Who Was Hardeep Nijjar, Whose Killing Has Created a Diplomatic Crisis Between India and Canada?

Justin Trudeau has claimed that there is "credible" intelligence that the Indian government was behind the pro-Khalistan activist's killing. The Indian government has rejected the allegation.

The killing of Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada on June 19 has gained renewed significance after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau claimed that his country’s security agencies had “credible” intelligence that the Indian government was behind the murder. The Indian government has rejected the allegation.

Even at the time of his killing, there was speculation – mostly from Sikh activists in Canada – that Indian agencies could have been behind the killing. Nijjar was the third high-profile Khalistani activist based abroad to die in a span of 45 days. Nijjar himself claimed that he was on a “hit list” and that there was a “pattern” in the killings of Khalistani activists.

Nijjar was the victim of a fatal attack by unidentified assailants on June 19, around 8:30 pm local time. He was exiting the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in Surrey, Vancouver. Nijjar was a declared terrorist in India, wanted in several cases. He was the chief of the Khalistan Tiger Force and worked closely with Sikhs for Justice leader Gurpatwant Singh Pannun. Nijjar had repeatedly denied the allegations levelled against him by Indian agencies, noting that his country of origin has never sought his extradition despite his status as a community leader in Canada.

Before Nijjar, another terrorist wanted in India, Paramjit Singh Panjwar was shot dead in Lahore, Pakistan in early May. Panjwar was the chief of the terror outfit Khalistan Commando Force. The third Khalistani activist to die recently was the self-styled chief of the Khalistan Liberation Force, Avtar Singh Khanda. He died on June 15 at a hospital in Birmingham, UK. While his supporters claim that he was poisoned, reports suggest he had been suffering from blood cancer. The UK police later said they were not investigating the death because it was deemed “not suspicious”.

Khanda shot into the limelight after he removed the Indian flag from the Indian high commission in the UK in March 2023, triggering a diplomatic row between India and the UK. Khanda and his associates led a protest in support of Waris Punjab De chief Amritpal Singh, culminating in the removal of the tricolour from the Indian high commission.

At the time of Nijjar’s killings, the Canadian police were said to be “looking at two potential motives”, according to the Vancouver Sun. That he was killed because of his Khalistan activism or that it was related to a “more local political dispute in Surrey”.

Who is Hardeep Singh Nijjar?

Nijjar hailed from Bhar Singh Pura in the Phillaur subdivision of Jalandhar district and moved to Canada in 1997, after the militancy in Punjab was quashed. He worked there as a plumber. He eventually became the president of Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in Surrey.

Not much is known about his direct association with any of the militant outfits in Punjab but he rose to prominence after landing in Canada.

The National Investigation Agency (NIA) in September 2020 designated Hardeep Singh Nijjar as a terrorist under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967. The NIA mentioned Nijjar’s status as an “absconder” and sought assistance from the public to know his whereabouts. The NIA had declared a cash award of Rs 10 lakh on him.

In 2020, the NIA also attached Nijjar’s immovable property (land) in Bhar Singh Pura in Jalandhar. It also attached the property of his associate Pannun, who heads Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), in Amritsar.

In 2018, the NIA registered an FIR against Nijjar in Delhi. The FIR says he was conspiring and planning to carry out a major terrorist attack in India. It also claimed he was engaged in activities which were prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of India, such as sourcing finance to procure arms/ammunition and training Sikh youth for carrying out terrorist activities in India.

The FIR further mentioned that Nijjar had certain associates in India who had surveyed the gatherings of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) at certain places, including Punjab, intending to target them with terror attacks. His name also figured in the killing of Jalandhar-based senior RSS leader Brigadier Jagdish Gagneja in 2016. The case is under investigation.

Another FIR lodged against Nijjar at Police Station Dakha, Ludhiana Rural, Punjab in 2016 was handed over to the NIA in 2018. As per this FIR, Nijjar, along with the members of the proscribed terrorist organisation Babbar Khalsa International (BKI), promoted disharmony between different groups on grounds of religion and had plans to revive terrorism in Punjab.

Also Read: Tableau on Indira Gandhi’s Killing: Jaishankar Slams Canada for ‘Giving Space’ to Khalistan Separatists

Rivalry with another Canadian Khalistan activist?

In Canada, Nijjar was in the spotlight after the killing of Ripudaman Singh Malik, who was acquitted in the Air India Bombing of 1985. Malik was also shot dead in Surrey, on June 15, 2022. Nijjar and Malik were reportedly at loggerheads over the printing of the Sikh holy book, Sri Guru Granth Sahib, in Surrey – a violation of the edict issued by the Akal Takht, the highest seat of Sikh religious power.

The Vancouver Sun reported that this year, Malik’s son filed a lawsuit against Nijjar to get back a special printing press handed over to the Surrey gurdwara in August 2020 by his father and an associate named Balwant Singh Bandher.

However, when Malik was killed, Nijjar told the media that he had no dispute with him – barring the issue of printing the Sri Guru Granth Sahib against the directions of the Akal Takht.

The Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in Surrey, British Columbia where Nijjar was shot dead. Photo: Google Street View/Google Earth.

Nijjar’s last interview

Incidentally, days before his killing, Nijjar gave an interview to Surrey-based radio broadcaster and journalist Gurpreet Singh claiming that his name was also on a “hit list” and that there was a pattern in the killings of Khalistani activists.

Speaking to The Wire, Gurpreet Singh said that Nijjar could see his death coming and shared his fears in the interview. “After the killing of Paramjit Singh Panjwar in Lahore, Pakistan, last month, Nijjar issued a statement asking the Sikh community to remain vigilant. He had also held a remembrance prayer in the memory of Panjwar at Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara, where he was the president,” he said.

Even a few hours before his killing, in his last speech, he spoke about how the Sikh community was under attack on foreign shores. “You see it has been just a month and look at the killings. We need to be vigilant. I am already on the enemy’s target,” he said in the interview, which has gone viral.

On the “pattern” of killings, Nijjar had said, “Earlier Harmeet Singh was killed in Pakistan and then Panjwar. This is the handiwork of contract killers. Anybody who talks of their rights is being targeted.”

Gurpreet Singh said that not many know that Nijjar was the man who started langar sewa (free food) for all international students, irrespective of their origin in 2019. “He also held special prayers for indigenous children killed in Kamloops in Canada and for Muslims killed in the Christchurch bombings in 2019 in New Zealand”, he said.

The radio broadcaster said that last year, a rally was held for the release of Delhi University professor G.N. Saibaba in which Nijjar strongly argued for his release.

While Khalistan sympathisers are angered by the killing of Nijjar, the general sentiment among the Punjabi diaspora is that he was a polite person. “Soon after his killing, local MP Sukh Dhaliwal from Surrey-Newton, led by the Punjabi diaspora, blocked the highway leading to the gurdwara in protest. There is a pattern in these killings, which cannot be ignored. Nijjar was getting threats on the dark web. He had shared this fact with his close circle,” said one of his acquaintances, who did not wish to be named.

On the NIA declaring him an “absconder”, Gurpreet Singh said that Nijjar was already put on a ‘no-fly list’ within Canada itself. “How could he fly to another country or flee somewhere, when he was not even allowed to fly between Vancouver and Toronto in Canada?” he questioned.

The fact that some Indian right-wing social media accounts had celebrated Nijjar’s killing also prompted accusations that Indian agencies were involved in the murder. Gurpreet Singh said it is shocking to see such behaviour. “In fact, some social media users were naming the next targets openly but the Indian government is a mute spectator. Its silence is promoting such trolls,” he added.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that was originally published on June 21, 2023.