Sikh and Muslim leaders in Canada have called on the government to do more to prevent potential threats against their communities, as Ottawa investigates possible links between India and the killing of a prominent Sikh leader in the country’s westernmost province.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday morning, Mukhbir Singh, a board member of the World Sikh Organization of Canada, said this week’s revelations “may have shocked many Canadians.”
“But it was not a surprise to the Sikh community,” he said during a joint press conference in Ottawa with the advocacy group the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM).
A day earlier, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told Parliament that Canada was investigating “credible allegations of a possible link” between Indian government agents and the June 18 killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar outside a Sikh temple in British Columbia.
India quickly dismissed the allegations as “absurd” and accused Canada of harboring Sikh terrorists and extremists. Nijjar, who was involved with groups seeking a sovereign Sikh state in India, had been labeled a “terrorist” by New Delhi, according to media reports.
But Singh said Tuesday that India has long targeted Sikhs in Canada with “espionage.” [and] disinformation”.
He added that his organization was aware of other current threats against Canadian Sikhs, some of whom were told to “make changes to their lifestyle” to ensure their safety. He did not provide further details about the source of these threats.
Stephen Brown, head of NCCM, spoke alongside Singh, calling Nijjar’s killing “an unprecedented attack on Canadian sovereignty, period.”
“We are all in this together,” Brown told reporters. “Because when a Canadian is attacked, when he or she has the audacity to speak out about human rights and justice, we are all at risk.”
Canada has not yet definitively linked India to Nijjar’s killing or released evidence to support its claims.
But on Tuesday, Trudeau reiterated his decision to make the investigation public, saying it came after months of deliberation and analysis. He also urged India to “take this matter with utmost seriousness”.
“We are not looking for provocation or escalation,” the prime minister told reporters. “We are simply laying out the facts as we understand them, and we want to work with the Indian government to make everything clear.”
The allegations have roiled already frosty relations between Canada and India, with both countries expelling each other’s diplomats in the wake of Trudeau’s announcement.
Underlying the situation is a decades-long secessionist Sikh movement, dating back to the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan. The movement reached its peak in the 1980s, when supporters pushed for the creation of an independent Khalistan homeland in the current Indian state of Punjab.
The storming of the Golden Palace, the most important holy site in Sikhism, by the Indian army in 1984, and the resulting assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by two of her Sikh bodyguards, led to an escalation, including Sikh-led bombings and what the Sikhs did. leaders cite the continued persecution of the broader Sikh community in India and abroad.
Meanwhile, New Delhi has for years accused Ottawa of a lax approach to Sikh separatists in Canada, which has the largest Sikh community outside India.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently berated Trudeau during a brief meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in New Delhi earlier this month.
In a statement at the time, New Delhi accused Sikh protesters in Canada of “promoting secessionism and inciting violence against Indian diplomats, damaging diplomatic buildings and threatening the Indian community in Canada.”
Trudeau said on Monday that he had shared information with Modi during his brief G20 meeting about the possible link between Nijjar’s killing and Indian government agents.
He urged the Indian government to “work with Canada to get to the bottom of this matter,” calling “any involvement of a foreign government in the murder of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty”.
Nijjar, a Canadian citizen, was fatally shot outside a Sikh temple in Surrey, British Columbia on June 18.
Canadian media, a prominent community leader and activist, reported that he was involved with a group called “Sikhs for Justice,” which is pushing for an independent Sikh state in India.
According to the Globe and Mail and other media reports, the 45-year-old had been labeled a “terrorist” by Indian authorities, who said he had previously plotted to kill a Hindu priest.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Singh of the World Sikh Organization of Canada said he believed the killing was the “tip of the iceberg.”
He called on Canada to bring those responsible to justice, take further steps to protect Sikhs, review India’s diplomatic and intelligence-gathering operations in the North American country and end intelligence sharing with New Delhi .
“The younger generation [of Sikhs] who grew up in Canada, they grew up hearing stories of persecution, with the fear of speaking out too much and you could end up on a list or targeted,” he said.
“So to see that happening in Canada now, in 2023, is certainly shocking and I hope the greater community sees that and understands how truly shocking this is.”