The assassination of a Sikh separatist leader has torpedoed relations between India and Canada, leading to the firing of diplomats and the collapse of trade talks.
Hardeep Singh Nijjar was president of Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in Surrey, British Columbia and was killed on June 18 on the Gurudwara grounds.
In India, Nijjar was listed as a wanted terrorist and was the subject of a 1 million rupee (£9,710) bounty for information leading to his arrest. Nijjar, a Sikh separatist supporter, was accused of leading a banned militant organization called the Khalistan Tiger Force.
Three months after his death, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau claimed that the Indian government may have been behind Nijjar’s killing, sparking a diplomatic row that is likely to worsen already faltering bilateral relations.
“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.
India rejected Canada’s “absurd and motivated” allegations and accused the Trudeau government of allowing the Khalistan movement to flourish. The Sikh secession movement demands that the Indian state of Punjab be carved out of a separate homeland for the Sikh religious community.
New Delhi fired a senior Canadian diplomat on Tuesday after Ottawa announced the expulsion of an Indian diplomat who was the country’s intelligence chief.
Nijjar, 46, a father of two, was shot dead in his truck by two unknown masked gunmen outside the Nanak Sikh Gurudwara, sparking protests across the country.
At the time, investigators described the killing as “targeted” and said there was no threat to the Sikh community, which makes up about two per cent of Canada’s population.
Nijjar is the second member of the Sikh community to be killed in Canada after Ripudaman Singh Malik – one of two men acquitted in the 1985 Air India bombing – was fatally shot in Surrey last year. All 329 people on board an Air India flight from Canada to India died when the plane exploded on the Irish coast. In one of the deadliest terrorist attacks believed to have been orchestrated by Sikh separatists.
Nijjar immigrated to Canada as a refugee almost two decades ago and was known to be a plumber by profession and also a prayer leader at the Nanak Sikh Gurudwara.
Days before his death, he reportedly told his associates that he had received “cryptic warnings” from Canadian intelligence about a possible assassination attempt against him.
In a speech just hours before the shooting, Nijjar told attendees that advocating for Sikh rights in the Indian state of Punjab was treasonous work. “The coming time is very dangerous,” he said in Punjabi, according to a Globe and mail Report.
The World Sikh Organization of Canada called Nijjar an outspoken supporter of Khalistan who “often led peaceful protests against human rights abuses taking place in India and in support of Khalistan.”
“Nijjar had spoken publicly for months about the threat to his life and said he was being targeted by Indian intelligence agencies,” the statement said.
In India, Nijjar was wanted for his separatist activities by the National Investigative Agency (NIA), which announced a cash reward for information leading to his arrest in connection with an attack on a Hindu priest.
Authorities in India declared Nijjar a “lone terrorist” under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act in July 2020.
Nijjar oversaw the recruitment and funding of young Sikh men for suspected terrorist activities, Indian officials alleged to the newspaper Hindustan Times.
Balraj Singh Nijjar, the slain leader’s eldest son, broke his silence on Monday and said the family had always suspected Indian government involvement in his father’s killing.
“It was only a matter of time before the truth came out,” he told reporters from the same gurudwara where his father was fatally shot, CBC News reported. “When we heard the news today, we were relieved that it was finally getting out to the public.”
While India has urged Canada to condemn rising separatist sentiment in the diaspora community, Mr. Trudeau maintains that the country “will always defend freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and freedom of peaceful protest and that this is extremely important to us.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi raised concerns about the move on the sidelines of the G20 summit in New Delhi last week. Mr. Trudeau told the Canadian Parliament on Monday that Nijjar’s killing had been brought up during their discussions.
There has been a spate of “targeted killings” of prominent Sikh separatist leaders in countries with significant Indian populations.
Avtar Singh Khanda, the alleged leader of the Khalistan Liberation Force, died under “mysterious circumstances” in Birmingham, UK, in June.
Paramjit Singh Panjwar, an Indian-designated terrorist, was shot dead by unidentified assailants in Lahore, Pakistan, in May.