NIJJAR AFFAIRCanada-India Tensions Over Killing of Sikh Separatist: What to Know

By Manjari Chatterjee Miller

Published 26 September 2023

Canada’s stunning allegations of an India-directed plot to kill Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar has stirred frictions between two major democracies and raised questions about India’s global actions to protect its interests.  

Canada-India relations have been rocked by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s allegation that the Indian government assassinated a Sikh independence activist, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, on Canadian soil. What are the implications of Canada’s claim?
The claim is explosive for three reasons. First, it suggests that today’s Indian government is confident enough in its international standing to take such a momentous step. A democracy assassinating the citizen of another democracy, and on the latter’s own soil, is no small action. Second, if Prime Minister Trudeau releases credible evidence for his allegations, the assassination will give many of India’s partners pause, even if they do not publicly side with Canada. As a potential justification for the killing, Indians online and in local media have likened their government to that of Israel, another partner country of the West that protects against terrorist threats through political assassinations abroad. But some experts are also drawing comparisons to President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which would be a much more fraught parallel for India. Finally, the allegations, particularly if proved true, put the United States in a very tough spot. The United States has spent the last decade strengthening its partnership with India. At the same time, Canada is a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally and a friendly neighbor. Moreover, there is a significant population of Indian-origin citizens, including Sikhs, in the United States. Refraining from taking sides may not be a sustainable long-term policy for the U.S. government.

Nijjar was a member of the Khalistan movement. What is this movement, and why is India’s government concerned about it?
Supported by a minority of Indian Sikhs, the Khalistan movement is a separatist and identity movement that advocates, among other things, for carving out an independent Sikh homeland from the Indian state of Punjab. While it has historical roots, the movement reached its zenith in the 1970s and 1980s, when militant Sikhs led by preacher Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale took up arms against the Indian government and conducted a campaign of brutal violence that killed thousands of innocent people. In 1984, the clash between the government and the Khalistanis came to a head when Bhindranwale and his followers holed up in the Golden Temple­­—Sikhism’s holiest site—in Amritsar, Punjab, and fortified it.