NEW DELHI (AP) — Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh independence advocate whose killing two months ago is at the center of a widening breach between India and Canada, was called a human rights activist by Sikh organizations and a criminal by India’s government.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday that his government was investigating “credible allegations” that Indian government agents were linked to the June 18 slaying, when Nijjar was gunned down outside a Sikh cultural center in Surrey, British Columbia.
India has denied any role in the killing, calling the allegations absurd.
Nijjar, 45 when he died, was a prominent member of a movement to create an independent Sikh homeland known as Khalistan, and was organizing an unofficial referendum among the Sikh diaspora with the organization Sikhs For Justice.
He also owned a plumbing business and served as president of a Sikh temple or gurdwara in suburban Vancouver, where banners hung with his face promoting the referendum on Tuesday. In a 2016 interview with the Vancouver Sun he responded dismissively to reports in Indian media that he was suspected of leading a terrorist cell.
“This is garbage — all the allegations. I am living here 20 years, right? Look at my record. There is nothing. I am a hard worker. I own my own business in the plumbing,” Nijjar told the newspaper. At the time, he said he was too busy to take part in diaspora politics.
Following his death, the World Sikh Organization of Canada called Nijjar an outspoken supporter of Khalistan who “often led peaceful protests against the violation of human rights actively taking place in India and in support of Khalistan.”
Nijjar was a wanted man in India, which has for years seen Sikh separatists abroad as a security threat.
In 2016, Indian media reported that Nijjar was suspected of masterminding a bombing in the Sikh-majority state of Punjab and training terrorists in a small city southeast of Vancouver. He denied the allegations.
In 2020, Indian authorities claimed Nijjar was a member of a banned militant group and designated him a terrorist. That year, they also filed a criminal case against him as farmers, many from Punjab, camped out on the edges of New Delhi to protest controversial agriculture laws. The Indian government initially tried to discredit the protests by associating them with Sikh separatists, filing a number of such cases against Sikh activists in India and abroad.
Last year, Indian authorities accused Nijjar of involvement in an alleged attack on a Hindu priest in India and announced a reward of about $16,000 for information leading to his arrest.
The modern Sikh independence movement reaches back to the 1940s but eventually became an armed insurgency that shook the country in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1984, then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered a raid to capture armed separatists taking refuge in Sikhism’s holiest shrine.
The raid killed hundreds of people, and two of Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards assassinated her shortly after. In response, anti-Sikh riots took place across India in which members of the minority were dragged out of their homes and killed. The insurgency was eventually suppressed in a crackdown during which thousands of people were killed, but the goal of Sikh independence still has support among some in northern India and in the Sikh diaspora.
More recently, the Hindu nationalist-led government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has cracked down on both non-Hindu rights movements and dissidents.
Sikh diaspora activism has been a source of tension between India and Canada for years. Canada has the largest population of Sikhs outside India, and India has repeatedly accused it of tolerating “terrorists and extremists.”
Canadian police said Nijjar was shot as he was leaving the parking lot of the Sikh temple where he served as president in British Columbia. He suffered multiple gunshot wounds and died at the scene.
After the killing, a lawyer and spokesperson for Sikhs For Justice, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, said Nijjar had been a target of threats because of his activism. His killing was the second in two years of a prominent member of the Sikh community in Canada.
Pannun said he had spoken to Nijjar by phone the day before he was killed and that Nijjar had told him that Canadian intelligence had warned him that his life was at risk.
Nearly a week after Nijjar’s slaying, about 200 protesters from Canada’s Sikh community gathered in front of the Indian Consulate in Vancouver to demonstrate. Many of the protesters were convinced that Nijjar’s killing was linked to his calls for an independent Sikh state.
“He was a loving man, a hard-working man, a family man,” said Gurkeerat Singh, one of the protesters.
On Monday, Moninder Singh, a spokesperson for the British Columbia Sikh Gurdwara Council, told Canada’s CTV that the wave of support for Nijjar seen after his death was an indication of how he was seen in the community.
“It shook the community across the entire world, including in Punjab,” Singh said.
“The community is shattered. There are very, very high emotions,” Sukh Dhaliwal, a member of Parliament who represents Surrey, said days after the killing.
This story has been edited to correct that the insurgency was in the 1970s and 1980s.
Cohen reported from Bangkok.