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The Killing in Canada Shows What India Has Become

The Killing in Canada Shows What India Has Become

On September 18, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood before his country’s Parliament and leveled a dramatic charge: Ottawa had “credible evidence” that the Indian government had assassinated a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil. The citizen, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, had been gunned down outside the Sikh temple where he served as president. Trudeau declared the killing “an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty” and “contrary to the fundamental rules by which free, open, and democratic societies conduct themselves.”

The prime minister’s claim made headlines around the planet, but it shouldn’t have been altogether surprising. Nijjar was a prominent activist who called for Sikhs—a religious group mostly concentrated in northern India—to break away from New Delhi and form an independent nation. As a result, New Delhi had labeled him a terrorist. The Indian government has denied involvement in the killing, but under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it has become illiberal at home and bellicose abroad, such that assassinations on foreign soil are no longer an unimaginable part of its agenda. New Delhi, in other words, could well be a government that will do anything to silence dissidents.

Nijjar is not the first Canadian whom India has labeled a terrorist, and he is hardly the first to support Sikh secession. During the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, Sikh insurgents in northern India waged a violent campaign to establish an independent Sikh nation, called Khalistan, and many Sikhs in Canada supported them by raising money and promoting the movement’s message in Canadian temples. Some Canadian Sikhs helped separatist cadres travel to Pakistan, where they received financial and military help. And in 1985, Talwinder Singh Parmar—a Sikh Canadian—orchestrated the bombing of Air India Flight 182. The plane exploded over the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 329 passengers and crew members in a plane attack deadlier than any the world would see until September 11, 2001.

Parmar was a terrorist, and experts believe that the Khalistani movement, with all its bloodshed, was unpopular among Indian Sikhs. But New Delhi was no less vicious. India responded to the Sikh insurgency with unremitting violence that killed thousands of civilians. At one point, separatists took shelter in the country’s Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest site, and the Indian government sent in the military, killing scores of people and damaging the building. Two Sikhs then assassinated India’s prime minister, Indira Gandhi, which in turn prompted an anti-Sikh pogrom. Pamar himself was shot by police when he traveled to India after the plane bombing.

Nijjar, then, wouldn’t even be the first Canadian to be killed by Indian state actors. But his fate feels discontinuous with this history. His activism was peaceful, the Sikh insurgency having come to an end more than two decades ago. If India is behind Nijjar’s killing, its actions don’t reflect fears of Sikh secession so much as India’s transformation into an illiberal state where the government has elevated one religion—Hinduism—at the expense of all others, and where policy makers tolerate little dissent.

Since Modi came to power in 2014, violence against India’s minorities has dramatically increased, and New Delhi has moved to strip many non-Hindus of protections. The country revoked the partial autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir—India’s only Muslim-majority state—and split the entity in half. It passed a law that could deprive millions of Muslims of their citizenship, and it has done conspicuously little to stop the killing of members of tribal minorities in India’s northeast.

So far, Sikhs have been spared the worst ethnonationalist measures. But this week’s incident suggests that they are no longer as exempt, and the reasons are not hard to fathom. Sikh farmers played a major role in forcing Modi to withdraw his agricultural-reform bills in 2021, one of his few political defeats. The prime minister may worry that, as his Hindu-nationalist project becomes more dominant, Sikhs could throw more obstacles in its path—or rekindle a separatist insurgency. He may have decided that the time has come to wage an open battle against the religion. But if he thought that doing so would preempt calls for secession, he miscalculated: Sikh activists across the world have already responded to Nijjar’s death with protests, some of them calling for the creation of Khalistan.

The killing has also antagonized Canada. But Ottawa’s anger is unlikely to trouble New Delhi. India has prohibited Jagmeet Singh—a Sikh Canadian politician and an outspoken defender of Sikh rights—from entering the country. (Singh now leads Canada’s third-largest political party.) India’s foreign minister has accused critics of the Modi government of colonialism and said that outsiders have no right to question India’s behavior. And India’s main Hindu-nationalist organization, to which Modi belongs, has called for the creation of Akhand Bharat: a greater India encompassing all or parts of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Tibet. India unveiled a new Parliament building in May that featured a mural of Akhand Bharat. Three countries lodged complaints in response.

So far, Washington has professed to be “deeply concerned” by Trudeau’s allegations but has issued no serious rebuke to India, at least in public. In fact, according to The Washington Post, Trudeau originally asked the United States and its other closest allies to jointly announce the Canadian findings, but was rebuffed. (The Canadian government denied the Post’s report.)

The silence might seem logical: The United States sees India as an essential partner in its competition with China, so it does not want to alienate New Delhi. But American policy makers don’t just refrain from criticizing India. They praise the country’s politics and repeatedly declare that New Delhi is a natural partner for Washington. They invited Modi to address a joint session of Congress, where the prime minister crowned India the “mother of democracy,” its ambitions guided by the notion of “one Earth, one family, one future.”

Trudeau’s claim, if true, should remind the United States that India is not, in fact, a natural friend. The Indian government is trying to create not a great, peaceful democracy but an avowedly Hindu power that dominates South Asia. It may work with America to constrain China, but that is because challenging Beijing is in India’s interests, not because India supports the West.

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