September 27, 2023
NEW DELHI – In the village of Bhar Singh Pura, framed by wheat and padi fields interspersed with corn, the idea of Khalistan – an independent state carved out from Punjab for Sikhs – is an unwelcome echo of a violent past that no one wants to revisit.
Instead, the war in this village, deep in Punjab state just north of the city of Ludhiana, is against drugs. “Say no to drugs,” blare freshly painted messages on the walls of the two government schools in the village.
This is where slain pro-Khalistan leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar was born and where he grew up.
At age 19, Mr Nijjar, a school dropout, packed his bags and migrated, like scores of youngsters in these parts seeking brighter prospects, to Surrey in Canada’s westernmost province of British Columbia.
On June 18, Mr Nijjar – now 45 and a Canadian – got into his pickup outside the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara, or temple, where he was the president.
As he was pulling out of the carpark to go home to his family, two masked men let loose a storm of bullets that killed Mr Nijjar before making their getaway in a waiting car.
On Monday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pointed the finger at the Indian government, saying its agents may be responsible for murdering Mr Nijjar. New Delhi has dismissed the allegations as “absurd”.
Yet, the man whose death has plunged India-Canada relations to a new nadir and raised prickly questions about the future of the burgeoning relationship between India and Western countries – US President Joe Biden called the US-India partnership “among the most consequential in the world” – is hardly known in his native village.
Many villagers can barely remember Mr Nijjar – who shunned the normal practice of returning to the village after moving to Canada in the 1990s – and heard of his death only through social media.
And those with close family in British Columbia, fearful of any backlash, refuse to be even drawn into a conversation about him.
Mr Ram Lal, the head or sarpanch of the village, who knew his parents, says he simply has faint recollections of Mr Nijjar being just like any other youngster in the village, seeking dreams of a life overseas.
“We don’t know what happened to him in Canada,” said Mr Lal.
In Mr Nijjar’s family home, which is in a state of disuse with family pictures covered in dust and cobwebs, his uncle Himmat Singh, 75, sits in the courtyard.
He enjoys the attention of being the slain separatist’s sole remaining family representative in the village, but cannot identify his nephew in family photos. He dismissed allegations that Mr Nijjar was a Khalistani terrorist.
“It’s all propaganda,” he said. But he admitted he had neither seen nor talked to his nephew since he left the village 26 years ago.
Pastel-coloured, multi-bedroom houses lie vacant in Bhar Singh Pura, which now has a population of under 2,000, mainly farmers, just half of what it used to be. Many have moved overseas to Canada, the United States and Britain, including Mr Nijjar’s own parents, who left five years ago to join their son and never returned.
It is a similar story across Punjab, where the unemployment rate from 2021 to 2022 was 6.4 per cent, well over the 4.1 per cent national unemployment rate. Punjab, which shares a border with Pakistan, also faces challenges from the smuggling of arms to the proliferation of drugs and fake currency.
Most go overseas. The Sikhs, who make up 58 per cent of the state’s 30 million people, are a tight-knit community ready to help one another, and have a vast network.
Blue-collar jobs overseas in fast-food chains or as drivers or plumbers – like Mr Nijjar – allow them to build large houses back in the village.
But it has also led to a political schism between those at home and a select group of the diaspora who get fired up about Khalistan.
“For us, Khalistan holds no meaning. And Nijjar has now become infamous in our village because of Khalistan,” said Mr Lal.
Long roots, bloody trail
In 2018, Mr Trudeau and his family, dressed in elaborate Indian clothing on a visit to India, both amused and bemused the Indian public.
But the photo opportunities belied longstanding bad blood between India and Canada over the activities of pro-Khalistan figures in Canada, home to the largest community of Sikhs, an estimated 780,000, outside India.
The Indian authorities have long been annoyed that militant separatists like Mr Nijjar are tolerated in Canada, keeping alive the cause of a separate Khalistan state and advocating violence to achieve that.
In speeches, Mr Nijjar would laud the 1984 assassination of then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards in retaliation for her unleashing the Indian army on the Golden Temple in Amritsar – the holiest of Sikh shrines – to eliminate the militant Khalistan leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who was holed up inside it.
The killing of Bhindranwale was a body blow to the movement. But bloodier days were to come; Mrs Gandhi’s assassination triggered a pogrom of Sikhs, mostly across Delhi. The events traumatised a generation of Sikhs.
In June, Sikhs in Brampton, Ontario – home to 160,000 Sikhs – organised a parade including a diorama celebrating the assassination. It drew sharp words from India’s Minister of External Affairs, Dr S. Jaishankar, who told reporters: “It isn’t only one incident… There is a larger underlying issue about the space which is given to separatists, to extremists, to people who advocate violence.”
The issue Indian governments have had with Canada goes back at least to the 1985 bomb placed on an Air India flight from Montreal that killed 329 – at the time the worst aircraft-related terrorism episode ever until the Sept 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.
Investigations found that militant separatist Talwinder Singh Parmar, based in Canada, had masterminded the plot; he was later killed, allegedly in a gunfight with police in Punjab.
But it was only as late as 2018 that Mr Jagmeet Singh, the leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party, acknowledged that Parmar was the culprit. The controversial politician had in 2015 appeared at a Khalistan independence rally in San Francisco, California, where he accused India of a genocide of Sikhs.
Critics in India say Mr Trudeau’s lack of action against the separatists is due, simply, to vote bank politics. Sikhs first began arriving in Canada in the early 1900s and took to British Columbia’s vast agricultural fields, which were reminiscent of Punjab. In the 1970s and 1980s, more came from India fleeing a Punjab engulfed in violence over the demand for a separate state, taking advantage of Canada’s liberal immigration and asylum policies.
Today, Sikhs make up a little over 2 per cent of Canada’s population. According to 2021 data, more than half of Canada’s Sikhs live in four cities: Brampton, Ontario; Surrey, British Columbia; and Calgary and Edmonton in Alberta. In British Columbia, Sikhs comprise around 6 per cent of the province’s population. In Surrey, where Mr Nijjar was killed, Sikhs make up 27.4 per cent. Turn on a car radio in Surrey, and there is a very good chance that the first station you find will be playing Punjabi bhangra music.
Mr Trudeau needs the Sikh vote, analysts say; in 2016, he boasted that his Cabinet had more Sikhs – four of them – than Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s.
In Punjab, while the idea of Khalistan has little resonance, a dangerous cocktail of issues is at play today.
Growing unemployment among the youth makes them susceptible to being recruited by Khalistani elements. There is also a drug crisis, with a million people in rehabilitative centres, as per Punjab government figures.
Just five months before the murder of Mr Nijjar, a self-styled preacher, Amritpal Singh, who modelled himself on Bhindranwale, brought the issue of Khalistan back to the forefront for a brief period.
Singh, who helped his family run a transport business in Dubai, had returned to India the previous year and took over as the new leader of Waris Punjab De, or Heirs of Punjab, which was focused on social ailments facing Punjab’s youth.
But Singh used the organisation to whip up sentiments over Khalistan while speaking on issues like the drug problem.
In February, his supporters, armed with swords and guns, stormed a police station and managed to free a close aide of Singh who had been arrested in a kidnapping and assault case.
By March, Singh was on the run after being accused of stoking communal tensions. The dramatic manhunt triggered protests overseas from Khalistan supporters, who in March vandalised the Indian Consulate in San Francisco and pulled down the Indian flag at India’s High Commission in London. Singh was eventually arrested on April 23, and is in jail facing charges of creating disharmony in society.
There was a lack of popular support for Singh, though he had supporters among “radical, religious people”, said Professor Lakhwinder Singh at the New Delhi-based Institute for Human Development.
But the authorities are on the watch. The National Investigation Agency, the counter-terrorism law enforcement agency, on Wednesday announced cash rewards of 1 million rupees (S$16,450) each for information leading to the arrest of Khalistani leaders Harwinder Singh Sandhu and Lakhbir Singh Sandhu, accused of smuggling arms and drugs apart from extortion and targeted killings.
Indian analysts said that the Modi government is now taking a tougher line against Khalistan separatists.
Mr Trudeau said that there were “credible allegations” of Indian involvement in Mr Nijjar’s murder. Canadian public broadcaster CBC, quoting Canadian government sources, said that this includes communications involving Indian officials, such as Indian diplomats in Canada.
Adding weight to the allegations, CTV News reported that US Ambassador to Canada David Cohen said Canada’s partners in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network – the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand – had informed Mr Trudeau of the possible involvement of Indian agents in the murder of Mr Nijjar.
The allegations have heightened focus on the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s foreign intelligence agency, whose head operative was expelled from the Indian High Commission in Canada, as per CBC.
Analysts also said that the government was now also moving to seize the properties of Khalistan separatists in India.
A grievance – from Punjab to British Columbia
It will, meanwhile, be a mistake to assume the wider Sikh community in Canada dreams of Khalistan, says author Terry Milewski, who wrote the 2021 book Blood For Blood: Fifty Years Of The Global Khalistan Project.
“Most of the Sikh community are sick and tired of the Khalistanis and would be perfectly happy never to hear from them – and avoid them like the plague.”
“The people who make a noise and lead the way and rouse up the troops, tend to be very small in number; it’s a few known people who drive it – and Nijjar was one of those.”
Still, pro-Khalistan groups wield disproportionate political influence, often through control of gurdwaras, which are centres of Sikh communities. And in a long-running sore in the relationship with India, the Canadian government allows Khalistan activists to propagate their messages freely, including coordinating with activists back in Punjab.
In July posters appeared in Canada naming Indian diplomats and alleging that they were responsible for Mr Nijjar’s killing, drawing objections again from India.
The activists are disciplined, organised and dedicated, Mr Milewski said.
“Their mission in life is to fight India. They see themselves as freedom fighters against the fascist genocidal state of India.”
Violence has flared. On July 14, 2022, 75-year-old Sikh businessman Ripudaman Singh Malik, who had been acquitted in the 1985 Air India bombing, was shot dead outside his business, also in Surrey. Two men have been charged with his killing; the trial remains under way. Analysts believe they may be contract killers.
Back in 1985, British Columbia politician and the first Indo-Canadian premier of the province, Mr Ujjal Dosanjh, who spoke out against the Khalistan movement’s violent tactics, was attacked by a man wielding an iron rod with a metal spike who swung it at his head; his wounds required 80 stitches, and he suffered a broken hand. In 1999, his office was broken into and a Molotov cocktail – a petrol bomb – was left burning on a table.
Violence had been directed at moderates, and was often internecine, Mr Dosanjh, now 76, told The Straits Times. “There is a significant minority that is poisoned by this disease (of Khalistan separatism), and we are stuck with it,” he said.
“Part of the reason we’re stuck with it is that this is an ongoing grievance; there is no healing process, they are isolated, they live like islands unto themselves.”
The Canada Dream continues in Punjab
In Punjab, far from the continuing meltdown in ties, the Canada dream remains very much alive.
Nine months ago, Mr Ram Lal’s son Sunny, 28, moved from Bhar Singh Pura to Canada for employment.
His father said that Sunny attends a Masters of Engineering classes two days in a week and works in a McDonald’s for three days.
“Here he was sitting around doing nothing. He couldn’t get a job. So I got scared that he would start doing drugs. So I packed him off. He is learning the value of hard work in Canada now,” said Mr Lal, sitting in the clothing store he had opened for his son in the village. He is not worried that his son may be influenced by Khalistan elements, noting his aim is to finish his degree and move into a white collar job.
Some 50km away from the village, at Gurudwar Shaheed Nihal Singh Ji in Jalandhar, many visa applicants have come from different parts of Punjab to pray for a visa to travel overseas for employment.
Ms Neha Das, from Jalandhar, is among them. “I want to go abroad to work. It has been my dream,” said the 22-year-old, who works for sandwich chain Subway and has applied to the US and Canada.
“I hope I get a visa,” she said.