When a group of masked gunmen shot and killed a Sikh leader in the parking lot outside his Canadian gurdwara in June, Sikhs throughout North America knew instantly the brazen murder of the gurdwara president and activist was no random drive-by shooting.
Many, including his own family, suspected Hardeep Singh Nijjar’s killers had been hired to carry out an extrajudicial execution by the Indian state. Three months later, when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced “credible allegations” of a “potential link” between “agents of the government of India” and Nijjar’s murder, there was a sense of relief — and a frisson of fear.
“For all these years, we were telling all these governments where we live that we are facing transnational repression in their countries,” says Swaranjit Singh Khalsa, a Sikh community leader and local city council member in Norwich, Connecticut. “And nobody would listen to us. And now it has come to the point that a young man died.”
Evidence is mounting that the Indian government is orchestrating a widespread, coordinated assassination campaign against Sikh activists on foreign soil. Human Rights Watch warns these latest developments suggest “a new and notorious leap in extrajudicial killings” by India’s right-wing Hindu nationalist government, which has labeled Nijjar and other Sikh activists as terrorists over their criticisms of the state and their advocacy for the creation of a separate Sikh state in Punjab, India, known as Khalistan.
“Even if you don’t have any connection to those people, it’s traumatizing because all they were doing is talking about the rights of the Sikhs,” Khalsa says. “They all wanted to work within the premises of law. It’s hard to digest some of these things. They will leave a deep wound to the community.”
Driven by India’s ongoing repression of its minority Sikh population, Nijjar and other Sikh activists in the diaspora had been organizing for an unofficial and non-binding referendum to gauge support for the creation of Khalistan.
While India has long suppressed the Khalistani movement and Sikh political activism within its borders — just see how the government smeared Sikh farmers protesting against government agriculture laws as Sikh separatists and terrorists — Canadian and American intelligence shows its government is carrying out a deadly campaign of foreign interference.
In December, a bombshell investigation by The Intercept revealed that the Indian government issued a secret memo directing its North American consulates to launch a “sophisticated crackdown scheme” that takes “concrete measures” against a list of Sikh dissident activists and groups.
Hardeep Singh Nijjar’s name was included in that memo. He was gunned down two months later. The activist group Sikhs for Justice — which was organizing the Khalistan referendum, and which Nijjar helped lead — was also included in this list. And within days of Nijjar’s murder, U.S. intelligence officials say, an assassination attempt was made against another Sikhs for Justice leader.
In late November, the U.S. Department of Justice announced an indictment against an Indian national for allegedly attempting to hire a hitman to assassinate Gurpatwant Singh Pannu, a Sikhs for Justice leader and U.S. citizen living in New York City. After Nijjar’s murder, the Indian national reportedly told the hitman there was “no need to wait on” killing Pannu, saying the hit was now a “priority.”
The hitman turned out to be an undercover U.S. government agent — and their plan was foiled. Prosecutors say there were at least three other such plots against Americans.
For all these years, we were telling all these governments where we live that we are facing transnational repression in their countries. And nobody would listen to us. And now it has come to the point that a young man died.
The Indian government had brushed off Trudeau’s allegations as an “absurd” and politically motivated move to win votes from Canada’s large Sikh population. But following the U.S. indictment, India launched a committee to investigate the murder plot.
The year prior, Canadian authorities had warned several Sikhs, including Nijjar, about an unspecified risk to their lives. Those who had been warned suspected the threat came from the Indian government.
In the days after Nijjar’s murder, too, the FBI warned a handful of U.S. Sikh activists about threats to their lives. A growing number of Sikhs have reported threats, intimidation and harassment in the United States, including a text message reading: “Just a head up for you. You’re next in the USA. We have all the tools ready to fix the problems.”
But far from silencing Sikh political and social activism in North America, Khalsa says, seeing the lengths the Indian government has gone to in order to suppress their activism has only rallied Sikhs in the diaspora.
“Now it’s black and white, what’s happening to this small community fighting for a homeland in Punjab,” says Khalsa, who is a leader in the World Sikh Parliament — another group listed as a target in the leaked secret memo.
“We’re not going to just hide out,” he says. “I think we need to be more vocal about this at this point. With what’s happening, the activism will grow.”
Indeed, thousands of Sikhs lined up to pay their respects at Nijjar’s funeral. Khalsa himself, who has been in ongoing conversations with FBI officials about threats to local Sikhs, has only stepped up his advocacy, despite his family’s worries.
A long history of repression
Sikhs have been faced years of targeted killings, mob violence, disappearances and censorship in India since 1984’s Operation Blue Star, a turning point for the Sikh community. After Sikh militants occupied Amritsar’s iconic Golden Temple, the Indian army launched a coordinated and deadly military assault on it and other gurdwaras across the Punjab. The subsequent months brought brutal and widespread pogroms which left thousands or even tens of thousands of Sikhs dead.
The trauma of that historic massacre and the continued injustices “profoundly impacted our community, leading to a global diaspora that seeks safety and a platform to voice their concerns,” explains Prabh Singh of the World Sikh Parliament, an international Sikh affairs and rights organization listed as a target in the leaked memo.
“Our efforts to advocate for human rights and self-determination are often misinterpreted as a political threat, eliciting responses from authorities that violate fundamental freedoms and justice,” he tells Analyst News. “The mischaracterization of our legitimate activism as extremism under counter-terrorism pretenses is deeply troubling and distorts our peaceful, principled advocacy.”
Sikh activists’ efforts “to advocate for human rights and self-determination are often misinterpreted as a political threat, eliciting responses from authorities that violate fundamental freedoms and justice.”
The increasing use of state apparatus to extend India’s influence and control beyond its borders is in contravention of the U.N. Human Rights Declaration and the Geneva Conventions, Singh argues.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent federal agency, says these plots show “a severe escalation of India’s efforts to silence religious minorities and human rights defenders both within its country and abroad” and calls on the Biden administration to recognize and address the threat.
“Within its own borders, Indian authorities have repeatedly used draconian legislation like the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and anti-conversion laws to systematically crack down on religious minorities, journalists, and activists,” USCIRF Commissioner David Curry said in a statement. “Extending this repression to target religious minorities from India living abroad, including intimidation tactics against journalists, is especially dangerous and cannot be ignored.”
Take the case of Jagtar “Jaggi” Singh Johal, a Scottish Sikh human rights activist who was detained by police while visiting India for his wedding six years ago. There he faced charges of terrorism and conspiracy to murder; USCIRF and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention both say he remains arbitrarily detained for his religious beliefs and for his efforts documenting religious freedom violations.
Sikh leaders are also increasingly worried that the Indian Hindu nationalist government is “exporting hate-fueled propaganda” to incite hostility and violence against Sikhs and Muslims in the diaspora. Some have also raised concerns about the state “infiltrating Sikh gurdwaras” and “recruiting informants and agent provocateurs within the community.”
Safeguarding Sikh identity, and Sikh lives
Khalsa and his Sikh community in Connecticut, which punches above its weight politically through strong relationships with elected officials, are no strangers to interference from Indian officials.
In 2018, Khalsa sued the consul general of India in New York, Sandeep Chakravorty, for defamation and attempting to interfere with Connecticut legislation; after a local lawmaker requested a Sikh Genocide Remembrance Day to be included in a legislation designating commemorative holidays, the consul general had written her a letter denying that Sikhs had faced any persecution in India, rejected death tolls as “being purveyed by Sikh separatists/terrorists” and described local Sikhs’ advocacy as “vociferous, pernicious and divisive.”
The following year, Khalsa donated a few artifacts to the Connecticut library to form the 1984 Sikh Genocide Memorial: a Khalistan flag, a portrait of Sikh revolutionary Jarnail Singh Khalsa Bhindranwale, and a plaque that honored the Sikhs massacred in 1984 and accused India of genocide. After India’s consul general reportedly called the library’s executive director, the memorial was taken down.
Sikh community leaders says America’s response to India’s brazen foreign interference will be a test of its own democratic values.
Today, those items sit in the Sikh Art Gallery, a small museum and community center in Norwich created to “safeguard” Sikh history after the original memorial was taken down. “My police chief has also told me that they’re keeping an eye on the Sikh Art Gallery now,” Khalsa says.
Civil rights groups in the diaspora, including the Sikh Coalition and the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, have been working to raise the issue of foreign interference in the White House, the U.S. State Department and U.S. Congress.
“The Sikh and other minority communities are concerned and on alert,” SALDEF Executive Director Kiran Kaur Gill tells Analyst News. “International collaboration and transparency are crucial in addressing and preventing such transnational threats and protecting human rights. We must elevate this issue and ensure the safety of our communities across the world.”
In March, prior to Nijjar’s murder, a bipartisan coalition of U.S. congressmen introduced the Transnational Repression Policy Act to protect diaspora and exiled communities, human rights defenders and political dissenters. The alleged plot against Khalistani activists was also examined as part of a Senate foreign relations committee hearing; one top senator called the allegations “highly disturbing,” adding, “This is not the behavior of a respectable democracy.”
But Western governments are still treading carefully in this case of foreign interference to preserve relations with India, a strategic partner in their geopolitical rivalry with China.
Khalsa says America’s response to this brazen foreign interference will be a test of its own democratic values.
“There still needs to be more acknowledgement and clear-cut instructions given to any ally or any strategic partner America has,” he says. “If you’re not going to behave like a democracy, we might have to find different allies. America should take it seriously, because if a plot can be made, executions can be done.”