Indian Target Killings of Its Dissidents on Foreign Soil

By Saima Afzal

Threats to the lives of anti-India and pro-Khalistan activists are escalating globally, allegedly originating from the Government of India and its spy agency RAW. Incidents like the assassination of Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada in last year, the U.S. Department of Justice’s exposed of an Indian government official plotting to kill a Sikh activist in New York City, and the mysterious death of Avtar Singh Khanda in Birmingham, UK, indicate the direct involvement of the Indian government and RAW. Notably, all three activists were named on a hit list that was broadcast on Indian news channels. However, India’s assassination plots in the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada are part of a growing wave of aggression against dissident groups seeking refuge in other countries. The BJP-led Modi government is increasingly willing to violate the sovereignty of these nations by sending agents across borders to target political opponents.

The Khalistan movement is an organic self-determination movement supported by Indian Sikhs, advocating for an independent Sikh homeland from Punjab. It has a history of violence and conflict with the Indian government prompting an exodus of huge numbers of its members from India. This movement is considered a security threat by the Indian government. 2011 Indian census indicates that 20.8 million Sikhs population reside in India which makes up 1.7 percent of the country’s population. The majority of Sikhs, about 16 million at the time of the census, live in the northern state of Punjab where they make up about 58 percent of the state’s population. The London School of Economics (LSE) research study highlights that there are approximately 26 million Sikh population around the world. As per the 2011 Indian census, Canada has the largest Sikh community outside India. According to a study, 770,000 Sikhs account for 2.1% of Canada’s population residing in various parts of Canada. However, political asylum seekers are facing struggles when Spy agencies like RAW continuously keep them under surveillance and digital monitoring on foreign soil.

Historically, the relationship between Canada and India has been very complex regarding Sikh extremism. In 1985, Babbar Khalsa International (BKI), a Khalistan separatist group, was implicated in the bombing of an Air India flight 192 from Montreal to New Delhi which resulted in the deaths of 329 people, it is considered the largest loss of life in a terrorist attack in Canadian history. For years, India has accused Canada of not taking action against Sikh extremists. Contemporary, the Khalistan movement has gained momentum in Canada. In 2022, Sidhu Moose Wala, a Punjabi singer who migrated to Canada and visited India to participate in the election was brutally killed in an Indian state. The Khalistan supporters in Canada condemned his killing and demanded justice.

Moreover, the Indo-Canadian relationship was complicated by the target killing of Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar, the Khalistan Tiger Force chief in the parking lot of a gurdwara in Canada on June 18, 2023. Nijjar was an Indian Sikh who moved to Canada in 1997. From Vancouver, he intensified his contribution to Sikh independence and headed up a Sikh house of worship. Nijjar’s repeated criticisms of the Modi government’s “Hindu-first policies” fueled tensions between him and the Indian government. New Delhi viewed Nijjar’s actions as more nefarious and designated the Khalistan Tiger Force as a terrorist group, in February 2023. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that authorities were investigating “credible allegations of a potential link” between Indian government agents and Nijjar’s killing in September 2023. However, India’s Ministry of External Affairs vehemently denied the allegations and said that Canada has provided shelter to “Khalistani terrorists and extremists” who “continue to threaten India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Besides this, Avtar Singh Khanda, a leading exponent of Khalistan and friend of separatist Amritpal Singh, died in a hospital in the UK. His family alleged that he was poisoned by Indian intelligence agencies culminating in terminal Cancer. Sukhdool Singh aka Sukha Duneke another Khalistan supporter was shot dead in Winnipeg, Canada in the past. Reportedly, apart from these, a substantial number of Khalistan activists’ large number of Indian dissidents are targeted in different parts of the world to intimidate those who dare to speak against the Modi-led BJP government in India.

In May 2024, Canadian authorities disclosed the arrest of three Indian citizens in connection with the June murder of Nijjar, a respected Sikh leader in British Columbia. They further stated that ongoing investigations are exploring possible links to the Indian government. Top of Form The practice of targeted killings known as extrajudicial killings, raises serious concerns due to its violation of territorial integrity and the right to life. It may also breach international laws on the use of force and be seen as an armed attack. If not addressed, it could lead to further targeted killings of dissenters and activists. Trudeau’s claim that India violated Canadian sovereignty by killing Nijjar highlights the gravity of the situation. While states are rarely held accountable for such actions, if India’s involvement in Nijjar’s killing is proven, it would contribute to a worrying trend of unlawful force and assassinations. Canada may pursue accountability through legal means, such as the International Court of Justice, despite India’s reservations about its jurisdiction.

Countries hosting significant diasporas from authoritarian nations experiencing a rise in violent extremism and human rights violations should prioritize understanding the political tensions within those countries. Diaspora communities can face threats, harassment, and intimidation, and may also be manipulated by foreign governments to exert influence or interference. The prevalence of foreign interference, transnational repression, and targeted killings on foreign soil is likely to grow due to technological advancements. Therefore, it is a need of hours the foreign states need to make strict cyber security policies to protect the lives of its nationals from unexpected target killings.

Saima Afzal
Saima Afzal

The author is a Research Scholar and Analyst; M. Phil in Peace and Conflict Studies from National Defence University Islamabad, Pakistan. Miss. Afzal regularly contributes her opinion at various forums on contemporary issues of national and international security and has also participated in various national and international conferences. Email: sarahamidkhan21@gmail.com

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