OTTAWA: Just a day after Secretary Antony Blinken pushed India to join murder investigations, the US ambassador to Canada said Five Eyes — an intelligence-sharing network of Canada, United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand — was behind Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s claim about involvement of Indian spies in the murder of Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar.

The confirmation came on the day when Indian authorities confiscated the Chandigarh house and agricultural lands of Gurpa­t­want Singh Pannun, a pro­minent Sikh leader and a close ally of Nijjar, whose killing has sparked a diplomatic row between New Delhi and Ottawa. Pannun is the founder of the US-based group Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), whose Can­ada chapter was headed by Nijjar before he was murdered by masked assailants in June near Vancouver.

“I will say this was a matter of shared intelligence information. There was a lot of communication bet­ween Canada and the United States about this, and I think that’s as far as I’m comfortable going,” Mr Cohen told CTV News in an interview to be aired on Sunday.

The United States earlier made it clear that it expected the Indian government to work with Canada on efforts to investigate the possible involvement of New Delhi agents in Nijjar’s murder.

“We are deeply concerned about the allegations that Prime Minister Trudeau has raised,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters in a press briefing. “It would be important that India work with the Canadians on this investigation. We want to see accountability.”

Separately, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a lawyer, was designated as a terrorist by Indian authorities in 2020 and is wanted on charges of terrorism and sedition. His group, SFJ, has been a vocal advocate for the creation of an independent Sikh homeland called Khalistan.

On Monday Trudeau said Ottawa had credible intelligence linking Indian agents to the murder of Nijjar, prompting an angry reaction from New Delhi, which denies the allegation.

New Delhi dismissed Trudeau’s allegations as “absurd”, tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions followed, and India has stopped processing visa applications by Canadians.

Pannun jumped into the raging row and issued a video telling Canadian Hindus to “go back to India”, claiming they had adopted a “jingoistic approach” by siding with New Delhi. In an interview with an Indian news channel, Pannun said Nijjar had been his “close associate” for over 20 years and was like a “younger brother” to him. He also blamed India for Nijjar’s killing.

‘Heinous crimes’

Soon after his interview was aired, the Indian government issued an advisory to news networks asking them to refrain from giving a platform to people accused of “heinous crimes”.

Armed with court orders, officials of India’s National Investigation Agency on Saturday confiscated Pannun’s house in Chandigarh, the capital of the Sikh-majority state of Punjab, it said in a statement. The NIA also confiscated agricultural land belonging to him in Amritsar. It accused Pannun of “actively exhorting Punjab-based gangsters and youth” on social media “to fight for the cause of independent state of Khalistan, challenging the sovereignty, integrity and security of the country”.

The Khalistan campaign was largely considered a benign fringe movement until the early 1980s, when a charismatic Sikh fundamentalist launched a separatist insurgency.

It culminated with Indian forces storming the Golden Temple, the faith’s holiest shrine in Amritsar, where separatists had barricaded themselves. India’s prime minister Indira Gandhi was subsequently assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards.

The insurgency was brought under control and the Khalistan movement’s most vocal advocates are now among the large Sikh diaspora, particularly in Canada, Britain and Australia.

Published in Dawn, September 24th, 2023

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