The stunning allegation that India was behind the assassination of a Sikh separatist leader in British Columbia has ignited long simmering tensions within Canada’s Indian diaspora, pitting staunch Hindu nationalists against supporters of the creation of an independent Sikh state called Khalistan.
Scuffles that have taken place between the two groups in the past year are being re-evaluated following Monday’s announcement by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that India was responsible for the killing of the Sikh leader, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, who was fatally shot in June outside a temple in Surrey, a suburb of Vancouver.
Last October, in the neighboring city of Mississauga, the police broke up a fight in which one man was slightly injured after a crowd, carrying Indian and Khalistan flags, became unruly during a Diwali celebration. In March, a Punjabi radio journalist covering a protest in Surrey of an Indian high commissioner’s visit was attacked by demonstrators.
These episodes underscore the challenges that Canada — home to the world’s largest Sikh population outside India — faces now that Mr. Trudeau’s claim has set off a diplomatic skirmish and as the country seeks India’s cooperation with its investigation into Mr. Nijjar’s killing.
The long-running, tense and sometimes combative relationship between extremists on both sides threatens to spill over into new violence as their members are either empowered or enraged by Mr. Trudeau’s allegation.
While Canada has long said that anti-India protests by Sikhs, provided they are not violent, are constitutionally protected free speech, a senior federal government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information, said the country recognizes that there is a need to find a way to rein in more extreme and inflammatory actions.
Sikhs make about 2.1 percent of the country’s population, roughly 770,000 people, just over half of all people with Indian heritage in the country.
An episode in June prompted an objection from India’s foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. That month, a march in Brampton, Ontario, a city west of Toronto, included a parade float presented by Sikh nationalist mocked the assassination of Indira Gandhi, who was killed in 1984 by two of her Sikh bodyguards.
Speaking at a news conference several days later in New Delhi, Mr. Jaishankar called attention to a video on social media that showed the parade float.
“I think it’s not good for the relationship, and I think it’s not good for Canada,” he said.
Since Mr. Nijjar’s murder, tensions between the two communities have intensified. In July, protesters outside India’s consulate general, in downtown Toronto, promoted the Khalistan cause with large signs that accused Indian diplomats of being behind Mr. Nijjar’s murder.
In a statement on the social media site X, formerly known as Twitter, Mélanie Joly, Canada’s foreign minister, called the posters “unacceptable” and said the country takes its duties “regarding the safety of diplomats very seriously.”
Last October, the police intervened after a fight erupted at Diwali celebrations in Mississauga, where a crowd of several hundred was dotted with Khalistan flags on one side and Indian flags on another. Police described the fighting as isolated and did not make any arrests.
Last July, the murder of another Sikh man stoked fears of targeted killings in the Sikh community in Surrey.
Ripudaman Singh Malik, 75, was shot to death in daylight by two men in their 20s who the police later, charged with first-degree murder. Mr. Malik was one of the men accused in the 1985 Air India bombing that 329 people aboard a flight to New Delhi from Toronto.
He was acquitted in 2005 in a lengthy trial that came after the death of many witnesses — some of whom were murdered. Other witnesses were intimidated into not testifying.
Mr. Malik’s shooting prompted Balpreet Singh Boparai, a Toronto-based lawyer for the World Sikh Organization, to approach the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Canada’s spy agency, with his concerns about the safety of Mr. Nijjar and other Sikh activists, he said. He said he also spoken to local police.
“I had expressed concerns generally about Indian interference in Canada, but also of Sikh activists being targeted,” said Mr. Boparai. The statement from Mr. Trudeau, he said, validated the community’s fears.
“Sikhs have talked about foreign interference, specifically Indian interference here in Canada, for decades and this is a lived reality for our community,” Mr. Boparai said. “But often, this was just written off as conspiracy theories.”
Such stories have swirled around the Sikh community for decades, Mukhbir Singh, a director of the World Sikh Organization, told reporters during a news conference in Ottawa on Tuesday.
“The younger generation that grew up in Canada, they grew up hearing stories about the persecution, of fear, of speaking out a little too much and you might get on a list or be targeted,” he said. “To see that happening right now in 2023, in Canada, it’s certainly shocking.”
In India, the actions of the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi seemed to escalate the matter, and the news cycle was dominated by diplomatic tensions.
The Indian foreign ministry issued a strongly worded travel advisory on Wednesday, urging Indian citizens planning to travel to Canada to “exercise utmost caution” because of what it called “growing anti-India activities and politically-condoned hate crimes and criminal violence in Canada.”
India’s premier investigating agency, the National Investigation Agency, posted on X, photos and names of alleged suspects, saying that it was intensifying “CRACKDOWN ON KHALISTANI TERRORISTS OPERATING in India.”
In the flood of misinformation dominating Indian information space in such moments of heightened nationalism, ascertaining just how many of the names being included in the post actually had ties to Canada was difficult.
Speaking with reporters, Dominic LeBlanc, Canada’s minister of public safety, dismissed India’s travel warning.
“People can read into that what they want,” he told reporters in Ottawa. “Canada is a safe country. What we’re doing is ensuring there’s an appropriate criminal investigation into these circumstances.”
He said that releasing any further information at this point could jeopardize the work of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Karan Singh contributed reporting.
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