In the hours before two gunmen fatally ambushed him last June, Hardeep Singh Nijjar addressed the worshippers at the Sikh temple he presided over in Surrey, B.C., and warned that if something were to happen to him, it would be the work of India, whose government had long seen him as an extremist.
“You know, India is after me,” the 45-year-old told the congregation, his elder son, Balraj, recalled in an interview.
Mr. Nijjar was a plumber, a community activist and a temple leader – but also a man Indian authorities considered a terrorist plotting the separation of part of their country to create a Sikh state. And now his killing has become a catalyst in a clash between Canada and India, an unexpected posthumous coda in the story of a man whose life was defined by bitter, conflicting nationalist forces.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced this week that Canadian security agencies had heard “credible allegations of a potential link between agents of the Government of India” and Mr. Nijjar’s murder, reinforcing the worst fears of members of the Sikh diaspora who support an independent state while infuriating other South Asians and reigniting old rancours.
He was a co-ordinator in a non-binding referendum in support of an independent Sikh homeland, a movement that the Indian government has tied to an insurgency from Sikh separatists in the 1980s. But despite India’s designating him a terrorist, Mr. Nijjar’s family and supporters say India hasn’t shown any evidence he was violent.
“My father’s words, they were like bullets to India,” his son said.
Balraj added that his father had been meeting with members of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, who had warned that there were threats against him.
Mr. Nijjar had been working with a U.S.-based group, Sikhs for Justice, which India considers unlawful because of its secessionist aims. SFJ general counsel Gurpatwant Pannun said Mr. Nijjar had also told him about the threats. Nevertheless, he said his associate remained dedicated to his cause. “He did not worry about his life,” Mr. Pannun said in an interview.
Mr. Nijjar was born in 1977, in the Punjabi village of Bhar Singh Pura.
His childhood unfolded amid cycles of violence and retaliation: the Indian army’s assault against Sikh separatists at Amritsar’s Golden Temple, the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by Sikh bodyguards, the ensuing massacre of Sikhs during riots in 1984, the 1985 bombings that killed two airport baggage handlers and 329 people aboard Air India Flight 182, including 280 Canadians.
In a 1998 affidavit filed in his refugee claim after he arrived in Canada, Mr. Nijjar said Indian police detained his father and brother in the early 1990s. His father was later released on bail.
On Aug. 31, 1995, a bomb blast killed Punjab’s Chief Minister, Beant Singh. Three days later, Mr. Nijjar, who was 17 at the time, was arrested. He said police beat him with a stick and applied electrical current to his genitals.
He said he was released thanks to a bribe and his family sent him to live with a distant relative but renewed police interest forced him to flee to Canada.
According to immigration papers filed in court, he landed in Toronto in February 1997, carrying a false passport and his hair cut short to hide his Sikh identity. The passport was in the name of “Ravi Sharma” and Mr. Nijjar said he used a fabricated identification at the suggestion of a travel agent helping him get to Canada.
He explained that he deviated from the Sikhs’ tradition of letting hair grow to evade Indian police and enter Canada more easily. But, at the time, a Canadian immigration officer thought it showed that he was “willing to compromise deeply held values to gain an objective.”
As in other chapters of his life, an irreconcilable gap stood between how Mr. Nijjar and his close ones described him, and the way he was perceived by officials.
He moved to Surrey and started working for a plumbing firm. His refugee claim was rejected in May, 1998. The adjudicators cited inconsistencies in his story and thought a doctor’s note from India was bogus because of its poor English, including misspelling testicles as “intesticlals” when describing his torture injuries.
The next month, while Mr. Nijjar appealed the decision, he met a divorced Sikh woman who had permanent residency status. They agreed to an arranged marriage. He said it was set up by the uncle of a friend.
His application for a judicial review of his refugee claim was denied on Nov. 4 but he got married on Nov. 21, according to court documents.
Mr. Nijjar and his wife asked that he be exempted from regular visa requirements, for humanitarian reasons. Instead, an immigration officer told him to apply “in the normal manner.”
Neither Balraj nor Mr. Pannun could say what exactly happened next, and there are no public records that detail precisely how he became a Canadian citizen. But federal Immigration Minister Marc Miller confirmed this week that Mr. Nijjar acquired Canadian nationality on May 25, 2007 (Mr. Miller first said this took place in 2015 before correcting the date).
By then, Mr. Nijjar had two sons and his own plumbing business. He began his activism with Mr. Pannun, working on a campaign to have the 1984 anti-Sikh riots recognized as genocide. He joined a delegation to United Nations offices in Geneva in 2013 to submit a petition.
Around that period, Indian authorities started depicting him as an extremist threat. In a 2014 public notice, they said he was wanted in connection with a bomb plot, without releasing the details of his alleged role in this conspiracy. At the same time, relations between Canada and India took a more acrimonious tone following the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
According to Indian media in 2016, an intelligence report stated that Mr. Nijjar was wanted in connection with a bomb blast in a cinema, that he headed a group called Khalistan Terror Force, and that he trained militants at a range in Mission, B.C.
Mr. Nijjar denied the claims and wrote a letter to Mr. Trudeau saying he supported the right of Sikhs to self-determination but insisted he had “never believed in, supported or been involved in any violent activity.”
Two years later, he became president of one of Surrey’s main Sikh temples, the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara. The temple’s society is a federally-registered charity that, last year, declared revenues of $3.7-million, mostly from donations.
Mr. Nijjar’s gurdwara involvement was a logical extension of his community aims, Mr. Pannun said. He recalled that his associate stated that “we must have some platform where we can guide our community in the right direction, and where we can always help them.”
Balraj said his father’s activism wasn’t limited to the Sikh community. The gurdwara provided aid to B.C. flood victims, helped resettle refugees from Afghanistan and expressed support for Indigenous survivors of residential schools.
But Mr. Nijjar also played a key role in the referendum on Khalistan, a separate homeland for Sikhs. “He was the main co-ordinator of the Canadian chapter of the Khalistan referendum,” Mr. Pannun said.
Meanwhile, in July, 2020, the Indian government formally designated him a terrorist. The official government listing said he headed a group called Khalistan Tiger Force and used social media “to spread insurrectionary imputations and hateful speeches.”
At home, he and the gurdwara were sued by other Sikhs over custody of printing material. In a court filing, Mr. Nijjar said the dispute started when two Sikhs – Ripudaman Singh Malik, who was acquitted in the Air India bombings, and an associate, Balwant Singh Bhandher – started printing Sikhism’s religious scriptures, despite an edict by a religious authority banning such independent publishing. Mr. Nijjar said the two men were ordered by a religious leader to hand over the material to the temple.
Mr. Malik was shot and killed in 2022, a slaying that put a spotlight on that litigation, but Mr. Nijjar told the media that there was no animosity between him and the slain Sikh militant. Two men, unconnected to the printing press dispute, were charged with first-degree murder by police a few weeks after Mr. Malik’s death.
Another death troubled Mr. Nijjar last summer. On June 15, a prominent Sikh secessionist, Avtar Singh Khanda, passed away in a British hospital. Doctors said he died from natural causes but there was speculation in the South Asian diaspora that he had been poisoned.
It was in that apprehensive atmosphere that Mr. Nijjar met the congregation three days later. “Everyone within the community was kind of worried … it was kind of common knowledge within the community that they’re coming after my father,” Balraj recalled.
That evening, while Mr. Nijjar was in the gurdwara’s parking lot, two masked men shot him dead.