September 19, 2023 - 3:05pm

Justin Trudeau has this week accused the Indian government of the murder of prominent Sikh leader and pro-Khalistan activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar, who was gunned down outside a Sikh temple in Surrey, BC this past June. The accusations have further strained relations between Canada and India, with Ottawa expelling the Indian intelligence chief stationed in Canada, and India in turn asking a high-ranking Canadian diplomat to leave the country within the next few days.

All this comes after Trudeau’s return from the G20 Summit in New Delhi last week, where Modi allegedly scolded the Canadian Prime Minister over his support for the Khalistan movement in Canada. Trade talks between the two countries have been on ice ever since.

The timing of these allegations raises questions about their authenticity, since Nijjar was killed three months ago, and Trudeau has recently returned from his underwhelming visit to India. The Canadian PM’s vocal support for the Khalistan movement — Sikh separatists who wish to establish a sovereign homeland for themselves in the state of Punjab in India — isn’t without political motivations. His minority Liberal government is being propped up by support from the Left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP), headed by Jagmeet Singh, a card-carrying Khalistani. Were Singh to withdraw his support for the Liberals, Trudeau’s dwindling popularity in the polls would probably see him ousted from power in the event of a new election.

Canada has one of the largest populations of Punjabis outside of India, where Sikhs account for 2% of the country’s 1.4 billion people. The city of Surrey in BC, where Nijjar was killed, is home to one of the largest Sikh populations in North America. In recent years, the number of Punjabis coming to Canada has grown tenfold, in part due to relaxed federal regulations for international students who have a pathway to Canadian citizenship once they arrive here on student visas.

This has given rise to a cottage industry of for-profit colleges across Canada where the student body is sometimes composed of 90% international recruits from the province of Punjab alone. Incidents involving students coming to Canada on bogus claims with fraudulent papers and test scores have also made the news in recent months, with most of the students coming from the states of either Haryana or Punjab in India. Some of them have been deported back to India in light of the scandal, but many still remain, with some turning to gangs and criminality once they get to Canada.

Gang activity and gun violence have been growing in Canada’s Punjabi community for decades, with Surrey as the epicentre. News of Canada’s Punjabi gang violence made international headlines when last year Sidhu Moose Wala — a popular Punjabi rapper who rose to fame in Brampton (another city with a significant Sikh population) in Canada — was gunned down in India by Goldy Brar, a prominent gangster in Canada also from Punjab.

Gun crime and general hooliganism are trademarks of Punjabi youth gangs in Surrey and Brampton, with 40 young men arrested and deported last year after getting into altercations with the law. More and more young men with pro-Khalistani sentiments have been involved in gang activities in recent years, giving new life to the Khalistan movement in Canada.

Lumping all Punjabis and Sikhs in Canada as Khalistanis involved in gang warfare is obviously reductive, but for Trudeau laying bare the complexities of the Punjabi communities in Canada would not be a political win. Just as there exist pro-separatist sentiments in Quebec (where Trudeau is from), members of the Punjabi diaspora have varying views on their identity as Indians, Sikhs, and Indo-Canadians. Nijjar may have been killed by a faction of the Punjabi gangs which operate out of Surrey, BC, who do not agree with Nijjar’s vision of a separate Khalistan. If that is the case, it’s unlikely to make front-page news anytime soon.

Hina Husain is a Pakistani-Canadian freelance writer based in Toronto.