The family of a British Sikh activist who died last June is demanding a judicial inquiry into the cause of his death, citing revelations by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that Indian government agents may have killed a Canadian Sikh around the same time.
Avtar Singh Khanda died June 15 in a Birmingham hospital, three days before Hardeep Singh Nijjar was shot to death outside a Sikh temple in Surrey, B.C. Mr. Trudeau has said that Canadian security services were pursuing credible allegations that New Delhi was behind the murder. India’s Ministry of External Affairs has dismissed the allegations as absurd.
The hospital said Mr. Khanda’s death was caused by acute myeloid leukemia – an aggressive form of cancer – and a blood clot in his lungs. He died within four days of being admitted. His family said he was showing no signs of illness before he was admitted and believe he was poisoned.
West Midlands Police ruled out poisoning and said Mr. Khanda died of natural causes. “Following speculation surrounding the death of Avtar Singh Khanda, a thorough review was undertaken by West Midlands Police which concluded that there were no suspicious circumstances,” the force said in a statement.
On Monday, Michael Polak, a London-based lawyer representing the Khanda family, called on the Chief Coroner for England to open an inquest headed by a judge to investigate Mr. Khanda’s death.
“What we’re saying here is that there are highly suspicious circumstances given what we now know about what happened in Canada and the deaths of Sikh activists around the world,” Mr. Polak said. “And we say it’s very important for the Sikh community to know that when there are suspicious deaths in their community, that they will be protected and that a proper investigation will be carried out.”
He added that he was pleased Mr. Trudeau “was willing to defend and protect people in Canada rather than just look at political expediency.”
Mr. Polak said he hoped the inquiry would be able to review whatever intelligence about Mr. Nijjar’s killing Canadian officials received from their Five Eyes partners – Britain, the United States, Australia and New Zealand. “One of the things you need to answer is how much the U.K. authorities know about threats to Sikhs in the U.K. given that they’re part of the Five Eyes alliance,” he said.
Mr. Khanda, 35, had been a vocal advocate of the Khalistan movement, which aspires to create an independent homeland for Sikhs in India’s northern state of Punjab. His father, Kulwant Singh Khukhrana, was a prominent figure in the separatist movement in India during the 1980s, when the country was racked by violent unrest over calls for a Sikh state. He was killed by Indian police in 1992.
Mr. Khanda came to Britain 10 years ago as a student and later sought political asylum. Thousands of Sikhs from across Britain attended his funeral in Birmingham in June.
Jas Singh, an adviser to the Sikh Federation UK, said Mr. Khanda had received numerous death threats after a protest outside the Indian High Commission in London on March 19. Some windows were smashed during the protest, and two security guards were injured. An Indian flag was removed from a balcony and replaced with yellow banners.
Mr. Khanda was blamed for taking down the flag and was vilified by the Indian government and some Indian media, who accused him of being a terrorist, according to Mr. Singh. However, he said, Mr. Khanda was not involved in any of the incidents at the protest and had no criminal record.
He also said he spoke with Mr. Khanda a few days before he was admitted to the hospital. “We spoke personally for about an hour,” Mr. Singh said Monday, adding that Mr. Khanda did not indicate he was not well. “He talked about what was happening in Punjab. We talked about the future strategy. We talked about future plans.”
Mr. Polak said Mr. Khanda had received threats before the protest at the High Commission, but after March “he was named as ‘enemy No. 1.’ ”
“So you’ve got all this information that he was under some kind of threat, and then you’ve got this immediate, this very quick death,” he said. “So I think even if the events in Canada hadn’t happened, I think it’s still suspicious.”
He added that there have been other suspicious deaths of Sikh activists around the world, including the killing of Paramjit Singh Panjwar on May 6 in Pakistan.
Mr. Polak said there was no suggestion that Mr. Khanda and Mr. Nijjar, who was 45, knew each other or worked together.