Operating across British Columbia (BC), Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario, gangs made up of Indo-Canadian Punjabis – Brothers Keepers, Dhak-Duhre, Dhaliwal, Sanghera, Malli-Buttar, and several such, are involved in arms trafficking, racketeering, extortion, narco trafficking, money laundering, and not the least, assassinations. Formed in 2004 and mandated to disrupt and suppress organised crime in B.C. the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit (CFSEU-BC), has warned the public of the nexus of Punjabi-Canadians to violence.
In the murders of Punjabi singer Sidhu Moose Wala and Ripudaman Singh Malik, acquitted in the tragic 1985 Air India Kanishka terror-bombing case, the conspicuous involvement of these Indo-Canadian gangs with notorious criminals Goldy Brar and Lawrence Bishnoi at the helm, manifested itself.
On June 18 Sikh Hardeep Singh Nijjar, was gunned down as he left his gurdwara in Surrey, B.C., which has the highest proportions of Punjabi Canadians. Nijjar had entered Canada in 1995 on a fake passport and claimed asylum on arrest at Toronto. In B.C. he married a local who sponsored his immigration and he was subsequently awarded Canadian citizenship. Brazenly propounding anti-India separatist sentiments, Nijjar was even placed on Canada’s no-fly list and Interpol’s red corner notice. Alongwith gangsters Arshdeep Singh Dala, Maninder Singh Bual, and Mandeep Singh Dhaliwal his outfit Khalistan Tiger Force (KTF) was involved in contract killings in Punjab. Gang-related killings account for a third of all homicides in Canada’s British Columbia.
Despite this disconcerting background of Nijjar’s ties to organised crime gangs in Canada, on September 18, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau alleged the involvement of “agents of the Indian government” in the killing of Nijjar. A claim outrightly rejected by New Delhi as “absurd” and “motivated.” If Trudeau was looking to further impair an increasingly forbidding bilateral relationship, he succeeded. Canada and India have expelled a senior diplomat each and negotiations for a free trade agreement stand suspended.
There is a palpable perversity to Canada’s position on the Khalistan issue. In 1982, Trudeau’s father and then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau
had rejected Late PM Indira Gandhi’s demands for extradition of Khalistani terrorist Talwinder Singh Parmar, who went on to execute the bombing of Air India Flight Kanishka, killing 329 people in 1985.
Alarmed by the presence of Sikh secessionists among the diaspora, former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh during his 2010 trip to attend the G20 summit in Toronto, asked Canada “to stop people from using religious places to promote extremism.” Canadian MP Sukh Dhaliwal, had introduced a motion in the Canadian parliament to declare the 1984 riots a “genocide”. Fast forward to 2023, G20 under PM Modi there was no attempt at all to put even a vaguely positive spin on the India-Canada equation.
The timing of Trudeau’s accusation just days after the G20 summit in New Delhi where he says he brought Khalistani extremism and “foreign interference” “directly to PM Modi in no uncertain terms” smacks of umbrage at being at the receiving end of a very hard-hitting message that the ‘extremist elements in Canada are “promoting secessionism and inciting violence against Indian.’
The Khalistan issue has got a fresh lease of life after the advent of the Justine Trudeau government. With just 32.2 percent of the popular vote, Liberal leader Trudeau has the least electoral support in Canadian history, and was backed by Jagmeet Singh’s New Democratic Party (NDP) which openly supports the Khalistan Referendum on Canadian soil.
Canada’s Conservative opposition leader, Pierre Poilievre, has urged Trudeau to show the evidence that the government has in hand. Notwithstanding this current posture the Conservative Party (CP) too, has in the past caved in to the Sikh vote bank. In 2018 when its condemnation of ‘glorification of terrorism’ was objected to by the World Sikh Organisation, the CP dropped its ‘anti-Khalistan’ motion in the House of Commons.
There is beyond sufficient evidence, to India’s contention that Canada, and other western nations including US, UK, and Australia have allowed cadres of separatist violent Khalistani groups to thrive. The UK recently set up a £95,000 fund to enhance its understanding of the threat posed by Khalistan extremism. While the amount set aside to tackle pro-Khalistan elements is not substantial, it acknowledges that a Sikh radicalisation problem exists in the west.
Sikh temples and organisations abroad orchestrate Remembrance Days for ‘Operation Blue Star’ on June 6 and ‘Sikh Massacre’ on November 5, that serve as cultural repertoires and focal points of advocating Khalistani extremism. This year at the remembrance day parade, Khalistan supporters in Ontario exhibited a female figure in a blood-stained white saree with turbaned men pointing guns at her, to celebrate the assassination of late PM Indira Gandhi. The poster behind the scene read “Revenge for the attack on Darbar Sahib.”
Reacting to this macabre tableau, External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar said, “Frankly, we are at a loss to understand other than the requirements of vote bank politics why anybody would do this … I think there is a larger underlying issue about the space which is given to separatists, to extremists, to people who advocate violence. I think it is not good for relationships, not good for Canada.”
At multiple diplomatic and security talks, India has raised the issue of wanted terrorists and gangsters only to be defied by the Canadian government with non-committance and brazen support for extremist Sikhs. And yet Canada’s NATO allies and partners in the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence sharing agreement, the United States and Australia, have expressed “deep concerns” over the issue. Adrienne Watson, spokesperson for the White House National Security Council said, “We are deeply concerned about the allegations referenced by Prime Minister Trudeau.” Foreign Secretary of the UK, James Cleverly, posted UK’s reaction on platform X “We are in regular contact with our Canadian partners about serious allegations raised in the Canadian Parliament.” One wonders if this allegation of targeted killing by India is in retaliation to New Delhi’s steady favour of Russia, and has been levelled after reports of a brokered American deal with Pakistan for weapons transfer to Ukraine in lieu of an IMF bailout emerged.
Admonishing Canada on X, former Foreign Secretary Nirupama Menon Rao said, “Canada has an extremely spotty and very, very poor record on the whole issue of Khalistanis in Canada. The support these lawless elements have received under the cover of what is called freedom of expression and democratic rights of citizens…it must control such elements with a firm hand and cannot allow them to run free to foster terrorism and violence in our country.”
Amid the hectic media coverage there was speculation that ‘Trudeau’s allegations have put the White House in an especially tight spot.’ But this were swifty checked by Adrienne Watson in her X post, “reports that we rebuffed Canada in any way on this are flatly false. We are coordinating and consulting with Canada closely on this issue.”
The manner in which copious evidence on Khalistan separatists handed over to the Canadian side have gone unaddressed and yet Trudeau’s allegation invoked strong reactions from other western nations, implies that this has moved beyond our bilaterals with Ottawa. It will have ramifications on how India deals with its strong G7 allies, especially the US.
For India the existence of Khalistani extremists and their alignment with organised crime in Canada poses security exigencies. India must at this juncture refrain from a broad generalisation of Sikh diaspora as secessionist, an incrimination that was implied during the Sikh-dominated farmers’ movement.
Political parties must rise above partisan politics over separatist movements that are a threat to nation security. Voices from Punjab attest that Khalistan supporters remain ‘fringe’ and ‘on the margins.’ Even among expatriate Sikh community leaders have challenged the anti-India narrative laid out by Khalistanis and their supporters, despite the fact that they, and the community there, regularly face harassment and threats of violence from expatriate Khalistanis. Former Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh states that Nijjar’s murder was the result of a factional feud within the management of the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara situated at Surrey and that Trudeau had “walked into a trap owing to vote bank politics.”
New Delhi must ensure that overseas Sikh communities which have tried to counter pro-Khalistan disinformation shall not be left alone to defend themselves.