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Assassination of Sikh Leader in Canada Highlights Modi’s Embrace of Authoritarianism in India & Abroad

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We speak to Arjun Sethi, a Sikh community activist, civil rights lawyer and professor at Georgetown Law, about Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s public accusations that the Indian government arranged the assassination of a prominent Sikh leader and Canadian citizen outside a Sikh temple in British Columbia in June. India has denied the allegations. Hardeep Singh Nijjar was a prominent leader in the Khalistan movement, a Sikh separatist movement that advocates for the formation of an independent Sikh homeland in the northwest Indian state of Punjab. He had been designated a terrorist by India’s Hindu nationalist government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has long been accused of targeting Sikh leaders at home and abroad. Sethi says that India’s extension of minority group persecution to foreign soil shows the world “just how emboldened the Modi administration is.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Tension is escalating between Canada and India after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau publicly accused agents of the Indian government of assassinating a prominent Canadian Sikh leader outside a temple in the city of Surrey in British Columbia in June. Hardeep Singh Nijjar, who was a Canadian citizen, was shot dead by two masked gunmen who escaped in a waiting car. In an address to the Canadian Parliament Monday, Trudeau accused India of orchestrating the assassination.

PRIME MINISTER JUSTIN TRUDEAU: Any involvement of a foreign government in the killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil is an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty. It is contrary to the fundamental rules by which free, open and democratic societies conduct themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: Hardeep Singh Nijjar was a prominent leader in the Khalistan movement, a Sikh separatist movement which advocates for the formation of an independent Sikh homeland in the northwest Indian state of Punjab. India’s government, which is led by the hard-line Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, had designated Nijjar as a terrorist, claiming he was the leader of a militant group. While the Indian government has denied involvement in his murder, India has long been accused of targeting Sikh leaders at home and abroad. Hardeep Singh Nijjar’s son, Balraj Nijjar, spoke on Tuesday.

BALRAJ NIJJAR: It was just a matter of time for when the truth would come out. So, when we heard that news today, it was a sense of relief that, you know, it’s finally coming to the public eyes that the Indian government is involved.

AMY GOODMAN: The assassination was also condemned by Mukhbir Singh of the World Sikh Organization of Canada.

MUKHBIR SINGH: You know, the younger generation that grew up in Canada, they grew up hearing stories about the persecution, about the fear of speaking out a little too much, and you might get on a list or be targeted. And so, to see that happening right now in 2023 in Canada, you know, it’s certainly shocking. And I hope the larger community sees that and understands how truly shocking this is to see a Canadian attacked on Canadian soil by a foreign country. I think we can’t understate how shocking that news is.

AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, Canada expelled India’s top intelligence official in Canada. In response, India expelled a senior Canadian diplomat.

We’re joined now by Arjun Singh Sethi. He is a human rights lawyer, an adjunct professor at Georgetown Law. He is a member of the Sikh community.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, under very terrible circumstances. Can you explain what happened in June, and then how this all became public with the prime minister of Canada denouncing India and apparently having these meetings with Narendra Modi and President Biden at the G20 summit in India?

ARJUN SETHI: Thank you so much for having me on the show.

In June, Hardeep Singh Nijjar was leaving a gurdwara, a Sikh house of worship, when he was violently gunned down, under very mysterious, suspicious circumstances. Some in the Canadian Sikh community had long suspected that the Indian government was responsible. Fast-forward several months, really to this week, and we hear from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the floor of the Canadian Parliament alleging that the Indian government orchestrated the assassination of a Canadian Sikh citizen in cold blood on account of protected political speech.

And so, Sikhs across Canada, the United States and the world who are engaged in protected speech are concerned. And so are others. We’ve seen this administration, the Modi regime, target Muslims, Dalits, Sikhs, Christians. And so this is a warning to anyone engaged in activism, anyone engaged in speech, that you could be next.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the Modi government has claimed now for years that Nijjar was a terrorist. Can you explain the basis of these allegations by the Modi government and what his activism was about?

ARJUN SETHI: Sure. So, Mr. Nijjar came to Canada in the '90s. He later became a Canadian citizen. And as you know, that is a vetted process. And so, clearly, the Canadian government determined he wasn't a threat.

And then, in 2020, when the Indian government labeled him a terrorist, they did so under the UAPA, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, which human rights bodies have routinely called draconian, regressive and other things, because it allows the Indian government to label someone a terrorist without due process and without trial. And so, we’ve seen the Indian government use that law to imprison Stan Swamy, a Jesuit priest; Umar Khalid, a longtime Muslim activist; Khurram Parvez, a Kashmiri journalist. And it’s this same law that the Indian government used to target Mr. Nijjar. Again, it’s draconian. And part of the outcome of this investigation and process is that this law should be denounced and really abandoned by the Indian government, because, again, human rights bodies have called for that for a long time.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk about some of the persecution that has been occurring under the Modi government against minorities within India, especially of the Sikhs?

ARJUN SETHI: Sure. I mean, let’s go back. You know, as the chief minister of Gujarat in 2002, Modi authorized and enabled the Gujarat pogrom, in which thousands of Muslims died. It was on account of that that he was banned from entering the United States for more than 10 years. And so he was treated as a pariah because of his role in the 2002 Gujarat pogrom.

As prime minister, we’ve seen countless human rights violations. We saw the Indian government roll back the autonomy of Kashmir and commit human rights atrocities there. We’ve seen India lead the world in internet blackouts. We’ve seen the Modi administration push forward the Citizenship Amendment Act, the National Registry of Citizens, which are mechanisms really to just strip Muslims and others of citizenship. Hate violence in India today, specifically targeting Muslims and Dalits, is so commonplace that sometimes it’s organized online and the videos uploaded for the world to see.

Just recently, and in a terrible mistake, President Biden celebrated Modi with a state dinner, and the United States Congress welcomed him with a joint address. Meanwhile, hundreds of churches were burning in Manipur, and we didn’t hear anything from Prime Minister Modi.

AMY GOODMAN: Arjun Singh Sethi, if you can talk about threats to the Sikh community worldwide? It’s sort of on a model of Russians who have been poisoned in different countries outside of Russia, or Operation Condor decades ago outside of Chile but organized by the Chilean government. Can you talk about what Sikhs face? And is this assassination unusual?

ARJUN SETHI: So, let me sort of go back for a second and provide a deeper context. And that context really goes back to the 1980s. In the wake of the assassination of Indira Gandhi, thousands of Sikhs were murdered in pogroms in Delhi and across India. Those Sikhs and those families are still awaiting justice decades later. In the years that followed, thousands of Sikhs were murdered across Punjab and enforcibly disappeared by the Indian government. There’s a wonderful human rights organization that documents this work, called Ensaaf, in the United States, and I encourage everyone to check it out.

And so, Sikhs who have engaged in activism in India have long been targeted. And we’ve also seen that Sikhs in the diaspora who engage in activism face a variety of consequences. In some cases, Sikhs are prohibited from entering India. In some cases, the Indian government refuses to grant them visas. In some cases, their social media feeds are blocked on X and other platforms. And as you point out, we’ve long suspected that the Indian government has been behind targeted assassinations in other countries, as well.

What makes this story particularly unique is that it’s the Canadian government. And it shows just how emboldened the Modi administration is. And this is what happens when the world decides to embrace an authoritarian leader like Narendra Modi. Narendra Modi should be uttered in the same breath as Putin, as Mohammed bin Salman. But when you give him a pass, when you empower and embolden him, he brings terror to a neighborhood near you. And that’s what we’re seeing in Canada today.

AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, World Sikh Organization of Canada President Mukhbir Singh and the National Council of Canadian Muslims CEO Stephen Brown held a news conference at the House of Commons in Ottawa, Canada. This is Brown speaking about the threats the RSS Hindu nationalist movement poses to both the Muslim and Sikh communities.

STEPHEN BROWN: Members of the Muslim community and the Sikh community and many other communities have been complaining for years that they have been targeted by harassment and threats by individuals and associations affiliated with the RSS. And for years we’ve been talking to this about the — about this topic to the Canadian government, and nothing has been done, which is why we are asking right now for the Canadian government to ban the RSS from Canada and expulse its agents from the country.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, talk about what you see happening now in Canada with this all becoming so public — of course, so was the assassination in June — but with the throwing out of the top Indian intelligence official, and then India retaliating, throwing out a Canadian official — where you see this heading right now. Also extremely inconvenient for President Biden, who is trying to improve relations with Narendra Modi at this point as he sets up new alliances.

ARJUN SETHI: So, I live in the United States. Sikhs represent, I believe, almost 2% of the Canadian population. The Canadian government over the years has welcomed Sikhs who have been persecuted in India. And so, I would absolutely defer to them.

Having said that, you are seeing Sikhs protest, speak out, organize, because, again, a Sikh activist, who ran a plumbing business, who was a pillar of Sikh society in Vancouver, was murdered in cold blood. And so it is to be expected that they are fearful. And they want answers.

The Indian government, I believe, last night summarily dismissed the claims, and Prime Minister Trudeau doubled down and asked again for the Modi administration to cooperate. And the Biden administration has said so, as well.

And so, next steps include bringing the individuals who executed Mr. Nijjar to account, a comprehensive investigation that documents who approved this targeted assassination, and a deeper conversation really about the fact that India is not the world’s largest democracy. India is the world’s largest authoritarian regime.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of the position of the Canadian prime minister, Trudeau has not exactly been a profile in courage in terms of differing with the United States when it comes to policy around the world. Do you expect that this, this strong stand of Trudeau, is going to have an impact on the United States, as well?

ARJUN SETHI: I hope so. You know, as I already mentioned, the Biden administration has somehow taken the approach that it is sufficient to have private conversations with the Modi regime, and that somehow that will nudge the Modi regime to be more respectful of human rights. But, in fact, it’s the opposite. When we roll the red carpet out for Prime Minister Modi at the same time that he is perpetrating human rights atrocities, it emboldens him further.

And so, I do hope the Biden administration pays close attention. I do hope the Biden administration realizes that the time for private engagement is over. The world needs to come together and ask difficult questions of the Modi regime, questions that really should have been posed a long time ago. Again, Narendra Modi showed the world who he was a long time ago, and it’s time that we listen.

AMY GOODMAN: Arjun Singh Sethi, we thank you so much for being with us, human rights lawyer, adjunct professor at Georgetown Law School, member of the Sikh community, speaking to us from Nashville, Tennessee.

Next up, we look at the growing calls for the Biden administration to drop charges against the imprisoned publisher Julian Assange. We’ll hear from the Brazilian President Lula and play a clip of our exclusive interview with the Colombian President Gustavo Petro, and we’ll talk to an Australian senator who’s just flown in to Washington, D.C., as part of a delegation to lobby the U.S. to abandon its plan to extradite Julian Assange from Britain. Stay with us.

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