The Sikh separatist whose killing in British Columbia this summer has suddenly set off a major diplomatic dispute between Canada and India was a prominent advocate of the creation of an independent nation, Khalistan, that would include parts of India’s Punjab State.
The separatist, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, 45, had moved to Canada in the mid-1990s, according to Indian news reports, after a period in which the Indian government was cracking down on the Sikh movement.
Decades later, the Indian government declared him a terrorist, accusing him of plotting a violent attack in India linked to his advocacy. And in June, two masked assailants killed him in front of a Sikh temple in Surrey, British Columbia, a city on the border with Washington.
Mr. Nijjar was born in the district of Jalandhar in the North Indian state of Punjab. In Canada, he married, had two sons, worked as a plumber and became the president of the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara, a temple in Surrey, in 2020.
Before ultimately gaining entry to Canada, the Canadian news outlet Global News reported, Mr. Nijjar had made an unsuccessful attempt to move to the country: filing an application as a refugee, which the Canadian government said was partly fabricated, and, 11 days later, marrying a woman who sponsored him, an attempt the government also rejected.
The Indian government declared Mr. Nijjar a terrorist in 2020, saying it had evidence that he was “involved in exhorting seditionary and insurrectionary imputations and also attempting to create disharmony among different communities in India.” The government said he led a terrorist organization banned in India, Khalistan Tiger Force.
In a separate complaint in 2018, India’s premier investigative agency accused him of “conspiring and planning to carry out a major terrorist attack in India.” It also alleged that he planned to violently attack gatherings of the nationalist right-wing organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Last year, Indian news outlets reported that an Indian investigative agency had offered a $12,000 reward for his arrest.
A Canadian journalist to whom Mr. Nijjar gave his last interview, Gurpreet Singh, painted a different picture, speaking to the independent Indian news outlet The Wire about some of Mr. Nijjar’s community activities as a religious leader.
Mr. Nijjar held special prayers for “Muslims killed in the Christchurch bombings in 2019 in New Zealand,” Mr. Singh said, and for Indigenous children after the discovery of unmarked graves of students at Canadian residential schools. Mr. Nijjar, he said, also argued for the release of a detained Indian human rights defender who used a wheelchair.
In Punjab, politicians and a journalist said that despite India’s charges against him, Mr. Nijjar and his movement were little known.
“He went away many years ago, and nobody either remembers him here nor do they talk about him,” said Raman Arora, a legislator from the ruling party in Jalandhar. “The Khalistan movement has been dead here for decades.”
A veteran Punjabi journalist, Jagtar Singh, also said that Mr. Nijjar “was and is totally unknown here” and that, in decades of covering Punjab, he “had never heard of or about him.”
Vineet Joshi, a Bharatiya Janata leader in Punjab, agreed that Mr. Nijjar was little known in the region today, and he blamed the Canadian government for encouraging people who harbored sentiments that he called anti-India.
“Canada has become a hub of Khalistan activities, anti-India and a conspiracy to break India,” Mr. Joshi said. “ There is freedom of speech there — no problem. But you cannot talk about the disintegration of another nation. Now, when Indian authorities raise objections, they are ignored by the Canadians.”
He also had a message for Canada: “They need to understand that this is not the same India. It is much stronger under the leadership of Modi.”
Back in British Columbia, at a memorial on Monday night for Mr. Nijjar, his son Balraj Singh Nijjar called on the Canadian prime minister to rally with allies and “put more pressure” on the Indian government. Mr. Nijjar’s death is still a fresh wound for the family, he added, speaking to reporters outside the temple.
“He had even called home like five minutes before it happened to get dinner ready,” his son said. “It was kind of a big shock.”
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