The human rights advocacy group Sikhs For Justice says peaceful protests will “shut down” Indian consulate offices in Canada next week, with new intelligence appearing to link the Indian state to a high-profile murder in British Columbia.
Hardeep Singh Nijjar, president of the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara, was gunned down in the Surrey temple’s parking lot after evening prayers on June 18. Nijjar, 45, was a prominent community leader and supporter of Sikh separatism.
On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau revealed national security authorities had obtained “credible” intelligence “agents of the government of India” were behind the grisly killing — something the World Sikh Organization of Canada and others had suggested shortly after Nijjar’s death.
India’s Ministry of External Affairs has vehemently denied the claims, calling them “absurd and motivated” in a statement early on Tuesday.
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Protests, however, are slated to take place outside Indian consulates in Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver next Monday, according to Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, legal counsel for Sikhs for Justice.
“We will not allow the Indian consulates to function and we’re going to push the Canadian government to name the individuals who are responsible for assassinating and giving the orders to hit Nijjar,” he told Global News.
“He has been assassinated outside the gurdwara — that was being done to give a very strong message to pro-Khalistan Sikhs that they will be hunted, even in the Western world.”
In its statement, India said it rejects “any attempts to connect Government of India to such developments,” calling itself “a democratic polity with a strong commitment to rule of law.”
“We urge the Government of Canada to take prompt and effective legal action against all anti-India elements operating from their soil,” wrote its Ministry of External Affairs.
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Sikhs For Justice organizes referendum votes on Khalistan around the world, holding one in Surrey — where Nijjar was murdered — earlier this month.
The Khalistan movement rose to prominence in the 1980s, but discussion around sovereignty for Sikhs and Punjab can be traced back to the 1947 partition of India. The movement is outlawed in India, as are a number of groups associated with it, which are listed as “terrorist organisations” by the Indian state.
Canada has expelled top Indian diplomat Pavan Kumar Rai “as a consequence” of the new intelligence, according to Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly. Rai led the Canadian branch of India’s foreign intelligence service, the Research and Analysis Wing, she confirmed.
Sikhs for Justice is calling for the expulsion of Indian High Commissioner to Canada Sanjay Verma as well. Global News has reached out to Verma’s office for comment.
Jaskaran Sandhu, a board member with the World Sikh Organization of Canada, said he won’t be surprised if protests take place outside consulates before Sept. 25 as well, calling the intelligence revelation “unprecedented.”
“People are livid right now. This is a news story that obviously has shaken the whole country. It’s also a news story that has shaken the community to a certain extent,” he said in an interview.
“It’s something that’s going to reverberate from our security apparatuses, to our intelligence community, to our governance, to how we understand the diaspora in Canada. This is a story for the ages.”
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In a public statement, B.C. Premier David Eby said he has already been briefed by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service on the allegations against India, saying he is “deeply disturbed and angered” by them.
“In light of these revelations, we will do all we can to enhance protection for the people of British Columbia against the violence or threats of state actors,” he wrote in a Monday statement.
“I call, yet again, on the federal government to share all relevant information related to any known ongoing foreign interference and transnational organized crime threats with our provincial authorities and our government, so we may act in co-ordination and protect those at risk.”
In the aftermath of the findings, the World Sikh Organization of Canada has made several demands to the federal government, one of which is to protect Sikhs in the country who face threats from India or its agents.
The organization has already accused Canada’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies of failing to do so for Nijjar, who voiced concerns about threats to his life in relation to his political activities in the months prior to his death.
Sandhu said “there is fear” in the Sikh community about India’s reach, and police and intelligence agencies should take another look at their “lists” to see who may be in need of protection or who has been threatened in the past.
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At least one prominent member of B.C.’s Sikh community, Moninder Singh, went into hiding after Nijjar’s murder, having said he, Nijjar and three others were told by the RCMP about an “imminent threat of assassination” against them last year.
To date, the RCMP have declined to confirm or deny threats against Singh or Nijjar.
Singh, a spokesperson for the BC Gurdwaras Council, said a federal declaration on Indian interference in Canada is long overdue, and it’s unfortunate it took Nijjar’s death to catalyze it.
“If Canada is actually declaring that India is an actual actor in this, I think that’s a first step towards acknowledging and a first step towards justice,” Singh said outside the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara on Monday.
“But until we actually see people behind bars, until we see actually people that were supplying money for this hit, carrying this out — I think it’s kind of (a) skepticism right now that something is going to happen. That just comes from a long list of things that have happened in the past where we don’t really see that justice, whether it’s in India or it’s here.”
Singh credited the Sikh community in B.C. and nationally for keeping allegations of India’s interference, and threats against Nijjar, in the public eye in the months since his murder.
“I think the wave of support we saw post his death is just a small indication of how big of a stature Hardeep Singh had in the entire Sikh community internationally. It should the community across the entire world, including in Punjab,” he said.
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In June, Trudeau’s national security advisor, Jody Thomas, named India as among the top sources of foreign interference in Canada. Three years before that, a government document obtained by Global News showed that Canadian security officials suspected India’s two main intelligence branches had asked an Indian citizen to sway Canadian politicians into supporting Indian government interests.
Singh said Sikh activists have long understood that their careers, families and lives could be at risk in relation to their work, but Monday’s news will not silence anyone.
“The healing will take place within the activism for us and that’s always been the case for our people.”
Jatinder Singh Grewal, director of international policy with Sikhs for Justice, agreed. He said the attack against Nijjar, a community advocate and leader, was an attack against Sikhs broadly as well as an attack on Canadian sovereignty.
The Sikh community, he added, simply wishes to exercise its right to freedom of expression.
“It sends fear into our community, but the Sikhs will not succumb to fear,” Grewal said.
“They will take precautions, however. We will continue to promote the belief and the right to self-determination of the Sikh people and the establishment of Khalistan.”
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Sikhs For Justice is calling on the Canadian government to label India a state sponsor of terror.
“It is irrefutable that this act was done in front of a Sikh temple and this execution was done to the head of a Sikh temple. What message does it send?” Grewal asked.
To Harkireet Kaur, Nijjar was “like a father” at the gurdwara. She said he helped guide her when she strayed in high school, and shared stories of his lifelong activism that inspired her.
“Now is not the time to celebrate or get overly excited,” the North American Sikh Association member told Global News. “Now is the time to ensure that we will continue to raise our voice, build pressure and leave no room for any sort of backtracking.”
The RCMP, meanwhile, continue to investigate Nijjar’s killing. No arrests have been reported, but investigators are searching for three suspects and have identified a suspect vehicle believed to be the getaway car.
— with files from Sean Boynton