By Altaf Moti
The alleged assassination of Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada by Indian agents in June 2023 has led to a diplomatic row and a resurgence of the Khalistan movement which seeks an independent homeland for Sikhs in India’s Punjab region. The incident has strained the relations between India and Canada as well as other countries that have a significant Sikh population, such as the United States and Britain.
Nijjar was the president of a Sikh temple in Surrey, British Columbia, and an activist and supporter of the Khalistan movement. He was wanted by Indian authorities for alleged terrorism offences and conspiracy to commit murder which he reportedly denied. He had been warned by Canada’s spy agency about threats against him, according to the World Sikh Organization of Canada, which alleged he was “assassinated in a targeted shooting”.
On September 18, 2023, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau disclosed to the House of Commons that Canadian national security authorities had obtained “credible” intelligence suggesting “agents of the government of India” were behind the murder of Nijjar. He said he raised the issue “in no uncertain terms” with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the G20 summit in New Delhi earlier that month and Canadian officials had been in contact with India’s government and intelligence agencies.
Trudeau said that any involvement of a foreign government in the killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil was an unacceptable violation of Canada’s sovereignty and the UN principle of state sovereignty. He also said that Canada was a rule of law country and would not tolerate any extrajudicial killings on its territory. He said his top priorities were to ensure the continued safety of all Canadians and to hold the perpetrators of this murder to account.
India’s Foreign Ministry rejected Trudeau’s allegation as “absurd and motivated” and expelled a senior Canadian diplomat in retaliation. It also denied any links to the Khalistan movement or its supporters. Canada’s foreign minister Mélanie Joly announced that Canada was expelling a top Indian diplomat, who she identified as Pavan Kumar Rai, the head of India’s foreign intelligence agency (RAW) operations in Canada.
The twin expulsions have escalated tensions between the two countries, which have already been tense over issues such as human rights, farmers’ protests, and visa restrictions.
The United States has expressed its support for Canada’s efforts to investigate the assassination of a Sikh separatist leader that occurred on Canadian soil, urging India to cooperate in the investigation.
John Kirby, the spokesperson for the White House National Security Council (NSC), emphasised the importance of a fully transparent and comprehensive investigation to uncover the truth surrounding the incident.
“We believe a complete and transparent investigation is the right approach so that we can all understand exactly what transpired. Of course, we encourage India to cooperate with this investigation,” Kirby told CNN.
The U.S. condemnation of India could undermine the trust and cooperation between the two countries, which have been developing a strategic partnership to counter China’s growing influence and aggression in the Indo-Pacific region. The U.S. and India have recently held several high-level meetings and joint military exercises as well as signed agreements on defence, trade, energy and technology.
The U.S. condemnation of India could also affect the economic and cultural ties between the two countries, which have been expanding in recent years. The U.S. is India’s largest trading partner with bilateral trade reaching $119.42 billion in 2021-22. The U.S. is also home to more than 4 million people of Indian origin, who contribute to various fields such as science, medicine, education, entertainment and politics.Therefore, it is clear that the U.S. supporting Canada and condemning India over the killing of Nijjar could have serious implications for the relations between the U.S. and India as well as for the regional and global stability and security.
The incident has also sparked protests and outrage among the Sikh community in Canada and other parts of the world who demanded justice for Nijjar and accountability from India. The Sikh community is a significant and influential minority in Canada with many prominent politicians, business leaders and celebrities belonging to it.
The incident has also raised questions about the security and safety of Canadians from foreign interference and violence. Trudeau said that his government would take all necessary measures to protect Canadians from any threats or attacks. He also said that Canada would continue to support the rights and freedoms of all people including Sikhs around the world.
The Khalistan movement is a Sikh separatist movement seeking to create a homeland for Sikhs by establishing a sovereign state called Khalistan (Land of the Pure) in the Punjab region of India. The origins of the movement can be traced back to the British colonial policies of the late 1800s and early 1900s that sought to divide Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus. The British also encouraged Sikhs to join the army and police, which gave them a sense of martial identity and pride.
In recent years, however, there has been a resurgence of the Khalistan movement among Sikhs in India and abroad, especially in Canada where there is a large Sikh diaspora. They have been influenced by factors such as social media, human rights issues, farmers’ protests and religious revivalism.
Some of the reasons why Sikhs want Khalistan are:
– They believe that Sikhs have been subjected to discrimination and marginalization within India and that a separate state is necessary to preserve their identity and culture.
– They believe that Khalistan would provide Sikhs with greater political and economic autonomy and self-determination.
– They believe that Khalistan would be a fulfillment of their historical legacy and destiny as a sovereign nation.
However, not all Sikhs support or agree with the Khalistan movement or its methods. Some Sikhs have denounced the violence and extremism associated with it and have called for dialogue and reconciliation between India and Canada. Some Sikhs have also questioned the legitimacy and feasibility of Khalistan and have argued that it does not represent the majority of Sikhs in India or abroad.
India is objecting against the activities of Sikhs in Canada because it considers them to be supporting the Khalistan movement which is a banned separatist movement that seeks an independent homeland for Sikhs in India’s Punjab region.
India has accused Canada of allowing Khalistan activists to operate freely on its soil and of interfering in its internal affairs by raising human rights issues related to the Sikh community.
India views the Khalistan movement as a threat to its national security and territorial integrity as it has a history of violent insurgency and terrorism in Punjab in the 1980s and 1990s, which resulted in thousands of deaths including the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984. India has also claimed that the Khalistan movement is supported by Pakistan which is in fact a baseless allegation.
India’s denial of any involvement in the killing is laughable, given the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.The fact that India targeted a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil is a clear indication of its disregard for Canadian sovereignty and its willingness to use violence to silence its critics. It is also a sign of India’s growing paranoia and insecurity, as it resorts to increasingly desperate measures to suppress dissent and maintain its grip on power.
The international community must hold India accountable for its actions. Canada should demand a full and transparent investigation into Nijjar’s murder and should seek to extradite the Indian agents responsible for his death. The United States and other countries should also join Canada in condemning India’s actions and imposing sanctions on it until it brings the perpetrators of this crime to justice.
India’s actions have not only violated international law and norms, but they have also cast a shadow on its democracy and its commitment to human rights. The Indian government must immediately cease its harassment and intimidation of Sikhs and other minorities, and it must respect the fundamental rights of all its citizens.