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Sikh assassinations: Are the US and Canada raising the heat on India? | Politics News

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A year after Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar was killed outside a community shrine near Vancouver, a series of diplomatic and legal measures is sharpening the scrutiny on India’s alleged role in quashing overseas Sikh separatist movements through assassinations in both the United States and Canada.

In Canada, an upcoming hearing on the Nijjar case on June 25 will offer prosecutors a new chance to present evidence to back their allegations of India’s involvement in the murder.

Meanwhile, Nikhil Gupta, suspected of being involved in a plot to kill Sikh separatist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, was extradited from the Czech Republic to the US earlier this month.

Here is more about what Canada and the US are doing – and what it means for India:

Indian nationals Karan Brar, Kamalpreet Singh and Karanpreet Singh (left to right) who were charged with murdering and conspiring to murder Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in 2023 [IHIT/Handout via Reuters]

What’s happening in Canada with the Nijjar case?

Four Indian nationals were arrested in May this year over the fatal shooting of Nijjar in June last year. The four men are Amandeep Singh, 22; Kamalpreet Singh, 22; Karan Brar, 22; and Karanpreet Singh, 28.

Sikh activists marked the first anniversary of Nijjar’s death by holding a mock trial of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi outside the Indian consulate in downtown Vancouver. They carried an effigy of Modi in prison stripes, asserting the Indian government’s role in Nijjar’s death.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Parliament last week honoured Nijjar on the anniversary of his assassination with a moment of silence – sparking an angry response from India. Nijjar, 45, was deemed a terrorist by the Indian government three years before his death.

Sikhs in Canada are continuing to hold non-binding referendums on the creation of a separate Sikh nation out of India’s Punjab state, with the next vote scheduled on July 28 in Calgary, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported.

The four men accused of involvement in Nijjar’s murder will appear in a court hearing on June 25 in the city of Surrey.

How has Nijjar’s case strained India-Canada ties?

Nijjar was shot dead outside a Sikh temple in Surrey in Canada’s British Columbia on June 18, 2023. Surrey has a large number of Sikhs, who make up 2 percent of Canada’s population.

Nijjar was associated with the Khalistan movement, an ethnoreligious movement that sprung up among the Sikhs in India, who make up 2 percent of India’s population but nearly 60 percent of the population in the northern state of Punjab.

Khalistan is the proposed name for a Sikh nation envisioned by some Sikhs, incorporating the state of Punjab as well as other Punjabi-speaking areas of northern India.

While the movement died down after a crescendo in India in the 1970s and early 1980s, due to a crackdown by Indian forces and Hindu mobs, it has recently seen a resurgence among Sikhs in the diaspora.

In September 2023, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that Canada was probing the possibility that India’s government was involved in Nijjar’s assassination. India has rejected any involvement in Nijjar’s death.

The incident put a strain on the relationship between the two countries, with India withdrawing its diplomats from Canada and briefly suspending visas for Canadians. Trade talks between the nations have been in deep freeze since Trudeau’s bombshell allegations.

Last week at the G7 conference in Italy, Modi and Trudeau shook hands, but it was unclear whether they discussed India’s potential involvement in Nijjar’s death.

The tensions are not likely to abate anytime soon, especially with hearings into the Nijjar case expected to reveal more about Canada’s accusations against India. The Modi government has repeatedly accused Trudeau of pandering to Sikh separatists in the search for their votes, ignoring Indian national security concerns.

That criticism emerged again last week, after the Canadian Parliament’s mark of respect for Nijjar. “Time again, we have said that Khalistani activities are a matter of serious concern for us. We have been repeatedly calling upon the government of Canada to take action. Political space provided to extremist anti-India elements and those advocating violence must stop and they must take action,” India’s Ministry of External Affairs Spokesperson Randhir Jaiswal said.

India claims that Canada has not yet provided it with any clear evidence linking Nijjar’s assassination to Indian agents. New Delhi has insinuated that a rivalry between criminal gangs in Canada may have been behind the killing.

What is happening in the US?

But Canada is not the only country where the overseas actions of Indian security agencies are under scrutiny.

The Czech Republic has extradited Indian national Nikhil Gupta to the US, where prosecutors have accused him of involvement in an unsuccessful murder-for-hire plot to kill Sikh separatist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun.

Gupta, 53, who was arrested last year in June by Czech authorities while travelling from India to Prague, reached the US on June 14.

Much like in the Nijjar case, the Indian government has sought to dissociate itself from the plot against Pannun. However, it has said it will formally investigate security concerns raised by Washington.

Last month, Washington said it was satisfied so far with India’s moves to ensure accountability in the alleged plots while adding that many steps still needed to be taken.

Gupta, who has been held in the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York, since his arrival to the US, pleaded not guilty on June 17.

What was the Gurpatwant Singh Pannun case?

On November 29, 2023, the US Justice Department announced charges against Gupta, accusing him of working for the Indian government to carry out the planned assassination of Pannun, who is a US citizen, in New York.

Federal prosecutors described Gupta as an associate of an Indian government agency employee identified only as “CC-1”, who previously worked with the Central Reserve Police Force, a leading Indian government paramilitary force, the indictment stated.

The indictment alleged that CC-1 directed the murder plan from India and recruited Gupta around May 2023 to coordinate it.

Gupta, on CC-1’s direction, contacted a person whom he believed was a criminal associate who could carry out the assassination, the indictment alleged. But the person he reached out to was, unknown to Gupta, working confidentially for US law enforcement.

This source in turn connected him to a “hitman” who was actually an undercover law enforcement officer, working for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), said the indictment.

Gupta agreed to pay the hitman $100,000 for killing Pannun, paying him an advance of $15,000 in cash in Manhattan around June 9, 2023, according to the US Justice Department.

If convicted, Gupta can face up to 20 years in prison.

The DEA, as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), are probing this case, according to a Justice Department press release on June 17.

Gurpatwant Singh Pannun
Sikh separatist leader Gurpatwant Singh Pannun in his office on Wednesday, November 29, 2023, in New York [Ted Shaffrey/AP]

Are the tremors being felt elsewhere?

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) recently published an article accusing Indian agents of harassing and threatening members of the Sikh diaspora in Australia, and linking those cases to Nijjar’s assassination as well as the alleged plot in the US targeting Pannun.

The ABC has previously reported on Australia expelling an alleged “nest of spies” from India. Its reporting suggests that agents from the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), the domestic intelligence agency, met with Sikh activists in Australia regarding Nijjar’s death.

The ABC has said that YouTube blocked some of its in India ahead of the country’s general election. YouTube said the ban was following a “confidential” order which came under India’s Information Technology Act of 2000.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese – who in May 2023 had feted Modi in Australia, comparing his popularity to that of iconic singer Bruce Springsteen – or his government has not commented on the ABC reports.

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