Tensions Rise: The Murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada Exacerbates India-Sikh Separatist Dispute
The brazen murder of prominent Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar outside a temple in British Columbia, Canada has sparked outrage among his supporters and intensified global tensions between Sikh separatists and the Indian government.
Nijjar was shot dead by two masked gunmen in the parking lot of the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in Surrey, British Columbia in mid-June. The unsolved killing has had far-reaching consequences, with hundreds of Sikh separatists taking to the streets in cities like Toronto, London, Melbourne, and San Francisco to protest the Indian government, which they believe is responsible for Nijjar's death.
The Indian government has not responded to these allegations.
The murder of the 45-year-old Sikh leader has brought attention to the long-standing demand for a separate homeland for Sikhs, who represent approximately 2% of India's population. The movement, known as Khalistan, reached its peak in the 1980s in Punjab, where violent attacks and deaths occurred. While the movement lost momentum after government crackdowns, support for a separate state has persisted within the diaspora community.
India has vehemently opposed the Khalistan movement, with all mainstream political parties denouncing violence and separatism, including those in Punjab.
Nijjar was a prominent Sikh leader in British Columbia and a vocal advocate for a separate Khalistani state. His supporters claim that he had been targeted with threats in the past due to his activism. The Indian government labeled him a terrorist and accused him of leading a militant separatist group, allegations his supporters dismiss as unfounded.
Canadian investigators have yet to determine a motive for Nijjar's murder or identify any suspects. However, they have classified the killing as a targeted incident.
Canada is home to the largest Sikh diaspora outside Punjab. In July, hundreds of protesters gathered in Toronto to condemn Nijjar's death outside India's High Consulate building. A smaller counter-protest in support of the Indian government also took place. The two sides engaged in heated exchanges through barricades, leading to the arrest of one pro-Khalistan demonstrator who attempted to breach the fence.
Even before this recent incident, concerns were raised about the protest. Some posters promoting the Toronto event contained inflammatory language, leading the Indian government to summon the Canadian envoy after posters featured the words "Kill India" and labeled Indian diplomats in Canada as "killers."
Balpreet Singh, spokesperson for the World Sikh Organisation of Canada, believes that while there has been a revival of the Khalistan movement, particularly among youth who did not experience the violence of the 1980s, people in Punjab have largely moved on from the idea of a separate state for Sikhs.
Nijjar's murder follows the sudden deaths of two other prominent Sikh figures in recent months. Avtar Singh Khanda, believed to be the head of the Khalistan Liberation Force, died in Birmingham under mysterious circumstances, possibly related to poisoning. Paramjit Singh Panjwar, designated a terrorist by India, was shot dead in Lahore, Pakistan.
According to Singh, Nijjar had been the target of threats, and he had alerted the Canadian Security Intelligence Service to a likely assassination plot against him as early as last summer. Nijjar had been planning a non-binding referendum on the question of an independent Sikh state, scheduled for September in Surrey. A similar referendum took place last year in Brampton, Ontario, where an estimated 100,000 people participated, drawing anger from the Indian government.
India's Ministry of External Affairs warned of a "sharp increase in incidents of hate crimes, sectarian violence, and anti-India activities in Canada" following the referendum, although it did not cite any specific incidents or mention the referendum itself.
Different narratives exist regarding the Khalistan movement in India and the deaths of its proponents like Nijjar. Some Indian commentators attribute Nijjar's death to internal rivalries between Sikh organizations in Canada. They have also accused Khalistan supporters in Canada of vandalizing Hindu temples with anti-India graffiti and attacking the offices of the Indian High Commission in Ottawa during a protest in March.
Sikhs and Canadian national security experts have accused the Indian government of spreading misinformation through its media in an attempt to tarnish the Sikh community and supporters of Khalistan. India has denied these allegations.
While tensions remain high, both Canada and India have longstanding diplomatic and trade ties and are in advanced talks to sign a landmark free-trade agreement. The impact of recent diplomatic tensions on the trade deal is uncertain.
Balpreet Singh believes that Canada needs to take a stronger stance against foreign interference from India, particularly targeting the Sikh community. However, he acknowledges that Canada has provided a platform for many Khalistan supporters to express their views openly, and the community remains defiant in the face of Nijjar's death.
He stated, "There is no one telling us we can't talk about Khalistan here. If you try to tell us we can't talk about our sovereignty, we will do the very opposite."