Canadian Sikhs hail Justin Trudeau for ‘vocalising’ their cause against India

6 min read

Every month since Hardeep Singh Nijjar’s death, a crowd of people has gathered in a barren gray car park behind one of North America’s largest Sikh temples — a sombre meeting to remember their leaders on the site where he was gunned down on June 18.

This week, the mood outside the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in Surrey, a suburb 30km south-east of Vancouver, was overall more febrile.

The change began on Monday, when Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, told the country’s parliament of “credible allegations” that linked the death of Nijjar, a prominent Punjabi separatist campaigner — and Canadian citizen — with “agents” of the Indian government.

The statement brought a sense of vindication to activists in Canada’s Sikh population, who vowed to redouble their campaign for an independent Punjabi state, Khalistan, in the north of India. Many Sikhs see Punjab as their homeland, and make up about half of its population.

“He was so committed to the cause that he was willing to sacrifice his life for it,” said Gurkeerat Singh, a volunteer at the temple in Surrey. “So for us that is something that is giving us energy and fueling us to continue his work.”

Trudeau’s bombshell intervention — dismissed by India’s government — has opened a seismic rift between Ottawa and New Delhi, pitching the two countries into a fraught diplomatic stand-off. India has now warned its citizens to “exercise extreme caution” when traveling to Canada.

The drama has unfolded just as the government of Narendra Modi looks to position the world’s most populous democracy as a new superpower on the world stage, and just days after he hosted a gathering of G20 countries in New Delhi.

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, and India’s PM Narendra Modi at the G20 summit in New Delhi earlier this month © Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press/AP

But Trudeau’s statement is also reverberating within Canada, home to the largest population of Sikhs outside India, and especially in British Columbia. The west coast province, which has long welcomed immigrants from across Asia, is home to more than 300,000 Punjabis, accounting for about 6 per cent of the population. Another 14,000 Gujarati people, many of whom support Modi and share his Hindu faith, also live in BC.

Indian authorities have long worried that the greater Vancouver area had become a hotbed of Khalistan separatist activity.

Now some Sikhs in Surrey say their campaign is about to gain new momentum from the international attention Trudeau has suddenly drawn to their cause.

“Often this movement — this Khalistan movement — is considered a fringe movement,” Singh said. “[But] numbers are growing day by day, and this is going to help the people who might have fear inside of them. . . to get behind the cause.”

The controversy has also won some plaudits for Trudeau in Vancouver. The Liberal party leader, prime minister since 2015, has not shied from international confrontation, enduring spats with China and Saudi Arabia while also making Canada one of Ukraine’s staunchest allies against Russia. But his domestic popularity has waned.

In the heart of the Sikh community in Surrey, however, Trudeau’s willingness to confront the Modi government in India has made him a hero.

“We appreciate somebody finally vocalizing what we’ve been saying for a very, very long time,” said one community organizer, who declined to give her name for fear of reprisals.

“Safety is a huge concern right now for Sikhs, not just in Canada, but across this world.”

Sikhs make up about 2 per cent of Canada’s population but are well represented at the highest levels of the country’s politics and commerce. Among them is Jagmeet Singh, the leader of Canada’s left-wing New Democratic party, which supports Trudeau’s government on important legislation.

Punjabi activists have embraced the freedoms offered by Canada that have allowed some of them to become a thorn in the side of India’s government.

“Sikhs are going to utilize the rights that are afforded to them, and they will speak unapologetically about issues affecting loved ones in Punjab,” said Jaskaran Singh Sandhu, a director of the World Sikh Organization of Canada.

India has long monitored Khalistani activism in Canada, say security analysts. But carrying out an assassination on Canadian soil would be unprecedented.

It will also raise questions for Canada about whether it is harboring people who pose threats to other countries.

Members of Pakistan's Sikh community take part in a protest in Peshawar on September 20, 2023
Punjabi independence campaigners say Canada’s claim that India’s government was linked to the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar has energized their movement © Abdul Majeed/AFP/Getty Images

“What Canada sees as a free-speech issue, India sees as a threat to its national survival,” said Stephanie Carvin, an assistant professor of international affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa. “The question is why agents of foreign interference are allowed to operate in Canada and seemingly operate with impunity.”

In Surrey, Nijjar, a plumber who was 45 when he was killed, is remembered as a tireless campaigner and fatherly figure, who would lay out chairs for worshipers at the gurdwara, scrub the kitchen, arrange accommodation for students arriving from India and tile rooms with his own hands.

To the Modi government, he was a terrorist who threatened India’s sovereignty and a leader of “anti-India activities” because of his support for Khalistan, including organizing a recent unofficial ballot among Canadian Sikhs in favor of an independent Punjabi state. Authorities had placed a bounty on his head.

Among Gujaratis in BC, Modi remains a hero who has launched an economic revolution and made India the new global powerhouse. Trudeau’s announcement from Ottawa will do little to alter that impression.

“It won’t change Gujaratis’ perspective for sure,” said Manoj Popat, a finance lecturer from the neighboring Vancouver suburb of Burnaby, where he is a prominent member of the local Gujarati community.

He said the Canadian prime minister’s intervention was motivated by Trudeau’s domestic political struggles, noting that the country has a “very, very high population of Sikhs”. Trudeau “doesn’t want to lose all their votes”.

“There has been absolutely no evidence yet that India was behind Nijjar’s killing,” Popat said. “But in the meantime, Trudeau [has] got a trump card in his hand to play for popularity.”

As tensions simmer between local communities, politicians have called for calm. Hedy Fry, a Liberal member of parliament from Vancouver, urged the Sikh community “not to do anything rash or radical”.

“You have a community that is probably frightened, that is probably angry and they should do what everyone would do in those instances. . . be careful. . . but refrain from responding with violence.”

Demonstrations outside the Indian consulates in Vancouver and Toronto and the High Commission in Ottawa are planned on Monday. But for many Sikh activists, Nijjar’s death — and the international fallout — is just the beginning.

As rain fell hard across Surrey on Tuesday and worshipers scattered back to their cars, campaigners vowed to continue the fight.

“I think on one side, some people might retreat, but on the other side, it might encourage people to actually become more vocal,” said the community organizer. “That’s how it works in our Sikh history. You can take away one voice; thousands more will rise.”

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