A Canadian Sikh group has called on its members to protest outside the Indian diplomatic missions of main Canadian cities on Monday, a week after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau raised the prospect of New Delhi’s involvement in the murder of a Sikh separatist leader in British Columbia.
Trudeau said last week Canada was pursuing “credible allegations” that Indian government agents may be linked to the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, who was shot dead outside a Sikh temple on June 18 in Surrey, a Vancouver suburb with a high Sikh population.
India swiftly denied any role in the killing and described the allegations as “absurd”. The accusations have sparked tensions between the two countries, with each nation expelling diplomats, and New Delhi suspending visas for Canadians.
Jatinder Singh Grewal, a director for Sikh for Justice in Canada, told Reuters on Sunday that his organisation will lead the demonstrations outside the Indian embassies and consulates in Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver to increase public awareness about Nijjar’s killing.
“We are asking Canada to expel the India ambassador,” Grewal said.
Representatives for India’s diplomatic missions in Ottawa and Toronto were not immediately available for comment.
The Toronto Police Department said it was aware of the planned demonstrations on Monday but declined to disclose details of the security preparations or potential response to any violent situations that may arise during the protest.
Nijjar, who worked as a plumber, left the north Indian state of Punjab a quarter-century ago and became a Canadian citizen. He has supported the formation of an independent Sikh homeland, called Khalistan, to be created out of Punjab. India designated Nijjar a “terrorist” in July 2020.
The Canadian government has amassed both human and signals intelligence in a months-long investigation into the Sikh separatist leader’s murder, CBC News reported last week, citing unidentified sources.
The report said the intelligence included communications of Indian officials present in Canada, adding that some of the information was provided by an unidentified ally in the Five Eyes alliance.
Canada is home to about 770,000 Sikhs — the highest population of Sikhs outside their home state of Punjab — and the country has been the site of many demonstrations that have irked India.
Sikhs make up just 2 per cent of India’s 1.4 billion population but they are a majority in Punjab, a state of 30 million where their religion was born 500 years ago.
Punjab’s Sikhs fear row threatens them at home, abroad
The bitter row between India and Canada is being felt in Punjab, where some Sikhs fear both a backlash from India’s Hindu nationalist government and a threat to their prospects for a better life in North America.
In the village of Bharsinghpura, there are few memories of Nijjar, but his uncle, Himmat Singh Nijjar, 79, said locals “think it was very brave of Trudeau” to accuse Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government of potential involvement in the killing.
“For the sake of one ordinary person, he did not need to take such a huge risk on his government,” the uncle told Reuters, sitting on a wooden bench by a tractor in his farmhouse, surrounded by lush paddy fields and banana trees.
Still, though, the elder Nijjar said he is worried about deteriorating diplomatic relations with Canada and declining economic prospects in Punjab.
The once-prosperous breadbasket of India, Punjab has been overtaken by states that focussed on manufacturing, services and technology in the last two decades.
“Now every family wants to send its sons and daughters to Canada as farming here is not lucrative,” said the elder Nijjar.
India is the largest source for international students in Canada, their numbers jumping 47 per cent last year to 320,000.
“We now fear whether Canada will give student visas or if the Indian government will create some hurdles,” said undergraduate Gursimran Singh, 19, who wants to go to Canada.
He was speaking at the holiest of Sikh shrines, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, where many students go to pray for or give thanks for student visas.
The temple became a flashpoint for Hindu-Sikh tension when then prime minister Indira Gandhi allowed it to be stormed in 1984 to flush out Sikh separatists, angering Sikhs around the world. Her Sikh bodyguards assassinated her soon afterwards.
Ties between Sikh groups in Punjab and Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government have been strained since Sikh farmers led year-long protests against farm deregulation in 2020 and blocked the capital, forcing Modi to withdraw the measure in a rare political defeat for the strongman.
Modi’s government has created “an atmosphere of fear”, especially for young people, said Sandeep Singh, 31, from Nijjar’s village.
“If we are doing a protest, parents wouldn’t like their child to participate because they are afraid their children can meet the same fate” as Nijjar in Canada, he said.
Kanwar Pal, political affairs secretary for the radical separatist Dal Khalsa group, said, “Whosoever fights for Khalistan fights for the right to self-determination, rights for plebiscite in Punjab. India perceived those Sikhs as their enemies and they targeted them.”
A BJP spokesperson declined to comment on the accusations.
Senior BJP leaders have said there was no wave of support in Punjab for independence and that any such demands were a threat to India. At the same time, the party says no one has done as much for the Sikhs as Modi.