Canada-India relations are strained as Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh separatist leader, is assassinated, sparking a diplomatic feud.
The recent assassination of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a prominent Sikh separatist leader, has ignited a diplomatic firestorm between India and Canada, resulting in the expulsion of diplomats and the disruption of trade talks. Nijjar, the president of Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in Surrey, British Columbia, was gunned down on June 18th within the gurudwara’s premises.
Nijjar’s Controversial Profile
In India, Hardeep Singh Nijjar was a wanted terrorist, with a bounty of Rs 1 million (£9,710) for information leading to his arrest. He was a fervent supporter of Sikh separatist causes and was accused of leading the proscribed militant organisation known as the Khalistan Tiger Force.
Trudeau’s Accusations and India’s Response
Three months after Nijjar’s death, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested that the Indian government might be implicated in Nijjar’s murder, further escalating diplomatic tensions. Trudeau emphatically stated, “Any involvement of a foreign government in the killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil is an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty.” India rejected these allegations as “absurd and motivated” while accusing the Trudeau government of allowing the Khalistan movement to flourish.
In response to the escalating feud, India expelled a senior Canadian diplomat, mirroring Ottawa’s earlier expulsion of an Indian diplomat, who was the head of India’s intelligence agency.
Hardeep Singh Nijjar, 46, a father of two, was fatally shot in his truck by two masked gunmen outside the Nanak Sikh Gurudwara, sparking protests across Canada. Investigators categorised the killing as “targeted” and assured the Sikh community that there was no imminent threat to their safety.
A Troubled History
Nijjar is the second member of the Sikh community to be assassinated in Canada, following the fatal shooting of Ripudaman Singh Malik, one of the two men acquitted in the 1985 Air India bombing case. This event, considered one of the deadliest terror attacks attributed to Sikh separatists, claimed the lives of all 329 people on board an Air India flight from Canada to India.
Nijjar immigrated to Canada nearly two decades ago as a refugee and worked as a plumber by profession. He was also a prayer leader at the Nanak Sikh Gurudwara. In the days leading up to his death, Nijjar had reportedly received “cryptic warnings” from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service about a potential assassination plot against him.
Advocating for Sikh Rights
In his final speech, Nijjar cautioned about the dangers of advocating for Sikh rights in India’s Punjab state. He actively supported Khalistan and often led peaceful protests against human rights violations in India and in favour of Khalistan.
India’s Pursuit of Nijjar
In India, Nijjar was pursued by the National Investigative Agency (NIA) for his separatist activities, with a cash reward announced for information related to his arrest in connection with an attack on a Hindu priest. Indian authorities had declared Nijjar an “individual terrorist” under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act in July 2020. He was allegedly involved in recruiting and funding young Sikh men for alleged terrorist activities.
Balraj Singh Nijjar, the slain leader’s eldest son, expressed the family’s long-standing suspicion of Indian government involvement in his father’s killing. He emphasised the relief that the truth was finally emerging in the public eye.
While India urged Canada to condemn the rise of separatist sentiment among the diaspora community, Prime Minister Trudeau maintained Canada’s commitment to defending freedom of expression, conscience, and peaceful protest.
Nijjar’s assassination adds to a series of “targeted killings” of prominent Sikh separatist leaders worldwide. This includes the mysterious death of Avtar Singh Khanda, the alleged head of the Khalistan Liberation Force, in Birmingham, UK, in June, and the shooting of Paramjit Singh Panjwar, a designated terrorist by India, in Lahore, Pakistan, in May.