India dismissed allegations that its government was linked to the killing of a Sikh activist in Canada as “absurd” Tuesday, and expelled a senior Canadian diplomat.
It came a day after Canada expelled a top Indian diplomat as it investigates what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called credible allegations its government may have had links to the assassination of Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar, who was gunned down on June 18 outside a Sikh cultural center in Surrey, British Columbia.
Nijjar was organizing an unofficial referendum in India for an independent Sikh nation at the time of this death. Indian authorities announced a cash reward last year for information leading to Nijjar’s arrest, accusing him of involvement in an alleged attack on a Hindu priest in India.
In a statement, India’s Ministry of External Affairs wrote that “the decision reflects Government of India’s growing concern at the interference of Canadian diplomats in our internal matters and their involvement in anti-India activities.”
The dueling expulsions come as relations between Canada and India are tense. Trade talks have been derailed and Canada just canceled a trade mission to India that was planned for the fall. Protests by pro-Sikh independence groups in Canada have angered the Modi government.
The Sikh independence, or Khalistan, movement is banned in India, where officials see it and affiliated groups as a national security threat. But it movement still has some support in northern India, as well as countries like Canada and the United Kingdom which are home to a sizable Sikh diaspora.
Trudeau told Parliament that he brought up the slaying with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the G20 last week. He said he told Modi that any Indian government involvement would be unacceptable and that he asked for cooperation in the investigation.
“Any involvement of a foreign government in the killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil is an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty,” he said. “In the strongest possible terms I continue to urge the government of India to cooperate with Canada to get to the bottom of this matter.”
On Tuesday, India’s foreign ministry released a statement dismissing the allegation as “absurd and motivated.” The ministry’s added that Trudeau had made similar allegations to Modi.
“Such unsubstantiated allegations seek to shift the focus from Khalistani terrorists and extremists, who have been provided shelter in Canada and continue to threaten India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the statement noted, referring to the proposed name of a Sikh homeland.
Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly said a top diplomat, who she said was the head of Indian intelligence in Canada, has been expelled as a consequence.
“If proven true this would be a great violation of our sovereignty and of the most basic rule of how countries deal with each other,” Joly said. “As a consequence we have expelled a top Indian diplomat.”
The expulsion comes as relations between Canada and India are tense. Trade talks have been derailed and Canada just canceled a trade mission to India that was planned for the fall.
At the G20 meeting, Modi expressed “strong concerns” over Canada’s handling of the Punjabi independence movement among the overseas Sikhs during a meeting with Trudeau at the G20, according to India's response, released by India’s Ministry of External Affairs.
The statement described the Sikh movement as “promoting secessionism and inciting violence” against Indian diplomats. It called on Canada to work with India on what New Delhi said is a threat to the Canadian Indian diaspora.
Protests by pro-Khalistan groups in Canada have angered the Modi government, prompting it to summon the Canadian High Commissioner in New Delhi in March.
Canada has a Sikh population of more than 770,000, or about 2% of its total population.
Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc said Canada’s national security adviser and the head of Canada’s spy service have travelled to India to meet their counterparts and to confront the Indian intelligence agencies with the allegations.
He called it an active homicide investigation led by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Joly said Trudeau also raised the matter with U.S. President Joe Biden and U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
“We are deeply concerned about the allegations referenced by Prime Minister Trudeau," White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson. "We remain in regular contact with our Canadian partners. It is critical that Canada’s investigation proceed and the perpetrators be brought to justice.”
Joly also said she would raise the issue with her peers in the G7 on Monday evening in New York City ahead of the United Nations General Assembly.
Canadian opposition New Democrat leader Jagmeet Singh, who is himself Sikh, called it outrageous and shocking. Singh said he grew up hearing stories that challenging India’s record on human rights might prevent you from getting a visa to travel there.
“But to hear the prime minister of Canada corroborate a potential link between a murder of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil by a foreign government is something I could never have imagined,” Singh said.
British Columbia Premier David Eby said he’s received a briefing from Canada’s spy agency about the “assassination” of Nijjar and he’s “deeply disturbed” by what he was told.
The World Sikh Organization of Canada called Nijjar an outspoken supporter of Khalistan who “often led peaceful protests against the violation of human rights actively taking place in India and in support of Khalistan.”
“Nijjar had publicly spoken of the threat to his life for months and said that he was targeted by Indian intelligence agencies,” the statement said.
Nijjar's New York-based lawyer, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, has said Nijjar was warned by Canadian intelligence officials about being targeted for assassination by “mercenaries” before he was gunned down.
Janice Stein, a political scientist and international relations expert at the University of Toronto, said to kill a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil is astounding.
“It’s tragic for Canada because we have issues of foreign interference with the two largest economies in Asia, China and India. And we have two very large diaspora from both countries. This is not what we want,” Stein said.
Indian authorities have targeted Sikh separatism since the 1980s, when an armed insurgency for an independent Sikh state took off in Punjab state.
In 1984, Indian forces stormed the Golden Temple in the state’s Amritsar city to flush out Sikh separatists, who had taken refuge there. The controversial operation killed around 400, according to official figures, although Sikh groups estimate the toll to be higher.
The prime minister who ordered the raid, Indira Gandhi, was killed afterwards by two of her bodyguards, who were Sikh. Her death triggered a series of anti-Sikh riots, in which Hindu mobs went from house to house across northern India, pulling Sikhs from their homes, hacking many to death and burning others alive.
Modi's government has intensified the pursuit of Sikh separatists. When farmers camped out on the edges of New Delhi to protest agriculture laws in 2021, Modi’s government initially tried to discredit Sikh participants by dismissing their concerns by calling them “Khalistanis." Police also arrested a 22-year-old climate activist for supporting the farmers and accused her of being in touch with Sikh independence supporters.
Earlier this year, supporters of the Khalistan movement vandalized Indian consulates in London and San Francisco.
In April, Indian police arrested a leader who had become popular for speeches that called for an independent Sikh homeland after a month-long hunt.