Diplomatic Tensions have arisen between the two countries over the assassination of Canadian citizen and chief of the banned ‘Khalistan Tiger Force’ Hardeep Singh Nijjar in a parking area outside a gurdwara in Canada’s Surrey, British Columbia, on June 18, whom India designated a “terrorist” in 2020. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada has implicated India in the assassination by implying official involvement.
The Indian government has condemned the Canadian investigation into the murder as “tainted” and termed these heinous accusations “absurd”. In addition to drawing attention to the topic of foreign sovereignty, the Nijjar killing has clouded Canadian-Indian relations and raised questions about its possible impact on bilateral investment and trade.
Sanjay Verma, the Indian high commissioner in Ottawa, hinted at a lack of openness and justice in the proceedings and accused Canada of conducting a biased inquiry into Nijjar’s death. Amid the diplomatic chaos, India’s Minister for External Affairs called the Canadian envoy, which resulted in the expulsion of a top Canadian official from India.
This action came soon after Canada decided to deport Pavan Kumar Rai, head of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s external intelligence agency, from Ottawa due to claims that the Indian government was involved in the Khalistani activist’s assassination. In a quid pro quo move, India demanded that Canada reduce its diplomatic representation in India by more than two-thirds, raising the stakes even higher.
Trudeau’s lack of firm evidence and the apathetic reaction from his allies in the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence alliance have further strengthened New Delhi’s unwavering denial of the allegations, contributing to a diplomatic dispute that is swiftly intensifying. The ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence alliance is a cooperation agreement between five English-speaking countries—the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand—for sharing signals intelligence and collaborating on security and defence policies.
However, not everyone accepts India’s denials. In Karachi, decorated war veteran and Pugwash Conferences member Lieutenant-General Talat Masood was reported to have commented that the allegation had some merit because Canada was a great friend of India. Trudeau, a close compatriot of India, would never speak negatively about India unless he was absolutely certain. On the contrary, it seemed that he was expressing profound dismay over India’s heinous act in a friendly nation.
Canada Pandering to Khalistanis
All senior military, international relations and covert operations personnel contacted by the media enterprises reiterated India’s public denial of any involvement in the Nijjar assassination. Curiously, however, there is no dearth of individuals who accuse Canada of pandering to the Khalistanis amid the denials.
The Indian government has condemned the Canadian investigation into the murder as “tainted” and termed these heinous accusations “absurd”. In addition to drawing attention to the topic of foreign sovereignty, the Nijjar killing has clouded Canadian-Indian relations and raised questions about its possible impact on bilateral investment and trade
Even Masood seemed to echo this viewpoint when queried about his characterization of Canada as a country “friendly” towards India, given that it has served as sanctuary for those seeking an independent Khalistan. The world, especially the West, was full of people who differed strongly with the governments of India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and other nations, he told The Diplomat. It wasn’t as if countries like Canada “promoted” the presence of individuals who opposed India or any other nation. But they readily accepted them if they perceived them to be normal in all other respects—not exactly “embrace” them, but “tolerate” them.
Evidence Which RAW Has Offered
Canada had been repeatedly provided with evidence, Aravind Hippargi, senior RAW operative until very recently, told The Diplomat, denying the claim that India had not pursued legal action to resolve its concerns regarding Nijjar. Videos that showed Nijjar and other Khalistan members firing from their automatic weapons in what seemed to be British Columbia had been presented, he said. Refusing to affirm or deny any information regarding Nijjar’s assassination, however, he said these items were not presented to the civilian government as recorded evidence, but as part of a back-channel intelligence exchange.
In the light of Canada’s lack of concrete evidence and India’s denial of the accusation, the Nijjar murder controversy is unlikely to make much more headway. On the other hand, the assassination of another Sikh separatist, Paramjit Singh Panjwar of the Khalistan Commando Force, which occurred in Lahore on May 6 this year, bears remarkable similarities to Nijjar’s murder. The methodical accuracy with which these assassinations were carried out—both men were executed by plainclothes, motorcycle-riding gunmen armed with small arms for swift, targeted killings—is difficult to disregard and suggests a pattern that surpasses mere coincidence.
Both Nijjar and Panjwar were at a standstill in their nationalist activities before the farmers’ protests in Delhi in 2020-2021 and the rise of a pro-Khalistan sympathy wave. These events gave them new energy to pursue their cause. Their growing media attention and advocacy for armed resistance against India, accompanied by their plea for global support for Pakistan over India, made them an obvious target.
When asked for an interview, Hormis Tharakkan, the former head of RAW, declined to engage in conversation. However, when questioned about India’s track record of extrajudicial killings overseas, he responded briefly, saying that there was no such history!
The Message Behind Bashir Killing
But Samrat Upadhyay, who used to work for RAW in Afghanistan and Pakistan, told a different story. Upadhyay talked to The Diplomat a few years ago about Khalid Bashir, head of security for Hafiz Saeed, who is the leader of the Islamist group, Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) in Pakistan and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which is its armed branch. Bashir’s killing sent a message loud and clear to Hafiz Saeed: We can get to you whenever we want to, Upadhyay told the media house.
Not only was Bashir very important for ensuring Saeed’s safety, but he was also in charge of managing the movements of his compatriot whom the UN had called a “terrorist” and India said he planned the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Bashir had been loyal to Saeed and the JuD for a long time; he joined the group about 25 years before he died. He worked hard over the years and became the head of security, an important part of how the group did its work.
His killing on May 19, 2013, had shocked the Pakistani military and political establishment. Bashir had left his house after getting a call from a close friend. His body was found in a ditch on May 19, with torture marks on it. Bashir’s murder remains unsolved. There was never any proof of who made the vital phone call, or who had killed Bashir, even after a thorough inquiry by Pakistan and charges against India.
Upadhyay talked to The Diplomat a few years ago about Khalid Bashir, head of security for Hafiz Saeed, who is the leader of the Islamist group, Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) in Pakistan and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which is its armed branch. Bashir’s killing sent a message loud and clear to Hafiz Saeed: We can get to you whenever we want to, Upadhyay told the media house
Less-Known String of Murders in Pak
And, despite the fact that the Nijjar assassination has received considerable attention from the international media, Bashir’s case and another string of murders in Pakistan have received scant coverage. The infamous hijacking of the Indian Airlines flight IC-814 on December 24, 1999, is associated with these murders. After many years, the people involved are now being killed one by one by unknown killers who use a very similar method to the one that killed Nijjar.
As of 2018, the first murder in the series in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) was that of Mohammad Ismael, a Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT) member. This murder set the tone for what looks like a planned attack on people linked to the IC814 hijack.
After five years, the thread was still running. Bashir Ahmed of the Hizb-ul Mujahideen died in Rawalpindi on February 20 in rather much the same way. A few days later, Khalid Raza of the Al-Badar died in Karachi. Most recently, Mohammed Riyaz of the LeT was gunned down in a mosque in PoK on September 8 this year. Each killing looked like a clinical murder and did not leave many, if any, signs.
The killing of Zahoor Mistry—another IC-814 hijack protagonist—sticks out among these homicides as the one that most closely adheres to the Nijjar assassination pattern. Mistry had become a furniture store owner under a new identity alias, Zahid Akhund. However, this did not stop his murder. Two attackers on bikes killed him in Karachi on March 1, 2022. A few weeks after Mistry’s death, Zafarullah Jamali, Zahoor’s fellow hijacker in the IC-814 incident, met his death in a different area of Karachi. Jamail was getting ready to run away and hide, but he wasn’t fast enough.
Pattern Exists Beyond the Denials
Despite denials and diplomacy, the cross-border formation of such a pattern suggests the possibility of a covert, potentially state-sponsored assassination programme targeting people seen to be long-term dangers or loose ends from previous conflicts. It is possible that the global press is not talking about these killings because they are not as important as Nijjar’s murder in Canada, which got a lot of attention.
According to Masood, countries do whatever they think will hurt their enemy when they do not get along with them and the possibility of war is on the table. In Canada, it is important to maintain a certain level of standards even in a challenging political situation, or when there are notable differences. However, when there is a conflict or war happening, there are no limits to what can be done. Indian intelligence agents, similar to those in the Nijjar case, deny that their government was implicated in these murders.
Colonel MB—a member of the Technical Support Division (TSD) established by former Indian Army Chief-turned-Minister of State for External Affairs General VK Singh and subsequently abolished after the Manmohan Singh government subjected it to intense scrutiny for violating protocols of jurisdiction and mishandling classified information—has now responded, This could not have been India—at least, not directly, he told The Diplomat when asked about the Panjwar and IC-814 hijacker murders.
According to Masood, countries do whatever they think will hurt their enemy when they do not get along with them and the possibility of war is on the table. In Canada, it is important to maintain a certain level of standards even in a challenging political situation, or when there are notable differences. However, when there is a conflict or war happening, there are no limits to what can be done
The colonel, describing the operations of the Punjab police in Pakistan, stated that CCTVs cover the entire region, especially the urban areas. With one exception, video documentation of the murders does not exist, encompassing the identities and vehicles of the perpetrators. A target on a list of individuals to be executed would be constantly captured on camera.
Colonel MB elaborated that India was unsuitable for certain tasks. He stated that this was one of the aspects of which India was incapable. He postulated that Pakistan was eager to eliminate these individuals, stating that a rogue state, such as Pakistan, would occasionally eliminate undesirables when they were no longer required and that this marked the initial phase of a purge. In addition, given the current state of Pakistan’s economy, he added, this was an excellent method to save money.
RAW’s Hippargi has a different idea about what happened with Nijjar, hypothesizing that Nijjar may have been killed in a gang war. It was well-known that Khalistanis in Canada had many splinter groups. It was possible that a rival gang had bumped off Nijjar. Since Trudeau’s popularity was slipping very fast, he was trying hard to keep the Khalistani vote bank and money from turning against him.
Canada & the West’s Hypocrisy
Critics affiliated with the Indian establishment, including podcasters, political influencers and journalists, have promptly retaliated against Canada and its Western allies on the grounds of hypocrisy. They imply that these countries are accepting India’s guilt in the case without concrete evidence. Hippargi stated that the West has been the greatest violator of the so-called international rules-based order. They carried out assassinations in any location they pleased, but then shouted about human rights abuse from the rooftop when India did the same.
When a reporter pointed out to Masood that the US had initiated its most extensive extraterritorial assassination of Osama bin-Laden during the presidency of Barack Obama, the foremost advocate of democratic and liberal values, the latter said that there was often a gulf of difference between what they preached and what they actually did.
All Big Countries Use Murder
All big countries used murder, Hippargi told The Diplomat. Irrespective of the value of human life or the importance of rule of law, planned assassinations, sometimes, became necessary. People broke the rules on a smaller level, he said, to keep things from getting worse on a larger level. And India was becoming a rising power with strong and independent national interests—as strong as the US, Russia and China put together, he added. So, it made sense that India might do certain things, although Hippargi did not specify exactly what things!
Every major nation did it, Hippargi repeated. Did Russia not do something similar in the poisoning incident in London? Hippargi was, obviously, referring to Alexander Litvinenko, a member of the Russian Federal Security Service, who fled the country and was later hunted down and killed by lethal polonium-210 radiation in November 2006
Every major nation did it, Hippargi repeated. Did Russia not do something similar in the poisoning incident in London? Hippargi was, obviously, referring to Alexander Litvinenko, a member of the Russian Federal Security Service, who fled the country and was later hunted down and killed by lethal polonium-210 radiation in November 2006.
In his final comments to The Diplomat, Masood said that, perhaps, there are times when even the government didn’t know what the intelligence agencies were doing.
I believe that India’s reputation will suffer once these things begin to happen. You also start to form a culture following this. You’re not only doing these things outside of your country, you’re also doing them inside your own country. Since no one’s watching, you could do it on a much bigger scale. It also goes against the whole idea that society should be based on the rule of law. That’s why I believe this should stop, especially in a free country like India.
-The writer is a Defence, Aerospace & Political Analyst based in Bengaluru. He is also Director of ADD Engineering Components, India, Pvt. Ltd, a subsidiary of ADD Engineering GmbH, Germany. You can reach out to him at: email@example.com