Leaders from B.C.’s Sikh community say they have “mixed feelings” about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s announcement that the Indian government may have been involved in the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar earlier this year.
Moninder Singh, spokesperson for the BC Gurdwaras Council, considered Trudeau’s remarks an overdue acknowledgment of concerns his community has been raising for decades about Indian interference in Canadian affairs.
“It’s something that should have been done a long time ago. The community’s been after this issue for over 40 years,” Singh said, speaking outside the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in Surrey on Monday.
“It is very unfortunate that it took the death of Hardeep Singh Nijjar on this property a few hundred feet away to actually bring this about,” he continued.
Nijjar, the gurdwara’s president, was gunned down in his vehicle in the parking lot on June 18.
Speaking to the House of Commons earlier in the day, Trudeau said national security agencies are investigating “credible allegations of a potential link between agents of the government of India” and Nijjar’s killing.
“Canada is a rule of law country, the protection of our citizens in defence of our sovereignty are fundamental. Our top priorities have therefore been one, that our law enforcement and security agencies ensure the continued safety of all Canadians. And two, that all steps be taken to hold perpetrators of this murder to account,” Trudeau said.
Singh said Canada’s acknowledgement that India was potentially an “actual actor” in the killing is a good first step, but “until we actually see people behind bars” the community will remain skeptical as to whether appropriate action will be taken.
Homicide investigators have not made any arrests in relation to his slaying, or named a motive. The Integrated Homicide Investigation Team said there are three suspects in the murder: two “heavy-set men wearing face coverings” who were seen fleeing the scene on foot, and a third person waiting in a getaway car parked a few blocks away.
Singh said the lack of answers around Nijjar’s murder “doesn’t bode well” in the community and it leaves them with a “reluctance for people to actually trust” the justice system.
“When Hardeep was being warned a year in advance that (his) life was at risk, but nothing was done to actually protect him in any which way,” he said. “What can we actually expect from them, that if India is an actor here, then what can the police do for us? And we don’t have an answer for that.”
“A public inquiry into India’s interference in this country needs to happen immediately. And we’ve been saying that since before Hardeep’s death,” Singh said.
He added that peaceful protests at consulates and embassies across Canada are being planned for Sept. 25 to call for just that.
“We need to heal, but at the same time, we need to kind of get together to actually push forward. So the healing will take place within the activism for us and that’s always been the case for our people.”
On top of that inquiry, Singh said he also wants to see an end to the intelligence sharing agreements between Canada and India. In 2018, during Trudeau’s previous trip to India, the two countries signed a cooperation framework on terrorism and violent extremism, which introduced “institutionalized cooperation” between Canadian and Indian intelligence agencies.
“Those intelligence sharing agreements, to us, have always been problematic. They’ve always placed Sikh activists at risk. We don’t know what type of information is being shared. We don’t know what type of monitoring goes on social media. All of those things are very risky to us,” Singh said.
‘IT’S NOT GOING TO SILENCE US’
Trudeau’s comments come after Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi expressed “strong concerns” about Canada’s handling of the Punjabi independence movement at the G20 summit in New Delhi last week.
A statement released by India’s Ministry of External Affairs said Modi told Trudeau of “strong concerns about continuing anti-India activities of extremist elements in Canada.”
That happened while voting for a non-binding referendum took place in B.C. at the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara on the creation of an independent Sikh state called Khalistan, a cause Nijjar was an outspoken advocate for.
Singh said Nijjar’s killing has instilled fear amongst other advocates in the Khalistan movement, but that the act is “not going to silence us.”
“We’ve seen hundreds of thousands of people that are lining up to vote in referendums on this topic, this idea that it’s a fringe movement has been quashed in the eyes of the entire world,” he said.
“So we see the reason why India would undermine our affairs in Canada and in doing so, also undermine Canadian sovereignty as well.”
Singh expects Nijjar’s death will intensify the Khalistan movement in globally, and that Canada will continue to be a hub for activism given its large Sikh diaspora.
“I think what the idea behind this murder, this political assassination was really to put fear into people’s minds,” he said. “I think it’s actually slipped in a different way, which is people are willing to give their life for this movement, and they shouldn’t have to … we should be able to speak freely in this country about sovereignty and self determination.”
With files from CTVNews.ca’s Tom Yun and The Canadian Press