On September 18, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood before his country’s Parliament and leveled a dramatic charge: Ottawa had “credible evidence” that the Indian government had assassinated a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil. The citizen, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, had been gunned down outside the Sikh temple where he served as president. Trudeau declared the killing “an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty” and “contrary to the fundamental rules by which free, open, and democratic societies conduct themselves.”
The prime minister’s claim made headlines around the planet, but it shouldn’t have been altogether surprising. Nijjar was a prominent activist who called for Sikhs—a religious group mostly concentrated in northern India—to break away from New Delhi and form an independent nation. As a result, New Delhi had labeled him a terrorist. The Indian government has denied involvement in the killing, but under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it has become illiberal at home and bellicose abroad, such that assassinations on foreign soil are no longer an unimaginable part of its agenda. New Delhi, in other words, could well be a government that will do anything to silence dissidents.
Nijjar is not the first Canadian whom India has labeled a terrorist, and he is hardly the first to support Sikh secession. During the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, Sikh insurgents in northern India waged a violent campaign to establish an independent Sikh nation, called Khalistan, and many Sikhs in Canada supported them by raising money and promoting the movement’s message in Canadian temples. Some Canadian Sikhs helped separatist cadres travel to Pakistan, where they received financial and military help. And in 1985, Talwinder Singh Parmar—a Sikh Canadian—orchestrated the bombing of Air India Flight 182. The plane exploded over the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 329 passengers and crew members in a plane attack deadlier than any the world would see until September 11, 2001.
Parmar was a terrorist, and experts believe that the Khalistani movement, with all its bloodshed, was unpopular among Indian Sikhs. But New Delhi was no less vicious. India responded to the Sikh insurgency with unremitting violence that killed thousands of civilians. At one point, separatists took shelter in the country’s Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest site, and the Indian government sent in the military, killing scores of people and damaging the building. Two Sikhs then assassinated India’s prime minister, Indira Gandhi, which in turn prompted an anti-Sikh pogrom. Pamar himself was shot by police when he traveled to India after the plane bombing.
Nijjar, then, wouldn’t even be the first Canadian to be killed by Indian state actors. But his fate feels discontinuous with this history. The Indian government accused Nijjar of plotting attacks on its soil, but he denied these claims and was never extradited. The Sikh insurgency came to an end more than two decades ago. If India is behind Nijjar’s killing, its actions don’t reflect fears of Sikh secession so much as India’s transformation into an illiberal state where the government has elevated one religion—Hinduism—at the expense of all others, and where policy makers tolerate little dissent. [Continue reading…]