Canada killing adds to suspicions of Indian crackdown on Sikh separatists

Months before Hardeep Singh Nijjar was shot dead in a car park in Canada, three other Indians associated with the Sikh separatist movement had died on foreign soil – in circumstances deemed, at least by some, as suspicious.

On Monday, Justin Trudeau alleged there was “credible evidence” that the Indian government was behind the assassination of Nijjar, an explosive accusation that torpedoed already frayed diplomatic relations between India and Canada. India called the allegation “absurd” and both sides expelled senior diplomats in response.

Yet some had already connected Nijjar’s killing in June to the deaths of other prominent figures connected to the Khalistani separatist movement, which fights for the independence of the Indian state of Punjab and has recently seen a revival in India.

The Indian government has in recent months openly pursued and arrested Khalistani militants and sympathisers within its own borders, and Sikh groups have accused the government of taking its crackdown on dissent beyond Indian territory. Nijjar had been designated as a terrorist by the Indian authorities since 2020 and was said to head a militant group, the Khalistan Tiger Force.

After the assassinations of two known Khalistani militants in neighbouring Pakistan in January and May – both in the city of Lahore – there was suspicion of India’s involvement. One of those killed was Harmeet Singh, accused of murders in India and the training of Khalistani militants, and the other was Paramjit Singh Panjwa.

Pakistan has previously accused India of carrying out killings of militants on its territory. Speaking after Trudeau’s allegations, Pakistan’s former foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari called India a “rogue Hindutva [Hindu nationalist] terrorist state”.

Khalistani groups in the UK had accused India of playing a role in the death of Avtar Singh Khanda, who was based in Birmingham and had been active in pro-Khalistani protests, including at the Indian high commission. Khanda had cancer, but his supporters said he was poisoned to death. British police are not treating his death as suspicious.

The Khalistani movement gained traction in Punjab during the 1980s and 1990s and thousands of Punjabi Sikhs were killed in a crackdown on the separatist insurgency. Many thousands more moved abroad, to places such as the UK and Canada, and the Khalistani ideology remained prevalent among the diaspora.

The movement for an independent Punjab has recently had a revival in the north Indian state with the emergence of a popular separatist leader, Amritpal Singh, who was blamed for various bombings and outbreaks of violence. The government’s pursuit of Singh in March, which eventually led to his arrest, saw thousands of police deployed and internet access shut down across the state.

However, the strongest support for the Khalistani movement is among the diaspora, particularly in countries with large Sikh communities such as Canada, Australia, the UK and the US, where sympathy for the Sikh separatist movement has been growing, particularly online.

In March, the Indian consulate in London was stormed and vandalised by pro-Khalistani protesters, prompting strong condemnation from the Indian government, and the Indian consulate in San Francisco was also attacked by pro-Khalistan protesters.

Recently, in places across Canada, posters appeared glorifying Talwinder Parmar, a Sikh militant accused of being the mastermind of the bombing of an Air India flight in 1985.

In response, the Indian government has demanded that foreign governments step up surveillance on pro-Khalistani groups and activists operating on their soil.