TORONTO — Canadian authorities are pursuing “credible allegations” of links connecting agents of the Indian government to the slaying of a prominent Sikh leader on Canadian soil, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told lawmakers Monday.
Hardeep Singh Nijjar, who had advocated for the creation of a separate Sikh state in the Punjab region of India, was fatally shot in his vehicle in June by two masked gunmen outside the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara temple in Surrey, British Columbia. Nijjar, who was born in India but based in Canada, was president of the temple. He was 45.
Trudeau, speaking in the House of Commons on Monday afternoon, did not detail the allegations. He said he had taken his “deep concerns” to top Indian security and intelligence officials and also conveyed them “personally and directly” and “in no uncertain terms” to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Group of 20 summit this month.
“Any involvement of a foreign government in the killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil is an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty,” he said. “It is contrary to the fundamental rules by which free, open and democratic societies conduct themselves.”
The Indian Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement on Tuesday that it rejected Canada’s allegations.
Trudeau’s explosive announcement came amid strains in relations between Canada and India. Canadian officials said this week they had canceled a long-planned trade mission to Mumbai next month and paused trade talks. Modi did not hold an official bilateral meeting with Trudeau during the Group of 20 summit, but chided him on the sidelines, according to New Delhi.
Modi conveyed “strong concerns about continuing anti-India activities of extremist elements in Canada,” India’s Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement at the time. “They are promoting secessionism and inciting violence against Indian diplomats, damaging diplomatic premises and threatening the Indian community in Canada and their places of worship.”
Trudeau said Monday that Canadian authorities were coordinating with their allies in investigating Nijjar’s death. He urged the Indian government to cooperate with them “to get to the bottom of this matter.”
Mélanie Joly, Canada’s foreign minister, told reporters Monday that she had ordered the expulsion of an Indian diplomat whom she called “the head” of Indian intelligence in Canada. She said Trudeau had raised the allegations with President Biden and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and that they would be a topic of discussion at the U.N. General Assembly in New York this week.
Dominic LeBlanc, Canada’s public safety minister, told reporters that Canadian security officials had made several trips to India in recent weeks to meet with their counterparts about Nijjar’s slaying. He did not directly answer repeated questions about whether Indian authorities are hindering Canada’s investigation.
Canada is home to one of the world’s largest Sikh diaspora communities, and Nijjar’s killing on June 18 rattled it. Police called the incident “targeted,” and members of the Sikh community said Nijjar told them he had been warned by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service of threats against him.
The killing sparked protests in Canada and abroad, and some Sikhs said they believed the Indian government, which had labeled Nijjar a “terrorist,” was involved.
“The significance of today’s announcement cannot be understated for Sikhs,” Tejinder Singh Sidhu, president of the World Sikh Organization of Canada, said in a statement. “Today, the prime minister of Canada has publicly said what Sikhs in Canada have known for decades — India actively targets Sikhs in Canada.”
Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, Nijjar’s lawyer, told The Washington Post that he believed Nijjar was targeted for organizing a planned nonbinding referendum in Canada on whether to create an independent Sikh state in Punjab to be called Khalistan. Pannun called on Trudeau to expel the Indian high commissioner in Canada.
Trudeau on Monday acknowledged that members of the Indo-Canadian community “are feeling angry or perhaps frightened.”
“Let us not allow this to change us,” he said. “Let us remain calm and steadfast in our commitment to our democratic principles and our adherence to the rule of law.”
Indian officials in recent months have sounded alarms about what they see as a potential resurgence of a Sikh separatist movement in Punjab. In April, authorities arrested Amritpal Singh, a self-described separatist, after a month-long chase in which they imposed a partial shutdown of the internet and censored social media. More than 200 alleged affiliates were also arrested amid fears of a revival of a Sikh insurgency that flared in the 1980s.
Posters for protests after Nijjar’s death that featured photos identifying Indian diplomats in Canada as his “killers” drew criticism from Indian and Canadian government officials alike. Joly said at the time that Canada would uphold its obligations under international treaties to safeguard diplomats.
Trudeau traveled to India for a week in 2018. The visit was overshadowed by revelations that the Canadian High Commission issued and then rescinded a dinner invitation to Jaspal Atwal, a businessman convicted of trying to assassinate an Indian politician in the 1980s.
The Khalistan movement is outlawed in India, where authorities consider it a top threat to national security, but it has some sympathizers across the majority-Sikh Punjab state and among the large Sikh communities in Canada, Britain and elsewhere.
About 770,000 people in Canada reported their religion as Sikhism in the 2021 census. When Trudeau became prime minister in 2015, his cabinet featured four members of Sikh origin. Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the center-left New Democratic Party, is also Sikh.
Singh, who attended Khalistan rallies before he became party leader, said he grew up hearing stories about India denying visas to members of the diaspora who raised concerns about its human rights record and of people suffering “violence, torture and even death” when they returned.
“I grew up hearing those stories, but to hear the prime minister of Canada corroborate a potential link between the murder of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil by a foreign government is something I could never have imagined,” he told lawmakers after Trudeau spoke. “That safety and security that so many Canadians feel has now been rocked and has been shocked and has been destabilized.”
Much of Canada’s political debate in recent months has revolved around alleged interference by foreign governments into the country’s internal affairs. The debate has focused most prominently on leaks in the Canadian media about alleged meddling by China in the country’s elections, but Jody Thomas, the prime minister’s national security adviser, has said India is another source of interference.
The Trudeau government, under pressure from opposition lawmakers, announced this month that it would launch a public inquiry into foreign interference. Justice Marie-Josée Hogue has been appointed to assess “interference by China, Russia and other foreign states or non-state actors.”
LeBlanc told reporters last week that the inquiry’s terms of reference allow Hogue “to follow the evidence and to look at all the countries that are seeking to interfere.”