Killing of Sikh Leader Raises Fears in British Columbia

On Sunday, after riddling a car with bullets in a parking lot, two masked, heavyset men made a run for it and jumped into a getaway vehicle near a Sikh temple in Surrey, British Columbia, the police said.

The victim, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, 45, was a prominent Sikh community leader and president of the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara, a temple where he was shot. He advocated the creation of Khalistan, an independent Sikh nation carved out of areas including the Indian state of Punjab.

The killing has put Surrey, home to one of the largest Sikh populations in Canada, on edge. Some in the nation’s Sikh community say they think the shooting of Mr. Nijjar, whom India had declared a wanted terrorist, was a political assassination, though the police have not released a motive.

The shooters waited for Mr. Nijjar for an hour before the deadly attack on Sunday evening, said Sgt. Timothy Pierotti of the Integrated Homicide Investigation Team, a branch of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, at a news conference this week. The Mounties were otherwise tight-lipped and would not confirm whether other law enforcement agencies, including Canada’s spy agency, were participating in the investigation.

Jagmeet Singh, leader of the New Democratic Party, called on Marco Mendicino, Canada’s public safety minister, to address allegations from the Sikh community that Mr. Nijjar had been warned, days before his death, that his life was in danger.

“Following this brazen act of violence,” Mr. Singh said in a letter, “the Sikh community feels even more worried.”

Tejinder Singh Sidhu, president of the World Sikh Organization of Canada, a nonprofit, said in a statement that Mr. Nijjar had “openly and repeatedly stated that he would be targeted by Indian intelligence.”

Earlier this month, Jody Thomas, Canada’s national security adviser, named India as a major actor in foreign interference — which includes activities like election meddling and disinformation campaigns on social media — even as Canada ventures to forge deeper ties with the country.

But doing so remains challenging, as political tensions continue between the Indian government, which is pursuing Hindu-nationalist policies, and the Sikh diaspora in Canada. (Sikhs are a religious minority in India, making up less than 2 percent of the national population.)

Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s foreign minister, said as much earlier this month, after videos on social media showed a parade float in Brampton, Ontario, that depicted the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the former Indian prime minister. Ms. Gandhi was shot by two Sikh bodyguards in the aftermath of violence that gripped the Indian state of Punjab in 1984.

“I think it’s not good for the relationship, and I think it’s not good for Canada,” Mr. Jaishankar said during a news conference.

My colleague in New Delhi, Karan Deep Singh, who watched the news conference, has been following the news surrounding Mr. Nijjar’s death.

He noted that a November 2020 charge sheet filed by India’s National Investigation Agency said that Mr. Nijjar was accused of carrying out terrorist attacks in India and that he had been “trying to radicalize Sikh community across the world in favor of creation of ‘Khalistan.’”

“He has been trying to incite, Sikhs to vote for secession, agitate against the government of India and carry out violent activities, through various posts, audio messages and videos posted on social media,” the agency wrote.

Mr. Nijjar denied those accusations in Canadian media reports.

“Surinder Singh Jodhka, a professor of sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, told me that even though the separatist movement in Punjab had barely any sympathy among the average Sikh, both in 1984 and today, the community has not forgotten the toll of the violence,” Karan said in an email.

In the days following Ms. Gandhi’s death in October 1984, riots and retaliatory violence killed at least 3,000 people, most of them Sikhs in the capital, New Delhi, according to government estimates. Sikh organizations have estimated the death toll to be much higher.

“There is a clear, growing prejudice against Sikhs,” Mr. Jodhka told Karan. Mr. Jodhka said that some members of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party in India had publicly welcomed the perpetrators of violence against Sikhs.

The killing of Mr. Nijjar came almost a year after another high-profile killing in Surrey: that of a Canadian Sikh man, Ripudaman Singh Malik, who was acquitted in 2005 in the Air India bombings, which killed 329 people traveling to New Delhi from Toronto in 1985. Mr. Malik, 75, was shot in a residential neighborhood, and two men in their 20s were later arrested.

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Vjosa Isai is a reporter-researcher for The New York Times in Canada. Follow her on Twitter at @lavjosa.

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