Sikh separatist claims ‘Australia is next’ after leader assassinated in Canada

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Singapore: The Indian government has expelled a Canadian diplomat after rejecting allegations by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that it was involved in the assassination of an Indian separatist on Canadian soil, as one of the movement’s leaders claims Sikhs in Australia are also in danger.

In a series of assertions that have escalated the dispute between two of Australia’s closest economic and diplomatic partners, Trudeau said Canadian intelligence services had credible allegations that the Indian government may have had links to the shooting of Canadian-Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar.

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, centre, walks past India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, and Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo during the G20 Summit in New Delhi on September 10.Credit: The canadian Press/AP

Nijjar was a key figure in the Khalistan separatist movement, which aims to establish an independent state for Sikhs in the northern Indian region of Punjab, before he was gunned down outside a cultural centre in British Columbia on June 18. Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly said she had expelled the Indian head of intelligence in Canada in response.

The Khalistan separatist movement began in the 1940s as the British withdrew from India but it had largely petered out until the last decade. Since then, it has been fuelled by growing Hindu nationalism in India led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has ridden a wave of popularity amid growing religious sectarianism.

New Delhi on Tuesday labelled the separatist leaders as terrorists and described Trudeau’s claims as “absurd and motivated”.

“Such 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’s Ministry of External Affairs said.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.Credit: AP

“The inaction of the Canadian government on this matter has been a long-standing and continuing concern.”

A spokesperson for Foreign Minister Penny Wong said Australia was “deeply concerned” by the allegations made by Canada.

“We have conveyed our concerns at senior levels to India,” the spokesperson said. “The Indian diaspora are valued and important contributors to our vibrant and resilient multicultural society, where all Australians can peacefully and safely express their views.”

Sikhs for Justice leader Gurpatwant Singh Pannun.

But one of the Khalistan movement’s leaders, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, said peaceful protests in Australia had been disrupted, quasi-referendums had been blocked and supporters intimidated by Indians in Australia.

“Australia is the next target for Indian agents,” he said.

The Indian High Commission in Canberra was contacted for comment.

In May, Blacktown City Council cancelled a Khalistan event over security concerns. Indian government supporters had earlier claimed that a Hindu temple in Rosehill had been vandalised with anti-Indian messages.

They alleged they had been attacked by pro-Khalistan supporters who had put up posters with “wanted” signs for Indian diplomats. Khalistan freedom rally posters had also been plastered with “Kill India” signs.

Khalistan flags are seen outside the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara Sahib in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada.Credit: The Canadian Press

Pannun, who has been declared a terrorist by India’s Ministry of Home Affairs, said he had been labelled as a threat because he was openly challenging the territorial integrity and sovereignty of India.

“India is not a country. It is the union of states and people of Punjab, which are being forcefully occupied by India should have been given a right to vote,” he said.

“This assassination of Nijjar is an act of terrorism.”

Trudeau raised the allegations directly with Modi in a brief meeting at the G20 in Delhi last week. The Canadian leader’s request for a more formal bilateral session was rejected by India. Trudeau’s plane was later grounded with technical difficulties for more than two days, leaving him stuck in Delhi as tensions between Australia’s Five Eyes and Quad partners threatened to boil over.

Trudeau told parliament on Monday that “any involvement of a foreign government in the killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil is an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty”.

Pannun, who was a colleague of Nijjar and runs the Sikhs For Justice campaign, told this masthead that he was not afraid of being assassinated.

“If Indian mercenaries reach me, then so be it. I’m not concerned about my safety,” he said by phone from exile in the United States.

“I’m more concerned about the existential threat they’re facing under the successive Indian governments.”

Sikhs make up less than 2 per cent of the population in India or about 20 million people, but form the majority in one Indian state, Punjab.

Tensions between Sikhs and Hindus have been fuelled by historical differences over religion – particularly the Hindu caste system, a crackdown on Sikhs after the assassination of former prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards and ongoing disputes over farming subsidies in the agriculture-dominated Punjab.

Up to 770,000 Sikhs live and work in Canada, making it the largest Sikh diaspora worldwide. There are only 210,000 Sikhs in Australia, but it is now the country’s fastest-growing and fifth-largest religious group, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Pannun rejected the Indian government’s claims that he was leading a group of violent extremists.

“Our actions speak louder than words. We were in Australia six months ago. We came and peacefully did our work,” he said. “This is a peaceful democratic campaign.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on stage with Anthony Albanese in Sydney in May. Mr Albanese will be in India this coming week.Credit: James Brickwood

The Australian government has been attempting to manage the outcry over the claims of Hindu temple vandalism while protecting the rights of Sikhs to protest.

Modi used his visit to Australia in May to push Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to take firmer action against vandalism.

“We will not accept any elements that harm the friendly and warm ties between India and Australia by their actions or thoughts,” Modi said.

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