Who was Hardeep Singh Nijjar, the Sikh separatist leader at centre of India-Canada row?

Ottawa has accused New Delhi of being involved in the murder of the Khalistan Tiger Force chief

Hardeep Singh Nijjar's body was found inside a vehicle. Photo: Hardeep Singh Nijjar / Facebook
Powered by automated translation

The killing of a Sikh separatist leader in British Columbia in June has sparked a diplomatic row between India and Canada.

Canadian PM Justin Trudeau claimed on Monday that India played a role in the death of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, the chief of the Khalistan Tiger Force who was designated a terrorist by India in 2020.

Mr Nijjar, who was wanted in India, was allegedly shot dead by two unidentified men outside a Sikh Temple in Surrey, British Columbia. His body was found inside a vehicle within the premises of the temple, but his killers have never been found.

India has rejected Mr Trudeau's claim that it was involved in the killing, and expelled a senior Canadian diplomat in retaliation after an unnamed Indian diplomat was expelled from Canada following the accusation.

Who was Hardeep Singh Nijjar?

Mr Nijjar, 46, hailed from Jalandhar district in India's northern state of Punjab. He moved to Canada in 1997 where he worked as a plumber. He had been the president of the gurdwara body in Surrey since 2020.

He was designated as one of India's most wanted terrorists by New Delhi, which offered a cash reward of $12,203 for his arrest.

He was accused of conspiring to kill a Hindu priest in his hometown.

Punjab has struggled with a decades-old Sikh secessionist movement seeking the creation of a homeland called Khalistan for the religious minority.

What were the allegations against Nijjar?

India’s National Investigation Agency had filed charges against Mr Nijjar accusing him of being part of a conspiracy to commit terrorist acts.

Mr Nijjar’s name was on the wanted list former Punjab chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh handed to Mr Trudeau during his visit to India in 2018.

He was also accused of conspiring to create an atmosphere of fear and lawlessness and inciting people to rebel against the Indian government during the year-long farmers’ agitation against controversial farm laws in 2020.

He was also associated with Sikhs for Justice, a banned separatist organisation in India.

What is the Khalistan movement?

The Khalistan insurgency peaked in the early 1980s but declined a decade later. Tens of thousands of civilians, militants and Indian security forces were killed in the conflict.

However, the movement has remained active in the state through sleeper cells.

India has accused secessionist organisations and leaders living abroad – especially in Canada, Australia and the UK – of funding and supporting Punjab's independence movement.

Mr Nijjar’s lawyer Gurpatwant Singh Pannun had earlier said that Canada’s spy agency had warned the Khalistan Tiger Force leader that his life was under threat.

“He wasn’t worried about his safety. He was worried about how we would accomplish Khalistan and how we would accomplish the referendum,” Mr Pannun said, according to the Vancouver Sun daily.

Last year, Ripudaman Singh Malik, 75, a Canadian Sikh acquitted in the 1985 Air India terrorist bombing that killed 329 passengers and crew, was shot dead by unidentified assailants in British Columbia province.

The killing triggered a wave of condemnation from the Sikh community in India.

What is the row between India and Canada?

The latest diplomatic row came after Mr Trudeau told the Canadian parliament on Monday that there were “potential links between agents of the Indian government” and Mr Nijjar’s killing, citing “credible allegations” that Indian agents may have had a role.

Canada also said it had expelled an unnamed senior Indian diplomat, said to be the head of India's intelligence operations in Canada and believed to have a credible link to the killing.

In response, India's Ministry of External affairs said: “We have seen and reject the statement of the Canadian Prime Minister in their parliament, as also the statement by their Foreign Minister. Allegations of the government of India's involvement in any act of violence in Canada are absurd and motivated.”

A senior Canadian diplomat had been ordered to leave the country “within five days”, it added.

Canada also recently suspended negotiations for a free-trade agreement with India.

Updated: September 20, 2023, 1:47 PM