Father’s Day this year could have ended differently for Balraj Singh Nijjar, of Surrey, British Columbia, Canada.
Around 8:30 PM that day, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, 45, father of Balraj and a younger brother, walked out of Surrey’s Guru Nanak Gurdwara into the parking lot. Two heavier-set masked men laid in wait for at least an hour and shot Mr. Nijjar through the window of his truck multiple times; assassins escaped in a getaway car driven by a third accomplice. Mr. Nijjar, a Canadian citizen since 2007 after entering the country in 1997, was the President of this Gurdwara and a prominent member. Three months on, no arrests have been made, nor any suspect named.
Three months to the day, Mr. Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, rose in the Parliament and announced that Canada was “actively pursuing credible allegations of a potential link ” that Indian agents orchestrated the murder of the Canadian citizen on Canadian soil. Newsreels claimed later that he did so in anticipation of a newspaper exposé. Later in the week he told the New York Times that he also felt he had an obligation to act. “When we have credible reasons to believe that this happened, you can’t shrug it off,” he said, adding, that he had an obligation to act. “When we have credible reasons to believe that this happened, you can’t shrug it off,” he said. Trudeau wanted to see “a number of people thrown in jail,” plus “a series of lessons learned and changes made to the way Indian intelligence services operate.”
Reports surfaced later that Canada obtained critical intelligence from a fellow member of the “Five Eyes” alliance – comprising US, Canada, UK, Australia, and New Zealand – possibly involving surveillance of Indian diplomats inside Canada. Canada urged other Five Eyes members to join in ratcheting the pressure up on India, so far none obliged. The UK released a cryptic tweet that does not even mention India, US authorities claimed they were “deeply concerned” and encouraged India to participate in a thorough investigation. At the recently concluded G20 Summit in New Delhi, Trudeau attempted to have a condemnation of India issued, but to no avail. Canada has so far failed to release any incriminating evidence, and likely will never be able to without compromising methods and resources, even if any evidence were to exist.
For all practical purposes, Canada’s efforts at forcing India to fold is at a dead-end.
India has categorically denied any complicity in the murder of Mr. Nijjar, calling these allegations “absurd,” among other choice words. Mr. Nijjar was an outspoken supporter of “Khalistan” – the concept of an independent homeland for Sikhs in northern India – a movement that is outlawed inside India. Among other efforts, he organized a community referendum to gauge support, over a hundred thousand voted Similar initiatives occurred among diaspora Sikhs in other places and in other countries, much to the chagrin of the Indian government. Mr. Nijjar also claimed that he had been hounded out and tortured inside India in his 1997 application for political refuge in Canada, his claim was found fraudulent by Canadian authorities.
For its part, India claims Mr. Nijjar was the leader of militant “Khalistan Tiger Force,” and issued two Interpol red notices in 2014 and 2016. India claims Mr. Nijjar was recruited by Pakistan’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, in 2014-14, and was involved in a plan to drop munitions in India with a paraglider. Nijjar claimed such claim was “preposterous,” “garbage,” and that he was simply “trying to raise awareness in Canada about human rights violations being committed against Sikhs in the Punjab.” Mr. Nijjar’s name featured in a “most wanted person list” handed to Prime Minister Trudeau in 2018 in connection with an allegation of his involvement in multiple killings. In 2020 India declared him a terrorist, and in 2022, accused him in plotting to kill a Hindu priest in Punjab, announced a reward of INR 1 million for information that may lead to his arrest, and allegedly released his address in Surrey, Canada in the process. The Nijjar family repeatedly sought protection by the police in Canada though it is not clear if he had any at the time of his death. Mr. Nijjar was put on a no-fly list and subsequently detained briefly by Canadian authorities, but otherwise, he continued his activities unimpeded.
Religion, identity, and nationalism – each a tricky subject on its own – merge together making this case sensitive on all sides.
Of all religions in the world, Sikhism is one of the closest to my heart, and always has been. A beautiful amalgam of devotion, loyalty, peace through strength, equality, and, duty to the community, the religion of Sikhism is the youngest among major religions in India. Among many things, they are known worldwide for “Langar” – a commitment to feed anybody, every single soul without care for anything, that enters their holy precincts. As a student in India I made it a point to visit the local Gurdwara every month, in part for the free food, but mostly for the experience of “Sewa,” or service. As a father, I dragged my son to Harmandir Sahib, aka the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine, where we spent hours visiting the inner sanctorum for Kirtan (“prayer”), and participated in Langar and Sewa thereafter. I would do it again.
Sikhs are known for loving peace, but never taking it for granted – a creed that grew, partly, through the lived experience of its Gurus. Sikhs are known for their fierce loyalty – more than a third of Sikh men serve in the military at any given time – if their identity is maintained intact. Sikhs have traveled the globe, started migrating to North America in late 1800’s, and opened the first Gurdwara in 1912, Dalip Singh Saund became the first Asian American to be a US Representative in 1957. 770,000 Sikhs live in Canada and about a tenth of that in the US, many are in farming and transport, and recently they have been allowed to participate in US military to serve while openly wearing their articles of faith. Sikhs in India are very well placed and represented in government service, bureaucracy, transport, agriculture, and business, not to mention in the military. Globally, and especially in India, Sikhs are thriving, and not just subsisting.
It is in this context we should view the “Khalistan” movement. Four decades back, the separatist movement was at its crescendo, egged on and financed by Pakistan, including the infamous ISI, with enthusiastic participation by diaspora Sikhs, primarily in Canada. In a single six-month period in 1984 the movement caused almost 300 deaths in hundreds of violent acts. To counter the menace, Indian military conducted Operation Blue Star between June 1-8, 1984, a controversial act when they entered the Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest site, to flush out militants, including Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a militant kingpin holed inside the complex since July 1983. Blue Star and its aftermath resulted in hundreds of militants, military personnel and civilians dead or arrested in one of the darkest periods of Indian history.
On Oct 31, 1984, two Sikh bodyguards of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi opened fire on her as a retaliation for ordering Operation Blue Star. This resulted in unrestrained violence against Sikhs all over India, resulting in thousands of Sikhs dead, many of these massacres happened in open connivance of the police and political parties in power. [West Bengal, my home state in India, was a very notable exception to this carnage]. A year after Golden Temple incursion, on June 23, 1985 Air India 182 – a 747 carrying 329 on-board was bombed over Ireland, killing all, allegedly masterminded by a Canadian citizen Talwinder Singh Parmar, belonging to Babbar Khalsa, a separatist faction. The same day in Narita, Japan a luggage bomb exploded on its way to Air India 301, killing two ground personnel. Indian police and paramilitary responded with utmost urgency through late 1980’s and 1990’s, suppressing the movement over the next decades.
The Khalistan movement inside India is all but non-existent as we speak. The eternal cycle of violence took a toll on people while economic progress through farming, land-owning and transport took the wind out of Sikh resentment. It is estimated that over 95% of Indian Sikhs consider India their rightful homeland, and over three quarters consider any Sikh not owing allegiance to India cannot deserve to call them a Sikh. Primary members of the vocal cohort of Khalistan supporters are from Canada. India’s heavy-handed response does not help but keep the discontent alive. In March of 2023, Indian government curtailed internet service over the entire state of Punjab, affecting 27 million, for one weekend as they searched one Amritpal Singh Sandhu. Sandhu had called for protests at a police station that turned menacing but remained non-violent, he surrendered and remains in custody now. Last year an overzealous Indian media tried to portray a farmers’ protest as Khalistani, simply because most protesters were Sikh farmers. I condemned the protests on these pages for being ill-conceived, but Khalistani? Please.
Where do we go from here?
First, friends do not accuse friends of murder, especially without credible evidence for all to see. If they do so accuse, friends do not remain friends any longer. Looks like that is starting to happen. India has stopped issuing visas in Canada, alleging lack of protection for its diplomatic corps. India might ask Canada to curtail size of her mission inside India.
Second, India must realize being “trigger happy” with often non-violent protests – however loud, even menacing – is a ticket to the doghouse of public ignominy, so to speak. Canada may crawl back from this ugly slugfest licking its wounds, but she will not be deterred. Heaping slander on the “mother of democracy” for alleged lack of adherence to its first principles is an easy picking.
Third, vested interests inside Canada – or the UK, even the US for that matter – must refrain from using this current spat as a mantra to badger India with. If anything, India has shown that she does not like being lectured to, especially by a country that colonized her or another whose armada appeared in full view of her coast in a not-so-discreet attempt to subjugate her will.
Fourth, India must accept the ideals of freedom of speech are held more sacrosanct in certain parts of the globe. Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and US Bill of Rights explicitly permit activities Mr. Nijjar is alleged to have been engaged in, outside of India. As long as he was not actively fomenting violent insurrection while sitting inside Canada, Canada could not, and would not, put restrictions on his spiteful behavior.
Fifth, and most importantly, Trudeau must realize he is in a no-win situation. Even if we accept his allegations are correct, he has no way to prove it without compromising the methods and resources of Five Eyes. “Charged but never proven” is a license to kill to be awarded to nobody but the most dangerous lot. Surely Trudeau does not want that to happen. Likely Trudeau lost a seat in the table where critical discussions happen in the struggle for the preservation of the Free World against a rogue CRINK (China, Russia, Iran & North Korea).
I hope this is a teachable moment. I hope India takes it easy, acts more sanguine of her own sustenance. I wish Canada thought twice before what she did, but now that it is history, Canada must walk back – or at least slow walk – a charge of high crime leveled against India. Above all, I pray that President Biden does not succumb pressures of virtue-signaling with allegations that he cannot substantiate. Ugly and unprecedented as today’s spat is, it proves India is a force to be reckoned with, but an ally that US will always need.