Punjab’s Sikhs fear Canada-India row endangers them at home, abroad

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A bitter disagreement between India and Canada over the murder of a Sikh separatist is being felt in Punjab, where some Sikhs fear both a backlash from India’s Hindu-nationalist government and a threat to their prospects for a better life in North America.

Hardeep Singh Niijar, a plumber who left the north Indian state a quarter-century ago and became a Canadian citizen, was shot dead in June outside a temple in a Vancouver suburb where he was a separatist leader among the many Sikhs living there.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last week Ottawa had credible evidences that Indian government agents may be linked to the killing.

India, which labelled Nijjar a “terrorist” in 2020, angrily disbunked the allegation as “absurd”, expelled the chief of Canadian intelligence in India, issued travel warnings, stopped visa issuance to Canadians and downsized Canada’s diplomatic presence in India.

Sikhs make up just 2% of India’s 1.4 billion people but they are a majority in Punjab, a state of 30 million where their religion was born 500 years ago. Outside of Punjab, the greatest number of Sikhs live in Canada, the site of many protests that have vexed India.

In the village of Bharsinghpura, there are few memories of Nijjar, but his uncle, Himmat Singh Nijjar, 79, said locals “think it was very brave of Trudeau” to accuse Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government of potential involvement in the killing.

The elder Nijjar expressed his worries about deteriorating diplomatic relations with Canada and declining economic prospects in Punjab.

“We now fear whether Canada will give student visas or if the Indian government will create some hurdles,” said undergraduate Gursimran Singh, 19, who wants to go to Canada.

He was speaking at the holiest of Sikh shrines, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, where many students go to pray or give thanks, for student visas.

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