Sikhs in North America are watching warily as tensions unfold between Canada and India after the country’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, accused the Indian government of assassination on its soil.
Last week, Trudeau told lawmakers that his government had credible evidence that the Indian government was involved in the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh-Canadian activist who was shot dead last June. India has denied those charges. For many Sikhs, Nijjar was a human rights activist, advocating for an independent homeland for a community long persecuted by the Indian government. The Indian government said Nijjar was a militant and a terrorist ― a claim denied by Nijjar himself before his assassination.
The accusations set off a diplomatic crisis for Canada, India, and even the U.S. as President Joe Biden now finds himself caught between the two allies. Last week, India has warned its citizens against visiting parts of Canada.
Canada responded by saying its country was safe.
But for Sikhs in the U.S. and Canada, many are concerned about their safety, questioning if precautions will be taken by the government and if their activism will continue to be a threat to their lives.
“There are human rights violations that happen in India, but we never thought that we would see something like this happening in Canada,” said Sandeep Singh, an immigration consultant based in Ontario.
“Refugees and other people leave their countries because they trust Canada and that Canada will defend their rights,” he added. “When something like that happens, that leaves an impact on the community.”
Canada hosts the largest Sikh population outside of India, accounting for over 2% of the population. The first wave of Sikhs migrated to Canada in the 1900s, mostly as laborers. Throughout the years, those numbers steadily increased after the 1947 partition of India. The numbers spiked during the 1970s and 1980s insurgency where the Indian government cracked down on Sikhs and supporters of the Khalistan movement ― a separatist movement that wants to create its own state.
The Indian government violently suppressed the nationalist insurgency, setting off decades of violence. In 1984, heavily armed Indian troops attacked Sikh separatists in Amritsar’s Golden Temple, the holiest shrine in the Sikh religion. The following year, a Sikh extremist was convicted after a bomb went off on an Air India flight from Canada to India via Britain, killing 329 people on board.
The Khalistan movement, currently considered a security threat by the Indian government, has little support inside the country but has grown with the diaspora in countries like Canada and the U.S. Not all Sikhs support the separatist movement, and not all supporters of the Khalistan movement believe in the use of extremist tactics to press for a Sikh state.
Singh, who is a father of three, said his 13-year-old daughter has been asking more questions about Nijjar’s death and what it means for Sikh Canadians like their family.
“There is a safety concern. We have been raising this. Minorities are not safe in India,” said Singh. “If Sikhs who raise their voice are not safe in Canada, just imagine the situation of minorities in India.”
It’s not just Canada. Sikh Americans have called on the Biden administration to do more to protect their community numbers. After the death of Nijjar, FBI agents warned several Sikh activists in California about threats against their own lives.
But some are worried the American government is not doing enough to protect prominent Sikh voices.
Karam Singh, the co-founder of the California Sikh Youth Alliance, a youth-led Sikh community and advocacy group, told HuffPost that he worried that the White House may be prioritizing its trade deal with India over the safety concerns of Sikh Americans.
“Just because the United States has a strategy against China, doesn’t mean that Indian minorities are cannon fodder,” said Singh.
Biden has been courting India for a renewed partnership in hopes to counterbalance China’s influence in Asia. U.S. officials have been reluctant to publicly discuss the murder of the Sikh Canadian activist for fear of ruining the White House’s Indo-Pacific goals.
“It’s a question of our justice system,” said Singh. “As an American, we should stand on our values and say, ‘Look, we’re not going to pursue an India-U.S. relationship that doesn’t talk about human rights.’”
Many Sikh Americans are afraid for their families back home, afraid that the Indian government might target them if they return, and afraid their visas might be canceled in retaliation.
Akashdeep Singh, a Sikh activist born and raised in British Columbia, Canada, hopes this limelight can invite more people to understand their plights as minorities.
“When we fought and died to free ourselves from the British, no one complained. When we fought and died, to free ourselves from Mogul oppression during the 15th and 16th centuries, no one complained,” said Singh. “But now it’s suddenly a problem when we just simply ask for not only basic rights but the rights of the community as a whole.”
Kunarveer Singh, a 26-year-old Sikh American who works in tech in San Jose, California, told HuffPost that Sikhs have long been misrepresented, and often associated with violence.
There are more than 25 million Sikhs around the world and nearly 500,000 Sikh Americans, according to the Sikh Coalition, a national advocacy organization based in New York.
Some Sikhs do not shave or cut their hair, and some Sikh men wrap their hair in a turban as a sign of their faith. In the U.S., however, Sikhs have faced an onslaught of xenophobia due to their appearance.
“Our fight isn’t with anyone here or with any sort of individual, religion or sect,” he said. “It’s with a tyrannical government.”
But violence against Sikhs doesn’t only occur in India.
In the U.S., the first documented hate crime after 9/11 was a Sikh man, Balbir Sing Sodhi, who was killed in Arizona. In 2012, a white supremacist group gunned down worshippers in a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, killing seven people and wounding others.
In Connecticut, Swaranjit Khalsa, the state’s first Sikh city councilor, has been working to seek more representation and recognition of Sikh Americans in legislation.
With the help of Khalsa, Connecticut became the first state in the nation to officially observe Sikh Genocide Remembrance Day in 2018, honoring the lives lost during anti-Sikh riots in India in the 1980s.
“I highly request all the elected officials at the federal level to raise the voices of Sikhs just like Canada,” he said. “Even in the U.S., we are struggling every day, to keep our history alive and to keep our language alive. We want our kids to understand why we are in America.”
Khalsa said he hopes more states will follow suit, honoring their Sikh neighbors in a formal capacity, in hopes of pushing back against stereotypes and misconceptions about his community.
“Why does someone have to die in order for us to get attention?” he said.
CORRECTION: This article initially stated a fatal shooting at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin took place in 2021; it was in 2012.