NEW DELHI (AP) — Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh independence advocate whose killing two months ago is at the center of a growing rift between India and Canada, has been called a human rights activist by Sikh organizations and a terrorist by the Indian government .
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday that his government is investigating “credible allegations that Indian state agents were connected to the killing of a Canadian citizen” after Nijjar was shot and killed on June 18 outside a Sikh cultural center in Surrey, British Columbia.
India has denied any role in the killing, calling the allegations absurd.
Nijjar was a leading member of a movement to create an independent Sikh homeland known as Khalistan, and at the time of his death was organizing an unofficial referendum among the Sikh diaspora with the organization Sikhs For Justice.
He also owned a plumbing business and served as president of a local Sikh temple or gurdwara.
Nijjar was a wanted man in India, where authorities labeled him a terrorist in 2020.
In 2016, Indian media reported that he was suspected of masterminding a bombing in the Sikh-majority state of Punjab and of training terrorists in a small town southeast of Vancouver.
He denied the allegations and told the Vancouver Sun he was too busy to participate in Sikh diaspora politics.
“This is rubbish, all the allegations. I’ve lived here for 20 years, right? Look at my record. There is nothing. I’m a hard worker. I own my own plumbing business,” Nijjar told the newspaper.
After his death, the World Sikh Organization of Canada called Nijjar an outspoken supporter of Khalistan who “often led peaceful protests against human rights violations actively taking place in India and in support of Khalistan.”
India has waged a sometimes bloody fight against the Sikh independence movement since the 1980s, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered a raid to capture armed separatists who had taken refuge in a major Sikh temple.
The raid killed hundreds of people, and two of Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards assassinated her shortly afterwards. Anti-Sikh riots occurred across India in which members of the minority were dragged from their homes and killed.
More recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist-led government has cracked down on both non-Hindus rights movements and dissidents.
India also initiated criminal proceedings against Nijjar in 2020 for “conspiring to create an atmosphere of fear and lawlessness and inciting people to rebellion against the Government of India” when farmers, many of them from Punjab, camped on edges of New Delhi. to protest against the controversial agriculture laws.
Last year, Indian authorities accused Nijjar of involvement in an alleged attack on a Hindu priest in India and announced a reward of about $16,000 for information leading to his arrest.
Canadian police said Nijjar was shot as he left the parking lot of the Sikh temple where he was president. He suffered multiple gunshot wounds and died at the scene.
After the killing, a lawyer and spokesperson for Sikhs For Justice, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, said Nijjar had been the target of threats because of his activism. His murder was the second in two years of a prominent member of Canada’s Sikh community.
Pannun said he spoke to Nijjar on the phone the day before he was killed and that Nijjar told him that Canadian intelligence had warned him that his life was at risk.
On June 24, approximately 200 protesters from Canada’s Sikh community gathered outside the Indian consulate in Vancouver to demonstrate against Niijar’s killing. They described him as “peaceful” and “humble” and rejected accusations that he was linked to the violence.
Many protesters were convinced that Nijjar’s killing was linked to his calls for an independent Sikh state.
“He was a loving man, a hard worker, a family man,” said Gurkeerat Singh, one of the protesters.
On Monday, Moninder Singh, spokesperson for the Sikh Gurdwara Council of British Columbia, told CTV Canada that the outpouring of support for Nijjar seen after his death was an indication of how he was viewed in the community.
“It has shaken communities across the world, including Punjab,” Singh said.
“The community is destroyed. There are very, very strong emotions,” Sukh Dhaliwal, a member of Parliament representing Surrey, said a few days after the June killing.
Cohen reported from Bangkok.