Montreal, Canada – When Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau introduced final week that his authorities was investigating doable ties between India and the June killing of a Canadian Sikh chief, Moninder Singh says considered one of his preliminary emotions was “validation”.
“For 40 years, our group has been working to carry overseas interference from India to mild,” mentioned Singh, spokesman for the British Columbia Gurdwaras Council, a coalition of Sikh temples, together with the one the place Hardeep Singh Nijjar was killed.
His sense of validation was “not solely at the truth that overseas interference by India was being recognised”, Singh advised Al Jazeera, but additionally that Nijjar’s demise “wasn’t some localised matter; that there was a overseas hand in it”.
“However on the opposite facet of it, there was additionally – amongst myself and the entire group – a way of frustration, as properly, because it [took] an assassination of a Sikh chief in a gurdwara for this acknowledgement to occur.”
Nijjar was fatally shot exterior a Sikh temple in Surrey, a metropolis southeast of Vancouver, on June 18. His demise instantly fuelled considerations and outrage inside the local people, however it was Trudeau’s allegations, made within the Home of Commons, that set off a diplomatic disaster between Canada and India.
“Any involvement of a overseas authorities within the killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil is an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty,” the prime minister mentioned on September 18.
India has forcefully denied Canada’s claims – calling them “absurd” and politically motivated. It has additionally accused Canada of not doing sufficient to stem anti-India activism and what it dubs “Sikh extremism”.
The continuing row has highlighted long-simmering tensions between the 2 nations over a Sikh marketing campaign for a sovereign state in India’s Punjab area often called the Khalistan motion that has supporters in elements of Canada.
It additionally has raised questions on the way forward for their relationship, as each have expelled one another’s diplomats. India has introduced the suspension of visa processing for Canadians, as properly.
“Such unsubstantiated allegations search to shift the main target from Khalistani terrorists and extremists, who’ve been supplied shelter in Canada and proceed to threaten India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the Indian authorities mentioned on September 19.
India rejects allegations by Canada:https://t.co/KDzCczWNN2 pic.twitter.com/VSDxbefWLw
— Arindam Bagchi (@MEAIndia) September 19, 2023
Sikh diaspora in Canada
Nijjar, a outstanding Canadian Sikh chief who served as president of the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara the place he was killed, advocated for Khalistan.
Courting again a long time however now largely dormant inside India itself, the motion retains some help within the Sikh diaspora, together with in Canada, which is house to a Sikh group of greater than 770,000 individuals – the most important exterior of India.
In 2020, India accused Nijjar of creating “hateful speeches” and “seditionary and insurrectionary imputations” and designated him as being “concerned in terrorism” – allegations (PDF) rejected by Singh, who was a detailed affiliate of the slain chief. “There’s no proof behind any claims they’ve made,” Singh mentioned.
Nijjar’s killing, he added, aimed “to silence a really outstanding Sikh chief that was advocating for Sikh sovereignty in Khalistan”.
That was echoed by Prabjot Singh, the Canada-based editor of the Panth-Punjab Undertaking digital platform and a supporter of the Khalistan motion, who advised Al Jazeera he was 13 or 14 years previous when he was first advised to watch out about being too vocal about his political opinions.
“Don’t voice your opinions too loud,” the 32-year-old recalled family and pals telling him.
“Just about anyone calling for a separate state and even [anybody who has] politics which can be essential of human rights violations … India interprets [that] as extremism,” Prabjot Singh mentioned.
“That technique of labelling political activism and human rights advocacy as extremism is its try to delegitimise any critique of India and to hopefully encourage a security-based response towards political speech.”
For him, the difficulty centres across the query of Sikh sovereignty; he says that for the reason that finish of British rule practically 80 years in the past, when Punjab was cut up between India and its neighbour Pakistan, the Indian authorities have rejected “any sort of dialogue” of what that would imply.
“The foundation of that is that unresolved switch of energy in 1947 and actually grappling with this query of Sikh self-determination and what it’s going to appear like immediately,” he mentioned. “And for us, it’s unequivocally Khalistan.”
Whereas the Khalistan motion traces its roots to the top of British colonial rule, Reeta Tremblay, a professor emerita of political science on the College of Victoria who specialises in South Asia, mentioned the “ethno-nationalist” push actually grew within the Nineteen Seventies and Nineteen Eighties.
That’s when there was an increase in what Tremblay described as a “very sturdy, violent political insurgency” amongst Sikhs in India, who immediately make up about two % of the inhabitants, demanding their very own state.
That marketing campaign culminated in a June 1984 army raid ordered by then-Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on the holiest website in Sikhism – the Golden Temple – to root out separatist leaders. A whole lot of individuals have been killed in India’s Operation Blue Star, and months later, Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards, setting off a brand new wave of anti-Sikh riots, arrests and lethal violence.
Tremblay advised Al Jazeera that many members of the Sikh diaspora whose households sought refuge in nations reminiscent of Canada, the UK and Australia amid the violence in Punjab nonetheless carry unresolved reminiscences of what occurred there.
“There was no fact and reconciliation with this group,” she mentioned. Nonetheless, she added that Canadian Sikhs who’re lively within the Khalistan motion immediately stay a small – albeit vocal – minority.
“You possibly can’t actually label all of the Sikh group [in Canada by] saying that they’re terrorists and they’re actively pursuing [this]. They could have sympathies for the Khalistani teams, however it’s a really small minority which pursues it,” she mentioned.
Gurpreet Singh, an impartial journalist and broadcaster with Spice Radio 1200 AM in Burnaby, British Columbia, agreed. “[The] Sikh group can be very various – not all of the Sikhs help Khalistan,” he mentioned.
Even supporters of Khalistan reminiscent of Nijjar, whom Gurpreet Singh mentioned he interviewed about one month earlier than he was killed, argue that they aren’t doing something illegal. Nijjar, for instance, was serving to organise a non-binding referendum on an impartial Sikh state, which drew the ire of New Delhi however fell inside the bounds of Canadian legislation.
“He at all times insisted that, ‘We wish Khalistan by way of democratic and peaceable means’, and [a] referendum is a democratic train,” mentioned Gurpreet Singh.
The journalist mentioned the Khalistan motion has re-emerged stronger lately in response to the insurance policies of India’s Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has been in energy since 2014.
Modi’s authorities has focused political opponents, journalists and spiritual minorities, together with Muslims and Sikhs, in what rights teams have mentioned is an ongoing effort to stifle dissent. New Delhi has rejected accusations of rights abuses as interference in its inside affairs.
“This present right-wing, Hindu nationalist authorities is making an attempt to create a false enemy,” Gurpreet Singh advised Al Jazeera.
“Khalistan was a lifeless motion. It was performed. It was decimated by the mid-90s. How come they’ve re-emerged and turn into so sturdy and vocal?” he mentioned. “Ever since [Modi] turned the prime minister, this motion turned stronger. With what is going on with minorities, I might say it’s like a spillover impact of that.”
Indian intelligence in Canada
India, nevertheless, views the Khalistan motion as a menace to its nationwide safety.
In April, Indian authorities arrested a 30-year-old Sikh chief in Punjab, Amritpal Singh, who had been calling for an impartial Sikh homeland. Police accused Singh and his supporters of a collection of offences, together with tried homicide.
However because the motion has largely retreated in India after the state’s crackdown a long time in the past, the Indian authorities has pushed different nations – notably Canada – to do extra to root out teams and people it accuses of being concerned with Sikh separatism.
This long-standing place has hardened underneath Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Celebration (BJP). Extra just lately, help within the Sikh diaspora for Indian farmers’ protests towards contentious farm payments handed by the Modi authorities renewed tensions between the 2 nations.
However India’s considerations over Sikh separatists in Canada actually ramped up within the Nineteen Eighties with the downing of Air India Flight 182, defined Michel Juneau-Katsuya, a former senior intelligence officer with the Canadian Safety Intelligence Service (CSIS).
The June 1985 bombing, which authorities have mentioned was carried out by Sikh separatists primarily based in British Columbia in retaliation for Operation Blue Star, killed all 329 individuals on board. Canada describes it as “the worst terrorist assault” in its historical past.
“We do have extremists in Canada since 1985 and we’ve been investigating these and we’ve been monitoring these and we’ve been making an attempt to neutralise these as a lot as doable,” Juneau-Katsuya advised Al Jazeera.
Canada and India bolstered intelligence-sharing in 2018 to deal with “terrorism and violent extremism”, and for years earlier than that, the 2 nations had been deploying intelligence officers to one another’s nations, mentioned Juneau-Katsuya.
However he added that for the reason that Nineteen Eighties, India additionally has been “covertly sending operators” to infiltrate Sikh communities in Canada. “These operators have been spying on the group, accumulating data on people, reporting the knowledge again to New Delhi,” he mentioned. “And that group actually lives in worry due to that overseas interference.”
Based on Juneau-Katsuya, a significant downside for Canadian authorities is that India needs them to make use of what he referred to as “Indian strategies” to take care of the difficulty of Sikh separatism.
Rights teams reminiscent of Human Rights Watch have documented the Indian authorities’s hardline strategy in Punjab within the Nineteen Eighties and Nineteen Nineties, together with so-called “counterinsurgency operations” that “led to the arbitrary detention, torture, extrajudicial execution, and enforced disappearance of hundreds of Sikhs”.
“It’s not going to occur” in Canada, mentioned Juneau-Katsuya, who served as CSIS chief for the Asia-Pacific area, together with India, within the Nineteen Nineties. “Thus, their criticism, thus their grievance with us that we’re not performing extra decisively like they do.”
Fears of polarisation
Now, with tensions between India and Canada reaching a fever pitch, some members of the South Asian diaspora in Canada have cautioned that the heated discourse may deepen divisions and political polarisation.
Final week, Indian media shops zeroed in on feedback made by Gurpatwant Singh Pannu, chief of the United States-based group Sikhs for Justice, which has been banned in India, after Canada levelled its allegations towards the nation.
Pannu, who has been accused (PDF) by New Delhi of being “concerned in terrorism”, referred to as on all Hindus to depart Canada in a video posted on-line. His assertion drew condemnation from Canadian legislators, together with a number of of Sikh descent.
“To Hindus throughout Canada. That is your own home and also you need to be right here,” Jagmeet Singh, the chief of the New Democratic Celebration, wrote on social media.
To Hindus throughout Canada.
That is your own home and also you need to be right here. Anybody that implies in any other case doesn’t replicate the values of inclusion, compassion and kindness we maintain shut as Canadians.
— Jagmeet Singh (@theJagmeetSingh) September 22, 2023
“To Hindu Canadians & and Indians from all backgrounds: Anybody who says you don’t need to be secure & welcomed in your house doesn’t embody the values of freedom & kindness we maintain pricey as Canadians,” Harjit Sajjan, Canada’s minister of emergency preparedness, additionally mentioned.
For Gurpreet Singh, the journalist, Pannu’s feedback are unacceptable.
“Not all Hindus are RSS [Hindu supremacist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] supporters; not all Sikhs are Khalistanis,” he mentioned. “However this type of discourse is creating issues, frictions, and creating divisions since you are made to decide on your sides.”
He mentioned the same “us versus them” discourse performed out within the South Asian diaspora within the Nineteen Eighties after Operation Blue Star in Punjab. “They have been dwelling in a really polarised setting,” Gurpreet recalled.
“That setting is being recreated and Modi is certainly answerable for this – little doubt about it. However Sikhs for Justice and other people like Pannu who made that assertion [are] truly complimenting him. So I’m a bit involved.”
Within the meantime, Canada has referred to as on India to cooperate in its investigation into what occurred to Nijjar. “We’re not trying to provoke or trigger issues,” Trudeau advised reporters late final week.
“However we’re unequivocal across the significance of the rule of legislation, and unequivocal in regards to the significance of defending Canadians and standing up for our values,” the prime minister mentioned.
India, for its half, has continued to disclaim any involvement in Nijjar’s case whereas doubling down on its claims that Canada is house to “rising anti-India actions and politically-condoned hate crimes and prison violence”.
For Sikhs within the diaspora, particularly those that actively help the Khalistan motion, considerations round Indian overseas interference persist – and lots of are calling for investigations into its extent.
Pritpal Singh, coordinator of the American Sikh Caucus Committee within the US, advised The Intercept on the weekend that the FBI warned him and two different Sikh People in June a few menace to their lives. “They didn’t inform us particularly the place the menace was coming from, however they mentioned that I ought to be cautious,” he mentioned.
In an open letter on Friday, Pritpal Singh referred to as on US lawmakers to “guarantee the security and safety of Sikh People, who’re more and more focused and threatened” amid “rising proof of India’s transnational repression”.
Again in Canada, Moninder Singh on the BC Gurdwaras Council additionally advised Al Jazeera that he was amongst 5 Sikh leaders – together with Nijjar – who have been warned by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s nationwide safety division final yr about threats towards their lives.
Whereas the menace stage towards him finally decreased, Singh mentioned Nijjar’s remained excessive – and the slain chief delivered a speech on the day he was killed by which he mentioned that “he felt that individuals have been closing in on him”, Singh mentioned.
The killing, he added, has generated a dialogue round what steps to take “to not solely safe ourselves right here but additionally in securing justice for [Nijjar]”, and he referred to as for a public inquiry into the Indian authorities’s interference in Canada.
“Now that it’s truly been formally declared on the Parliament ground, it ought to be adopted up on. That is simply the tip of the iceberg.”