Did India send a hit squad to kill an alleged Sikh terrorist in Canada?

Nations cannot be permitted to send ‘hit squads’ to other nations to kill dissidents: is India part of this club?

This piece first appeared in The Epoch Times Canada on October 7, 2023.

The history of security services doing nasty things abroad is indeed a long one. America’s CIA was reliably accused of taking out leaders in the Dominican Republic and Congo (Zaire), as well as working with others to overthrow governments it did not like. More recently, Russian intelligence agents poisoned former military spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the UK in 2018, and are believed to be targeting anyone who has run afoul of President Vladimir Putin.

Do we need to add India to the list of nations which uses this strategy? If we are to trust Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has publicly levelled such a charge, the answer is yes.

Our PM rose in the House of Commons a few weeks ago, after a disastrous trip to South Asia for the G20, to announce that he had received “credible allegations of a potential link between agents of the Government of India and the killing of a Canadian citizen, Hardeep Singh Nijjar.” Nijjar is a Sikh “activist” who has called for an independent Khalistan (a Sikh homeland) in northern India.

It later emerged that information gathered by the Five Eyes intelligence alliance (hint: likely the United States), led to Trudeau’s accusation.

An allegation of this nature is serious: No self-respecting nation can allow another to carry out what was in effect a planned killing on its soil. If India was indeed involved in this crime, there must be a consequence. To date, both sides have elected to oust each other’s diplomats, hardly justice for the death of a Canadian citizen.

As is wont to happen in these kinds instances, we are at a “he said, she said” stage. Canada has openly pointed the finger at India, even if by doing so the PM compromised not only intelligence sources but may have jeopardized our relationship with an important partner within the Five Eyes. (I have no idea if the United States authorized Mr. Trudeau to make his public “j’accuse.”) I have already analyzed this conundrum in other Epoch Times Canada pieces.

For its part, India says Canada is weak on terrorism, having harboured many Sikh violent extremists on its soil for decades. In essence, India appears to have decided to act in the absence of Canadian action to tamp down support for terrorism (if it was India after all).

What does all this mean? Before going any further I need to point out that the extrajudicial killing is of course wrong and that whoever was responsible must be brought to justice. And yet, India does have a point. Canada has turned a blind eye of sorts to the presence of those in the large Sikh diaspora, some 500,000 representing 1.4  percent of the country’s total population, who still want an independent homeland in the Punjab and see violence as the only way to reach their goal. That only a tiny number are extremist is not the point here.

There are regular events where photographs of Sikh terrorists are prominently displayed in Canada. These feature those behind the downing of Air India flight 182 back in 1985 in which 329 people, mostly Canadian, were killed by a bomb placed on board, the largest act of aviation terrorism in history prior to 9/11. The planners were Sikh Canadians (a second bomb went off on another Air India flight that landed in Tokyo, killing two baggage handlers), a plot discussed at length in my recent book “The Peaceable Kingdom: A history of terrorism in Canada from Confederation to the present” (Double Dagger Books).

Why Canada hasn’t cracked down on these expressions of support is not hard to fathom. Sikh Canadians play an important role in some ridings in B.C. and Ontario, and forbidding these displays wouldn’t go down well with the extremist tranche. Furthermore, the NDP, which plays a critical part in supporting the minority Liberal government of Justin Trudeau in Parliament, is run by Jagmeet Singh, a Sikh man who refuses to acknowledge the role of Sikh extremists in Canada in the Air India plot. The Liberals cannot afford to alienate Mr. Singh and his party.

This issue is not likely to be resolved soon. Justin Trudeau has asked India to help in the investigation in what appears to be a diplomatic turn to the discussion, although he will not tell the Indian side what “evidence”  he has (remember that in Canada intelligence is not evidentiary in nature). Whether an emboldened India agrees remains to be seen. It is far from obvious that India cares what Canada thinks or sees us as an important partner on the international scene.

That someone killed Mr. Nijjar is beyond doubt. Whether that someone was India may never come out in the open. Some have accused India’s RAW—the Research and Analysis Wing, in essence that country’s foreign intelligence service—of other similar actions elsewhere.

Is this the dawn of a new aggressive modus operandi by the spy agency of an important nation? Will India follow the lead of the United States, Russia, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and others? Only time will tell.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.