BHARSINGPURA: A notice demanding Hardeep Singh Nijjar appear in court is still stuck on his house in Punjab, where the Sikh separatist’s village neighbors believe Canada’s accusation that India was responsible for his killing. An activist for the creation of an independent Sikh homeland called Khalistan, Nijjar was wanted by Indian authorities for alleged terrorism and conspiracy to commit murder and was shot dead by two masked assailants near Vancouver in June. A raging diplomatic row erupted this week after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said there were “credible reasons to believe that agents of the government of India were involved” in Nijjar’s death.

New Delhi dismissed Trudeau’s allegations as “absurd”, tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions followed, and India has stopped processing visa applications by Canadians. But in Bharsingpura, Nijjar’s sleepy but prosperous farming village in the Sikh-majority northern state of Punjab, Ottawa’s charges find a receptive audience. Himmat Singh, Nijjar’s uncle, blamed agents of India’s foreign intelligence service, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), for his nephew’s killing. “I believe this is the handiwork of the Indian government,” the 79-year-old farmer told AFP.

“Yes, the agents of RAW are involved in this. “There is no way the prime minister of a country will make such an allegation without any proof,” he added. “The Indian government can label anyone as a terrorist as they want.” Sikhism is a minority religion originating in northern India that traces its roots back to the 15th century and drew influences from both Hinduism and Islam.

BHARSINGPURA: In this photograph taken on Sept 21, 2023, a police personnel stands outside the house of Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar. AFP photos

The Khalistan campaign was largely considered a benign fringe movement until the early 1980s, when a charismatic Sikh fundamentalist launched a violent separatist insurgency. It culminated with Indian forces storming the Golden Temple, the faith’s holiest shrine in the city of Amritsar, where separatists had barricaded themselves.

India’s prime minister Indira Gandhi was subsequently assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards. The insurgency was eventually brought under control and the Khalistan movement’s most vocal advocates are now among the large Sikh diaspora, particularly in Canada, Britain and Australia. But memories of the violence — in which thousands died in all — still haunt India, which has outlawed the Khalistan movement and listed several associated groups as “terrorist organizations”.

‘Herein fail not’

The court notice stuck above the doorbell of Nijjar’s relatively large, firmly locked, two-story house orders him to appear at a hearing in connection with an application filed by India’s National Intelligence Agency to confiscate his property under India’s anti-terrorism legislation. “Herein fail not,” it warns.

In one of his cases, Nijjar was accused of masterminding an attack on Kamaldeep Sharma, a Hindu priest in Bharsingpura who was shot three times by masked assailants in his temple in 2021. He survived and does not believe Nijjar — who moved to Canada in the 1990s — was responsible. “I did not have enmity with anyone,” said Sharma, an imposing figure in black overalls. “In fact, Nijjar’s family has been helping me and paying for my treatment.”

Martyr status

Dal Khalsa, a pro-Khalistan group based in the Sikh holy city of Amritsar, organized Nijjar’s last rites at the Golden Temple, where he was accorded the status of a Sikh martyr and his family members were honored. Others commemorated as martyrs at the temple include Indira Gandhi’s killers, whose portraits hang in its museum. Dal Khalsa’s secretary Kanwar Pal Singh claimed that Nijjar was “not the first one to be murdered extra-judicially”. “In the eyes of Sikhs, Indian agencies are prime suspects,” he told AFP.

“India had requested Canada to hand over Nijjar. When they failed legally, they resorted to illegal means. “If their hands are clean, India should join the investigation.” Back in Bharsingpura, village chief Ram Lal backed the Indian authorities. “Nijjar believed in violence and violence cannot be a solution to any problem,” he said. “Canada is making wrong accusations. What proof do they have of Indian involvement?” he added. “The ties between the two countries are at stake because of this unnecessary controversy.”

But farmer Amreek Singh believes there are questions to be answered. “How can he carry out murders and bomb blasts in India when he was not even living here?” he asked. On Saturday, India’s top investigation agency confiscated the properties of a prominent Sikh separatist and close ally of Nijjar. Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a lawyer believed to be based in Canada, was designated as a terrorist by Indian authorities in 2020 and is wanted on charges of terrorism and sedition.

He is also the founder of the US-based group Sikhs For Justice (SFJ), whose Canada chapter was headed by Nijjar before he was gunned down Pannun jumped into the raging row and issued a video telling Canadian Hindus to “go back to India”, claiming they had adopted a “jingoistic approach” by siding with New Delhi. In an interview with an Indian news channel, Pannun said Nijjar had been his “close associate” for over 20 years and was like a “younger brother” to him.

He also blamed India for Nijjar’s killing. Soon after his interview was aired, the Indian government issued an advisory to news networks asking them to refrain from giving a platform to people accused of “heinous crimes”. Armed with court orders, officials of India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) on Saturday confiscated Pannun’s house in Chandigarh, the capital of the Sikh-majority state of Punjab, it said in a statement.

The NIA also confiscated agricultural land belonging to him in Amritsar, it added. It accused Pannun of “actively exhorting Punjab-based gangsters and youth” on social media “to fight for the cause of independent state of Khalistan, challenging the sovereignty, integrity and security of the country”. – AFP