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‘India is behaving like a rogue state’: Dissident’s death drags Narendra Modi into global row

Hardeep Singh Nijjar funeral
Mourners carry the casket of Sikh community leader and temple president Hardeep Singh Nijjar during his funeral - Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP

Hardeep Singh Nijjar may have been on heightened alert as he left a Sikh temple in Surrey, British Columbia one evening in June.

The Sikh leader had recently received a call from the Canadian intelligence services warning him that his life might be in danger.

Then again, the 45-year-old may have felt protected by his surroundings. He was in a pickup truck in the shadow of his local Gurdwara. It was a Sunday, and the car park was busy.

Either way, he hadn’t noticed the two heavyset, masked men who had spent the last hour waiting for him.

At 8.30pm, they seized their opportunity. They riddled his truck with bullets and fled in a waiting silver Toyota Camry.

The brazen act, outside a place of worship, inevitably triggered shock and anger among Canada’s large Sikh population.

Nijjar was not a random target, but a prominent advocate for the creation of Khalistan, a Sikh ethno-religious state carved out of areas including India’s Punjab region.

The Khalistan movement is banned in India, where officials deem it a national security threat, but it has some support in the country’s northern regions, as well as among the sizeable Sikh diaspora in Canada and Britain.

Pakistan, India’s chief foe, is widely suspected of fanning the movement.

Hardeep Singh Nijjar
Nijjar had recently received a call from Canada's intelligence services warning him his life might be in danger

At the time of his death, Nijjar had been organising an unofficial referendum on the cause in Surrey, home to one of Canada’s largest Sikh communities.

The fact that the two gunmen and their getaway driver have remained at large since the June 18 killing has only added to the sense of impunity around it.

On Monday, Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, offered a chilling explanation.

The Indian government, he strongly implied, had assassinated a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil.

Mr Trudeau said Canada’s intelligence agencies had identified a “credible” link between “agents” of the Indian government and Nijjar’s murder.

In an address to parliament, he declared it an “unacceptable violation” of Canadian sovereignty.

It stunned even seasoned national security insiders. “It is shocking for India, a G20 member, to be behaving the way a rogue state would behave,” said Dan Stanton, a former intelligence officer, who compared it to actions by Russia or Iran.

There may be warnings for Britain too. “Perhaps they decided to do this to send a message to various diasporic communities such as the UK, such as the US,” he said.

Mr Stanton, who spent 32 years with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, said nothing he had seen compared with the murder.

‘A peaceful secessionist movement’

The diplomatic repercussions have already begun. Ottawa expelled a top diplomat, Pavan Kumar Rai, the head of Delhi’s Research and Analysis Wing in Canada, on Monday evening.

Analysts suggest the move indicates Mr Trudeau’s government is confident in tying Nijjar’s assassination to that specific Indian agency. It may have received assistance from Western allies in making the determination.

Some believe Mr Trudeau’s public denouncement was the result of Canada’s growing frustration in its attempts to get India to cooperate quietly to resolve the incident.

It may explain why Ottawa has already postponed trade negotiations with Delhi, just three months after declaring its ambition of securing an agreement this year.

And it throws into a new light the tensions between Mr Trudeau and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi during the G20 last week.

The Indian prime minister scolded Mr Trudeau over Canada’s handling of the Punjabi independence movement, which he argued was “promoting secessionism and inciting violence”.

Delhi has denied any involvement with Nijjar’s murder, but the comments shed some light on why a growing superpower might be willing to risk its relations with Western partners.

“It comes down to how India views the Khalistan movement,” said Mr Stanton. “What we regard as a peaceful secessionist movement, they view as a national security issue linked to the integrity of their state and their survival.”

trudeau modi
Trudeau's implication throws a new light on the tensions between him and Narendra Modi during the G20 - Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press via AP

Mr Stanton, who worked on Sikh extremism threats in the 1980s and 90s, said that India’s current outlook was shaped by that period.

“So while this isn’t terrorism, from an Indian perspective, it looks like Canada’s tolerating extremism,” he said.

For Canada’s Sikh community, Mr Trudeau’s declaration has only confirmed their suspicions.

Balpreet Singh, a spokesman for the World Sikh Organization of Canada (WSO), told The Telegraph: “The backdrop to this assassination was that Khalistan activists have been targeted in Pakistan and in the UK.”

Avtar Singh Khanda, a young pro-Khalistan activist, died in Birmingham days prior to Nijjar in June.

Police at the time said the death was “not deemed suspicious” amid reports he died of terminal blood cancer.

But the Sikh Council UK called for an investigation into the “mysterious circumstances”, drawing comparisons with Russia’s 2018 attack on former spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury.

A third man, Paramjit Singh Panjwar, was shot dead in Lahore, the capital of Pakistan’s Punjab province, in May.

Political opportunism

“The UK needs to look very closely at India’s role,” said Balpreet Singh.

Some see political opportunism in Mr Trudeau’s decision to publicly outline allegations against India.

The Canadian leader is struggling in polls and has faced a series of political setbacks, including claims he was slow to counter Chinese election interference.

“The cynic in me would say Mr Trudeau is now very hard-pressed politically, there is clearly discontent in the ranks and one wonders if he isn’t pressing on this to try and reinforce his appeal in a difficult situation to a strategic political electoral group,” said Richard Johnston, a politics professor at the University of British Columbia.

Others suggest Mr Trudeau is responding to a growing “arrogance” from India and its approach to silencing minority groups.

Canada, which has the highest population of Sikhs outside the Punjab, is a particular target.

“We may be seeing more of an arrogance here, more of a disregard for borders”, said Mr Stanton.