Muslim Canadians express anger, concern after killing of Sikh leader

Muslim activists voice solidarity with Sikhs after murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, which Ottawa has linked to New Delhi.

A sign outside the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara temple is seen after the killing on its grounds
A banner with the image of Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar at the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara temple where he was killed in June, in Surrey, British Columbia, September 20, 2023 [File: Chris Helgren/Reuters]

Muslim advocates in Canada have expressed anger and concern at allegations that India may have been involved in the killing of a Canadian Sikh leader, stressing that Muslim and Sikh Canadians have long supported each other.

Last week, a diplomatic dispute escalated between Ottawa and New Delhi after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government was investigating “credible allegations of a potential link” between Indian government agents and the murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar.

The row has led many Muslim activists in Canada to call for more protections for minorities, with some urging a tougher stance against India, which has been accused of discriminating against Muslims under the leadership of right-wing Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Nijjar, a prominent Sikh leader who had called for an independent Sikh state in India, was fatally shot outside a Sikh temple in the province of British Columbia in June.

“It was widely known that there are agents of the Indian government that were operating in Canada and targeting members of the diaspora community,” Stephen Brown, head of the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) advocacy group, told Al Jazeera.

“But going to the point where somebody would be assassinated right outside of a place of worship in broad daylight, the purpose of doing that is to send a message.”

Brown added that Canadian Muslims want the Trudeau government to “take action” to guarantee their safety. “I would say there’s outrage, but there’s also real concern that currently they’re not safe,” he said.

India denies allegations

The Indian government has denied Trudeau’s accusations as “absurd” and called on Canada to curb the activities of individuals it describes as “terrorists”, referring to Sikh separatists whom it views as a security threat.

Canada and India expelled diplomats from each other’s respective countries amid the dispute, and New Delhi suspended visa services in Canada due to purported threats against its consular staff.

India had accused Nijjar of being “involved in terrorism” – an allegation rejected by his associates, who say such claims are part of a campaign aimed at vilifying Sikhs advocating for an independent state, dubbed Khalistan, in India’s northern Punjab region.

The separatist struggle turned particularly violent in the 1980s after then-Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered a raid on a Sikh temple to root out leaders of the Khalistan movement. Gandhi was assassinated in 1984 by two Sikh bodyguards, sparking anti-Sikh riots and deadly attacks.

In a statement last week, India’s foreign ministry said Canada’s “unsubstantiated allegations seek to shift the focus from Khalistani terrorists and extremists, who have been provided shelter in Canada and continue to threaten India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

India has long expressed concern about political activities in Canadian Sikh communities.

But Brown said regardless of how the Indian government views Nijjar or Sikh activism in Canada more generally, what matters is that the slain leader never faced any charges as a Canadian citizen.

“Our government, our members of law enforcement, did not think that Mr Nijjar was a terrorist, did not think that he was a threat to this country. And that’s the only thing that matters,” he told Al Jazeera.

justin trudeau
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused Indian government agents of links to the murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar [Mike Segar/Reuters]

Brown added that freedom of expression – whether directed against foreign states or Canada’s own government – is at the core of the Canadian identity.

“If you are not able to openly express your opinion of the world because you’re afraid that an agent of a foreign government is going to assassinate you or target you, then you don’t have an open society anymore,” he said.

‘Pressure to not speak out’

Other Muslim community advocates echoed that view, calling on Ottawa to reassess its ties to New Delhi and prioritise human rights in its foreign policy.

For years, Muslim activists have decried the rise of Hindu nationalism in India under Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, which they say has led to discriminatory laws and increased mob violence against religious minorities. New Delhi has rejected allegations of rights abuses as politically motivated.

Taha Ghayyur, executive director of Justice for All Canada, a rights group that combats Islamophobia, said the Nijjar case – and recent allegations that India may have been involved – spurred fear in Muslim communities.

“Indian Muslims here in Canada, for instance, are very concerned about speaking out or saying even a word about what’s happening in India because they know there’s a very serious potential of reprisal against them or their family members back home in India,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Many Indian Muslims are under a lot of pressure to not speak out. So, there is that fear.”

Ghayyur said Sikhs and Muslims in Canada are united by the fact that they are both visible religious minorities.

He added that Muslim and Sikh leaders in Canada are now “talking about both local and transnational hate” affecting their communities.

Feelings of insecurity

The Canadian government has not released evidence to back up its allegations against India, saying its investigation is ongoing.

Last week, Trudeau called on New Delhi to cooperate with the probe. “We call upon the government of India to work with us, to take seriously these allegations and to allow justice to follow its course,” he said.

Shaheen Ashraf, a Muslim community advocate based in Montreal, expressed confidence that the prime minister would not have made the accusations against India public without credible proof.

“There are certain rogue states that do these kinds of things, but I didn’t expect India to do it,” she told Al Jazeera.

Ashraf said she was “shocked” and “disappointed” after learning about the Indian government’s possible role in the killing of Nijjar, adding that violence is never the answer to any problem.

She also underscored that overall Canadians of all faiths and backgrounds get along well.

Still, Muslim Canadians have faced deadly violence in recent years.

A far-right gunman fatally shot six people at a mosque in Quebec City in 2017, and in 2021, a man intentionally ran over a Muslim family in London, Ontario, killing four people in what officials described as an act of “terrorism”.

Abd Alfatah Twakkal, chair of the London Council of Imams, noted that local Muslims received an outpouring of support from Sikhs in the aftermath of that attack two years ago, with members of the Sikh community volunteering and distributing water at Muslim community events.

“It’s a beautiful gesture, but it shows very clearly that level of solidarity and really the focus on a sense of acknowledging our common humanity.”

Twakkal said Canada is a vast country that is home to diverse Muslim communities, but he said in London, Muslims are still reeling from the 2021 attack and the suspect’s trial, which began earlier this month.

“There is a sense of fear. There is a sense of concern about people having a lack of security or a sense of safety,” he told Al Jazeera.

“If you have foreign governments that are interfering and being able to do these types of things … it can lead to a sense of increased insecurity.”

Source: Al Jazeera