Singh Panjwar in Pakistan in May, and the death of Avtar Singh Khanda in the United Kingdom in June. (A statement from his family said Khanda died of cancer, but his supporters allege he was poisoned.)

Jagmeet Singh, leader of Canada’s third-opposition New Democratic Party, delivered a particularly emotional appeal after Trudeau’s statement on Monday. Many Sikhs “come to Canada as a beacon of safety,” he said. Singh is himself Sikh and represents a community not far from where Nijjar was killed. The murder, he said, reverberated through the Sikh community. “That safety and security that so many Canadians feel has now been rocked.”

Canada is home to the second-largest Sikh population in the world, after India. Canada, in fact, has a higher proportion of Sikh residents and citizens than India. Until recently, Ottawa and New Delhi enjoyed exceptional relations. The two countries have been working toward a free trade deal for more than a decade. In 2020, Trudeau redoubled efforts to do a full trade deal, particularly amid rising concerns around Beijing. Canada, like the United States, identifies India as a regional ally.

Earlier this month, Ottawa scuttled those hopes and pressed pause on future trade negotiations. In recent months, Canada has been grappling with how to tackle foreign interference. A series of revelations exposed a campaign of meddling and intimidation organized by China to help elect Beijing-friendly politicians and cow Chinese citizens living in Canada. Earlier this month, Trudeau announced the establishment of a full public inquiry to investigate that foreign meddling.

Singh has, for months, called for a deeper investigation into how other countries run clandestine operations in Canada. On Monday, he directly pointed the finger at New Delhi: “The Modi government, specifically, is trying to silence you,” he said. “But truth cannot be silenced.”

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