Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh advocate for independence, was tragically killed in western Canada two months ago. His death has caused a significant rift between the governments of India and Canada. This article delves into the background of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, the allegations surrounding his death, and the ongoing tensions between the two nations.
Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a 45-year-old Sikh independence advocate, met a tragic end when he was gunned down outside a Sikh cultural center in Surrey, British Columbia, on June 18. This incident has raised questions about the involvement of Indian Government agents, and it has become a contentious issue between India and Canada.
Sikh organizations hailed Nijjar as a human rights activist, while the Indian Government labeled him as a criminal. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on September 18 that his government was investigating “credible allegations” of Indian Government agents’ potential connection to Nijjar’s killing.
India vehemently denied any involvement in the killing, dismissing the allegations as absurd. Nijjar’s death is shrouded in controversy, with both governments holding contrasting views.
Hardeep Singh Nijjar was a prominent figure in the movement to establish an independent Sikh homeland known as Khalistan. He was actively involved in organizing an unofficial referendum among the Sikh diaspora, collaborating with the organization Sikhs For Justice. Nijjar also ran a plumbing business and served as the president of a Sikh temple (gurdwara) in suburban Vancouver. Banners promoting the referendum with his image were displayed at the temple.
In a 2016 interview with the Vancouver Sun, Nijjar responded dismissively to reports in Indian media that accused him of leading a terrorist cell. He stated, “This is garbage – all the allegations. I am living here 20 years, right? Look at my record. There is nothing. I am a hard worker. I own my own business in plumbing.” At that time, he claimed to be too busy to engage in diaspora politics.
Following his death, the World Sikh Organisation of Canada described Nijjar as a vocal supporter of Khalistan who frequently led peaceful protests against human rights violations in India and in support of Khalistan. Nijjar was a wanted man in India for several years, as the Indian government regarded Sikh separatists abroad as a security threat.
In 2016, Indian media reported suspicions that Nijjar had masterminded a bombing in the Sikh-majority state of Punjab and was involved in training terrorists in a small city southeast of Vancouver. Nijjar vehemently denied these allegations.
In 2020, Indian authorities declared Nijjar a member of a banned militant group and designated him a terrorist. That same year, they filed a criminal case against him while farmers, many from Punjab, protested controversial agriculture laws on the outskirts of New Delhi. Initially, the Indian Government attempted to discredit the protests by associating them with Sikh separatists, resulting in numerous cases against Sikh activists both in India and abroad.
Last year, Indian authorities accused Nijjar of being involved in an alleged attack on a Hindu priest in India and offered a reward of approximately $16,000 for information leading to his arrest.
The modern Sikh independence movement traces back to the 1940s but escalated into an armed insurgency in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1984, then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered a raid on Sikh separatists taking refuge in Sikhism’s holiest shrine. This operation resulted in hundreds of casualties, and shortly afterward, two of Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards assassinated her. In retaliation, anti-Sikh riots erupted across India, leading to the killing of many Sikhs. The insurgency was eventually suppressed in a harsh crackdown that claimed thousands of lives, but the aspiration for Sikh independence still has supporters in northern India and within the Sikh diaspora.
In recent times, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, characterized by Hindu nationalism, has cracked down on both non-Hindu rights movements and dissenting voices.
Sikh diaspora activism has been a source of tension between India and Canada for years. Canada boasts the largest population of Sikhs outside India, which has led India to repeatedly accuse Canada of harboring “terrorists and extremists.”
According to Canadian law enforcement, Hardeep Singh Nijjar was shot as he was leaving the parking lot of the Sikh temple where he served as president in British Columbia. He sustained multiple gunshot wounds and tragically died at the scene.
Following his killing, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a lawyer and spokesperson for Sikhs For Justice, revealed that Nijjar had been the target of threats due to his activism. Nijjar’s tragic death marked the second such incident in two years involving a prominent member of the Sikh community in Canada.
Mr. Pannun disclosed that he had spoken to Nijjar by phone the day before his death, and Nijjar had informed him that Canadian intelligence had warned him about the risks to his life.
Approximately a week after Nijjar’s killing, around 200 protesters from Canada’s Sikh community gathered in front of the Indian Consulate in Vancouver to voice their concerns. Many of these protesters firmly believed that Nijjar’s assassination was linked to his advocacy for an independent Sikh state.
One of the protesters, Gurkeerat Singh, shared his sentiments, saying, “He was a loving man, a hard-working man, a family man.” The outpouring of support for Nijjar after his death illustrated how he was perceived in the community.
Moninder Singh, a spokesperson for the British Columbia Sikh Gurdwara Council, emphasized the profound impact of Nijjar’s death on the Sikh community. He stated that the incident had deeply shaken the community not only in Canada but also in Punjab, India, and that emotions were running very high among Sikhs in response to the tragic event.