The Shocking Murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar

Last Updated: June 17, 2024By

The Shocking Murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar

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Less than 30 minutes after the famous Canadian Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar was shot dead outside a temple in British Columbia, Moninder Singh stood in front of a crowd near the crime scene.

“Don’t be mistaken: this is a political assassination,” Singh told the restless crowd in June 2023. “And it’s been done by India.”

The response from Delhi, over 11,000 kilometers away, was very different. The Indian government had long labeled Nijjar a “terrorist,” and Indian media dismissed the killing as a “gang-world crime.”

Since then, two different stories have emerged: one of an assassination ordered by India and another of a gang-related hit. But with the recent arrest of three men involved in Nijjar’s killing, it seems both stories might be true. A fourth man, already in jail in Ontario for gun-related crimes, was charged on Sunday.

These men are said to be part of a big criminal network operating in Canada. More arrests are expected, and officials believe India’s government used local gang members to carry out a political killing, a tactic they say India often uses at home.

Fear Among the Sikh Community

Charges against Karanpreet Singh, Kamalpreet Singh, Karan Brar, and Amandeep Singh haven’t eased the fear within the Sikh community. On a recent afternoon, people visiting the Dixie Gurdwara in Mississauga, Ontario, didn’t want to talk publicly about Nijjar’s killing. But many agreed it was a huge concern for the community.

“Everyone’s talking about it, but we’re afraid of what the government can do,” said Jasdeep Singh, an international student from Punjab.

Nijjar was a strong supporter of Khalistan, a potential independent Sikh state in India. Before his death, he had organized several symbolic votes on this issue. The Khalistan movement is banned in India, and India’s high commissioner to Canada, Sanjay Kumar Verma, recently accused pro-Khalistan activists in Canada of crossing a “big red line” that India considers a national security issue.

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“Indians will decide the fate of India, not outsiders,” he said.

For many Sikhs in Canada, Nijjar’s murder showed just how far India’s government would go to silence dissent, even targeting “terrorists” outside its borders.

India’s Long Reach

“It shows you how far this government will go to stop any opposition,” said Mo Dhaliwal, a Sikh activist and co-founder of the Poetic Justice Foundation. “They’re even willing to work with criminals and use the legal system to attack us. It means we’re doing something right.”

Indian intelligence has been accused before of using criminal gangs for extrajudicial killings in Pakistan. Since 2020, Pakistan intelligence has accused India of up to 20 targeted murders of terrorists and dissidents in the country, often using local gangs.

Canadian investigators believe the three men charged with Nijjar’s murder are low-level members of the Lawrence Bishnoi gang, a notorious group involved in global extortion schemes. Bishnoi, jailed in 2014, reportedly continues to run his criminal empire from prison.

Bishnoi’s gang has been linked to several high-profile crimes, including the 2022 killing of popular Canadian Punjabi singer Sidhu Moose Wala. Investigations found that gang members were often recruited through social media, where leaders post images of weapons and cash, glorifying the gangster lifestyle. Punjab police also found that young men were being promised a “new life” in Canada.

Gangs and Government

Street gangs and organized crime with ties to South Asian communities have long been present in British Columbia and Ontario. The Indian government’s use of these networks is a “marriage of convenience,” said Queen’s University assistant professor Amarnath Amarasingam, an expert on extremism and social movements.

“India will pay whoever will do the shooting, and gangs like the Bishnoi gang will kill whoever pays them,” he said.

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Canadian investigators are also looking into whether the three men were involved in other murders, including the shooting of an 11-year-old boy in Edmonton, where they were arrested.

Using a gang from Punjab, whose members came on student visas, is meant to make the killings look like local crimes rather than a government-ordered hit, said Amarasingam.

While it’s unclear if the Bishnoi gang itself outsourced Nijjar’s killing or how high the orders came from within the Indian government, the strategy has worked outside India’s borders.

“At this point, for broader political and economic reasons, there don’t seem to be any consequences for those calling the shots,” Amarasingam said.

Growing Tensions

Nearly a year after Nijjar’s death, pressure is mounting in Canada to fix relations and restart trade talks with India, angering activist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun.

US prosecutors say Pannun, the chief legal counsel for Sikhs for Justice, was the target of a foiled assassination attempt by an unnamed Indian government agent. Pannun argues that Canada must confront India’s aggressive actions more strongly.

“The use of gangs as foot soldiers has India’s fingerprints all over it,” he said. “Arresting lower-level players isn’t enough to stop the violence. Indian diplomats must be held accountable, or Modi’s government will think they can come to Canada, kill a Canadian, and get away with it.”

After the arrests in Canada, India’s foreign minister repeated his government’s belief that Ottawa is letting criminals operate in Canada.

“Someone may have been arrested, but many gangland people and those with organized crime links from Punjab are welcomed in Canada,” said foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. “These are wanted criminals from India; you have given them visas and allowed them to live there.”

The New Reality

For Moninder Singh, the use of criminal networks to attack the Khalistan movement is a “new reality” for activists.

“When I see these three individuals, I only see India,” he said. “They’re just faces: three were hired today and another three could be hired tomorrow.”

A year before his friend was murdered, Singh, a spokesperson for the British Columbia Gurdwaras Council, was warned about a possible attempt on his life. He was recently warned again by police of a “very real” risk of assassination but remains undeterred.

He avoids public places when possible, has stopped grocery shopping, and cannot attend important events in his children’s lives.

“You make up excuses – ‘Dad’s going to work’ or ‘Dad’s at a community meeting and can’t come to your recital.’ And then your kids stop asking because they know you won’t be there. That’s the hardest and saddest part,” he said.

“I chose to speak out for Khalistan, and I don’t want sympathy. It’s sad to have to accept living in Canada, where this shouldn’t happen. But I chose this path and I’m committed. I’ll either see Khalistan or die trying.”

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