TORONTO – The stunning allegation that India was behind the assassination of a Sikh separatist leader in British Columbia has revived long-simmering tensions within Canada’s Indian diaspora.
It is pitting staunch Hindu nationalists against supporters of the creation of an independent Sikh state called Khalistan.
In October 2022, in the neighboring city of Mississauga, 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 faces following Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s claim on Monday that India was responsible for the killing of a Canadian Sikh leader.
Mr Harjeet Singh Nijjar was fatally shot in June outside a temple in Surrey, a suburb of Vancouver.
Mr Trudeau’s allegations have set off a diplomatic skirmish 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.
Canada has long said that anti-India protests by Sikhs, provided they are not violent, are constitutionally protected free speech.
But a senior federal government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information, said the country recognises there is a need to find a way to rein in more extreme and inflammatory actions.
Canada is home to the world’s largest Sikh population outside India. They constitute about 2.1 per cent of the North American country’s total population. At roughly 770,000 people, Sikhs make up just over half of all people with Indian heritage in Canada.
An episode in June prompted an objection from India’s foreign minister, S. Jaishankar. That month, a march in Brampton, Ontario, a city west of Toronto, included a parade float presented by Sikh nationalists that 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.
In July 2022, the murder of another Sikh man stoked fears of targeted killings in the Sikh community in Surrey.
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