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Who was Hardeep Singh Nijjar whose killing escalated diplomatic tensions

New Delhi: The recent killing of prominent Khalistani activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar outside a Sikh temple in Surrey, a Vancouver suburb with a sizable Sikh population, has escalated diplomatic tensions between India and Canada to unprecedented levels. The 45-year-old Nijjar, designated as a “terrorist” by the Indian government in July 2020, was known for his advocacy of Sikh independence, or Khalistan, a movement banned in India but supported by the Sikh diaspora.

Nijjar had been actively promoting the demand for a Sikh homeland in India’s northern state of Punjab, the birthplace of Sikhism, which shares a border with neighbouring state Pakistan. At the time of his death, he was reportedly organizing an unofficial referendum in India for an independent Sikh nation.

The Indian authorities had offered a cash reward for information leading to Nijjar’s arrest, accusing him of involvement in an alleged attack on a Hindu priest in India.

Born in 1977 in India’s Punjab state, Nijjar moved to Canada in 1997 and worked as a plumber. Initially associated with the Babbar Khalsa International (BKI) Sikh separatist group, Nijjar later became the chief of the Khalistan Tiger Force (KTF), a move that led the Indian government to officially categorize him as a “terrorist” in 2020. India accused him of “exhorting seditionary and insurrectionary imputations” and “attempting to create disharmony among different communities” in the country.

For supporters of the Khalistan movement, Nijjar was a prominent leader and a strong advocate for their cause. He held the position of head of the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurudwara in Surrey at the time of his death, and hundreds of people protested outside the Indian consulate in Vancouver, alleging foreign involvement in his killing.

Sikhism, a minority religion in India, has its roots in the northern part of the country and draws influences from both Hinduism and Islam. While Sikhs make up less than two per cent of India’s 1.4 billion people, they constitute nearly 60 per cent of the population in the northern state of Punjab, the faith’s heartland.

The demand for Khalistan, a separate sovereign nation carved out of Punjab and governed by Sikh precepts, has its roots in the aftermath of India’s independence in 1947. The bloody Partition divided the former British colony along religious lines, with Muslims migrating to Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs to India. Punjab, historically significant for Sikhs, was divided between the two nations and experienced some of the most brutal violence during Partition.

The separatist movement for Khalistan emerged as an armed rebellion in the late 1980s, with Sikhs demanding a separate homeland. The violent struggle persisted for over a decade and was eventually quelled by a harsh Indian government crackdown, resulting in the deaths of thousands, including prominent Sikh leaders. Human rights groups have since revealed that many of the police operations were staged.

In a pivotal moment in the conflict, Indian forces stormed the Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest shrine, in Amritsar in 1984 to root out separatists. This operation led to the deaths of approximately 400 people, according to official figures, though Sikh groups claim the number was much higher.

Tragically, the violence escalated when then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who had ordered the temple raid, was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards on October 31, 1984. Her death triggered a series of anti-Sikh riots across northern India, particularly in New Delhi, where Hindu mobs targeted Sikhs, resulting in horrifying acts of violence.

Additionally, Canadian-based Sikh extremists were implicated in the 1985 bombing of an Air India flight, which claimed the lives of 329 people, further linking Canada to the Khalistan cause.

The killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar has reignited tensions stemming from this complex and deeply rooted

conflict. As both India and Canada grapple with the fallout of this incident, diplomatic efforts are underway to

ease the escalating tensions while addressing the long-standing grievances of the Sikh community and the demands for Khalistan.

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