The killing of Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada has exposed a big problem for US foreign policy.
The man, named Hardeep Singh Nijjar, was killed in British Columbia back in June. He was a global leader in the Sikh separatist movement, which called for an independent state on land currently inside the Indian state of Punjab. New Delhi had previously alleged that Nijjar was not merely an activist, but a militant involved in terrorist plots. Now he’s dead — and the Canadian government believes India is responsible.
It is hard to know how accurate these allegations are: Canada has not shared the intelligence supporting its claim publicly, and India has vehemently denied responsibility. But the Canadians did share their findings with other Western intelligence agencies before publicly pointing a finger at India. And it would be a disaster for Trudeau, both at home and abroad, to make such an allegation and for it to be proven false.
India’s foreign intelligence agency — the Research and Analysis Wing, or RAW — is widely believed to regularly spy on Sikhs abroad. One Sikh diaspora source I spoke to while reporting this article refused to speak on the record due to previous threats made by Indian agents against family members still residing in the country.
But the killing of a NATO country’s citizen inside their borders would represent a massive and worrying escalation. In the 21st century, fellow democracies almost never assassinate each other’s citizens on each other’s territory, even if they are suspected of serious crimes. “Transnational repression,” the political science term for going after dissidents and critics abroad, is typically practiced by the world’s most brutal regimes — places like China, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.
“Most of us still believe that we’re the good guys and our government doesn’t do this kind of thing,” the Indian economist Mihir Sharma writes in Bloomberg. “If India actually did conduct an assassination on Western soil — which its foreign ministry strongly denies — it would represent a pretty major escalation of the country’s covert struggle against both non-violent dissidents and active supporters of militant separatism abroad.”
India has been moving in a distinctly autocratic direction for some years. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in power since 2014, has led an escalating war against India’s democratic institutions — attacking press freedoms, weaponizing security services against his political opponents, and demonizing the Muslim minority. Viewed in this light, killing a Sikh dissident abroad would be yet another sign that the world’s largest country is traveling down a dangerous road.
All of this has put the United States in a very tough spot.
The Biden administration’s grand strategic vision has centered on rallying the democratic world against an aggressive Russia and rising China. But in practice, its foreign policy is not as idealistic as that framing might suggest. India is a case in point: Despite its retreat from democracy, New Delhi’s growing power and proximity to China has led Washington to downplay its concerns.
But if India truly has carried out this brazen killing in Canada, America’s neighbor and largest trading partner, then the United States is faced with a choice. It can stand up for its NATO ally and democratic values, or it can continue turning a relatively blind eye to an increasingly autocratic India in the name of (allegedly) protecting democracy’s future from the Chinese threat.
How Canada got roped into an Indian fight over secession
To understand how India-Canada relations reached this low point, you need to understand a little bit about historical tensions between the Sikhs and the Indian government — and the role Canada has played in them.
The Sikh religious minority in India numbers about 22 million people — a little under 2 percent of the massive (and majority Hindu) Indian population. But in the northern Indian state of Punjab, Sikhs constitute a majority. Some Sikhs believe that they’d be better off in an independent country, built out of Punjab, that they call Khalistan.
The conflict between the Indian government and Sikh separatists really kicked off in the 1980s. In 1984, the Indian Army attacked the Golden Temple, the holiest site in Sikhism, which was sheltering a militant separatist leader. In retaliation, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards assassinated her when she was en route to an interview. For roughly a decade afterward, the Indian government conducted a low-level counterinsurgency campaign against Khalistani militants in Punjab — a conflict that claimed some 30,000 lives.
The Canadian government was not involved in this struggle. But the North American country is home to the largest Sikh population outside of India; in fact, Sikhs make up a larger percentage of the population in Canada than in India. Canada’s Sikh diaspora emerged as a hotbed of support for the Khalistan movement, at times to deadly effect.
In 1985, Sikh militants planted a bomb on Air India Flight 182, originating in Toronto, and killed all 329 passengers when the plane exploded over the Atlantic. The attack was planned and executed on Canadian soil, leading Indian intelligence to become deeply concerned about pro-separatist tension in the Sikh diaspora (both in Canada and elsewhere). The RAW has continued to involve itself in their internal politics, including recruiting spies in Sikh cultural and political organizations abroad.
“India has a very capable intelligence agency and views Canada as a threat — and they act accordingly,” says Stephanie Carvin, an expert on intelligence at Carleton University in Ottawa.
Sikh politics — and by extension, the Sikh diaspora — have become a more pressing concern for India in recent years, as the seemingly moribund Khalistani cause experienced a minor revival. The proximate cause appears to be a series of protests in 2020 and 2021 — the largest anti-government protests since Modi took power — led by a group of heavily Sikh farmers. While the vast bulk of protests focused on agricultural reform, a small minority of the demonstrators seemed sympathetic to secession.
“Internally, we are all for Khalistan,” protest leader Gurcharan Singh Bapuji told the Washington Post. “If we had our own Khalistan, we wouldn’t have to beg in protests like this.”
Since then, the Indian government has been increasingly vocal about its concerns about Khalistani terrorism. It’s unclear how serious the threat is; there have indeed been some violent incidents, but nothing approaching the level of the 1980s. Yet the Indian government’s actions this year have been dramatic: authorities in Punjab have shut down the internet, censored social media, and arrested over 200 people.
It makes sense that, in this context, the Indian government would become more concerned the activities of the Sikh diaspora — where support for Khalistan is significantly more prominent than it is in Punjab itself. It also makes sense that the Canadian government would be skeptical of India’s claims that one of its citizens was planning terrorist attacks in India.
The slain Canadian, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, was indeed a vocal advocate for an independent Khalistan. But there’s limited public evidence that he had taken the next step into actually planning violence in Punjab: The New York Times reported that he’s virtually unknown in the state. Nijjar himself had long denied charges of supporting or planning violence, claiming that India had never formally requested his extradition.
But Nijjar worried that violence was coming for him. Shortly before his killing, he claimed to be on a “hit list” in an interview with a Canadian journalist.
“I am already on the enemy’s target,” he said.
How this controversy affects America — and the future of global democracy
It’s hardly uncommon for democratic states to have political tensions with each other, or conduct intelligence operations on the other’s territory. Typically, though, an allegation that a foreign democracy’s citizen is guilty of crimes would be handled through an extradition request. It’s generally quite rare for a democracy to kill another’s citizen at all, and intensely controversial when it happens — just look at Israel’s recent killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.
But even that happened inside the Israeli-controlled West Bank, not on American soil. It’s nearly unheard of for a democracy to kill another’s citizen on its territory, as it’s such an extreme violation of the principle of national sovereignty that it demands a significant diplomatic response, one that could cause a crisis in bilateral relations.
For this reason, the Canadian government reportedly tried to handle this issue discreetly — with little to show for it. When Trudeau raised Nijjar’s killing privately with Modi at the G-20 meeting in India in early September, the Indian prime minister released a public statement criticizing Trudeau for tolerating virulent anti-India protests among Canadian Sikhs.
Given the failure of private diplomacy and the severity of the charges, Trudeau seemingly felt he had no choice but to go public with allegations. The result has been an escalating diplomatic war: Canada expelled an Indian diplomat suspected to be the head of RAW in their country, leading India to expel a senior Canadian diplomat in retaliation. Indian-Canadian relations appear to be at their lowest point in history, and it’s not clear exactly when and how they’ll get better.
This isn’t just a problem for the two countries involved. It is a big mess, in particular, for the United States — a country that claims to be leading a global movement to defend democracy but also is attempting to recruit autocratizing India as a partner in its efforts to contain China.
“Biden has been talking a good game about Western liberal values, the rule-based international order, yadda yadda yadda. But if your ally is getting people whacked, [then] what?” says Steve Saideman, an international relations professor at Carleton University.
So far, the White House has supported Canada’s investigation into the killing and called for the perpetrators to be brought to justice. But that’s relatively costless. The situation really becomes messy if the Canadians surface hard evidence that this killing was conducted by India and authorized at the highest levels.
If that were the case, then a blanket commitment to liberal values would demand America take a harder line on India — the way it did after Russia poisoned two dissidents in the UK in 2018. But in practice, India may prove far too important to America’s counter-China campaign to alienate.
In this respect, the situation could end up resembling another 2018 case of transnational repression: the Saudi killing of Jamal Khashoggi, an American permanent resident and Saudi murdered by the kingdom’s agents in Turkey.
Initially, it seemed that Biden might take a hard line on the killing. He vowed during the 2020 campaign to turn Saudi Arabia into a “pariah” in response and tried to keep the Saudis at arm’s length during his first year in office. But as his term went on, issues like rising gas prices, the Ukraine war, and competition with China changed the calculus. Biden has increasingly cozied up to the Saudis, even floating a formal agreement to defend Saudi Arabia in exchange for a peace agreement with Israel. The kingdom, with its pivotal role in the oil market and Middle East geopolitics, simply proved too important to marginalize.
India is considerably more powerful than Saudi Arabia. It is much larger, nuclear-armed, and located in a more important neighborhood. Moreover, India’s alleged victim has no direct ties to the United States. It’s likely that, in the long run, the US will do its best to mollify Canada’s (seemingly justified) anger without jeopardizing its relationship with New Delhi.
The problem of allying with human rights abusers is of course a perennial one for democratic states. Throughout the Cold War, the United States repeatedly backed repressive regimes, even murderous ones, in the name of combating communism. In those cases, the costs in human life were rarely worth the strategic benefit.
But the problem is especially acute today, when the administration is trying to position itself as the champion of global democracy against a rising autocratic wave. If what you’re doing isn’t merely working against a geostrategic rival, but championing the very idea of democracy, how can you justify building such a close relationship with India — a country rapidly sliding down an autocratic path to the point where it’s willing to kill the citizen of a NATO ally in North America?
You can’t, of course. Seemingly recognizing the problem, the Biden team has recently downplayed its democracies-versus-autocracies rhetoric in public.
“I do think we are dealing with the gathering and march of autocratic forces,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said in June. “[But Biden] has also been clear that in that larger effort, we need constructive relationships with countries of all different traditions and backgrounds.”
This awkwardness points to a fundamental problem in the “democracies-versus-autocracies” geopolitical frame: a conflation between challenges to democracy in the 21st century, on the one hand, and increasingly aggressive foreign policies in Moscow and Beijing on the other. The latter is certainly a problem, but not the principal cause of the former: Democratic backsliding in countries like India and the United States is primarily a function of domestic politics, not interference by Russia and China.
Sometimes, protecting democracy and checking authoritarian adventurism are overlapping causes: combating Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an obvious example. But other times, like US policy toward Modi’s India, they come into conflict. The controversy over Nijjar’s killing exposes this reality in an especially clear way — one that should cause policymakers in Washington to question what it really means to stand for democracy in the 21st century.