Sikh assassination: Are US and Canada stepping up pressure on India?

A year after Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar was killed outside his community’s holy site near Vancouver, a series of diplomatic and legal steps have increased scrutiny of India’s alleged role in crushing the Sikh separatist movement abroad through assassinations in both the United States and Canada.

In Canada, a hearing in the Nijjar case is scheduled for June 25, giving prosecutors a new opportunity to present evidence to support their claim that India was involved in the murder.

Meanwhile, Nikhil Gupta, suspected of being involved in a plot to kill Sikh separatist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, was extradited to the United States from the Czech Republic earlier this month.

Read more about the Canada-US initiative and what it means for India below.

Karan Brar, Kamalpreet Singh and Karanpreet Singh (left to right), Indian nationals charged with the murder and conspiracy to murder Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in 2023. [IHIT/Handout via Reuters]

What is happening in Canada with the Nijjar incident?

Four Indian nationals were arrested in May this year in connection with the shooting death of Nijjar in June last year. They are Amandeep Singh (22), Kamalpreet Singh (22), Karan Brar (22) and Karanpreet Singh (28).

To mark the one-year anniversary of Nijjar’s death, Sikh activists held a mock trial of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in front of the Indian Consulate in downtown Vancouver. Activists held up an effigy of Modi dressed in prison clothes and alleged the Indian government’s role in Nijjar’s death.

Meanwhile, Canada’s parliament last week observed a moment of silence to mark the anniversary of Nijjar’s assassination, sparking an angry reaction from India. Nijjar, 45, was deemed a terrorist by the Indian government three years before his death.

Canadian Sikhs are continuing a non-binding referendum on the creation of a Sikh state separate from the Indian province of Punjab. The next vote is scheduled to take place in Calgary on July 28, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported.

Four men allegedly linked to Nijjar’s murder are due to appear in court in Surrey on June 25th.

How has Nijjar’s case strained India-Canada relations?

Nijjar was shot dead on June 18, 2023, outside a Sikh temple in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada, which has a large Sikh population, making up 2% of Canada’s population.

Nijjar was associated with Khalistan, an ethno-religious movement among India’s Sikhs, who make up 2 percent of India’s population but about 60 percent of the population of the northern state of Punjab.

Khalistan is a name proposed by some Sikhs as the name for a Sikh state that would encompass Punjab and other Punjabi-speaking areas of northern India.

The movement reached its height in India in the 1970s and early 1980s before fading due to crackdowns by the Indian military and Hindu mobs, but has recently seen a resurgence among Sikhs living abroad.

In September 2023, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada was investigating possible Indian government involvement in Nijjar’s assassination. India has denied any involvement in Nijjar’s death.

The incident has strained ties between the two countries, with India withdrawing its diplomats from Canada and temporarily suspending visas for Canadians, and trade talks between the two countries have been on a total freeze since Trudeau’s shocking allegations.

Modi and Trudeau shook hands at the G7 meeting in Italy last week, but it is unclear whether they discussed India’s possible involvement in Nijjar’s death.

Tensions are unlikely to ease anytime soon, especially as the Nijhar hearings are expected to reveal more of Canada’s accusations against India. The Modi government has repeatedly accused Trudeau of ignoring India’s national security concerns to pander to Sikh separatists’ vote-garnering interests.

The criticism resurfaced last week after Canada’s parliament paid tribute to Nijjar. “We have repeatedly said that pro-Khalistani activities are a matter of serious concern to us. We have repeatedly called on the Canadian government to take action. They must stop giving political space to anti-India extremists and those who advocate violence and they must take action,” said Randhir Jaiswal, spokesman for India’s foreign ministry.

India maintains that Canada has yet to provide concrete evidence linking Nijjar’s assassination to Indian agents, and the Indian government has suggested that rivalry between Canadian crime gangs could be behind the killing.

What is happening in America?

But Canada is not the only country where Indian security agencies’ actions abroad are under scrutiny.

The Czech Republic has extradited Nikhil Gupta, an Indian national, to the United States, where U.S. prosecutors accuse him of being involved in a plot to kill Sikh separatist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun.

Gupta, 53, was arrested by Czech authorities while traveling from India to Prague in June last year and arrived in the United States on June 14.

As with the Nijhar case, the Indian government has sought to distance itself from any conspiracy against Pannun, but has said it will formally investigate the security concerns raised by Washington.

Washington said last month it was pleased with India’s moves so far to ensure accountability over the alleged plot, but added that much more needed to be done.

Gupta, who has been held at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York, since arriving in the United States, pleaded not guilty on June 17.

What is the Gurpatwant Singh Pannun case?

On November 29, 2023, the US Department of Justice announced charges against Gupta, accusing him of plotting to assassinate Pannun, a US citizen, in New York on behalf of the Indian government.

According to the indictment, federal prosecutors described Gupta as an associate of an Indian government employee identified only as “CC-1,” who previously served in the Central Reserve Police Force, the Indian government’s main paramilitary force.

According to the indictment, CC-1 directed the murder plot from India and hired Gupta around May 2023 to coordinate the plan.

According to the indictment, at the direction of CC-1, Gupta contacted individuals he believed were fellow criminal associates capable of carrying out the assassination, but what Gupta did not know was that these individuals were working undercover for U.S. law enforcement.

According to the indictment, the source connected him to a “hit man” who was actually an undercover law enforcement agent working for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

According to the Department of Justice, Gupta agreed to pay a hit man $100,000 in return for killing Pannun, and paid an advance of $15,000 in cash on or about June 9, 2023, in Manhattan.

If convicted, Gupta could face up to 20 years in prison.

According to a June 17 press release from the Department of Justice, the DEA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) are investigating the case.

Gurpatwant Singh Pannun
Sikh separatist leader Gurpatwant Singh Pannun in his office in New York, Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023. [Ted Shaffrey/AP]

Will the earthquake be felt anywhere else?

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) recently published a story accusing Indian agents of harassing and intimidating the Sikh diaspora in Australia, and alleging that these incidents are linked to Nijjar’s assassination and an alleged plot to target Pannun in the United States.

The ABC previously reported that Australia had expelled an alleged “den of spies” from India, and that officers from the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), the country’s domestic intelligence agency, had reportedly met with Sikh activists in Australia over Nijjar’s death.

ABC reported that YouTube had blocked some videos in India ahead of the country’s general elections, and YouTube said the ban was pursuant to a “classified” order under the Indian Information Technology Act, 2000.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese praised Modi in Australia in May 2023, likening his popularity to that of iconic singer Bruce Springsteen, but neither he nor his government have commented on the ABC’s report.

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