Canada says India helped assassinate a Sikh activist: Who was Hardeep Singh Nijjar? Rift between the countries widens

He was known as a prominent Sikh community leader and human rights activist in the Canadian province of British Columbia. He was also wanted in India, where the government accused him of masterminding a bombing in the Sikh-majority state of Punjab, training terrorists and supporting a banned separatist insurgency.

When Hardeep Singh Nijjar died at age 45 on June 18, he was running a plumbing business in a Vancouver suburb and serving as president of a gurdwara, the Punjabi word for Sikh temple. According to police reports, Nijjar died outside the temple from multiple gunshot wounds while inside his pickup truck. Police said two heavy-set men, in face coverings, fled the scene in a Silver 2008 Toyota Camry with the help of a third suspect. All three suspects remain at large.

This week, an argument broke out between Canada and India after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government was aware of "credible allegations" of India's involvement in Nijjar's slaying, an accusation that if true, could amount to an extra-judicial assassination of a private citizen on foreign soil.

The argument has had broader global reverberations. As world leaders, including Trudeau and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, were gathered at the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Tuesday, India expelled a top Canadian diplomat from its country in a tit-for-tat move after Canada earlier acted to expel a senior Indian intelligence official over its allegations. On Thursday, India suspended visa services for Canadian citizens.

Here is a look at the people at the heart of the saga, why it matters to the rest of the world, and the challenges Sikhs − members of the world's fifth-largest religion − are facing.

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Who was Hardeep Singh Nijjar?

Nijjar emigrated to Canada from the North Indian state of Punjab in 1997, according to Indian news reports. There, he got married and had two sons while establishing his plumbing business. He obtained his Canadian citizenship in 2015, according to Marc Miller, Canada's minister of immigration. Nijjar became president of the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in 2020. The temple is in Surrey, about 20 miles outside Vancouver.

Authorities in India had been seeking Nijjar since at least 2007, when his name surfaced in connection with the bombing of a movie theater in Punjab, according to Canadian and Indian news reports. A 2016 Interpol notice requested by India called him the "mastermind and key conspirator of many terrorist acts in India."

Over the next few years, India added additional allegations against Nijjar including that he was a member of the Khalistan movement, which advocates for an independent Sikh homeland in the Punjab region. India has banned it and branded it a terrorist group. Last year, Indian authorities announced a reward for any information leading to Nijjar's arrest after it accused him of involvement in an alleged attack on a Hindu priest in India.

Nijjar consistently denied all the allegations against him.

"This is garbage – all the allegations. I am living here 20 years, right? Look at my record. There is nothing. I am a hard worker. I own my own business,” Nijjar told the Vancouver Sun newspaper in a 2016 interview.

What is Sikhism? What is the Khalistan movement?

There are more than 25 million Sikhs around the world, according to the U.S.-based Sikh Coalition, which defends Sikh rights and civil liberties.

The Sikh faith is a monotheistic religion that was founded on the Indian subcontinent more than 500 years ago.

"Sikhism preaches a message of devotion and remembrance of God at all times, truthful living, equality of mankind and denounces superstitions and blind rituals," according to a University of Cambridge definition.

The vast majority of Sikhs live in India, where they are a religious minority. The U.K., Canada and U.S. have the largest Sikh communities − about half a million each − outside India.

Sikhs represent the majority of people in India's Punjab state, but they make up just 1.7% of India’s population of 1.4 billion people.

In the 1940s, there was a Sikh independence movement centered in Punjab that sought to establish an independent Khalistan. It turned into a bloody armed insurgency from the 1970s to 1990s, according to Human Rights Watch. Thousands were killed. But there is little evidence that its militant side is still active today.

However, the Indian government has warned repeatedly over the years that Sikh separatists have been trying to make a comeback, a claim that has coincided with Modi's Hindu nationalist-led government, which has cracked down on both non-Hindu rights movements, dissidents and opposition media.

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In an open letter written to Trudeau in 2016 and published by Canada's Global News, Nijjar wrote: "I am a Sikh nationalist who believes in and supports Sikhs’ right to self-determination and independence of Indian occupied Punjab through a future referendum."

When he was killed in June, Nijjar was organizing an unofficial referendum on an independent Khalistan among the global Sikh diaspora with the U.S.-based organization Sikhs For Justice.

Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a lawyer and spokesperson for Sikhs For Justice, has said Nijjar was warned by Canadian intelligence officials about being targeted for assassination by "mercenaries."

The Canada-based World Sikh Organization said Nijjar was one of several prominent Sikh leaders to have died in targeted killings in recent months including in Pakistan and the U.K.

How are Canada and India reacting? And why it matters to the West

India has dismissed the allegations it may have been involved in Nijjar's death as "absurd" and politically motivated. And its foreign ministry has accused Canada of harboring "terrorists and extremists." Suspending visa services for Canadian citizens was the latest sign of the deepening rift.

Trudeau has sought to calm the diplomatic clash that erupted at the U.N. this week, saying Canada is “not looking to provoke" India.

“We are simply laying out the facts as we understand them and we want to work with the government of India to lay everything clear and to ensure there are proper processes,” Trudeau told reporters Tuesday in New York.

“India and the government of India needs to take this matter with the utmost seriousness.”

So far, Canada has not publicly produced evidence to support its allegations.

The White House has said it is "deeply concerned" about the allegations.

And Mélanie Joly, Canada's foreign minister, has said that "if proven true, this would be a great violation of our sovereignty and of the most basic rule of how countries deal with each other."

But James Landale, BBC's diplomatic correspondent, brought up another dimension to the episode.

"Western ministers and officials will be working hard to try to ensure the diplomatic row between Canada and India does not bleed into other international relationships. The last thing the United States and other western powers want now is a row that divides them from India," he wrote in an opinion piece Tuesday. "On the grand geopolitical chess board, India is a key player. Not only is it a growing power − the most populous country in the world, the fifth-biggest economy. But it is also seen by the West as a potential bulwark against China."

Contributing: Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Hardeep Singh Nijjar killed by gunshots. Canada claims India is behind his death