This story originally appeared in The Breach on Sept. 22, 2023. It is shared here with permission.
When news broke last week that agents of the Indian government had assassinated a Sikh activist in British Columbia, there was one group that was hardly surprised: Sikh activists themselves.
Long before Canadians learned about the lengths to which the Indian government is willing to go, these activists had been living with the long arm of a state bent on silencing their dissent—arresting their family members, harassing them online in coordinated campaigns, and withdrawing visas to bar them from traveling to India.
In June, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh religious leader and community leader in British Columbia, was shot outside of his gurudwara in Surrey. After revelations this week that “credibly linked” the Indian government to Nijjar’s murder, Justin Trudeau expelled a senior Indian diplomat and stated that “any involvement of a foreign government in the killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil is an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty.”
The news has spawned endless explainers about the Khalistani movement—a Sikh-separatist movement advocating the creation of a self-determining Sikh state in the Indian state of Punjab. At the time of his murder, Nijjar had been organizing an unofficial referendum to gauge the level of support for Khalistan in his home community in Surrey.
But the corporate media has cast little light on the Hindu-supremacist ideology and movement behind this attack, which informs much of the violence and repression of the Indian government at home and abroad. Not to mention that Sikh people have lived through similar things before—in the 1980s, it took Indian state-sponsored murders of the Indian relatives of Sikh activists here for the government of Canada to act.
In a report earlier this year, the British Columbia Gurudwaras Council and the Ontario Gurdwaras Committee document how India’s right-wing government has engaged in a range of tactics: attempting to influence the media and elected officials in Canada, harassing academics, intimidating Sikh activists by canceling their visas and travel documents to fly home.
Sukh Dhaliwal, the Liberal MPP for Nijjar’s riding of Surrey, spoke in the House of Commons yesterday about the consequences he faced for speaking out against India’s human rights record.
“I was refused a visa to travel to India,” he said. “This is how the government of India intimidates parliamentarians, let alone the public.”
In another case, Chinnaiah Jangam, a Dalit (low-caste) professor from Carleton University, faced years of harassment both in-person and online for his work. He was one of 18 academics contacted by CBC news who faced such intimidation, with the rest declining to go on the record out of fear of further repercussions, including visa denial.
In 2021, the Indian consulate in Ottawa sent a stern letter to Ontario’s Office of International Relations and Protocol demanding that they stifle lessons being taught in GTA schools about large-scale demonstrations by predominantly Sikh farmers. At the time, the Indian government was also actively petitioning Twitter to remove posts regarding the protests.
This sort of interference by the Indian consulate isn’t even new in Canada. As far back as 1985, Globe and Mail journalist Zuhair Kashmeri reported that Indian “consular operations include providing financial support for pro-Indian groups that oppose the Sikh demand for a separate nation, gaining control of ethnic newspapers and spying on temples, separatist meetings and the private affairs of separatists.”
Canada’s delayed response to India’s far-right turn
Why then, has it taken decades, and now the murder of a Canadian citizen, for the Canadian government to address the threat of the Indian state assailing the lives of journalists, academics, politicians, and civilians in the Indian diaspora?
The answer may come, simply, down to money. In 2022, the two countries traded nearly $12 billion in goods and $9 billion in services. This includes significant exports in coal, timber, pulp and paper, and mining products to India, and imports of textiles, jewelry and other consumer goods to Canada. Trade relations with India fall under Canada’s Indo-Pacific strategy, which has identified $2.1 trillion in “strategic investments and partnerships” in the region in infrastructure alone. In Ontario, Indian international students now pour more money into the province’s colleges than the province itself.
Canada has pursued this lucrative relationship with India despite countless warnings about the extra-judicial forms of retaliation, intimidation, and violence of which its government is capable. These warnings have only gotten more dire since the rise of Narendra Modi, India’s current Prime Minister, a proponent of a far-right Hindu-supremacist movement known as Hindutva.
Since 2014, when Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rose to power, communal violence against minority Sikh, Christian, Muslim, and Dalit populations has skyrocketed. A news outlet in India found that “hate speech by public figures increased by 490 per cent in the first four years of BJP rule, with 90 per cent of the politicians involved being members of the BJP.”
The BJP forms the political wing of a broad coalition of Hindu-nationalist groups within India known as the Sangh Parivar, which translates to “the family of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).” The RSS, of which Modi has been an active member since 1971, is a far-right paramilitary organization whose principal goal for much of the past 70 years has been to transform India from a pluralist democracy to a Hindu-led ethno-state.
In his project to see this come to fruition, Modi has thrown up citizenship barriers to Muslims (some of whom have been living in India for decades) and made the practice of Islamic divorces illegal and punishable by the law. He’s also detained thousands of people in Jammu and Kashmir, once the only Muslim-majority state in the country, whose statehood Modi dissolved in 2019. Earlier this year, India also imposed a total internet shutdown in Punjab, stalling daily life for 27 million people, arresting hundreds in an ostensible search for a minor Sikh separatist leader.
Renewed calls to end Canada’s intelligence sharing with India
Despite the Canadian government’s knowledge of these human rights abuses under the BJP, and its escalating use of force against its own citizens, the two countries signed onto an intelligence-sharing agreement in 2018 to “facilitate effective cooperation in the fields of security, finance, justice and law enforcement including, where appropriate, at the operational level.”
What Canadian policing and intelligence agencies share with India remains hidden from public scrutiny. But Canada formerly had an intelligence sharing agreement with India in the 1990s, which was ended when Indian security forces were found to be targeting the Indian relatives of Canadian Sikhs identified in intelligence reports shared by the Canadian government. This targeting resulted, according to the World Sikh Organization, in “the abduction, torture and, in some cases, even killing of those relatives by Indian authorities.”
Despite the credible threat of history repeating itself, the Canadian government signed a framework guiding the two countries’ current intelligence-sharing agreement that is “based on a fundamental respect for the sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of India and Canada.”
But it’s far too late to plead ignorance. With India’s role in the assassination of Nijjar, it is clear that this “fundamental respect” for Canadian sovereignty is lost on the Indian government—and never seemed to concern the Canadian government all that much either. Given their record of interference over the last few decades, it is arguable that any notion of respect for Canada’s sovereignty on India’s part has been a politically-convenient fiction for both governments, while they bolstered economic ties at the expense of the rights of Sikh and Muslim Indians and Indo-Canadians.
On Tuesday, a day after the announcement of India’s involvement in Nijjar’s killing, representatives from Canada’s Sikh and Muslim communities spoke at a press conference at the House of Commons, where they demanded, amongst other things, an end to Canada’s intelligence-sharing relationship with India, a freeze on trade negotiations, and starting to deal seriously with the far-right RSS.
They shouldn’t have to ask again.