The Hill

How the Murder of a Sikh Leader Sparked an International Incident between Canada and India

Research Fellow, India and South Asia
Senior Fellow and Director for South and Central Asia
The Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara temple in Surrey British Columbia, Canada, on September 19, 2023. (Don MacKinnon/AFP via Getty Images)
The Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara temple in Surrey British Columbia, Canada, on September 19, 2023. (Don MacKinnon/AFP via Getty Images)

The U.S. may have to step in to soothe the frayed ties between its security ally and neighbor Canada and a critical strategic partner, India. The confrontation, which has simmered for years, escalated this week after Canadian Prime MinisterJustin Trudeau voiced suspicions that Indian authorities might be linked to the killing of a Sikh separatist leader in suburban Vancouver in June.

Trudeau’s unusual decision to go public with such a serious allegation, even before any arrests have been made in the murder case, has caused widespread condemnation in India, while attracting only muffled expression of concern and calls for further investigation from Canada’s Western allies. Canada and India have expelled a diplomat each, and the Indian government has responded tersely to the accusations.

The diplomatic crisis will not end with Trudeau’s attempt to pacify the situation with remarks that Canada was not seeking “to provoke or escalate” but wanted to “work with the government of India” so that it may “take this matter with the utmost seriousness.” India has long been apprehensive about politicians in Trudeau’s Liberal Party seeking support of diaspora Sikhs in Canada, a group which constitutes around two percent of Canada’s population, by showing tolerance towards groups and individuals deemed extremists and terrorists by the Indian government.

A vociferous group within the Sikh community supports the creation of a separate state for Sikhs — to be called “Khalistan” — in the Indian state of Punjab bordering Pakistan. While demands for a separate Sikh state were voiced even prior to the dissolution of British India in 1947, Sikh militants did not begin employing violence to advance their demands until the late 1970s.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s decision in 1984 to use the Indian army against Sikh militants and their leaders holed up in Amritsar’s Golden Temple — one of Sikhism’s holiest shrines — galvanized Sikhs living abroad. A few months later, Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in retaliation for the Golden Temple military operation, sparking a wave of attacks on Sikhs.

During the fifteen-year campaign of violence, which lasted until the early 1990s, some 25,000 people, mostly Sikhs, were killed before Indian authorities succeeded in controlling what Indians believe was a Pakistan-backed insurgency.

Indian officials are concerned that the recently revived campaign for Khalistan in Canada and other western countries could reignite violence witnessed in the 1980s, fearing an escalation of the sporadic violence by pro-Khalistan militants that has continued over the last few years.

Hardeep Singh Nijjar, whose murder instigated the latest India-Canada row, was temple president of the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara Sahib in Surrey, British Columbia when he was gunned down in a parking lot in June 2023. Nijjar’s supporters describe him as a peaceful campaigner for Khalistan’s secession from India — but Indians, and many others, saw him as an advocate of terrorism.

A 2016 Interpol notice originating from India accused Nijjar of masterminding a bombing in 2007 in Indian Punjab. Nijjar was tied to the separatist group Sikhs for Justice, an organization that was banned in 2020 by India under terrorism-related charges; the group’s North American supporters dismiss terrorism allegations as Indian government propaganda. In 2022, India announced a reward of $16,000 for any information leading to Nijjar’s arrest.

Ironically, the Khalistan campaign seems to have little support in Punjab, whose citizens have voted different political parties into the state government over the last few elections — the Bharatiya Janata Party (2012), Indian National Congress (2017), and the Aam Aadmi Party (2022). In none of these state elections were separatist sentiments voiced or even acknowledged, and there is little evidence of large-scale support for the Khalistan movement within India.

The Canadian government has refused India’s requests to act against Khalistan supporters, saying it cannot interfere with the freedom of expression of Canadian citizens. The Indian government has reacted more than once to the Canadian government’s support for protests by groups India sees as advocating separatism and violence in India.

Trudeau’s government has not changed its stance even after violent attacks on India’s embassies and consulates in the West. In March 2023, supporters of the Khalistan movement pulled down the Indian flag at India’s high commission in London and smashed the building’s windows. The same day, pro-Khalistan supporters broke windows of the Indian Consulate in San Francisco. Soon after Nijjar’s murder, protestors circulated posters with photos of the Indian High Commissioner in Canada and the Consul General in Toronto, with the slogan, “Kill India.”

Trudeau’s allegation that the Indian government might be behind Nijjar’s murder comes amid the backdrop of India’s sense of grievance over Canada’s refusal to investigate and act against groups located in Canada that advocate violence in India. The Canadian government has yet to provide any evidence of official Indian involvement.

Trudeau went public with his government’s suspicions before Canadian law enforcement identified or apprehended the actual killers. This was the opposite of what happened when, in 2020, Pakistani human rights activists blamed their country’s intelligence agency for the murder in Canada of one of their colleagues. Then, the Prime Minister and his party chose not to comment on the allegations until after law enforcement had completed investigating the murder.  

If, as Trudeau asserts, credible evidence of official Indian involvement is found and shared, India would have to act on it to maintain its credibility as a law-abiding member of the international community. But, in the absence of such publicly shared evidence, Canada’s prime minister might have unleashed a diplomatic crisis for domestic political gain.

India and Canada need to work not only on mending fences for now, but on a long-term strategy of dealing with Khalistan supporters. India cannot expect Canada to silence peaceful critics, but Canada should also not ignore the potential for Sikh diaspora politics unleashing violence in India, given the historical precedents of the 1980s.

Read in The Hill.