South Asian politics

India’s counterterrorism agency that charged Sikh youth in Canada lacks credibility

Case must be seen in context of Hindu nationalists’ hysteria over movement for Khalistan
Photo: British Columbia Emergency Photography Follow

A man living in Surrey, B.C., was charged with conspiring to carry out a terror attack in Punjab by India’s National Investigation Agency in May. Media reports suggest that based on the charges filed by the country’s apex counterterrorism agency, the Indian government will try to seek extradition of Hardeep Singh Nijjar.

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A man living in Surrey, B.C., was charged with conspiring to carry out a terror attack in Punjab by India’s National Investigation Agency in May. Media reports suggest that based on the charges filed by the country’s apex counterterrorism agency, the Indian government will try to seek extradition of Hardeep Singh Nijjar.

Nijjar’s legal counsel, Gurpatwant Singh Pannu, claims that his client is innocent and is being framed by the Indian government in order to instil fear in Sikh activists abroad. According to Pannu, Nijjar is being targeted for campaigning in support of Khalistan — a separate Sikh homeland in the Punjab area that activists want to create through “peaceful and democratic means” — and for seeking justice for the anti-Sikh massacre of 1984.

The hysteria created against Sikh separatism is part of the hyper-nationalist narrative of the current right-wing Hindu nationalist government in India

Thousands of Sikhs were slaughtered across India in November 1984 following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. In June that year, Gandhi had ordered a military attack on the Golden Temple Complex in Amritsar, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs, in order to flush out a handful of religious extremists who had stockpiled weapons inside the place of worship. The military assault left many buildings destroyed and scores of worshippers dead. The attack enraged Sikhs all over the world and motivated Gandhi’s assassins.

Years later, the victims’ families continue to fight for justice. No senior politician or police officer complicit in the massacre has ever been punished. Sikhs in Canada and other parts of the world have been tirelessly campaigning for closure.

Hyped-up hysteria over Sikh separatism

The ugly political events in India fuelled the demand for the creation of Khalistan, but today the call for a Sikh homeland has lost much of its popular support.

The movement fell out of favour in part due to police repression and in part due to excesses committed by pro-Khalistan extremists against civilians and political critics. Despite the lack of support for a Sikh state, the mainstream political parties in India continue to propagate fear of a revival of Sikh militancy and frequently blame Canada-based Sikh activists for precipitating trouble in Punjab.

The current Indian authorities’ actions could well stem from the fact that the Sikh separatist movement was indeed strong in Canada in the past. The Air India Flight 182 bombing that left 329 people dead in June 1985 is widely blamed on Canada-based Babbar Khalsa, a banned Sikh militant group. Within Vancouver’s South Asian community, critics of Sikh militants faced physical assaults and death threats, but the situation evolved many years ago and is relatively peaceful today. India has even scrapped the so-called blacklists of Sikh separatists who were previously denied entry to the country of their birth.

The hysteria created against Sikh separatism is part of the hyper-nationalist narrative of the current right-wing Hindu nationalist government in India, under which attacks on all religious minorities have grown substantially. Muslims and Christians are frequently targeted by the forces that seek to turn India into an official Hindu state. They believe that because India is a Hindu-majority nation, it should give up its policies of secularism and diversity to pave way for a nation-state guided by Hinduism. According to this messaging, Sikhs and Buddhists are part of the Hindu fold, though this notion is vehemently denounced by these minority groups.

NIA’s credibility in question

Canadian-based Nijjar’s story is problematic in many ways.

It is not the first time that his name has been raised in a terror-related case by Indian officials. In 2016, he was accused of attending an armed training camp in Mission, B.C. — a claim that was refuted by Canadian officials and the media. In 2007 he was accused of involvement in the bombing of a cinema hall in Punjab, which left six people dead. Three Sikh men charged for the crime were acquitted after the court found the Crown’s case was too weak.

The credibility of the NIA itself has come into question several times. The organization’s own list of banned terror groups, for example, only includes organizations representing the political movements of minority communities, such as Muslims and Sikhs. Among them is Babbar Khalsa, which has long remained inactive. Maoists and other nationalist movements are also included in the NIA’s list of terrorist groups.

Yet not a single Hindu terror group appears on the list, even after the NIA conducted multiple investigations into cases of terror and violence involving Hindu extremists. Recently, the individuals involved in a blast outside a mosque and other Muslim targets were acquitted after the NIA failed to handle the cases effectively. Human rights activists have expressed apprehension over the workings of the NIA under a right-wing Hindu nationalist government. They cite examples such as the NIA’s investigation of a Hindu woman converting to Islam to marry a Muslim man. Hindu chauvinists had challenged the marriage, saying that Muslim men were luring Hindu women into relationships to convert them to their faith. That the NIA chose to look into this case in a secular democracy is a worrying decision.

Given the circumstances, Nijjar’s case must be treated with some degree of skepticism. The evidence that the state-run agency is operating with a pro-Hindu bias is mounting. The NIA’s failure to protect India from the real internal danger of Hindu extremism — and its focus on an effectively defunct separatist movement — raises serious questions about its ability to objectively and competently conduct investigations and handle cases like Nijjar’s.

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