India, gangs … or both? Who is behind assassinations of Canadian Sikhs?


Leyland Cecco and Ahmar Khan in Toronto, Hannah Ellis-Petersen in Delhi : 

Less than half an hour after the prominent Canadian Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar was shot dead outside a temple in British Columbia, Moninder Singh addressed a crowd near the site of the brazen attack.

“Make no mistake: this is a political assassination,” Singh told the agitated crowd in June 2023. “And it’s been carried out by India.”

Reaction from Delhi, more than 11,000 kilometres away, was starkly different. The government had long considered Nijjar a “terrorist” and Indian media wrote off the killing as a “fratricidal gang-world slaughter”.

In the months since, the two narratives – of an India-ordered assassination and an underworld hit – appeared at odds.

A sign asking for an investigation on India's alleged role in the killing of Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada.

India says Canada has offered no evidence it was involved in death of Sikh separatist

But the recent arrest of three men for their alleged involvement in the killing of Nijjar has suggested that there is an element of truth to both of those claims. A fourth man, already in custody in the province of Ontario on firearms offences, was charged on Sunday.

The men are allegedly linked to a sprawling criminal network with operations in Canada. And with more arrests expected, investigators and government officials remain confident that India’s government used a tactic they claim it has often employed closer to home: using contract killers from a local gang to carry out a political assassination.

Charges against Karanpreet Singh, Kamalpreet Singh, Karan Brar and Amandeep Singh have done little to calm a lingering sense of fear within the Sikh community.

On a recent afternoon, devotees streaming into the Dixie Gurdwara in Mississauga, Ontario, were reluctant to speak on the record about Nijjar’s killing, but many said the issue loomed large over the community.

“Everyone, bro – everyone is talking about it, but we don’t want to say too much because of what the government can do,” said Jasdeep Singh, an international student from Punjab.

Nijjar was a vocal proponent of Khalistan, a potential independent Sikh state in India, and before his killing the activist had organised a series of symbolic referendums. The Khalistan movement is banned in India and India’s high commissioner to Canada, Sanjay Kumar Verma, recently accused pro-Khalistan activists in Canada of crossing “a big red line” that New Delhi sees as a matter of national security.

“Indians will decide the fate of India, not the foreigners,” he said.

For many Sikhs in Canada, Nijjar’s murder exposed the reach and ambition of India’s nationalist government, and its willingness to pursue and kill “terrorists” outside the country’s borders.

“It shows you the length to which this government is willing to go to shut down any level of dissent. They are even willing to work with enemies, people on the outs, have them go through the legal system – to attack us. It shows us that we’re doing something right,” said Mo Dhaliwal, a Sikh activist and the co-founder of the Poetic Justice Foundation.

Karan Brar, one of the three individuals charged with the murder Hardeep Singh Nijjar in 2023, appears by video link as members of the Sikh community attend court in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada, on 7 May in a courtroom sketch.
Karan Brar appears by video link as members of the Sikh community attend court in Surrey, British Columbia, on 7 May in a courtroom sketch. Photograph: Felicity Don/Reuters

Indian intelligence has previously been accused of recruiting criminal gangs to carry out extrajudicial killings in Pakistan. Since 2020, Pakistan intelligence has accused India of carrying out up to 20 targeted murders of terrorists and dissidents hiding out in the country, with Pakistan intelligence reports alleging that Indian agencies often recruited criminal gangs and local gangsters to carry out these murders.

Canadian investigators believe the three men charged with Nijjar’s murder are low-level operatives of the Lawrence Bishnoi gang, a notorious group implicated in global extortion schemes. Bishnoi was jailed in 2014, but has reportedly been able to continue to conduct and expand his criminal empire from behind bars.

People stand in front of a temple as birds fly past.

Canada: second Sikh activist’s house hit by gunfire this month

Bishnoi is believed to exert control over hundreds of members across north India in recent years and, with operations in North America, exert influence through the sizable Punjabi diaspora.

The gang has been implicated in several high-profile crimes, including the 2022 killing of the popular Canadian Punjabi singer Sidhu Moose Wala.

Investigations by Indian police into the Bishnoi gang’s operations found members were often recruited through social media, where gang leaders post images of weapons and piles of cash, glorifying the gangster life. Punjab police also found that young men were often being recruited by being promised a “new life” in Canada.

Street gangs and organised crime syndicates with links to south Asian communities have long had a presence in British Columbia and Ontario and the Indian government’s decision to use those existing networks is a “marriage of convenience”, said Queen’s University assistant professor Amarnath Amarasingam, who specialises in extremism and social movements.

“India will pay whoever will do the shooting and gangs like the Bishnoi gang will essentially kill whoever pays them to kill,” he said.

Canadian investigators are also probing whether the three men were involved in three other homicides – including the shooting of an 11-year-old boy in the city of Edmonton, where the men were arrested.

Using a gang based in the Punjab, whose members arrived on student visas, would be intended to create the perception of domestic score-settling and administrative oversight, instead of a government-ordered assassination, said Amarasingam.

While it remains unclear whether the Bishnoi gang itself outsourced the killing of Nijjar – or how high the orders came from within the Indian government – the strategy has proven successful outside India’s direct borders.

“At this point, for broader political and economic reasons, there doesn’t seem to be any consequences for the people who kind of call the shots at all,” said Amarasingam.

Nearly a year after Nijjar’s death, mounting pressure within Canada to mend relations and restore trade talks with India has angered activist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun.

US prosecutors say that Pannun, the chief legal counsel for Sikhs for Justice, was the target of a foiled assassination attempt overseen by an unnamed Indian government agent who directed a middleman to recruit a hitman in the US, where Pannun lives. Pannun argues that Canada must do more to confront an increasingly aggressive India.

“The use of gangs as foot soldiers has India’s fingerprints all over it,” he said. “But arresting lower-level players and removing intelligence agents isn’t enough to end the transnational campaign of violence. Indian diplomats must also be held accountable, otherwise [Indian prime minister Narendra] Modi’s government will feel they can come to Canada, kill a Canadian and get away with it.”

After the arrests of the three men in Canada, India’s foreign minister reiterated his government’s belief that Ottawa is allowing criminals to operate in Canada.

“Somebody may have been arrested; the police may have done some investigation. But the fact is [a] number of gangland people, [a] number of people with organised crime links from Punjab, have been made welcome in Canada,” said the foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, adding that Canada had also given shelter to pro-Khalistan activists. “These are wanted criminals from India; you have given them visas … and yet you allow them to live there.”

For Moninder Singh, the use of existing criminal networks to attack the Khalistan movement is a “new reality” for activists.

“When I look at these three individuals, I only see India,” he said. “They’re just faces: three were hired today and another three could be hired tomorrow.”

A year before his friend was murdered, Singh – a spokesperson for the British Columbia Gurdwaras Council – was also warned about a possible attempt on his life. He was recently warned again by police of a “very real” risk of assassination, but remains undeterred.

He avoids public places when possible. He has stopped grocery shopping. And he cannot attend key moments of his children’s lives.

“You make up excuses – ‘Dad’s gonna go to work’ or ‘Dad’s gonna go for his community meeting right now and can’t come to your recital.’ And then after a while, your kids stop asking, because they know you won’t be there. That’s the hardest and the saddest part of this whole thing,” he said.

“I made the choice to speak out for Khalistan and I don’t want sympathy. It’s an unfortunate thing to have to accept living in a country like Canada, where this stuff shouldn’t happen. But I’ve chosen this path and I’m committed to it. I’ll either see Khalistan or I’ll die trying.”

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