Sikh activist allegedly targeted for assassination by Indian government says its ban of CBC documentary is the latest example of its autocratic rule

Sikh activist allegedly targeted for assassination by Indian government says its ban of CBC documentary is the latest example of its autocratic rule

Gunshots echo through the evening sky like fire crackers, popping one by one, causing a sudden panic as daylight slips away. Moments later, two men dressed in black, hoods over their heads and their faces shielded, flee from the area where the shots were just fired.

At around 8:20 p.m. on June 18, sitting inside his pickup truck, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, 45, called his eldest son, Balraj Singh Nijjar, to tell him he would be leaving the local Gurdwara, where he served as president, shortly after spending the day in his place of worship. He never made it out of the parking lot. 

At 8:27, a burst of gunfire from an automatic weapon broke out. Nijjar was shot and killed. Security cameras nearby show a vehicle had boxed him in. According to temple officials who have viewed security footage of the parking lot, it was the same vehicle that had been captured on the video earlier. Witnesses have estimated that two masked men fired anywhere from 30 to 50 shots at Nijjar, who was sitting in his truck, before they fled the scene of an alleged assassination by the Indian government.

Bhupinderjit Singh Sidhu was the first to reach the vehicle where he found Nijjar slumped over the centre console. 

Malkit Singh, who had been playing soccer with Sidhu on the field nearby, followed the gunmen across a nearby park where he saw them get into the back seat of a silver sedan; its driver had been waiting inside for the gunmen. The car was later identified by police as a silver 2008 Toyota Camry. One of the shooters was tall and skinny, he recalled, the other was heavyset, short of breath as he fled. 

These details were broadcast in a recent CBC Fifth Estate documentary which recounts evidence in Mr. Nijjar’s death. 

Last year, in a move that badly damaged diplomatic relations between India and Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the House of Commons the Indian government, according to evidence, was behind the assassination of Nijjar, a Canadian citizen.

Last week, shortly after the CBC documentary aired, the Indian government banned its viewing in the country, ordering YouTube to take action, claiming the documentary violates Indian law. The social media platform has since blocked access to the documentary in India. 

Another target of the alleged Indian government assassination plot to eliminate North American Sikh activists promoting an independent homeland to be carved out of India, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, spoke to The Pointer about the censorship of the CBC documentary. 

“India, no matter what it claims, is an authoritarian regime run by fascist [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi’s BJP,” Pannun said.

“India is an authoritarian state under the garb of democracy since 1947. First five decades it was Congress Party's authoritative rule which usurped the religious identity of Sikhs in the Constitution and committed genocidal violence against Sikhs to suppress the movement for restoration of their religious identity and growing political dissent in 1980s and 90s,” he said.  “Now under BJP's Modi government, India has become a fascist state which crushes political dissent at home and abroad, such as criminalizing the Khalistan Referendum campaign.”

Nijjar and Pannun spearheaded the global referendum which has seen unofficial votes take place in major cities across the world. Hundreds of thousands of Sikhs have cast ballots for the creation of an independent Sikh state. 

The killing of Nijjar in British Columbia, according to evidence made public in a harrowing U.S. indictment released at the end of November, was allegedly part of a larger plot by the Indian government to assassinate American and Canadian Sikh independence activists.  

In the summer of 2023, as detailed in the evidence from the U.S. Justice Department, the unfolding plot would send shockwaves through the global Sikh community. Described as a New York hit job, the alleged assassination plot to eliminate Pannun, a lawyer and prominent Canadian-American Sikh separatist, unveiled a larger conspiracy involving multiple targets, with severe international implications. 

The evidence revealed in the U.S. criminal indictment further ruptured relations between Canada and India, alleging a plot to covertly organize killings on Canadian soil and in the U.S.; including the one in New York involving Mr. Pannun which is the primary focus of the indictment. 

The architect of the alleged murder attempts is allegedly an Indian government official, described as a "Senior Field Officer" with different responsibilities in intelligence and security management, having also previously served in India's Central Reserve Police Force, trained as an officer in "battle craft" and "weapons.”

Mr. Pannun is identified by American officials as the target in New York (referred to in the indictment as “the Victim”), a lawyer and leader of a New York-based group called Sikhs for Justice — an American and Canadian citizen and a proponent of an independent Sikh state in the northern Indian state of Punjab, where the vast majority of the world’s 26 million Sikhs live. 


Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, was the target of an alleged Indian government assassination plot to eliminate North American Sikh activists.



In 1950, the Indian government, despite distinct status for Sikhs as a separate and unique religious minority enshrined in the Indian Independence Act of 1947, removed this recognition from the country’s nascent constitution, with promises that the issue would be revisited. The government has failed to do this, and in the 80s a push for an independent Sikh homeland began a bloody two-decade struggle between separatists and the Indian government, with overwhelming evidence, including information made public by the U.S. State Department, of mass covert extrajudicial killings carried out by Indian police authorities under orders from government leaders. 

It has been estimated by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International that as many as 150,000 Sikhs have been murdered either under direct orders from Indian government officials or in mass communal killings carried out with the blessing of Indian government leaders. 

A review commissioned in 2000 by the Indian government, facing widespread internal and international pressure, and conducted by a former Supreme Court justice, found that thousands of Sikhs were “systematically targeted” and murdered in the streets of New Delhi immediately after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was murdered by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984. 

Widespread rioting and massacres were “organized” and instigated by officials of the assassinated prime minister's ruling Congress government to “target the Sikh community” without any “meaningful intervention” by the police, the Indian review found. Not one Indian government official named in the findings or in other evidence has ever been sentenced. 

The U.S. State Department reported that the Indian government has paid out 41,000 cash bounties to local police officials for the extrajudicial killings of Sikhs. 

The U.S. criminal indictment in November includes evidence that the unnamed government employee offered $100,000 for a contract hit on the Sikh separatist lawyer in New York and recruited Nikhil Gupta, an Indian national who also resides in India, to arrange it.

Behind the scenes, through a series of phone and other electronic communications, along with an in-person rendezvous in New Delhi, a contract to kill was being arranged against Pannun, according to the U.S. evidence. In exchange for his agreement to orchestrate the murder, the bargaining chip was the government employee’s assistance in securing the dismissal of an Indian criminal case against Gupta — described in the indictment as an associate of the government employee, with involvement in international narcotics and weapons trafficking.

In the early days of May 2023, the alleged Indian government employee, referred to in the indictment as “CC-1”, informed Gupta that there was a "target in New York" and another target in "California."

''We will hit our all Targets,” Gupta responded, according to the evidence. 

On May 12, the government employee notified Gupta his criminal case had “already been taken care of," in exchange for his orchestration of the murder, and that "nobody from Gujrat… police is calling" referring to Indian officials involved in Gupta’s criminal case. On May 23, CC-1 again assured Gupta they had "spoke[n] with the boss about your Gujarat [case]," that it was "all clear," and "nobody will ever bother you again."

With these assurances, Gupta moved to arrange the murder.

Nearly a week later, on May 29, Gupta asked a confidential source working with U.S. law enforcement — who he believed to be a criminal associate — by phone if the person knew anyone who would be willing to carry out a murder-for-hire in the United States. He explained that the intended victim (Pannun) was a lawyer who split time between New York and another U.S. city. 

Over the ensuing weeks, through a series of electronic and recorded communications, including by phone, video, and text message, with the confidential source and later the hitman, “who was in fact an undercover U.S. law enforcement officer,” hired to carry out the plot, they discussed the logistics and price of the murder.

"We are ready to pay $150,000... the offer will go higher depending upon the quality of the work...and if it's done as soon as possible,” the government employee said when discussing the payment for killing Pannun. Gupta replied to CC-1 with a screenshot of the confidential source requesting $100,000, to which the alleged government employee agreed, adding that while an advance payment was not possible, "the whole money will be paid with in [sic] 24 hours after the work is done."

After forwarding Pannun’s home address in New York, on June 3, 2023, Gupta urged the source to have his associates carry out the murder soon, stating: "finish him brother, finish him, don't take too much time ... push these guys, push these guys … finish the job."

According to the allegations in the indictment, as the Indian government employee and Gupta sought to expedite the assassination, the pair offered to make an upfront cash payment for the murder and arranged the payment of $15,000 in cash to the hired hitman — the undercover officer working for the American government — in Manhattan, as an advance payment for the murder of Pannun. The indictment included a photo of a roll of hundred-dollar bills that prosecutors said was an advance payment for the New York job. 


An advance payment being handed over as part of the alleged assassination plot. This photo was included as evidence in the US indictment. 

(US Justice Department)


As the plot furthered, the pair “specifically and repeatedly instructed the [confidential source] not to carry out the assassination during anticipated engagements between high-level government officials from the United States and India,” adding on June 6 “we need to calm everything down.” Modi visited Washington and met with U.S. President Joe Biden that month. 

While the murder-for-hire plot was unfolding, the assassination of Nijjar — an associate of Pannun — was about to take place on the other side of the continent outside the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara, a temple in Surrey, British Columbia. 

In the hours following the June 18th killing, the alleged Indian government employee sent Gupta a video clip showing Nijjar's bloody body slumped in his vehicle. The clip was forwarded minutes later to the confidential source and the undercover American government employee. 

On June 19, the day after the Nijjar murder, Gupta told the person he believed to be the hired killer, or the “hitman,” that Nijjar "was also the target” of the assassinations but that he was “#4, #3” on the list, adding "not to worry…we have so many targets.” He confirmed to the confidential source that Nijjar was the target Gupta had previously mentioned as the potential Canadian "job" and the “big target” in Canada. He added that, in light of Nijjar's murder, there was "no need to wait" on assassinating Pannun. A day later, the alleged Indian government employee sent Gupta a news article about the New York target.  

"[I]t's [a] priority now,” he wrote.  

In a shift from his previous instruction to delay the assassination of Pannun until after political engagements between high-level U.S. and Indian government officials, Gupta told the confidential source the hired killer should assassinate Pannun “as soon as possible,” informing the source that "we got the go-ahead to go anytime, even today, tomorrow. He also told the source to expect Pannun to be more careful in the wake of the Nijjar murder.

He directed the source to “find the opportunity" to assassinate Pannun and to "do it quickly," adding that four jobs needed to be finished by June 29, which included Pannun and three targets in Canada.  

"He will be more cautious, because in Canada, his colleague is down. His colleague is down. I sent you the video. So he will be more cautious, so we should not give them the chance, any chance,” Gupta said, according to evidence in the indictment. He added: "If he is not alone, [if] there are two guys with him in the meeting or something ... put everyone down, put everyone down."

But Gupta never got the chance to finish another job. 

He was arrested on June 30 by Czech law enforcement authorities in connection with his participation in the plot to assassinate Pannun at the request of the U.S. after travelling from India to the Czech Republic. He was charged with murder-for-hire and conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire, both of which carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

According to the indictment, Gupta also confirmed that after the murder of Pannun, his confederates would provide the confidential source and the undercover government official with additional victims to kill. He told the source during a call the murder of Pannun would change the hitman’s life because it would lead to bigger and more jobs, stating “more job[s] every month, every month 2-3 job[s]."

The revelations uncovered in the indictment and the associated murder of Nijjar have left Sikh activists across North America fearing for their lives as they speculate who else may have been named on this list, or others like it. This fear exists in Peel, where, according to regional data, Sikhism accounts for 13.8 percent of the region’s population, the second most popular religion practiced among those living in Peel, next to Christianity.  

It is a fear that has existed for several decades, but has grown under Modi’s government; he was relected under a coalition led by his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2019, and it is now projected that he will strengthen his majority government in the upcoming federal election. 

“Sikhs in Canada have felt vulnerable for a very long time. I mean, foreign interference is a very popular subject today. But like I said, the Sikh have been dealing with foreign interference for decades, and Canada has known about it, but has chosen to ignore it with an eye towards economic growth and trade with India,” Balpreet Singh Boparai, Legal Counsel for the World Sikh Organization of Canada, told The Pointer. “And that's been, like I said, solely at the expense of Sikh Canadians. So when we talk about things like infiltration, media disinformation, we have a lot of evidence to suggest that these operations have been ongoing for decades.”

Nijjar’s murder set off a troubling dispute between Canada and India. Prior to the release of the U.S. indictment, the Canadian government accused the Indian government of being responsible for the Canadian Sikh advocate's death. India has denied the allegation. In September Prime Minister Trudeau made the shocking accusation that government agents from India had been involved in Nijjar’s assassination, widening a growing divide between the two nations. 

“Any involvement of a foreign government in the killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil is an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty,” Trudeau said. He added Canada would pressure the Indian government to cooperate with investigations into Nijjar’s death. 

“The US indictment has established beyond doubt what Prime Minister Trudeau stated in the Parliament that Indian agents are involved in the assassination of Nijjar,” Pannun said. “The Sikh community is united in seeking justice and accountability for Nijjar's blood.”

There have been growing concerns about India’s commitment to democracy, particularly in its authoritarian use of censorship across the state. 

“We've seen this documentary obviously being censored, but there's a slew of websites, social media accounts. All of it’s censored because it's either critical of India or in support of Khalistan or some other reason that India finds,” Singh Boparai said. 

Asked if the Indian government’s banning of the documentary supports allegations around the government’s involvement, he said it does.

“But India, at this point, is sliding towards authoritarianism, and respect for democratic norms is very elusive,” he said. “The Modi government has violated human rights of minority communities with impunity and the press freedoms in India have suffered very dramatically. If you look at the Press Freedoms Index, India actually is almost at the very bottom below Afghanistan.  

“So this is very true to form, and it might be news for a mainstream audience. But for those who have observed India for many years, this is very much expected. We've seen unprecedented blackouts and censorship, and basically silencing of any opposition voices.”  

According to a 2022 U.S. Department of State report on human rights practices in India, while many in the general population have thought India’s elections to be free and fair, they have been marred by violence, social media manipulation and widespread censorship of free speech.  

The report found “significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful and arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by the government or its agents; torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by police and prison officials,” among many other alarming human rights violations, as well as “restrictions on freedom of expression and media, including violence or threats of violence, unjustified arrests or prosecutions of journalists, and enforcement of or threat to enforce criminal libel laws to limit expression; restrictions on internet freedom.” Other forms of violence included “targeting members of national/racial/ethnic and minority groups based on religious affiliation.”

It has been widely reported that the Indian government has allegedly pressured or harassed media outlets critical of the government. The 2022 U.S. State Department report found there were also examples of extremists perpetrating acts of murder, other violence and intimidation against journalists critical of the government. It also cited a Freedom House report, which said freedom of expression was weakening in the country, referencing the government’s silence regarding direct attacks on free speech. The report stated government officials “have used security, defamation, and hate speech laws, as well as contempt-of-court charges, to curb critical voices in media outlets.”

The U.S. report cites several examples of journalists and members of media organizations being threatened or murdered in response to their reporting, and suspects involved in the deaths were rarely identified by police. It also references the 2019 World Press Freedom Index which found at least six journalists were killed in connection with their work in 2018. The 2022 Index described the country as “dangerous for journalists,” with “repeated violations” by police, political activists, criminal groups, and local officials. 

This has particularly impacted India’s Sikh community. 

“We've seen 10 young Sikh activists who've been held for the past year without charge, basically just detained, not actually arrested. And this is something that is quite shocking that you could hold people for this long for simply expressing views that are in support of Khalistan, or critical of the Indian state,” Singh Boparai said. “But this is what Modi has done, Modi has really transformed India into an authoritarian state and the respect for democratic values is no longer there. So there might be elections, there might be people who cast votes, but all the other democratic values that we expect in a democracy have been very badly eroded.”

The government, under Modi’s reign, has continued to censor and restrict content, like CBC’s documentary, that doesn't conform to its narrative. The U.S. State Department revealed that under the Information Technology Rules of 2021, the Indian government issued 94 directives to block content to YouTube between December 2021 and April 2022, five to Twitter, and three each to Facebook and Instagram. Even more alarming, a right to information response in 2017 revealed at least 20,030 websites were blocked at that time. 

“It is high time that U.S., Canada and the rest of the Western World take this matter seriously and not only cut the trade ties with India whose hands are soaked with gross human rights violations, but also put sanctions on Indian agencies and entities such as RAW [Research Analysis Wing, India’s state intelligence agency] and NSA [National Security Advisor] which are involved in transnational repression,” Pannun said.

Although laws permit the government to block internet sites and content and criminalizes sending messages the government deems inflammatory or offensive, it adds “the government continued to block telecommunications and internet connections in certain regions, often during periods of political unrest.

“The government repeatedly imposed temporary internet shutdowns and blocked telecommunications, including the internet in certain regions, particularly during periods of political unrest,” the 2022 report stated. The NGO Software Freedom Law Center reported the central and state governments conducted localized internet shutdowns 67 times as of October, and 101 times in 2021. 

“Requests for user data from internet companies continued to rise. According to Facebook’s transparency report, the government made 37,385 data requests in 2018, a 70 percent rise from 2017,” the report said. “Google also highlighted an increase in government requests for user data in its 2018 Transparency Report, receiving 24,404 user-data disclosure requests. Twitter reported 777 account information requests from the government during the same period.”

With India’s federal election in sight—taking place from April to June this year—Singh Boparai did not speak specifically to the implications of the government’s censorship, but asked that people consider the wider implications on India’s democracy. 

“Is democracy simply people casting votes? Or does a democracy also include democratic institutions and values? India is trying to claim that it's the world's largest democracy, but in truth, it has very little of what we understand to be democracy, and I think Canadians are seeing that.”

The threats have not deterred Pannun. 

“In this battle, my personal safety and well being does not matter,” he said. “What matters to me is the liberation of Punjab from Indian occupation. No amount of threats or attacks by the Indian government can stop me from working on the Khalistan Referendum.”



Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @mcpaigepeacock

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