Hardeep Singh Nijjar’s assassination and the impact on the Sikh community

The homicide comes as an act of anti-Sikh violence

Hardeep Singh Nijjar, the president of Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara, a Sikh temple in Surrey, was shot dead in his car on June 18 after an evening service. (Sukhmani Sandhu)

Hardeep Singh Nijjar, the president of Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara, a Sikh temple in Surrey, was shot dead in his car on June 18 after an evening service. (Sukhmani Sandhu)

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Hardeep Singh Nijjar, president of Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara, was assassinated in the Gurdwara parking lot after a Sunday evening service on June 18. Nijjar was shot dead in his car in an act of anti-Sikh violence. Minutes later, the news was announced in the Gurdwara, and word and videos spread across social media. 

“Bhai Hardeep Singh’s efforts transformed the landscape of Surrey’s community,” the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara Society wrote in a news release. 

“Alongside developing institutions to preserve and promote Gurmat vidya (Sikh education) amongst the next generation, he guided efforts to develop pivotal social institutions for seniors, international students, and other vulnerable members of the community.”

Nijjar was a supporter of Khalistan, a Sikh separatist movement. The society says Nijjar was killed in a political assassination due to his bold advocacy for Khalistan and the community will reflect on his legacy and loss. 

“The fact that a political assassination of this nature could happen in broad daylight in Surrey is a damning testament of the Government of Canada’s lack of decisive action in combating Indian foreign interference in Canada,” wrote the Society.

Sikhs who support Khalistan are often labeled extremists and terrorists by Indian media, as was the case for Nijjar.

“India labeled (him) a terrorist in India, yet presented no evidence to the Canadians that would warrant his extradition,” Jatinder Singh Grewal, a director for Sikhs for Justice, an advocacy group that supports the formation of Khalistan, told Global News

He also told Postmedia that Nijjar was a pillar of the Sikh community and a prominent personality for the advocacy of a separate Sikh state of Khalistan through democratic referendum.

“[This] homicide was a brazen act of violence outside a place of worship. This was a shocking and very public act of violence against a well known community member and Gurdwara president,” said Surrey RCMP Asst. Comm. Brian Edwards in a news conference on June 19. 

During a council meeting on June 19, Surrey Mayor Brenda Locke also made a statement about the targeted shooting and said it was a “shocking and disturbing” crime with no place in the community.

“On behalf of Surrey council, I send our deepest condolences to Mr. Nijjar’s family, the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara, and our Sikh community during these extremely difficult times,” Locke said. 

Nijjar’s funeral prayers were held at Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara and were open to the public. Thousands attended the funeral service on June 25 to pay their respects. Following the funeral, the masses marched five kilometers from the Gurdwara to Valley View Funeral Home. 

The day prior to Nijjar’s funeral, a protest was held at the Indian Consulate in Vancouver. Many protesters voiced that foreign interference was the cause for Nijjar’s assassination, according to Postmedia

This June, Jody Thomas, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s national security adviser, said India is among the top sources of foreign interference in Canada at a conference. 

“[India does] try to wield influence in government and in diasporic communities. India will also not hesitate to put disinformation out there too, to try to muddy the waters as a form of interference,” Dan Stanton, director at the National Security Program at the University of Ottawa, told Baaz News

“It’s crucial for the government to actively listen to the Sikh community…. The current situation likely leaves the community feeling anxious, given the discussions about threats and the uncertainty surrounding Mr. Nijjar’s death.”

He also said that it’s important to listen to the community’s concerns and to not dismiss their worries as diaspora politics as this attitude could make those at risk hesitant to speak up. 

Nijjar was warned by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) that his life was in danger, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, founder of Sikhs For Justice, said in a statement

Following Nijjar’s assassination, Moninder Singh, a spokesperson for the BC Gurdwaras Council, has gone into hiding. Singh told Global News, that he, along with four others, were warned about an “imminent threat of assassination” against them in July 2022 by the RCMP’s national security division and the local detachment. 

“The price has been set,” says Sim Sidhu, a local secondary school teacher. “If you’re going to be like Hardeep Singh Nijjar, who is a celebrated leader in our community, then you might have to die.” 

“My personal journey with Sikhi and life, I can draw strength from him passing away for the cause. At the same time, there are people that just want to go to the Gurdwara for different reasons, and for them it might just be traumatic.” 

Sidhu also says there is a heaviness about going to the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara as it’s an experience the whole community carries. 

“It might be just a mom dropping off her kids at a kirtan [traditional instrument] class. She shouldn’t have to deal with the fact someone can get assassinated [there]. There’s no one right feeling, on how to feel,” he says.  

“[It’s] the loss of a leader in our community, taken away for fighting for our rights.” 

Following the assassination, an open meeting was held at the gurdwara that hundreds of Sikhs attended. Gurdwara leaders, local Sikh leaders, and Liberal MP Sukh Dhaliwal spoke at the event. 

“Seeing the strength and courage of our community to come back into that space, and to try to fill the shoes that Hardeep Singh left behind, it was amazing to see so much of a community taking up space” says Sidhu, who was in attendance at the meeting. 

“There’s both a sense of loss, but there’s also a sense of unity and strength.” 

Guntaas Kaur, vice president British Columbia of the World Sikh Organization, says Nijjar’s assassination affected her team on a personal level. 

“It hit them in their gut that their Gurdwara was violated, their safe space,” she says.  

Gurdwaras, including Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara, are more than places of worship, but a community centre. Kirtan, or traditional instrument classes, gatka, or Sikh martial art classes, and celebrations of all kinds are all held at a Gurdwara. 

“As Sikhs, we’re not strangers to the concept and the prevalence of foreign interference, here in Canada,” Kaur says. 

“The Canadian government needs to pay a great deal of attention. All parties, all elected officials, should be genuinely concerned of the role that foreign interference, foreign governments, foreign actors have played in trying to sway the internal conversations in communities, like the Sikh community.”

She also says this isn’t the first time Sikhs have been a target, referring to the 1984 Sikh genocide, during which thousands of Sikhs were murdered, beaten, raped, and run out of their homes. 

Many Sikhs left India to escape persecution, especially after 1984. There were no Sikh refugees to Canada until the 1970’s when the political situation in the Punjab became harsh, according to the Sikh Heritage Museum of Canada

“[Even with] being a diaspora Sikh, you will be a target regardless of where you are, you don’t have to be within the borders of India,” Kaur says. 

Anti-Sikh crime has been on the rise in Canada, especially with international students. This May, Gagandeep Singh, an international student in Kelowna, was attacked and had his turban torn off. 

“Anti-Sikh crime continues to happen particularly because it hasn’t been defined as such. I believe that we need to start gathering the data on it, and exposing it in the numbers [to raise awareness],” Kaur says. 

“If we look at recent data collected in the United States, [Sikhs were] the top two groups that are the victims of hate crimes.”

In December 2022, the American Federal Bureau of Investigation published its annual data on hate crimes and bias incidents for 2021. Anti-Sikh hate crimes increased by 140 per cent in 2021, rising from 89 to 214 separate incidents. Sikhs fell behind the Jewish American community. 

“I think it’s very difficult to have a community or a person feel safe after that sense of safety has been broken,” Singh says. 

“It’s going to stay broken for a long time, until we have real leadership from the Canadian government’s end says, ‘We hear you and we see what happened, we hear your concerns, and we’re going to make sure that this doesn’t happen.’”