Sikh leaders welcome arrests in Canada activist killing, but questions loom

Leaders demand justice for threats against Sikh activists in North America and accusations of Indian gov’t involvement.

Canada India killing
A sign asks for an investigation into India's alleged role in the killing of Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar at the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in Surrey, British Columbia [File: Chris Helgren/Reuters]

Montreal, Canada – Sikh leaders in North America have welcomed recent arrests in the killing of Canadian Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar, but allegations that the Indian government was involved continue to fuel questions and unease.

Canadian police announced late last week that three Indian nationals were arrested in Canada for their involvement in the June killing of Nijjar, a prominent Sikh community leader in the westernmost province of British Columbia.

Police added that their investigation into Nijjar’s shooting death would continue, including whether “there are any ties to the government of India”.

Moninder Singh, a spokesman for the BC Gurdwaras Council, a coalition of Sikh temples in the province, told Al Jazeera there was “some relief” that arrests were made in the case.

But Singh, who knew Nijjar personally, said the question of Indian state involvement is “looming” over the Sikh community, which numbers about 770,000 people across Canada — the largest Sikh diaspora outside India.

“The foreign interference is real. The assassination plot is real,” said Singh, adding that it is imperative to get to the bottom of what India’s role has been.

“All of that has to be exposed,” he continued. “There [are] numerous reasons why it’s very, very important for public safety in Canada, along with deterring India from carrying out this kind of operation ever again.”

Canada-India tensions

Tensions between Canada and India skyrocketed in September after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that authorities were investigating “credible allegations of a potential link” between Indian government agents and Nijjar’s killing.

Nijjar was fatally shot on June 18, 2023, outside the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara, a temple in Surrey, British Columbia, where he served as president.

India vehemently denied the allegations that it was involved, calling them “absurd”. It also accused Nijjar of being involved in “terrorism” — a claim rejected by his supporters.

Nijjar had been a leading advocate in what is known as the Khalistan movement, a Sikh campaign for a sovereign state in India’s Punjab region.

While largely dormant inside India itself, Sikh separatism is largely viewed as a threat by the Indian government, which has urged Western nations to crack down on Khalistan movement leaders in the diaspora.

Canada has provided shelter to “Khalistani terrorists and extremists” who “continue to threaten India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”, India’s Ministry of External Affairs said as it rejected Trudeau’s allegations in September.

But Sikh leaders in Canada said they have faced threats for years, and they accused the Indian government of trying to silence them.

Nijjar’s killing amplified these longstanding tensions, and new reports have emerged of Indian officials’ involvement in other alleged plots to harm prominent Sikh leaders in Canada and the United States.

Reports of threats

For instance, in late November, the US Department of Justice announced charges against a 52-year-old Indian national, Nikhil Gupta, over a foiled attempt to assassinate Sikh American activist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun.

The plot to kill Pannun, another Sikh separatist leader, was organised in coordination with an Indian government employee and others, according to the Justice Department.

Last week, The Washington Post reported that US intelligence agencies determined that the operation to target Pannun was approved by the then-head of India’s foreign intelligence agency, known as the Research and Analysis Wing or RAW.

The Indian government rejected those allegations as “unwarranted” and “unsubstantiated”, according to media reports.

But rights groups have said India “needs to do a lot more than issue denials” in such cases.

“India’s alleged involvement in assassination plots in the US and Canada suggests a new and notorious leap in extrajudicial killings,” Elaine Pearson, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in December.

Gurpatwant Singh Pannun
Sikh separatist leader Gurpatwant Singh Pannun is pictured in his office in New York in November 2023 [Ted Shaffrey/AP Photo]

Pritpal Singh, an activist and founder of the American Sikh Caucus Committee, was among the prominent Sikh leaders who were informed of threats against them over the past year.

Agents with the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) visited Pritpal, who is based in the state of California, in June to warn him.

In a statement to Al Jazeera this week, Pritpal said he commended “the unwavering commitment of Canadian and American law enforcement agencies” in their investigations into Nijjar’s killing and the surveillance of Sikhs.

“The alleged involvement of the Indian government in these heinous acts is a blatant violation of international norms and human rights. It is wholly unacceptable for any government to engage in extrajudicial killings and suppress dissenting voices abroad,” he said.

Pritpal also demanded accountability for threats against Sikh activists. “We must insist on US justice against those involved in India’s alleged murder-for-hire scheme targeting Americans on US soil,” he said.

“It is imperative that these cases are prosecuted on American soil by the United States Department of Justice to prevent these perpetrators from self-prosecuting.”

India hits out at Canada

Still, India has continued to deny any involvement in the alleged plots, while blasting Canada over its approach to Nijjar’s killing in particular.

The Indian High Commission in Ottawa, the Canadian capital, did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment on the case.

After news broke on Friday that Canadian authorities had made arrests, the Indian external affairs minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, said the Canadian government had a “political compulsion” to blame India.

Speaking to Indian news outlet The Economic Times this week, Jaishankar also accused Canada of “providing a haven to organised crime”.

“We’ve been repeatedly telling the Canadians that, if you actually allow such forces to set up shop and create networks, this is going to harm their own society. But so far, I don’t think that advice has been well heeded,” the minister said.

Canadian authorities have rejected the idea that they have allowed unlawful activity to proliferate. Experts also argue that many of the individuals India considers “terrorists” are not violating any Canadian laws.

“Canada is a rule-of-law country with a strong and independent justice system as well as a fundamental commitment to protecting all its citizens,” Trudeau said during a Sikh community event in Toronto on Saturday.

“I know that many Canadians, particularly members of the Sikh community, are feeling uneasy and perhaps even frightened right now. Well, every Canadian has the fundamental right to live safely and free from discrimination and threats of violence in Canada,” Trudeau added.

Use of ‘proxies’

Last week, the head of a Canadian public inquiry into foreign interference also released an interim report that accused Indian officials as well as their proxies in Canada of engaging in “a range of activities that seek to influence Canadian communities and politicians”.

This includes efforts to “align Canada’s position with India’s interests on key issues, particularly with respect to how the Indian government perceives Canada-based supporters of an independent Sikh homeland”, Commissioner Marie-Josee Hogue said.

The report noted that India “does not differentiate between lawful, pro-Khalistani political advocacy and the relatively small Canada-based Khalistani violent extremism”.

Therefore, “it views anyone aligned with Khalistani separatism as a seditious threat to India”.

Hogue also found that Indian officials are increasingly relying on Canadian and Canada-based proxies and their contacts to conduct foreign interference.

“This obfuscates any explicit link between India and the foreign interference activities. Proxies liaise and work with Indian intelligence officials in India and in Canada, taking both explicit and implicit direction from them,” the report said.

A sign outside the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara temple is seen after the killing on its grounds
A sign shows Nijjar outside the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in Surrey, British Columbia, on September 18, 2023 [Chris Helgren/Reuters]

‘Galvanising’ Sikh communities

Ultimately, Sikh leaders have called for a full investigation into all those who may be involved in threats against members of their communities, including Indian state officials.

“I can’t speak to the motivation of the Indian state if it is proven that they are behind these heinous attacks,” said Kavneet Singh, chair of the board of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF), a US-based civil rights group.

“But they have had a long history of suppression of freedom of expression and targeting those who speak out in dissent.”

Kavneet told Al Jazeera that the American Sikh community is advocating at the federal and state levels “for improved legislation to better help law enforcement understand, identity and prosecute” instances of transnational repression.

He added that, despite the threats, the Sikh community’s history “has not been one of living in fear”.

Instead, “it’s one of understanding that there are potential threats, and it’s [one of] being vigilant,” Kavneet said. “In fact, I think this is actually galvanising the community and our diasporic allies.

“While there may be political differences amongst communities, ultimately we stand together when members of the community and/or our institutions are threatened by actors either foreign or domestic.”

Singh at the BC Gurdwaras Council echoed that sentiment, stressing that the Indian government is trying to “silence” Sikh voices in the diaspora who are advocating for a sovereign state.

Singh was among five Sikh leaders — including Nijjar — who were warned by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s national security division in 2022 about threats against their lives.

He told Al Jazeera on Tuesday that the Canadian authorities told him within the past two months that the threat against him “is still real” and he should avoid large public gatherings.

“If we speak on this issue [Khalistan] and we’re going to lead the community on this issue in the diaspora, I think those threats will always be there now. There’s no way that we can ever go back,” he said.

“When Hardeep’s assassination happened, that really set some clarity in for some of us that this is real. This is the new real for us and the new reality, that this can happen at any time.”

Source: Al Jazeera