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  • Emily Smith

The Future of Canadian-Indian Relations After Assassination of Canadian Sikh Leader

Courtesy of CNN

The Canadian government has claimed that the Indian government ordered the assassination of notable Sikh separatist leader and protester Hardeep Singh Nijjar, who is also a Canadian citizen, in June 2023 while he was actively organizing an unofficial Sikh diaspora referendum on independence from India.

In a statement given to the Canadian House of Commons on September 18,  Prime Minister Trudeau called Nijjar’s killing  “ unacceptable violation of [Canadian] sovereignty.” In response, the Indian foreign ministry instated a travel advisory with the warning that “...those studying in the North American country … be cautious because of ‘growing anti-India activities and politically condoned hate-crimes.’” ongoing security negotiations and future trade agreements between the two countries  have come to a standstill. 

The Sikh Independence Movement, also referred to as the Khalistan movement, first began in the 1970s-80s after those in the Sikh diaspora called for an independent homeland from India. Focused in the northern Punjab state where Sikhs make up the majority of the population, the movement came to a head in the late 1970s when the Indian government responded by attempting to suppress it– killing thousands including many prominent Sikh leaders. Even into the early 1980s, the Indian government attempted to use police to suppress the movement.

Despite this, the movement only continued to gain traction after the first attempts to suppress it, resulting in the death of hundreds of youth, with many dying as a result of ‘forceful detention and staged gunfights’ by the police. This event, better known as Operation Blue Star, was ordered by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and targeted Sikh temples and religious sites across Punjab, killing civilians in what was later described as ‘extrajudicial’ killings. 

In 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi,  organized—on behalf of the Indian government—the storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the holiest shrine in Sikhism to draw out the separatists responsible for organizing protests. This action resulted in the death of 400 people, according to official Indian government documents. However, Sikh groups assert that the number of deathsreported was not accurate,that the real number was in the thousands. Later that year, in response to the storming of their holy shrine, two Sikh bodyguards of the Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, assassinated her after learning she was directly responsible for ordering the raid. The Prime Minister’s death was the breaking point leading to anti-Sikh riots where groups of Hindus went house to house in New Delhi, violently attacking and killing Sikhs in their homes.

Currently, the Khalistan movement is nowhere near as strong as it was in the 20th century.  Once prominent in the Punjab state, there are now only a small number of supporters. However, the movement remains popular among the Sikh diaspora outside of India, with separatist leaders like Hardeep Singh Nijjar organizing cultural and religious events to garner more support for the movement within Canada. Because of the increasing global support for the separatist movement among Sikhs, current Prime Minister Narendra Modi has increased crackdowns on Sikh separatists, calling for the arrest and detainment of separatist leaders and key figures linked to the movement. Modi extended this to other countries as well, including Canada, Australia, and the U.K., to follow India’s example and implement similar crackdowns. 

Modi’s policies have received pushback since 2019. His current statements against the Sikh population come amid other pushback from the European Parliament over ongoing ethnic conflicts within the northeastern Indian state of Manipur. In a resolution drafted by the European Parliament, the “‘intolerance towards minority communities’ had contributed to the violence that had claimed some 120 lives and left more than 50,000 displaced.”  Following Modi’s increased efforts to stop the resurgence of the Khalistan Movement, the president of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) political party and former Deputy Chief Minister for the state of Punjab, Sukhbir Singh Badal called for major political party leaders on September 23 to “...give a united call against vicious propaganda to vilify and [demonize] Sikhs and other Punjabis”. He went on to publish a statement fearing escalation and violence directed at the Sikh population, stating that, “[we] must jointly condemn the vicious attempts of some anti-Punjab and anti-Sikh forces to paint our youth as anti-national and terrorist.

Punjabis, especially Sikhs, have made unparalleled sacrifices…” He later added, “[political] parties must jointly urge media houses to stop anti-Sikh vilification. We appeal to all our countrymen not to be misled by the anti-Punjab and anti-Sikh propaganda.” he ended his statement by reminding everyone that, “[the Indian] constitution declares India to be a Union of States, with ‘unity in diversity’ as its foundational principle. Let’s respect that.”

Nijjar’s death has left questions as to the future of Canada-India relations, as many of Canada’s western allies have recently been trying to build on their relationship with India; especially the United States, which finds itself in a challenging position as India and Canada are both strategic allies.


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