Why Would India Assassinate a Sikh Leader on Canadian Soil?

Trudeau’s explosive allegation reveals the widening rift between the two countries

A photo of carrying the casket of Sikh community leader and temple president Hardeep Singh Nijjar during his funeral service in Surrey, B.C., on June 25, 2023.
Hardeep Singh Nijjar’s funeral service in Surrey, BC. (The Canadian Press / Darryl Dyck)

On June 18, Canadian Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar was shot dead as he left the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in Surrey, British Columbia, at night. The forty-five-year-old was a prominent figure in the Sikh community in BC. He had moved to Canada from the Indian state of Punjab in 1997 and worked as a plumber. At the time of his killing, he was president of the Sikh temple in Surrey. Many in the Sikh community in Canada believed that the Indian government had something to do with the murder. Then, on September 18, following weeks of worsening ties with India, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made it official. “Over the past number of weeks,” he said in Parliament, “Canadian security agencies have been actively pursuing credible allegations of a potential link between agents of the government of India and the killing of a Canadian citizen, Hardeep Singh Nijjar.” India has denied the accusation, calling it “absurd.”

Nijjar had been declared a terrorist in India in late 2020. A press release issued at the time by the National Investigation Agency, India’s specialized counterterrorism law enforcement agency, stated that Nijjar stood accused of “launching a concerted secessionist campaign” for the creation of Khalistan, a separate sovereign state for Sikhs in South Asia. The separatist Khalistan movement had been at its peak in Punjab in the 1980s but lost steam after the violent insurgency was crushed through sustained operations by Indian security forces, which included the storming of the Golden Temple, the holiest Sikh shrine, in the city of Amritsar in 1984. India remains strongly opposed to the Khalistan movement and is particularly irked by many in the Sikh diaspora who continue to demand a separate homeland for Sikhs.

Nijjar was a vocal backer of Khalistan and was associated with the group Sikhs for Justice, which organized a referendum in Brampton, Ontario, last fall over the creation of Khalistan. Part of a global series of votes aimed at gauging consensus, the turnout of thousands of people negated claims of its being a fringe movement. Nijjar had been planning another referendum this month in Surrey.

In June, adding to the speculation about the Indian government’s role in the killing were celebratory social media posts by Hindu nationalists in India: he was the third pro-Khalistan leader to die outside the country in forty-five days. Others claimed that Nijjar’s killing was part of a toxic war for the control of well-funded Sikh religious institutions in Canada, waged through criminal networks (though the charge has not been substantiated further). The Indian government maintained a cryptic silence, allowing rumours about its part in the mysterious murder to flourish.

Following the killing, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh wrote to then public safety minister Marco Mendicino, asking him to investigate. Singh underscored that the murder happened “just a few weeks after the National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister described India as one of the top sources of foreign interference targeting Canadians.” He was referring to a conference held by the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Ottawa on June 2, where Jody Thomas, the national security and intelligence adviser to Trudeau, had included India among authoritarian states like Russia, Iran, and China.

Thomas’s allegation was rebutted by India’s external affairs minister, S. Jaishankar, at a press conference on June 8 in New Delhi. He said that he was reminded of the Hindi expression “ulta chor kotwal ko daante,” tantamount to “the pot calling the kettle black”—arguing that India was the aggrieved party in terms of foreign interference because Canada was giving space “to separatists, extremists.”

The Indian government, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, believes Canada has been negligent in addressing its concerns about Sikh separatists because the ruling coalition in Ottawa is dependent on Sikh votes during elections. Jaishankar’s aggressive statements—and Trudeau’s explosive allegations—give credence to theories that if Canada won’t tackle Sikh separatists on its soil, India will.

While Canada’s federal agencies have indirectly warned about India’s interference in Canadian politics in recent years, it has rarely been done by name or in public and has almost always been kept buried in internal documents. According to the Canadian Press, heavily redacted official documents released last year under the Access to Information Act revealed “the potential for foreign interference stemming from Indian students’ concerns that Canada was slow to grant required study permits.” Prior to that, a 2018 report prepared for deputy ministers attending a retreat on national security had warned that Indo-Canadians were among those running the risk of “being influenced, overtly or covertly, by foreign governments with their own agendas.” It warned that “the lines between legitimate advocacy and lobbying and pressures imposed to advance the economic and political interests of foreign actors are becoming increasingly blurred.”

That year, Thomas’s predecessor, Daniel Jean, had suggested that rogue elements in the Indian government had sought to embarrass Trudeau during his 2018 visit and may have allowed a Sikh separatist to visit India just to embarrass the Canadian leader “for being soft on Sikh separatism.” In his book Trudeau: The Education of a Prime Minister, journalist John Ivison quotes the prime minister’s former principal secretary Gerald Butts accusing Modi of trying to “screw” Trudeau during the trip and helping his opposition, the Conservatives. The trip had started off on a disappointing note as the Trudeau delegation was received at the airport by a junior minister, not even a member of Modi’s cabinet. International and local observers speculated that Trudeau was being snubbed over his ties with separatists. The disastrous visit had marked the nadir of bilateral ties between the two countries. India was angry over Trudeau’s presence at a Sikh event in Toronto in 2017. Indian media had reported that the event included the display of Khalistani flags; posters of the Sikh separatist leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who was killed in the army operation of 1984 at the Golden Temple; and a celebration of a motion passed by the legislative assembly of Ontario calling the anti-Sikh riots in India in 1984 a genocide.

Trudeau had seemed visibly miffed by the treatment he received in India, and the Hindu nationalist government under Modi was not keen to make amends. Ties between the two governments worsened in the next couple of years as the Indian side felt that Trudeau’s government was supporting Sikh separatists for its own electoral gains. “Frankly, we are at a loss to understand, other than the requirements of vote bank politics, why anybody would do this,” Jaishankar alleged at the press conference this June. “If anybody has a complaint, we have a complaint about Canada . . . the space that they are giving to Khalistanis and to violent extremists,” he claimed. A fortnight later, he said, “We made it very clear [to Canada] . . . that if there are activities which are permitted from Canada that impinge on our national security, territorial integrity and security, then we will have to respond.”

The tensions resonated at the G20 summit held in New Delhi earlier this month. As per an official statement put out by the Indian side, Modi conveyed strong concerns about “continuing anti-India activities of extremist elements in Canada [who] are promoting secessionism and inciting violence against Indian diplomats, damaging diplomatic premises, and threatening the Indian community in Canada and their places of worship.” On Khalistan extremism and foreign interference, Trudeau, on the other hand, said, “They both came up. Over the years, with Prime Minister Modi, we’ve had many conversations on both of those issues . . . Canada will always defend freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom of peaceful protest. That’s something that’s extremely important to us. At the same time, we are always there to prevent violence, to push back against hatred.”

As an authoritarian leader, Modi is not receptive to any democratic protest, as reflected in India’s being downgraded to an electoral autocracy by Sweden’s V-Dem research institute. In 2020, Indian farmers organized a major successful agitation on the outskirts of New Delhi against new agriculture laws promulgated by the government. The protests lasted for months and involved tens of thousands of farmers and their families. Sikhs happened to provide the bulk of the leadership of the movement and garnered a lot of sympathy and support from their religious brethren in Canada. The ideologues of Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, tried to discredit the protesting Sikhs as pro-Khalistan separatists, a technique they have perfected by labelling any protest by Indian Muslims as being pro-Pakistan. When the Canadian government expressed concern about some of the harsh policing measures unleashed on the farmers, New Delhi accused it of meddling in India’s internal affairs.

Subsequently, pro-government media in India prominently covered news of a so-called Khalistan referendum by Sikh separatists and the defacement of some Hindu temples in Canada by extreme elements of the Sikh community, further inflaming anger in New Delhi. The Indian government issued a statement in which it expressed its disappointment that the “perpetrators of these crimes have not been brought to justice so far in Canada” despite its appeals to the Trudeau government.

Last year’s arrangement between Trudeau’s Liberals and Jagmeet Singh’s NDP—whereby the latter would support the government in some matters—seemed to confirm the apprehensions about him in New Delhi. Singh has made statements that can be seen as being pro-Khalistan and has publicly accused India of human rights violations against Sikhs in Punjab. Under his leadership, the NDP has also argued that Canada should limit its ties to the South Asian nation. In India, Singh is seen as part of the violent separatist movement that wrecked Punjab in the 1980s and ’90s. For Modi’s government, Singh is a persona non grata, even though that may not be his formal status in official records. Those in coalition with his party stand tarnished by association.

The fear of the rise of Sikh separatism in Canada feeds into the insecurities and vulnerabilities—about India’s sovereignty, integrity, and unity—in New Delhi. Punjab passed through a decade-long cycle of violent separatist insurgency, which ended in the mid-1990s but whose trauma continues to afflict India’s security establishment. The country’s top security czar since 2014, Ajit Doval, is a former intelligence operative whose career highlight has been intelligence operations against Sikh separatists in Punjab in the 1980s. He is aware of the networks that operated in Canada and that, he believes, continue to harbour renegades even now. Doval’s memories, revived during the farmers’ protest of 2020/21, have driven the Indian attitude regarding Canada and the UK, two countries considered by New Delhi to be soft toward Sikh separatists.

India has also recently been courted globally, especially by the Joe Biden administration, which laid the red carpet for Modi during his first official state visit to Washington, DC, in June. Buoyed by its self-image as a global power, New Delhi sees tough Canadian action against Sikh groups as a precondition for healthy bilateral ties. India’s ultimatum has, however, fallen on deaf ears. For Canada, as a democracy that values strong institutions, ties with India are important but not critical enough to dispense with democratic norms about religious minorities—even when Sikh organizations take a separatist line. The Indian security establishment, under Doval, has now drawn accusations of taking matters into its own hands and being involved in the killings of pro-Khalistan leaders outside India.

At the same time, Sikh separatism is the logical corollary to the idea of India as a “Hindu Rashtra,” a Hindu nation. The Hindu Rashtra would entail an interpretation of Hindu texts, such as those elaborating the caste system, and the construction of a state and laws based on those texts. In the most extreme interpretation, it could also be exclusionary, where only Hindus can hold certain offices by law and discriminatory practices are legally instituted against religious minorities such as Muslims. It has been a long-standing dream of the Hindu right wing to see India transform from the plural, tolerant, and diverse country it has been, as enshrined in its Constitution, into a Hindu nation where the religious majority is dominant and firmly in power. That dream is now being vigorously pursued by Modi’s party and is unofficially already a reality in many ways. Radical Sikhs argue that if India can be a country only for Hindus, then Sikhs should also have their own sovereign state in the form of Khalistan.

The matter gets complicated because the ideologues of Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism, see Sikhs as Hindus, a claim Sikhs vehemently oppose. As per the logic of this ideology, which is based on the principle of Hindu dominance, people are considered loyal to the land where the holy sites of their religion exist. For Modi’s party, Sikhs (even though they may be Canadian for generations) are Indians as they are seen as Hindus, but even Sikhs who batted for a plural India and fought against Khalistan are neither willing to be considered Hindus nor willing to accept India as a Hindu Rashtra. “The Khalistani threat needs to exist, and they hype it up,” Hartosh Singh Bal, senior journalist and executive editor of The Caravan magazine, told me, referring to the view of Modi’s party and its parent body, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, “to explain [away] the strong and sustained opposition by ordinary Sikhs to their ideological project.”

The current state of Canada–India relations goes against the grain of the ties the two countries have historically shared, reaching back to India’s colonial era, when freedom fighters ran their fight against the British from Canada. The two countries are also members of the Commonwealth. As democracies established on the liberal values and concepts of inclusiveness, religious freedom, and the welfare state, they share a natural affinity. Canada is home to one of the largest diasporas of Indian heritage in the world, at over 1.3 million. India is the top country of origin for international students in Canada. In 2021, Canada accepted a record 400,000-plus immigrants, and India accounted for approximately 128,000 of them. As a percentage, Sikhs form a larger share of the national population in Canada than they do in India. Bilateral trade between the two countries was expected to hit a range of $4.4 billion to $6.5 billion (US) until negotiations ran aground in the wake of recent tensions.

The regressively nationalist Modi government, however, finds the liberal values publicly espoused by Trudeau to be antithetical to the ideas it espouses on many social, cultural, and political issues. For instance, when Jaishankar disparaged the Trudeau government for its unwillingness to act against Sikh separatists, he portrayed it as an imperative of “vote bank politics.” The term is unique to India’s political lexicon. It has been used by Hindutva ideologues to discredit voting by religious minorities in India for liberal parties, contending that they are captive voters of such parties. He implied the same in the case of Sikh voters and the Liberal–NDP arrangement in Canada, suggesting that there is an appeasement of extremist Sikh groups for their votes. Tacit in his remarks is the implication that Canada should not look after its religious minorities but deal with them as Modi’s majoritarian regime treats minorities in India, politically disempowering Sikhs to the same extent.

The absence of a natural fit between the two governments is compounded by Canada’s lack of hard power which could be of immediate use to India against China. It is here that much was expected after Canada released its Indo-Pacific strategy in 2022 with the aim of establishing closer economic and scientific ties. Things started looking up when the two governments agreed to start negotiations on an interim trade agreement. “2023 could become the year of India–Canada reset, given the Indo-Pacific strategy convergence, trade talks which could culminate in an Early Progress Trade Agreement, and a number of high-level meetings this year,” former Indian high commissioner to Canada Ajay Bisaria had told the Hindu at the start of the year.

But with the expulsion of top diplomats from both countries following Trudeau’s accusation, the initial enthusiasm for cooperation has waned. Earlier this month, in the midst of strained relations between the two countries, Canada announced it would postpone a trade mission to India scheduled for the following month. No reason was offered at the time. The killing of Nijjar and the allegations and counter allegations—at the highest levels of government—of foreign meddling show that bilateral ties between India and Canada have hit their lowest point yet, holding the relationship, which has so much to offer to the people of the two countries, hostage.

Sushant Singh
Sushant Singh is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi and a lecturer at Yale University. Previously, he was the deputy editor at the Indian Express and served in the Indian Army for two decades.