Status: 02.10.2023, 08:03 a.m.
By: Christiane Kühl
The West is courting democratic India as a counterweight to the great power China. But now Canada is accusing the Modi government of having a Sikh activist murdered there. The situation is complicated.
The murder of Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar is a case reminiscent of the mafia or rogue states: At least six people and two cars were involved in the attack on Nijjar on June 18 in front of a place of worship of the Indian Sikh religious community in a suburb of Vancouver. When the 45-year-old Nijjar, a Canadian of Indian origin, drove his pickup truck from the parking lot of the place of worship, a white car blocked his way. Two masked men in hoodies rushed towards his car and fired. According to witnesses, they fired around 50 rounds, 34 of which hit Nijjar. The shooters ran away and got into a waiting, silver-colored car in a cul-de-sac. A video of this murder was leaked to the US newspaper Washington Post. It depicts a cold-bloodedly planned crime.
Why the murder could now grow into a real political thriller with geopolitical consequences, however, only became apparent weeks later. Last Monday, Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau surprised the world with an explosive accusation: India had ordered the murder of Nijjar, for which there was "credible evidence". Trudeau described the allegations as "extremely serious" and warned that international law provides for "far-reaching consequences". According to the United States, the reference to an alleged connection between the Indian government and the murder comes from Western intelligence services. It was a shock: democratically governed India, of all places, which the West is currently courting as a counterweight to authoritarian China!
Sikhs in India: Bloody struggle for independence
New Delhi immediately dismissed Trudeau's allegations as "absurd." This was followed by reciprocal expulsions of diplomats and anti-India protests in Canadian cities. Thus, the murder has now triggered a tangible diplomatic crisis.
But what is it all about? Long forgotten by the world community, activists of the Sikh religion fought from the 1970s to the early 1990s for their own state called Khalistan in the Indian state of Punjab. Tens of thousands died during the uprising in Punjab. In 1984, India's then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards after ordering a raid on Sikhism's holiest shrine, where armed separatists were hiding. Hundreds died. In 1985, a bomb shredded an Air India plane en route from Montreal to Mumbai. All 329 occupants died, most of them Canadians. The Khalistan movement is banned in India to this day.
Sikhism had emerged in the 15th century as a reform religion, whose founder Guru Nanak Dev rejected the Indian caste system as well as some Hindu rituals and traditions. Gradually, the faith developed into a monotheistic religion in its own right. Sikhs do not cut their hair throughout their lives because they see their bodies as part of divine creation; Men and some women wrap their hair under a colorful turban. With around 25 million members today, they are a tiny minority in India, the world's most populous country.
Sikh diaspora: Several unexplained deaths
Canada is now home to the largest Sikh exile community, with 770,000 people. The activism of this large Sikh diaspora has been causing tensions between India and Canada for years. Nijjar was the leader of the separatist organization Khalistan Tiger Force, ran the place of worship where he died – and has long been wanted as a terrorist in India. The separatist movement is currently being revived – especially in the diaspora, in countries with large Sikh communities such as Canada, Great Britain, the USA and Australia. There, sympathy for an independent Khalistan has increased, especially on the Internet, the British Guardian reported.
And the Nijjar case has long since begun to draw wider circles. Thus, he throws a spotlight on other deaths and threats in the Sikh activist scene abroad. According to the Guardian, at least three Sikhs from the independence movement abroad died in unexplained circumstances a few months before Nijjar's death, two in Pakistan, one in Britain. One of the two Sikhs shot dead in Pakistan shortly before Nijjar's death is said to have committed murders in India and organized training camps for militant Khalistan fighters. The FBI warned at least three Americans from the Sikh community after the murder that their lives were in danger.
Growing sympathy in the exile community for an independent state of Khalistan: Sikhs demonstrated a few days after the murder of Nijjar in front of the White House in Washington against the visit of India's Prime Minister Modi to US President Biden. © PEDRO UGARTE/AFP
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India: A difficult and unknown partner for the West
The presumption of innocence still applies. Nevertheless, the cases show what a difficult partner India is for the West. And at the same time, how little we actually know about this country. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India wants to become a great power and its diverse society and democracy are under pressure; many of his measures promote a central state led by the Hindu majority – and Modi's nationalist Bharatiya Janata party. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on India after Trudeau's speech to work with Canada and ensure "accountability" for the murder of the Sikh separatist.
The West sees India primarily as a counterweight to China – but knows little about Indian politics and history. "Most Western commentators don't seem to know the violent history of the Khalistan movement. Some see it as a social movement rather than a separatist movement," says Tanvi Madan, an expert on India and China at the US think tank Brookings Institution. In addition, India does not see "why the West distinguishes between assassinations in Western states and similar killings outside the West," Madan said on X. After all, the United States or Israel also reserved the right to kill terrorists abroad who were perceived as dangerous. It is once again the accusation of double standards. At the same time, however, India overlooks the new concerns in the West about Beijing's surveillance of the Chinese diaspora, says Madan. "Some see the accusations against India through this perspective." It remains complicated.