A Deep Dive Into Canadian-Indian Tensions Reveals Deeply-Held Fears About Separatism
Updated: Oct 11
In June 2023, Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar was killed at the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara Temple in Surrey, British Columbia (F B/Flickr).
On June 18, 2023, two unidentified masked gunmen shot and killed 45-year-old Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian citizen, in the parking lot outside the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara Temple in Surrey, British Columbia. Canada claims to have ta that Indian operatives are linked to Nijjar’s assassination and takes exception to foreign agents killing a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil. Although India vehemently denies this “absurd” accusation, the incident has precipitated an escalating, complex diplomatic war between the two nations.
In the late 15th century, Guru Nanak Dev Ji founded Sikhism in the Punjab region of North India. A key feature of this monotheistic ethnoreligion is a pervasive belief in the equality of all persons. With over 26 million adherents worldwide, Sikhism is the world’s fifth-largest religion. Almost 90 percent of the world’s Sikhs live in India, with most in the Punjab region, where Sikhs constitute a 58 percent majority.
Under British colonial rule, Sikhs were loyal to the British and heavily recruited into the British Army. During the Indian independence movement, Sikhs actively opposed the partition of India and Punjab, advocating for an independent Sikh state to be called Khalistan or Punjabi Suba. Following the partition, India declined to treat the Sikhs as equal to the Hindus. The Sikhs objected, and the Indian government used military tactics to subdue Sikh resistance. In 1966, India formed a new Punjabi state, but the Hindus objected on a technicality that left the displeased Sikhs with a smaller region than they previously had.
By 1973, Sikhs’ mounting grievances led to a 20-year period of massive protests. A small number of Sikhs responded to aggressive police tactics and extrajudicial killings with substantial retaliatory violence and terrorism.
In 1971, expatriated Sikhs commenced a campaign for the creation of a separate Sikh country called Khalistan to encompass Punjab, part of Pakistan, and several other North Indian areas. In the early 1980s, expatriated Sikh separatists declared the founding of Khalistan and established a government-in-exile, currency, passports, and postage stamps. Punjabi Sikhs joined the crusade and became increasingly militant through violent and nonviolent means. The Khalistan movement lost steam during the 1990s, and India banned Sikh separatism. However, some expatriated Sikhs remain committed to the realization of Khalistan. India finds this ongoing desire intimidating and fears a large-scale renewal.
Over the last three years, Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) reinvigorated expatriates’ efforts to actualize a Sikh homeland. Active in this endeavor, Nijjar was organizing an unofficial referendum among expatriated Sikhs on the establishment of Khalistan. Within a month of Nijjar’s killing, two other expatriated Sikh separatists also were killed: Avtar Singh Khanda, 35, of the UK (killed by suspected poisoning), and Paramjit Singh Panjwar, 63, in Pakistan (killed by gunmen).
Canada’s Sikh Population
About 771,000 Sikhs live in Canada, constituting approximately 2.1 percent of Canada’s population. Canadian Sikhs represent about 3 percent of the world’s Sikh population. This is the largest group of Sikhs outside of India.
Sikhs retired from the British Army and began emigrating to Canada in the late 1800s. Upon arrival, the Sikhs faced marked discrimination by the Canadian government. This hostility continued through the late 1940s. Thereafter, Sikhs made large strides in business and politics.
In 1984, Canadian Sikhs protested Indian violence against Punjabi Sikhs. Among other things, Canadian Sikhs vandalized Indian consulate offices and burned Indian flags. Caucasian Canadians showed strong solidarity with the Canadian Sikhs during this demonstration, and have continued to embrace Sikh causes ever since.
Canadian Sikhs have long suspected Indian agents of meddling in their community and affairs, and live in fear of Indian machinations, especially with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the helm. In its defense, India charges Canada with harboring Indian terrorists and extremists who overtly endorse a Khalistani nation and complains Canada has failed to properly deal with these menacing individuals. India specifically deemed Nijjar a terrorist because of his Khalistani advocacy. Indian authorities wanted Nijjar for alleged conspiracy to commit murder and offered a reward for his arrest. In the months prior to Nijjar’s killing, Canadian officials warned Nijjar he may be targeted for assassination.
A Timeline of the Murder’s Aftermath
Although Canada and India have historically enjoyed a cordial relationship, the rapport cooled in recent years because of Canadian Sikh separatist activity. Nijjar’s killing, however, has led to unusually tense exchanges between the two nations.
Canadian investigators took a while to develop reliable intelligence about responsibility for Nijjar’s murder. Even so, early indicators suggested India played a role. On September 1, 2023, Canada abruptly paused talks with India on a proposed trade treaty, due to a purported need to “take stock of where we are.” At that time, India did not believe the hiatus pertained to Nijjar’s murder.
On September 10, 2023, at the New Delhi Group of 20 (G20) Summit, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau relayed “deep concerns” to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi regarding India’s involvement in Nijjar’s murder. In response, Modi criticized Canada’s handling of Sikh demonstrations and purported failure to protect Indian expatriates in Canada. In a further move viewed by many as a snub, India declined to hold a formal G20 bilateral meeting with Canada. At the conclusion of the G20, India issued a press release asserting Canada’s “extremist elements” were “inciting violence against Indian diplomats, damaging diplomatic premises, and threatening the Indian community in Canada.” Trudeau replied by backing Canadians’ rights to “freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, and freedom of peaceful protest.”
On September 15, 2023, Canada postponed an October trade mission to India. Canadian officials initially offered no reason for the change, but an unnamed source subsequently admitted the delay resulted from concerns regarding Nijjar’s killing.
On September 18, 2023, Prime Minister Trudeau informed the Canadian parliament that, for weeks, Canadian security agencies had been “actively pursuing credible allegations of a potential link” between “agents of the government of India” and Nijjar’s killing. Reportedly, the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance—including the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—developed and relayed supporting evidence based on surveillance of Indian diplomats. To date, no details have been disclosed. Trudeau’s bombshell announcement to parliament initiated an accelerating war of diplomacy.
India declared Trudeau’s accusation to be baseless and absurd. “Such unsubstantiated allegations seek to shift the focus from Khalistani terrorists and extremists, who have been provided shelter in Canada and continue to threaten India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” said India’s Foreign Ministry. “The inaction of the Canadian Government on this matter has been a long-standing and continuing concern.” Even so, India is willing to look at information pertaining to the issue, but according to Indian foreign ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi, no such information was received.
Also on September 18, 2023, Canada expelled Pavan Kumar Rai, head of India’s foreign intelligence operation in Canada. Announcing this development, Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Jolie said, “Right now, we know we are in an international security crisis and one of the fundamental rules behind the world’s stability and security is the protection of each country’s sovereignty. We see this possible breach of sovereignty as completely unacceptable.” On September 19, 2023, India responded by ejecting the Canadian intelligence service’s New Delhi station chief, Olivier Sylvestre. In its corresponding press release, India’s Ministry of External Affairs cited “India’s growing concern at the interference of Canadian diplomats in our internal matters and their involvement in anti-India activities.”
On September 20, 2023, India’s Ministry of External Affairs warned Indian citizens in Canada to “exercise utmost caution” due to perceived peril to “sections of the Indian community who oppose the anti-India agenda.” On that date, Canada issued its own travel advisory, urging Canadians to “[e]xercise a high degree of caution in India due to the threat of terrorist attacks throughout the country.” The advisory explains that, in the context of recent developments in Canada and India, there is negative sentiment toward Canada on social media. Demonstrations, including anti-Canada protests, could occur and Canadians may be subjected to intimidation or harassment.”
On September 28, 2023, during a meeting with Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged India to cooperate with Canada’s investigation. Tacitly replying to Blinken, Jaishankar stated, “We told the Canadians that this [killing on foreign soil] is not the government of India’s policy,” and maintained New Delhi was willing to examine specific evidence or information shared by the Canadians.
Prime Minister Trudeau explained he does not want to “escalate the situation” with India. Rather, he seeks to have a constructive dialogue with New Delhi about evidence adduced to date. This fraught controversy is occurring at a strategically awkward time. Many Western nations are courting increased trade with India to offset economic reliance on China. Trudeau’s outspoken support for Canadian Sikhs could risk the entire Western effort to accomplish this objective.
Sources & Further Reading