Three months after his killing outside of a Surrey, B.C., gurdwara, Hardeep Singh Nijjar has become the face of the simmering diplomatic fight between Canada and India.
On Monday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rose in the House of Commons stating that Canadian security agencies have been “actively pursuing credible allegations of a potential link between agents of the government of India and the killing of a Canadian citizen, Hardeep Singh Nijjar.”
Following Trudeau’s accusation that the Indian government was involved in the extrajudicial assassination of a Canadian citizen, Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly announced that Canada had expelled the head of India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) in Canada – India’s foreign intelligence agency.
Overnight, India responded in the diplomatic tit-for-tat by expelling a senior Canadian diplomat. A statement from the Indian External Affairs Minister says Trudeau’s allegations are “absurd” and “motivated.”
Who was Hardeep Singh Nijjar?
India alleges that Nijjar was the leader of the Khalistan Tiger Force (KTF), a militant Sikh extremist organization that was designated as a terrorist group by the Indian government in February of 2023.
The KTF advocates for a breakaway Sikh ethnostate in the Indian province of Punjab known as Khalistan. According to India’s terror group declaration for the KTF, the “group promotes various acts of terrorism, including targeted killings in Punjab.”
Canada lists two Khalistani groups as terror organizations, Babar Khalsa International (BKI) – the group responsible for the Air India bombings – and the International Sikh Youth Federation. The Khalistan Tiger Force is not a listed terror group by the Canadian government.
On the evening of June 18, Nijjar was shot and killed in his car as he was leaving the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara where he serves as president.
According to a Global News profile, Nijjar came to Canada in 1997 seeking refugee status using a fake passport that identified him as “Ravi Sharma.”
Nijjar’s application, which was eventually rejected by the Canadian government because of a fake physician letter filled with spelling errors, stated that he was facing persecution in India for being part of a “social group” with “individuals associated with Sikh militants.”
He wrote to Immigration officials that he had been arrested in 1995 and tortured by Indian police.
Canadian officials didn’t believe his story and found Nijjar to be “unreliable and untrustworthy.” They didn’t believe he had ever been arrested or tortured by Indian officials.
Eleven days after his rejected refugee claim, Nijjar married a B.C. woman who sponsored his citizenship application. In 1997, that same woman became a Canadian citizen after she was sponsored to enter Canada by a different husband.
On his citizenship application he was asked if he had ever been part of a group that advocated “armed struggle or violence to reach political, religious or social objectives.” Nijjar responded, “No.”
Immigration officials rejected Nijjar for a second time, stating that they believed his new marriage was “a marriage of convenience.”
Nijjar appealed the decision in 2001, but was rejected for a third time.
In 2013 Nijjar traveled to the United Nations Human Rights Council to lobby the organization to recognize anti-Sikh violence in India as a genocide. Later, he travelled to the United Nations headquarters in New York to lobby for a referendum over the independence of the Punjab state of India from the rest of the country.
In 2014, India issued a warrant for Nijjar’s arrest on Interpol, describing him as “mastermind of the Khalistan Tiger Force.”
A summary of the warrant connected him to a 2007 bombing of the Shingar Cinema in Punjab. The suspects in the case said they were “acting under the instruction of Nijjar.”
A second Interpol notice in 2016 reaffirmed the Indian government’s belief that Nijjar was behind multiple acts of terrorism in India. According to the notice, he was wanted for committing acts of terrorism and faced a possible life sentence.
Nijjar denied the “baseless and fabricated” allegations against him by the Indian government in a personal letter to Justin Trudeau.
At the time of his death, Nijjar’s citizenship status was unknown to the public due to privacy laws that protect individual cases from being reported in the press
In response to growing public speculation over Nijjar’s true citizenship status before he died, Immigration Minister Marc Miller confirmed on social media that Nijjar was granted Canadian citizenship on March 3, 2015.
True North reached out to Chris Alexander, the Conservative immigration minister at the time of Nijjar’s citizenship approval, for comment on the decision to approve Nijjar, but did not receive a reply by the time of publication.
True North also asked both Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada and Global Affairs Canada for further information regarding Nijjar’s citizenship status and attempts to become a citizen after 2001, but received no response.
In 2018, Nijjar took over the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in Surrey, B.C., becoming its president.
After a stayed assault charge in a Surrey provincial court in 2019, Nijjar found himself in a dispute over a printing press with Ripudaman Singh Malik, a man acquitted of involvement in the 1985 Air India Bombing – the worst terrorist attack in Canadian history.
After Malik lent the press to Nijjar in 2020, Nijjar refused to return it, as is reported in court records on the matter.
Malik was murdered in July 2022.
According to fellow Khalistan activist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun of Sikhs for Justice, Nijjar was organizing a ‘Khalistan referendum’ in Surrey scheduled for September. Pannun was designated as a terrorist by the Indian government in 2020.
Trudeau’s accusation against the Indian government is the latest volley in a long-running diplomatic fight between Ottawa and New Delhi.
Relations between India and Canada have been collapsing ever since Trudeau visited India on a state visit in 2018 with his family. After being snubbed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi upon arrival in the country, a member of the Canadian delegation invited, Jaspal Atwal, who had been convicted for the attempted murder of a former cabinet minister, to a reception with senior members of the Indian government.
After Nijjar’s death, Khalistani separatists hung up posters around the country calling to “Kill India.” The posters also had the names and faces of senior Indian diplomats working in Canada under the title “killers.”
When asked by Canadian journalists if Canada condemns the posters depicting Indian diplomats as “killers,” Trudeau refused and said that Canada believes in the right to peaceful protest and freedom of expression.
At the G20 summit in New Delhi two weeks ago, the frosty relationship between Modi and Trudeau took centre stage. According to competing statements issued by both governments, Trudeau raised international interference and the protection of Canadian sovereignty with Modi, whereas the Indian statement states that Modi raised the growing “anti-Indian activities” taking place in Canada.
Before the two leaders met in New Delhi for the summit, Canada abruptly ended negotiations with India over a new trade deal.