Hardeep Singh Nijjar (11 October 1977 – 18 June 2023) was a Canadian Sikh separatist leader[3] involved with the Khalistan movement, which calls for an independent Sikh state.[4]

Hardeep Singh Nijjar
Born(1977-10-11)11 October 1977
Bhar Singh Pura, Jalandhar, Punjab, India[1][2]
Died18 June 2023(2023-06-18) (aged 45)
Cause of deathMultiple gunshots
Citizenship
  • India (until 2007)
  • Canada (from 2007)
OrganizationSikhs for Justice
MovementKhalistan

Born in India, Nijjar migrated to Canada in the mid-1990s.[5] Sikh organizations viewed Nijjar as a human rights activist, while the Indian government accused him of being a criminal and terrorist affiliated with the militant Khalistan Tiger Force, and sought his arrest.[6][7][8] Nijjar and his supporters rejected these allegations, saying he advocated peaceful means for creation of Khalistan.[8] Nijjar gained prominence in 2019, when he became the leader of Guru Nanak Sikh Gurudwara (temple) in Surrey, British Columbia, and became an advocate of Sikh separatism.[9] Nijjar was also associated with Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), and spearheaded the group's Khalistan Referendum 2020 campaign.[8]

On 18 June 2023, Nijjar was shot and killed in the parking lot of a Sikh temple in British Columbia.[10][11] On 18 September 2023, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated that Canadian intelligence agencies were "pursuing credible allegations of a potential link" between Indian government agents and the assassination of Nijjar.[12] After the killing, Canada expelled an Indian diplomat from the country. India's foreign ministry denied involvement in the killing, and expelled a top Canadian diplomat in a tit-for-tat move.[13][14][15] As of October 2023, the Canadian authorities have not yet made any arrests in connection with the murder but stated they were investigating three suspects,[16] and Canada has provided no evidence implicating the Indian government,[17] citing the need to protect sensitive intelligence sources and methods.[18]

Early life and immigration to Canada edit

Nijjar was originally from a village in Jalandhar, Punjab, and migrated to Canada in the mid-1990s.[19] According to The Tribune, Nijjar was arrested in India in 1995 amidst a crackdown on an armed insurgency in Punjab.[20]

Nijjar arrived in Canada on 10 February 1997, using a fraudulent passport that identified him as "Ravi Sharma", and made a refugee claim.[21] In a sworn affidavit, he indicated that his brother, father and uncle had all been arrested, and he himself had been tortured by police.[21] His claim was rejected, as officials thought his documentation was partially fabricated;[21][19] officials suspected that a letter, supposedly written by an Indian physician and attesting to his torture, was forged.[19] The panel wrote that it did "not believe that the claimant was arrested by the police and that he was tortured by the police."[21]

Eleven days after his claim was denied, Nijjar married a woman who sponsored his immigration.[19] Officials noted that the woman had arrived in Canada in 1997, married to another man, and rejected the claim as a marriage of convenience. In 2001, Nijjar appealed this ruling but lost.[21][19]

He was ultimately permitted entry into Canada.[19] According to Marc Miller, the Canadian Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, Nijjar became a Canadian citizen on 25 May 2007.[22]

Involvement with Sikh organisations edit

In Canada, Nijjar operated a plumbing business and was married with two sons.[19][23] He lived in Surrey, British Columbia,[24] where he was a leader of the local Sikh community.[25] He became the president of the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara, a Sikh temple in Surrey, in 2018.[21][26] The New York Times described the congregation as "the oldest, largest and most politically powerful of the dozen or so Sikh temples in Surrey."[27] Nijjar was re-affirmed as president of Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in 2022.[28]

Nijjar was a leader of the Canadian branch of Sikhs for Justice.[29] In 2012, he circulated petitions collecting signatures, calling on the United Nations to recognize anti-Sikh violence in India in 1984 as a genocide.[23] In the months before his death, he was organizing an unofficial referendum among the Sikh diaspora, sponsored by Sikhs for Justice, in support of the Khalistan movement, which seeks an independent Sikh state.[6] The Khalistan movement is banned in India, but has support within the Sikh diaspora.[30] After his death, the World Sikh Organization of Canada said that Nijjar "often led peaceful protests against the violation of human rights actively taking place in India and in support of Khalistan."[6]

As a religious leader, Nijjar engaged in various community activities, holding special prayers for the Muslims slain in the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand and for the Canadian indigenous children buried in unmarked graves at Canadian residential schools.[19] He also called for the release of G. N. Saibaba, a human rights activist imprisoned in India.[19]

Nijjar had a dispute with Ripudaman Singh Malik, a Canadian Sikh who had been acquitted over involvement in the 1985 bombing of Air India Flight 182. Malik and a partner purchased a commercial printing press to use to print Sikh religious scripture, but later sued Nijjar in a civil lawsuit in British Columbia, alleging that Nijjar had failed to return the press that Malik had given him for safekeeping.[21] After Malik was murdered in July 2022,[21][31] several Indian news reports, quoting Indian intelligence officials, speculated that Nijjar was somehow linked to Malik's death.[31] Nijjar denounced these claims, saying that he was friendly with Malik, that he sent his son to a school founded by Malik, and that he respected Malik's work within the Sikh community; Nijjar's lawyer said that Nijjar was "being vindictively targeted and accused of crimes solely based on dissenting political opinions."[31]

Indian allegations of militant activities edit

The Indian government accused Nijjar of being the leader of pro-Khalistan militant group Khalistan Tiger Force.[8][7][32] At the Indian government's request, two Interpol red notices were issued against Nijjar, in 2014 and 2016.[21] The first accused him of being a "mastermind/active member" of Khalistan Tiger Force and said that suspects arrested in connection with the 2007 Shingaar cinema hall bomb blast had implicated him.[21] Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a Canadian lawyer, activist, and associate of Nijjar's, said that Nijjar was acquitted of involvement in a conspiracy.[21]

The Indian government alleged that Nijjar visited Pakistan in 2013-14, where he met with militant leader Jagtar Singh Tara of Babbar Khalsa International, and was recruited by Pakistan's intelligence agency.[12][33] In 2015, the Indian government asked Canadian authorities to surveil Nijjar, alleging that he was involved in a plot to transport ammunition into India using a paraglider.[34] Nijjar said that this claim was "absolutely preposterous" and "more like a bad Bollywood movie plot."[24]

The 2016 Interpol red notice, issued at the request of Indian authorities, accused Nijjar of being the "mastermind and key conspirator of many terrorist acts in India";[21] India accused Nijjar of conspiring to kill "Hindu leaders"[35][36] and claimed that Nijjar was running a Sikh terrorist training camp near Mission, British Columbia.[37] In a letter sent in 2016 to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Nijjar called the Indian government's accusations "fabricated, baseless, fictitious and politically motivated"[24] and part of a smear campaign seeking to discredit him.[21][24]

In 2018, the Indian government again accused Nijjar of "multiple targeted killings" in India, and in February 2018, Amarinder Singh, Chief Minister of Punjab, included Nijjar on a list of "most wanted persons" given to Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau.[38] In a statement, Nijjar said: "I am being targeted and framed in false criminal cases by Indian authorities for my relentless campaign against the genocidal violence against the Sikhs and continuous support for Referendum 2020 to liberate Punjab and create separate Sikh country Khalistan."[38] The Hindustan Times reported that the Surrey unit of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) briefly detained Nijjar for questioning in April 2018, released him within 24 hours without laying any charges.[38]

In 2020, India designated Nijjar a terrorist under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, saying that he was "involved in exhorting seditionary and insurrectionary imputations and also attempting to create disharmony among different communities in India."[19] The same year, amid protests by Indian farmers against new agriculture laws, the Indian government filed a criminal case against him, one of a number of cases that authorities filed against Sikh activists living both at home and abroad; the government initially attempted to discredit the farmers' protest by associating it with Sikh nationalism.[6] In 2022, India's National Investigation Agency (NIA) accused him of plotting to kill a Hindu priest in Punjab, and offered a reward of 1,000,000 (approximately CA$16,200) for any information that could help apprehend him.[39][6]

Death and subsequent diplomatic dispute edit

 
The Guru Nanak Gurdwara, outside of which Nijjar was killed

In the early northern summer of 2022, Nijjar was alerted by Canadian Security Intelligence Service officials of a likely assassination plot against him.[25] According to his son, Nijjar had been meeting with CSIS officers "once or twice a week" in the days before his killing, and had another meeting scheduled for two days after Nijjar was killed.[40] CSIS officers warned Nijjar of threats to his life and advised him to stay at home.[40]

On 18 June 2023, Nijjar was shot and killed in his pickup truck by two masked gunmen in the parking lot of the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in Surrey, British Columbia.[41] He walked out of the gurdwara that evening and was gunned down approximately two minutes later,[41] in his Dodge Ram.[27] He was hit by 34 bullets.[42] Police received report of a shooting at the gurdwara at 8:27 p.m.[27] The gunmen (whom investigators described as "heavier set") fled the scene by foot into a waiting car (later identified as a silver 2008 Toyota Camry) that sped away.[41][23] Investigators said the two gunmen and the getaway-car driver had lain in wait for at least an hour before the murder.[41] Nijjar's death is being investigated by the RCMP's Integrated Homicide Investigation Team (IHIT).[10][3] Canadian authorities have not yet made any arrests.[16] Video footage and witness accounts compiled by the The Washington Post showed a coordinated attack, involving at least six men and two vehicles.[42] The Post noted the police were slow to respond; the RCMP and Surrey police argued over jurisdiction; and local businesses indicated they had not been canvassed for security camera footage.[42]

Allegation of Indian responsibility edit

In September 2023, during the 2023 G20 New Delhi summit, Canada and India did not have a one-on-one meeting, but instead met on the sidelines.[43] Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi raised concerns with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about extremist elements in Canada who were involved in threats and violence towards Indian diplomats and the Indian community, while Trudeau brought up the accusations of Indian government involvement in the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar.[44] The talks between the two leaders were tense, affecting ongoing trade discussions.[45]

On 18 September 2023, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in Parliament, "Over the past number of weeks, Canadian security agencies have been actively pursuing credible allegations of a potential link between agents of the government of India" and Nijjar's killing.[12][46] Trudeau called upon the Indian government to cooperate with the investigation, and said: "Any involvement of a foreign government in the killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil is an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty."[47] Before a Cabinet meeting the next day, Trudeau said: "We are not looking to provoke or escalate. We are simply laying out the facts as we understand them."[48]

The Canadian government has not made public any evidence linking the Indian government to the killing,[49][50] citing the need to protect sensitive intelligence sources and methods.[18] Canadian government sources with knowledge of the matter told the CBC that human and signals intelligence provided evidence of the Indian government's responsibility, including messages between Indian officials and intelligence from an unnamed Five Eyes alliance member.[51] The U.S. Ambassador to Canada later confirmed that Canada had received intelligence shared from Five Eyes regarding the murder prior to the public allegations.[52]

Diplomatic fallout edit

Nijjar's death caused a diplomatic crisis, with Canada–India relations falling to their lowest point.[53] The allegations have infuriated India, which rejected the allegations as "absurd" and "motivated".[54] The investigation directly led to the suspension of talks on a Canada–India trade deal on 1 September.[45] Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly ordered the expulsion of Pavan Kumar Rai, a top Indian diplomat in Canada who headed the operations of the Research and Analysis Wing, India's external intelligence agency, in Canada.[55] In response, India expelled Olivier Sylvestre, the chief of the Canadian intelligence office in India, the next day.[15][13][46]

The Indian government also accused Canada of harbouring "extremists and terrorists" who "continue to threaten India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity".[47] On 21 September, India's foreign ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi branded Canada as a "safe haven for terrorists, for extremists, and for organized crime.”[56] Politicians from both the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the opposition, as well as news anchors, commentators and former ambassadors, accused Trudeau of making the allegations for political gain.[57]

India issued a travel warning on 20 September 2023, urging Indian citizens to "exercise utmost caution" when travelling to Canada due to "growing anti-India activities and politically condoned hate-crimes";[58][59] Canadian Minister of Public Safety Dominic LeBlanc dismissed India's travel advisory, saying: "People can read into that what they want. Canada is a safe country. What we're doing is ensuring there's an appropriate criminal investigation into these circumstances."[59] India temporarily suspended the processing of visa applications for Canadian citizens on 21 September 2023 due to the "rift" between the countries; the Indian government blamed "security threats being faced by our High Commission and consulates in Canada" as the reason for the suspension. There is no restriction on citizens holding valid visas.[60][58][59][61][62]

On 30 September, the Indian foreign minister S. Jaishankar said that India has had an ongoing problem with Canada for years, due to what he said was Canada's "permissiveness in regard to terrorism, extremism and violence in the country", and that "our diplomatic personnel have been consistently and continuously intimidated in Canada".[63][64]

In October, India ordered Canada to remove 41 of its diplomats from its embassy in Delhi.[65][66]

Reactions edit

Indian Canadians edit

Nijjar's killing intensified preexisting splits among Indo-Canadians. Just over half of Canadians of Indian heritage are Sikh, while many others are Hindu.[67][68] In the two years before Nijjar's killing, there had been sporadic clashes at demonstrations in Canada between Sikhs who support Khalistan and Hindus.[67]

After Nijjar's killing, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, general counsel for the Khalistan movement-aligned Sikhs for Justice group, called Indian Hindus in Canada to "go back to India" and accused them of "working against" Canada.[68] The video, which was later deleted, was condemned by Canadian officials, including Canadian public safety minister Dominic LeBlanc, Public Safety Canada, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, and Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre; LeBlanc wrote that the "circulation of an online hate video targeting Hindu Canadians runs contrary to the values we hold dear as Canadians" and condemned "acts of aggression, hate, intimidation or incitement of fear."[68]

Five Eyes edit

Canada's Five Eyes allies, namely the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand, expressed their concern and encouraged India to collaborate with Canada's investigation into the killing, but have not publicly condemned India for its alleged involvement.[69][70][71][72] The United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand privately raised the issue with Indian Prime Minister Modi in meetings at the 2023 G20 summit.[73] U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said: "I firmly reject the idea that there is a wedge between the United States and Canada. We have deep concerns about the allegations and we would like to see this investigation carried forward and the perpetrators held to account." He added that the United States would defend its basic principles "regardless of the country" and that the United States had been in touch with both India and Canada regarding the murder.[74]

On 22 September, American Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the United States was "deeply concerned" about the allegations and was coordinating with Canadian authorities as they continued to investigate Nijjar's death. Blinken said: "We are extremely vigilant about any instances of alleged transnational repression — it's something we take very, very seriously."[75] On 30 September, Blinken urged India's external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar to cooperate with Canada's investigation.[76]

In the days after Nijjar's murder, the FBI warned at least three American Sikh activists that their lives were in danger under the "duty to warn" doctrine, which requires American law enforcement to warn citizens of certain threats to their safety.[77]

In November 2023, U.S. authorities claimed to have thwarted a plot by the Indian government to assassinate the U.S.-based Sikh separatist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun. An Indian government employee had an indictment filed against them in New York for their alleged role in the plot, which alleges that the Indian government employee told an undercover DEA agent that Pannun and Nijjar were "both on the same list of targets".[78]

In March 2024, New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters made remarks during an interview with the Indian media outlet The Indian Express that appeared to cast doubt on Five Eyes intelligence material from Canada arguing that the Indian Government was responsible for assassinating Nijjar. In response, a New Zealand Foreign Affairs spokesperson issued a statement clarifying that New Zealand was not questioning Canada's claim against India and that Peter was stating that the matter "is an ongoing investigation that needs to run its course before clear conclusions can be drawn." During a meeting with Canadian High Commissioner to Indian Cameron MacKay, Peters clarified that New Zealand's position on Hardeep Singh remained unchanged and that he was not questioning Canada's claim.[79]

Bangladesh edit

Bangladeshi foreign minister AK Abdul Momen expressed grievances against Canada's extradition policies over the treatment of S.H.M.B Noor Chowdhury.[80]

Pakistan edit

Pakistan's foreign office said that India's "network of extra-territorial killings" has gone global, which is "a clear violation of international law and the UN principle of state sovereignty."[81]

Sri Lanka edit

Sri Lanka's foreign minister, Ali Sabry, accused Canada of being a "safe haven for terrorists" and suggested Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was prone to making "outrageous and substantiated [sic] allegations".[82][83][84][85] He also advised Trudeau to not interfere in the internal affairs of a sovereign country.[82]

References edit

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