The golden domes of the Gurdwara Guru Nanak Darbar color a soulless residential street. Since 2000, this temple has welcomed Sikhs from Montreal and the surrounding area. At the entrance, two flags of Khalistan fly, the name of the state desired by the Sikh independence activists of Punjab, India. A state that Hardeep Singh Nijjar, the Sikh leader who was shot dead in mid-June in front of his temple in British Columbia (western Canada), dreamed of. A murder signed by India, accuses Ottawa.
Surjit Singh, who presides over the Lasalle temple, is not reassured. “We know we are threatened. There, everyone realizes India’s way of operating. » Since Nijjar’s death, he no longer takes the same streets to get to the gurdwara. “It could happen here, I’m taking precautions.” »
A community that continues to grow
In the parking lot, three elders sunbathe, smiling, kirpan facing the autumn wind. Khuswant always feels safe. “There are more and more of us, we’re doing well!” » Of the 27 million Sikhs in the world, 770,000 live in Canada, compared to 145,000 in 1991. Khuswant is not seen elsewhere. “Here, only the most extreme are persecuted. »
Amrit Kaur does not, however, feel like an extremist. The young member of the Quebec section of the World Sikh Organization wakes up anxious. “My community tells me not to speak to journalists, otherwise I run the risk that India will revoke my right to return. But I won’t let it happen. I defend Khalistan. It is above all an idea, a space of freedom for us. »
On September 19, Ottawa expelled the head of the Canadian branch of the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), India’s foreign intelligence agency, who had been searching for Nijjar. How does this underground entity operate? For Dan Stanton, formerly of the Canadian secret services (CSIS), the agency is not perceived as hostile by Ottawa, unlike the Chinese services. “They are more collaborators than adversaries, and there are not many of them here. But they do not recognize the borders and hunt down Sikhs. »
Canadian protection in question
Everything changes between the two countries. “We didn’t think India could go this far. CSIS will no longer exchange information with RAW as before,” says Dan Stanton. The Canadian secret services and the Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs do not wish to comment on this matter, “to protect sensitive sources”, they write to us.
Since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused India of being behind Niijar’s death on September 19, Ottawa and Delhi have been paying blow for blow. Diplomats were sent back to their respective countries and India suspended the processing of Canadian visas.
Indian authorities regularly criticize Sikh temples abroad, which they consider to be terrorist nests. Does India have reason to fear Canada’s pro-Khalistan Sikhs? In 1985, Air India Flight 182 exploded over the Atlantic, caused by bombs planted in Canada. Toll: 329 dead. Sikh extremists were then suspected. The situation has evolved a lot since then, maintains Dan Stanton. “The violent fringe of the secessionist movement is dead. But India lives with this fear and Modi uses it for political purposes. »
For Mathieu Boisvert, of the Center for Studies and Research on India, South Asia and its Diaspora, tensions between Sikhs and Hindus are already palpable. “Several colleagues receive threats as soon as they talk about persecuted ethnocultural minorities in India, due to their alleged “Hinduphobia”. »
John Packer, director of the Center for Research and Education on Human Rights in Ottawa, also believes that Sikhs in Canada have reason to be concerned. “The threat to Mr. Nijjar was known, and he died. So Canadian protection was not effective.” He also believes that his murder sends a message to other activists in exile. “Regimes saw that it was possible and easy to assassinate their opponents in Canada. »
Sikh separatism for more than 75 years
A religious minority in India, Sikhs represent less than 2% of the 1.4 billion Indians. They are nevertheless the majority in the state of Punjab, bordering Pakistan and Kashmir, in the north of the country.
Since the partition of the British Indian Empire, between India and Pakistan, in 1947, the Sikh independence movement advocated the creation of a Sikh homeland, “Khalistan”.
It is banned in India where the government considers it a serious threat to national security.
His main supporters are found among the large Sikh diaspora, particularly in Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia.