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Who was Hardeep Singh Nijjar, the Khalistani separatist that Canada’s PM Trudeau says India may have got killed

India has rejected as “absurd and motivated” a claim by Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that the Indian government played a role in the killing of a Khalistani separatist in that country in June. The Canadians have also expelled an Indian diplomat, and India has retaliated with a top Canadian diplomat’s expulsion on Tuesday (September 19).

The developments mark a dramatic escalation of tensions between India and Canada that have been marked by frostiness for some months. Prime Minister Trudeau had a terse exchange with Prime Minister Narendra Modi during their meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit this month.

What’s going on, and why?

What did Trudeau say on Monday (September 18)?

The Canadian Prime Minister told his country’s Parliament that he had raised the killing of Canadian national Hardeep Singh Nijjar with Prime Minister Modi. Nijjar, head of the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara Sahib in Surrey, Canada, was killed on June 18 after being shot by unidentified assailants on the premises of the gurdwara. Nijjar was the chief of the separatist organisation Khalistan Tiger Force (KTF).

Trudeau suggested the killing had the imprint of the Indian government. “Over the past number of weeks Canadian security agencies have been actively pursuing credible allegations of a potential link between agents of the government of India and the killing of a Canadian citizen, Hardeep Singh Nijjar,” he said.

“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.

Trudeau said Canada had declared its concerns to the Indian government at the G20 Summit, and “I continue to ask with a great deal of firmness that the government of India co-operate with Canada to shed light on this situation.”

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How has the Indian government responded?

The MEA statement said, “Such unsubstantiated allegations seek to shift the focus from Khalistani terrorists and extremists, who have been provided shelter in Canada and continue to threaten India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The inaction of the Canadian Government on this matter has been a long-standing and continuing concern.”

“We urge the Government of Canada to take prompt and effective legal action against all anti-India elements operating from their soil,” it added.

Who was Hardeep Singh Nijjar?

Nijjar lived in the city of Surrey, about 30 km to the southeast of Vancouver, the largest city in the western Canadian province of British Columbia.

He moved from Punjab to Canada in 1997, and initially worked there as a plumber. He also got married in Canada and had two sons. He had been the president of the Surrey gurdwara body since 2020.

Nijjar hailed from the village Bhar Singh Pura in the Phillaur subdivision of Jalandhar district, Punjab. His parents had visited the village before the first Covid-19 lockdown.

The Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara Sahib is seen in Surrey, British Columbia, on Monday, Sept. 18, 2023, where its president Hardeep Singh Nijjar was gunned down in his vehicle while leaving the temple parking lot in June. Canada expelled a top Indian diplomat Monday as it investigates what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called credible allegations that India’s government may have had links to the assassination in Canada of a Sikh activist. The Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara Sahib is seen in Surrey, British Columbia, on Monday, Sept. 18, 2023, where its president Hardeep Singh Nijjar was gunned down in his vehicle while leaving the temple parking lot in June. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)

What was Nijjar’s connection with the KTF?

According to the Indian government, as the leader of the KTF, Nijjar was actively involved in the operationalisation and networking of the organisation, and the training and financing of its members.

In February 2023, India’s Ministry of Home Affairs notified Khalistan Tiger Force (among others) as a terrorist organisation under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). The MHA said of KTF, “It is a militant outfit and it aims to revive terrorism in Punjab and challenges the territorial integrity, unity, national security and sovereignty of India and promotes various acts of terrorism, including targeted killings in Punjab.”

Nijjar allegedly visited Pakistan in 2013-14 to meet with Jagtar Singh Tara, who is currently serving a life sentence in India for his involvement in the assassination of former Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh in 1995. Tara had escaped from jail in 2004, but was rearrested in Thailand in 2015 and brought to India.

Nijjar was also friendly with Dal Khalsa leader Gajinder Singh, one of the five hijackers of an Indian Airlines flight in 1981. Gajinder Singh is currently in Pakistan.

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“Hardeep Singh Nijjar was a dedicated Khalistani until the end. He was like a son to me. He met me a few years ago and solidified the bond of love and thoughts. He was a true Khalistani at heart,” Gajinder Singh said in a statement following Nijjar’s murder.

What were the allegations against Nijjar?

India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) had declared a cash reward of Rs 10 lakh for Nijjar. In July last year, the NIA had announced a cash reward of Rs 10 lakh on information leading to his arrest in connection with an attack on a Hindu priest in Jalandhar in 2021.

During the investigation, it was discovered that Nijjar had made provocative statements, posted objectionable content and shared photographs and videos on social media platforms to “spread insurrectionary imputations” through hate speeches.

“The incriminating evidence… gathered substantiates that he is involved in exhorting seditionary and insurrectionary imputations and also attempting to create disharmony among different communities in India,” an NIA document stated.

His name was also on the wanted list that former Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh handed over to Prime Minister Trudeau during the latter’s visit to India in 2018.

Nijjar was named in an FIR that the NIA registered in December 2020 when farmers were protesting against the three farm laws in Delhi. Nijjar, along with Gurpatwant Singh Pannun and Paramjit Singh Pamma, were accused of conspiring to create an atmosphere of fear and lawlessness, causing disaffection among people, and inciting them to rise in rebellion against the Government of India.

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Nijjar was also associated with Sikhs For Justice, a separatist organisation that is banned in India. He was seen in Australia during the voting for the so-called Khalistan Referendum there.

His properties in Punjab were attached in 2020 in relation to a case against Sikhs for Justice for their online campaign for the so-called referendum.

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This is an updated version of a previous explainer first published in June this year. You can read it here.

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