Sikh activists on edge worldwide after Vancouver killing

Two months after the Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar was shot and killed in a parking lot in suburban Vancouver, Canadian police showed up at the house of a close friend with warning: his life was also in danger.

Two officers – one of them from the federal national security team – handed Gurmeet Singh Toor a document known as a “duty to warn” paper. It required him to confirm that they had told him his life “might be in peril” – and to acknowledge that any attempt on his life might put his family at risk.

“I asked them who might be threatening me and why my life was at risk,” Toor told the Guardian. “They said they couldn’t explain the threats because of ‘security reasons’. But they told me they had information that I was in danger.”

Toor and Nijjar had worked closely at the Guru Nanak gurdwara, a temple where they organized a symbolic referendum for an independent Sikh state in India, known as Khalistan.

The Khalistan movement is banned in India, but in Canada, activists have long campaigned for the cause. Now, Toor – and other activists around the world – are facing the stark truth that such campaigning may be putting them at risk.

“Do I think this is related to India? Yes. Do I think this is related to the killing of Mr Nijjar? Yes. But I’m not scared. I will continue to fight for his family, for justice, and for the work he was doing,” Toor said.

The assassination of Hardeep Singh Nijjar has so far produced no arrests, but it has sent shockwaves through the global Sikh community.

In interviews with the Guardian, activists in Canada, Australia, Italy, the US and the UK have described a growing climate of fear that India may feel emboldened to crush dissent – anywhere in the world.

Demonstrators gather in support of Khalistan outside the Consulate General of India, in Toronto on 25 September, following Nijjar’s murder.

Demonstrators gather outside the Consulate General of India in Toronto on 25 September, following Nijjar’s murder. Photograph: Cole Burston/AFP/Getty Images

“The message [Nijjar’s killing] sends – not just to Sikhs, but to the world – is that the persecution and despotic extrajudicial measures that India is used to committing inside its own borders is now being exported worldwide,” said Jaskaran Sandhu, an Ontario-based lawyer and Sikh journalist, who said that exiled advocates for Dalits, Muslims and other minorities in India have also been the subject of transnational intimidation.

Six men and two vehicles were involved in Nijjar’s murder, an apparently carefully orchestrated operation in which the assailants fired about 50 bullets. Local police initially dismissed suggestions of an international angle, but friends and family suspected from the start that the Indian government was involved.

Those frustrations were apparently confirmed last month when Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, told parliament his government had heard “credible allegations” that India’s government had played a role in the murder – a claim Delhi has described as “absurd”.

Indian authorities, meanwhile, see the global diaspora as an incubator for Sikh extremism, singling out Canada for offering what they say is a “safe haven” for people accused of terrorism.

Those people included Nijjar, whom the government of Narendra Modi had unsuccessfully sought to extradite. He received frequent threats, and, just a month before his death, told a local radio station: “The people who are raising their voices about human rights can be murdered, and India has the ability to do it.”

Sikhs have always known there could be retribution for their activism in India, said Toor. “Do I think Mr Nijjar could have been killed if he was back in India? Surely yes. But this was in Canada. We never thought they would go this far.”

Related: FBI warned prominent US Sikhs of threats after murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada

Two others from Toor’s gurdwara received “duty to warn” letters from the police. And in late June, a spokesperson for the British Columbia Gurdwara Council, Moninder Singh, was temporarily forced into hiding over threats to his life.

But activists in North America have long assumed their speech would be shielded by laws that protect even the most fiery rhetoric and provocative demonstrations.

“Sikhs in Canada can freely advocate for anything they want as long as it’s protected under this country’s charter rights and freedom. But a Canadian citizen was killed for exercising his charter rights on Canadian soil. And there’s nothing stopping India from doing that anywhere else in the world,” said Sandhu. “This is a global problem, wherever the diaspora exists.”

Pritpal Singh, 69, lives in Fremont, California, where he serves as coordinator for the American Sikh Caucus Committee. After Nijjar’s murder, he was one of at least three Sikhs in the US who were warned by the FBI that their lives were in danger. The warning, and advice to increase vigilance, was soon followed by a disconcerting incident outside Singh’s home.

Security camera footage, later shared with the FBI and the Guardian, shows a black SUV slowly approaching the house in a gated community. The vehicle stops and the driver appears to take pictures before driving off. The license plate is not visible.

Singh said that Nijjar’s assassination had alarmed US-based members of religious minorities and other dissidents. Nijjar’s killing, and the chill that has settled in amongst activists, shows India is testing Canada and America’s commitment to protecting its citizens, Singh believes.

“We are thankful to America’s founding fathers for the second amendment,” he said, referring to the constitutional right to bear arms. “For the Sikhs, it’s sacrosanct. In addition, we are in regular touch with the intelligence community, which is helping to keep us safe.”

But while North America is home to some of the most outspoken members of the Sikh diaspora, concerns over India’s reach extend across the globe.

Gurpal Singh and his brother, Jagroop, who live in the Italian province of Brescia, visited Canada in late August to support to fellow Sikh separatists in the Khalistan referendum campaign. But they soon received news that their father, Jasvir, 63, had died in a Brescia hospital after a heart attack.

The family has not suggested foul play, but they say when they started to organise the cremation, they were blocked by the Indian consulate in Milan, allegedly because of Jasvir and his sons’ involvement in Sikhs for Justice.

The siblings were able to sign the necessary documents to get permission for the cremation from Brescia city hall. But they were told that because their father was a citizen of India, they couldn’t proceed without permission from the embassy.

Gurpal was told the embassy refused to grant permission unless he and his brother presented themselves at the mission. “Of course, we weren’t going to do that as you never know what might have happened if we had entered Indian territory.”

Related: ‘Whether it costs our lives or not’: killing of Canadian Sikh leader reignites historic fight

It was not the brothers’ first hostile interaction with the embassy. In 2022, Gurpal and Jagroop were outspoken campaigners in a referendum to gauge support for Khalistan among Italy’s Sikh community – Europe’s second-largest after the UK.

Before the vote, however, they received a letter from the Indian consulate in Milan, seen by the Guardian, which stated: “It has been observed that you have been involved in activities which are against our national interest” – and threatened to revoke their passports.

The vote eventually found that 40,000 of Italy’s 220,000 Sikhs supported Khalistan, according to Gurpal. But he said very few within the community openly campaign for it. “They are afraid of the pressure from India,” he said.

Another Sikh in Brescia, who asked to remain anonymous, disagreed. “I have never wanted or dreamt of Khalistan,” he said. “It is a horrible story and so many people have died because of it. We just want to live peacefully. Hardly any of us want Khalistan.”

In his own community, Nijjar has become a martyr. But Shamsher Singh, co-founder of the NGO National Sikh Youth Federation UK and program director for the Khalistan Centre, said the killing had warped the conversation from one of Sikh independence into one of Canadian sovereignty.

“In death, it seems he’s become a Canadian citizen, but when he was alive, the same Canadian government had placed Nijjar under travel restrictions, had frozen his bank accounts,” said Singh.

“The same Canadian government actively pursued trade deals with India and all of a sudden now they can see India’s violence?”

two men stand with canadian and khalistan flags and a sign that says 'canada, act fast, arrest killers of nijjar'

People call for justice for Nijjar at the Consulate General of India in Vancouver on 25 September. Photograph: Ethan Cairns/EPA

In 2018, British counter-terrorism police raided Singh’s home in Southall, London, confiscating electronic devices and searching through clothes and documents. He was not charged with any crime.

“Sikhs will always be a target,” said Singh.

As western nations court India as a geopolitical counterweight to China, the country’s newfound assertiveness has been matched by the growth of increasingly outspoken Hindu nationalist elements among the diaspora.

In Australia, “there is a fear they could reach us here, or, at the very least, to reach our families in India,” said Manbir Singh Kohli, who runs a community radio show in Sydney. “People have said in the past if you oppose the government, your family back home will be in trouble.”

Kohli has abandoned social media, saying his profiles have been inundated with hateful comments. “Our community has become so split, and you can’t have meaningful conversations with people without getting into an argument.”

The growth of overt Hindu nationalism in Sydney has only increased fears. Kohli points to a recent viral video of a Hindu nationalist mob chanting slogans as they marched through the western Sydney suburb of Harris Park.

The friendly approach the Australian government has taken to Narendra Modi’s government has further empowered Hindu nationalists in the country’s suburbs.

“It’s a Frankenstein that has been created, and there is no pulling it back, unless the Australian government want to take very strong measures,” Kohli said. “And without a strong stance, it throws our community and others … under the bus.”

Dr Albel Singh Kang of the Australian Sikh Association said that since Nijjar’s death, paranoia and concern had gripped the community.

“If steps are not taken by authorities, then violence is imminent,” he said. “People are afraid – they are afraid to speak their mind, even here, outside India.”

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