On June 18, a hit squad of at least six men trailed Canadian Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar outside his temple in Surrey, British Columbia. Thirty-four bullets struck the 45-year-old man, killing the married father of two.
There is credible evidence, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau revealed last week, that Nijjar’s murderers were acting as “agents of India.”
For legal and diplomatic reasons, Trudeau and other Canadian and U.S. officials have been careful not to unequivocally blame New Delhi for Nijjar’s death. But Ottawa appears to have good intelligence — including intercepts of communications of Indian diplomats in Canada — making clear this attack was state-directed.
There is also further indication the killing of Nijjar wasn’t intended as a one-off event. Sikh activists in Canada and the United States have told media outlets, including Baaz News and The Intercept, that law enforcement has warned them they are on the “hit lists” of unspecified entities.
What all of these targets have in common is they are supporters of the Khalistan movement, whose goal is to create an independent Sikh state in areas that are presently part of India’s Punjab province and adjacent regopms.
As it does at home, India is using brute force to silence dissident voices abroad. Its militarism, enabled by the West, is now directed at the West.
The Chickens Come Home to Roost
For nearly a decade, the West has indulged Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as he and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) dismantle Indian secularism and direct hatred and violence at religious minorities daily.
The U.S. policy of “strategic altruism” toward India — aiding its geopolitical rise to counter China without expecting much in return — has also fed New Delhi’s ego. India has surged imports of Russian oil since last year’s invasion of Ukraine. And at the India-hosted G20 summit, the U.S. and other Western powers signed on to a joint declaration with watered-down language on Ukraine. The West compromised on Ukraine to ensure that the meeting came out with a communique, ensuring a reputation win for New Delhi while damaging Kyiv’s case in the process.
Unsurprisingly, India — a country with a per capita GDP of $2,600 — has an exaggerated sense of self. It acts with impunity. And it believes the West needs it more than it needs the West. But the opposite is true, especially when it comes to China.
In 2020, Chinese and Indian soldiers clashed along their Himalayan frontier. With sticks and fists, Chinese troops killed 20 Indian soldiers. In subsequent clashes, India fared better only because of real-time intelligence provided by the United States.
So why did India seek to kill Nijjar? New Delhi claims he was a terrorist. While in the past, groups tied to the Khalistan movement have engaged in acts of terror — including the 1985 bombing of Air India Flight 182 — today its violence is largely a nuisance factor. There’s no evidence backing up New Delhi’s claims about Nijjar. And he by no means represented a clear and present danger to India.
The real threat Nijjar represented was political. Nijjar, along with other Sikh diasporic leaders targeted by New Delhi, spearheaded an ongoing, symbolic referendum on the Khalistan question.
Many, if not most, Sikhs do not support the idea of an independent state. But there may be more takers for the idea of Khalistan as India moves toward formally declaring itself a Hindu state — a Hindu rashtra.
India’s constitution describes the country as a “sovereign, socialist secular democratic republic.” Modi’s BJP aims to change that characterization. His supporters have long said that India would formally declare itself a Hindu state by 2024 — around the time the prime minister assumes his third consecutive term. India is moving in that direction with hints that major constitutional changes could be on the cards, including with respect to the country’s official name.
Some say India is already a Hindu rashtra in all but name. But a formal declaration could push more Sikhs into the Khalistani, separatist camp. Sikh politics, even of the non-separatist type, is driven in part by a desire to maintain a socio-religious identity distinct from Hindus. Early Sikh politics in independent India included a push for a separate Sikh-majority state within the Indian federation and opposition to an article of the Indian constitution that, in the view of some, subsumes Sikhs within the Hindu fold.
So by targeting Nijjar and other diasporic Sikhs, India may have been attempting to nip the referendum campaign in the bud before it makes its Hindu rashtra move.
India, it appears, has conducted other extraterritorial assassinations this year, killing non-Sikh targets. This broader killing campaign comes amid India’s coming out year as a global power. It currently holds the G20 presidency. Practically, the position means little. But India has been using it to pronounce its arrival on the world stage.
The killings of Nijjar and others serve as Modi’s announcement that the “New India” plays by its own rules not just at home, but also deep in the West; that it can kill Western citizens, but still be feted by the West.
In 2019, Modi, speaking of Pakistan, told a crowd “Hum ghar mein ghus ke marenge” — “We will penetrate their home and strike them.” It is now clear that the threat applies to Western countries like Canada too.
Appearing as a rogue may be bad for Indian foreign policy, but it;s good politics at home. As Tip O’Neill said, all politics is local.
Hindu nationalist politicians — including Modi and his subordinates Amit Shah and Yogi Adityanath — owe their popularity in part to extrajudicial killings of Muslims reputed to be involved in criminal activity. Just look up “Sohrabuddin Sheikh” or “Atiq Ahmed” for more context. Ahead of next year’s general elections, Team Modi now has the scalp of another dead minority to foist as a trophy.
Violence is an inherent part of Modi’s playbook. And so too is disinformation. India’s fake news industry — the world’s most prolific — now targets Canada and the United Kingdom, fueling Hindu-Muslim conflict in cities like Leicester, where some recent migrants are bringing Modi’s Hindutva ideology and its aggressive hate toward Muslims with them.
The West must now recognize that what goes on in India does not stay in India.
Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.
He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.