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Members of Pakistan's Sikh community take part in a protest in Peshawar on 20 September 2023, following the killing in Canada of Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar. India on 19 September rejected the "absurd" allegation that its agents were behind the killing of Nijjar, after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's bombshell accusation sent already sour diplomatic relations to a new low. (Photo by ABDUL MAJEED/AFP via Getty Images)

Killing of Sikh Activist Strains Canada-India Relations

The murder of Sikh independence advocate Hardeep Singh Nijjar, which Canada has accused India of orchestrating, is straining international relations.

Three masked gunmen killed Nijjar, a Canadian citizen who was born in India, in the parking lot of a Sikh temple in a Vancouver suburb on 18 June 2023—Father’s Day. He left behind a wife and two sons.

“Authorities have not publicly identified any suspects, but say that at least three remain at large,” NPR reported.

Nijjar, 45, worked as a plumber but was wanted by Indian authorities for years. He was accused of being connected to separatist terrorists that wanted an independent Sikh nation within India. Specifically, Nijjar advocated for the creation of a separate Sikh state in Punjab which would be called Khalistan—this movement is outlawed by the Indian government, which has labeled it a threat to India's national security, according to The Washington Post.

There was even a cash reward offered for any information that would lead to Nijjar’s arrest in connection with an alleged attack on a Hindu priest in India, according to Al Jazeera.

Although Nijjar was an advocate for Sikh independence and was hailed as a human rights activist by Sikh organizations, he always denied the allegations of any links to terrorism. The allegations against Nijjar included involvement in a conspiracy that bombed a Punjab cinema in 2007 and providing material support to terrorist efforts. Nijjar claimed that the accusations began after he collected signatures in 2012 as a petition to the United Nations to recognize that the anti-Sikh riots in India in 1984 were a form of genocide, according to the Post.

At the G20 Summit earlier this month, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to cooperate in the investigation into Nijjar’s death. On Monday, 18 September, Trudeau announced that there were “credible allegations” that the Indian government was involved in the killing of Nijjar.

Although Canadian officials have not yet produced any evidence of India’s involvement in killing Nijjar, Canada expelled an Indian diplomat.

India dismissed the accusations, calling them absurd. India responded with the expulsion of a top Canadian diplomat on Tuesday, prompting Trudeau to say that Canada did not want to escalate the issue.

“The decision reflects Government of India’s growing concern at the interference of Canadian diplomats in our internal matters and their involvement in anti-India activities,” the Indian government said in a 19 September press release.

India also announced it was suspending the issuance of new visas for any Canadians who want to visit India. It issued a travel warning for Indian citizens travelling in Canada.

If the accusations are true, “it would mark a major shift for India, whose security and intelligence branches have long been significant players in South Asia, and are suspected in a number of killings in Pakistan,” the Associated Press (AP) reported. “But arranging the killing of a Canadian citizen in Canada, home to nearly 2 million people of Indian descent, would be unprecedented.”

In an emergency statement to the Canadian House of Commons, Trudeau said that a foreign government’s involvement in the death of a Canadian citizen was “an unacceptable violation” of Canadian sovereignty, according to Reuters.

Amidst the rising tension between the two nations, traditional allies are keeping relatively quiet. None of Canada’s intelligence allies are publicly supporting the latest allegations.

While they have announced concern over Nijjar's death and called for a full investigation, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States—who, under the “Five Eyes” program share intelligence with Canada and each other—have not condemned India for the alleged involvement in the killing.

Reasons for this may include that some of these nations, such as the United States, are attempting to woo India into a stronger relationship or alliance. India has a population of more than 1.4 billion and one of the world’s largest militaries, so a relationship with Western nations and other democracies could counterbalance the expansion and ambitions of more authoritarian regimes, notably China.

Another reason may be money. With India’s “fast-growing economy that many analysts believe will overtake Japan and Germany to become the world’s third-largest by 2030,” according to the AP, the nation has become a significant player in world affairs. The UK, for instance, is currently working on securing a free trade deal with India.