Canada Arrests Alleged Hitmen in Killing of Sikh Separatist, Official Says

Alana Paterson for The Washington Post
The Guru Nanak Gurdwara in Surrey, British Columbia, where Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar was killed last year.

TORONTO – Canadian police made the first arrests Friday in the shooting death of Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar last year outside a gurdwara in British Columbia, authorities said, and are continuing to investigate allegations that the Indian government directed the brazen killing.

The three members of the alleged hit squad were arrested in Edmonton, Alberta, on Friday morning and charged with first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) said during an afternoon news conference. Each is an Indian citizen with non-permanent resident status who has been living in Canada from three to five years, police said. They were identified as Karan Brar, 22; Kamalpreet Singh, 22; and Karanpreet Singh, 28.

“The murder of Mr. Nijjar … was outrageous and it was reprehensible,” said Brian Edwards, assistant commissioner of the Surrey RCMP. “It had a profound impact on the residents of Surrey, and notwithstanding the announcing of charges, those scars will remain in our community for some time.”

The arrests came more than seven months after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told lawmakers that authorities were pursuing “credible allegations” that agents of the Indian government were behind the deadly attack on Nijjar as he was leaving the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in his truck in Surrey, B.C., on June 18.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government reacted with fury to Trudeau’s announcement in September, calling it “motivated and absurd.” The incident sent relations between Ottawa and New Delhi tumbling to a new low at a time when Canada and its allies had been trying to court India as a diplomatic and trade counterweight to China.

Canada expelled the station chief of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s spy agency, in Ottawa. India expelled a Canadian diplomat in retaliation. Trade talks between the two countries were suspended, and Canada withdrew 41 diplomats from India after New Delhi threatened to revoke their diplomatic status.

The Indian High Commission in Ottawa, the the equivalent among Commonwealth nations of an embassy, said in an email that High Commissioner Sanjay Kumar Verma was travelling out of Ottawa and unable to respond.

Nijjar’s killing was part of a campaign of repression, surveillance and harassment by RAW against critics of the Modi government in the Indian diaspora, The Washington Post reported this week. The effort also included the foiled assassination attempt last year against Gurpatwant Singh Pannun on U.S. soil. Pannun, a U.S. citizen and Sikh activist, was an associate of Nijjar.

The Post found that U.S. intelligence agencies believe the plot against Pannun was approved by Samant Goel, then the head of RAW. The agencies have tentatively assessed that Modi’s national security adviser was probably aware of the plans, but they stressed that no smoking-gun proof had emerged.

The U.S. Department of Justice last year charged Nikhil Gupta in the Pannun case. Gupta, described in a U.S. indictment as an Indian drug and weapons trafficker enlisted to hire a contract killer, has denied the charges. He was arrested in Prague last year and is challenging his extradition to the United States.

India appointed a special panel to investigate the plot against Pannun. But it has been far less cooperative with Canadian authorities, saying they have provided no evidence for their assertions. Canadian officials, including the country’s spy chief and the prime minister’s former national security adviser, have traveled to India to discuss the case with their counterparts.

Nijjar, a 45-year-old Canadian citizen born in India, advocated for an autonomous Sikh homeland in India’s Punjab state to be called Khalistan and organized nonbinding referendums on Sikh statehood in Canada. Indian security agencies designated him a terrorist in 2020, accused him in 2022 of links to the slaying of a Hindu priest in Punjab and sought his extradition.

A Canadian official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive law enforcement matter, said Brar, Singh and Singh are believed to be part of an organized crime network that is acting on behalf of the Indian government and its intelligence apparatus.

Authorities on Friday did not rule out additional arrests in the Nijjar case. A security video of the slaying reviewed by The Post last year reviewed revealed the plot was more complex than police initially indicated, involving at least six people and two vehicles.

“The investigation does not end here,” said Mandeep Mooker, a superintendent with the RCMP’s Integrated Homicide Investigative Unit. “We are aware that others may have played a role in this homicide, and we remain dedicated to finding and arresting each one of those individuals.”

The probe involved collaboration with counterparts from around the world, including the United States, authorities said. But working with Indian authorities, RCMP Assistant Commissioner David Teboul told reporters, proved “rather challenging” and “difficult.”

New Delhi has long accused Canada of harboring Sikh extremists who it claims are plotting attacks and organizing rallies in support of the Khalistan movement. Modi’s Hindu nationalist government views that movement as a terrorist threat.

Canadian officials have denied those charges. They say they will prosecute criminal activity, but must uphold Canadian rights to free speech and peaceful assembly. Canada is home to the world’s largest Sikh diaspora community.

Nijjar was among several Sikh separatist leaders in Canada who were warned by Canadian law enforcement of threats to their lives. Sikh advocates here have long complained that Indian officials have sought to harass and intimidate them on Canadian soil but authorities here have not taken the threat seriously enough.

On Friday, a preliminary report in a public inquiry into foreign interference in Canada named India as one of several countries attempting to meddle in Canadian affairs.

Indian officials, Quebec Court of Appeal Justice Marie-Josée Hogue wrote, “have increasingly relied on Canadian and Canadian-based proxies to conduct foreign interference” to “obfuscate any explicit link” with New Delhi. Proxies liaise with Indian intelligence officials in India and Canada, she added, “taking both explicit and implicit direction from them.”

“Targets of Indian foreign interference are often members of the Indo-Canadian communities,” Hogue wrote, “but prominent non-Indo-Canadians are also subject to India’s foreign influence activities.”

Asked whether the men arrested Friday might be Indian sleeper agents, Teboul said he wasn’t “at liberty to answer.”

“It is a great question,” he said, “but it is a matter very much at the center of evidence and ongoing investigations.”