A Death in British Columbia and the Future of Canadian-Indian Relations

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By: Jason Beck

Edited By: Elizabeth Cherchia

A tumultuous two weeks in Canadian politics has put Ottawa in the global spotlight whether they like it or not. The bombshell announcement by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came on September 18th: multiple intelligence reports from Canadian security agencies and the Five Eyes intelligence sharing network point to a targeted assassination of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil by agents of the Indian government. The victim, 45-year-old Hardeep Singh Nijjar, an Indian-born Canadian citizen, was involved in the Khalistani movement, an extremist Sikh separatist movement seeking to establish an independent Sikh homeland in the Punjab region of India and Pakistan. Nijjar was killed in Surrey, British Columbia, a center of the Punjabi Canadian community. As of this article’s publication, Indian officials have continued to deny any government involvement in the death of Nijjar, and the Canadian government has not provided any evidence demonstrating the link between Nijjar’s death and the Indian government.

The Sikh push for autonomy and independence began after the Green Revolution in the 1960s dramatically changed the landscape and socioeconomic character of the agriculturally dominant Punjab. Tensions rose between the local community and the Indian government, which had full monopolistic control over the industry during the rule of the Indian National Congress party. The conflict between the Khalistani movement and the Indian government came to a head in 1984 when militants under Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale took control of the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar, Punjab. Bhindranwale and his followers were killed when the Temple, the holiest shrine of the Sikh faith, was attacked and seriously damaged by Indian armed forces during Operation Blue Star on the orders of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The destruction and violence that took place at their religion’s holiest shrine sent shockwaves throughout the Sikh community, even among the majority that opposed Khalistani separatism. 

Following Operation Blue Star, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards as revenge for the attack on the Golden Temple. The popular leader’s death led to what many, including Canadian Punjabi Sikh politician Jagmeet Singh, have characterized as a targeted genocide. In attacks all over India, mobs brutally murdered almost 10,000 Sikhs. 

The effects of the events of 1984 and the low-level insurgency in Punjab that followed were felt in Canada as well, especially in the lives of its large Punjabi diaspora. Some of these Punjabis were Khalistani sympathizers who took refuge in Canada following the crackdown. The bombing of Air India Flight 182 from Montreal to Mumbai in 1985 by Khalistani terrorists of the Babbar Khalsa group killed 329 people, including 268 Canadian citizens, and is widely considered a revenge attack for Blue Star. The tragedy was the deadliest airborne terrorist attack before September 11th and remains a dark point in modern Canadian history.

In recent years, the Khalistani movement has become a major domestic (and now international) target of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, whose Hindu nationalism is vehemently opposed to any regional separatist movement. The Khalistani movement’s association with the Pakistani intelligence service ISI is viewed as a domestic security threat and even treason by the BJP-led government. 

Crackdowns on Khalistani militant groups within Punjab have been common since Modi came to power in 2014. Earlier this year, the Punjab Police arrested Amritpal Singh, a leading Khalistani militant accused of collaborating with Pakistani intelligence. The organization that Nijjar belonged to, Sikhs for Justice, has been banned in India since 2019 but retains members in both the US and Canada.

The accusation made by Trudeau came just after the conclusion of the G20 summit hosted by India, which PM Modi used to demonstrate India’s ever-rising economic and geopolitical status. Trudeau’s accusation came at a time when India is being courted by both China and the United States as each power pushes for deeper bilateral ties with New Delhi. 

India and China are both founding members of the BRICS organization, but India has recently become wary of how much the direction of the group is dictated by Beijing. Chinese claims on the Himalayan border region have also been a long-standing issue in Sino-Indian relations, and violence erupted once again along the contested border in 2020. Meanwhile, India has participated in naval exercises with the United States as part of the Quad Security Dialogue, introduced the U.S.-India Comprehensive Global and Strategic Partnership with President Biden, and is deepening economic ties with the US, the UAE, and Israel through the I2U2 agreement. While no definitive evidence has been produced to conclusively implicate the Indian government in the killing, New Delhi’s uncooperative response to Nijjar’s death and Canada’s accusation, rebutting that Canada harbors terrorists and extremists who threaten their security, demonstrates clearly that India’s own national agenda will take precedence over the goals of potential partner countries.

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