Secret Indian Memo Ordered “Concrete Measures” Against Hardeep Singh Nijjar Two Months Before His Assassination … – The Intercept

A document obtained by The Intercept shows India was targeting Sikh separatists with a “sophisticated crackdown scheme” in the West.
The Indian government instructed its consulates in North America to launch a “sophisticated crackdown scheme” against Sikh diaspora organizations in Western countries, according to a secret memorandum issued in April 2023 by India’s Ministry of External Affairs. The memo, which was obtained by The Intercept, lists several Sikh dissidents under investigation by India’s intelligence agencies, including the Canadian citizen Hardeep Singh Nijjar.
“Concrete measures shall be adopted to hold the suspects accountable,” the memo says. Nijjar was murdered in Vancouver in June, two months after being named as a target in the document, a killing the Canadian government said was ordered by Indian intelligence.
The memo addresses India’s growing concerns about its reputation due to activism from Sikh dissident organizations and portrays its political enemies as extremist or even terrorist organizations. Titled “Action Points on Khalistan Extremism,” using the name Sikh activists use for a separatist state, the document lists several Sikh activist organizations it blames for engaging in “anti-India propaganda,” as well as acts of “arson and vandalization” targeting Indian interests in North America.
The document instructs officials at its consulates to cooperate with Indian intelligence agencies to confront the groups Sikhs for Justice, Babbar Khalsa International, Sikh Youth of America, Sikh Coordination Committee East Coast, World Sikh Parliament, and Shiromani Akali Dal Amritsar America. It suggests that Nijjar and several other “suspects” are affiliated with one of these groups, Babbar Khalsa International. Babbar Khalsa International is proscribed as a terrorist organization in the U.S. and Canada, but the other organizations named in the document are considered legal in both countries.
A leader of one of another of the listed groups, Sikhs for Justice, was the target of an Indian assassination plot, according to federal prosecutors in the U.S. The indictment, unsealed last week, accused Nikhil Gupta, an Indian national, of working with Indian officials to kill Sikhs for Justice general counsel Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, an American citizen based in New York.
The leaked April memo from India’s Ministry of External Affairs does not explicitly order the killings of Sikh activists. Instead, it calls on Indian consular officials operating in the U.S. and Canada to work in cooperation with India’s Research and Analysis Wing, a foreign intelligence agency; the National Investigation Agency, a counterterror police force; and the Intelligence Bureau, an internal security agency akin to the FBI. Aside from Nijjar, a number of people accused in the document of having ties with BKI are believed to be based in Pakistan or currently incarcerated in India.
The Indian government did not respond to a request for comment prior to publication of this story. Following publication, the Indian government released a statement saying “there is no such memo.” “We strongly assert that such reports are fake and completely fabricated,” Indian spokesperson Shri Arindam Bagchi wrote. “This is part of a sustained disinformation campaign against India,” the spokesperson continued, also questioning The Intercept’s previous reporting: “The outlet in question is known for propagating fake narratives peddled by Pakistani intelligence. The posts of the authors confirm this linkage. Those who amplify such fake news only do so at the cost of their own credibility.”
While the U.S. and Canada have both now charged India with orchestrating assassinations against Sikhs in the West, the secret document obtained by The Intercept is the first public evidence showing that the Indian government was targeting these specific Sikh diaspora organizations and dissidents.
Those involved in Sikh diaspora advocacy said that the Indian government frequently characterizes any political activity by Sikh separatist organizations as militant or extremist in nature.
“The Indian government and media consistently aim to manufacture a narrative that describes any type of political advocacy for Khalistan or Sikh sovereignty as ‘Sikh extremism’ as a pretext to justify a repressive security-based response,” said Prabjot Singh, an activist and editor of the Panth-Punjab Project, a digital platform focusing on Sikh politics and sociopolitical issues. “It’s important to recognize that this is a strategy that India employs in Punjab to justify crackdowns on Sikh political organizing, while misusing diplomatic resources abroad to try and enlist other countries as partners in this effort.”
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi lays a wreath at the Air India Flight 182 monument in Toronto on April 16, 2015.
India’s crackdown on Sikh activists comes in response to an ongoing campaign advocating for the creation of an independent Sikh state in the Indian province of Punjab. During the 1980s and 1990s, a conflict over separatism in Punjab claimed the lives of thousands of Sikhs and others before the insurgents were crushed by the Indian military. The counterinsurgency involved widespread human rights abuses by Indian security forces, as well as acts of terrorism by separatist militants, including, most notoriously, the deadly bombing of an Air India flight in 1985.
While Sikh separatism has largely been suppressed inside India, the cause has continued in the diaspora as a political movement that organizes protests and lobbies against the Indian government with the aim of holding referendums in Punjab. The Indian government has complained about the activities of diaspora Sikh activists to the Canadian and U.S. governments, often accusing these groups of terrorism.
The secret Ministry of External Affairs memorandum focuses its justifications for the crackdown against Sikh dissident groups on perceived reputational harm from their activities, as well as concerns about the influence of Sikh organizations in Western politics. Under a section labeled “Khalistan Extremism,” the document blames Sikh diaspora organizations for “defaming Indian government of so-called torturing, murdering and disappearing thousands of Sikhs” and “attempting to degrade India’s international image.”
Sikh activists have held major protests at Indian diplomatic missions in Western countries in recent years, some of which have involved provocative denunciations of Indian government officials and vandalism of diplomatic buildings. India has criticized the alleged failure by Western governments to defend its consular staff from perceived threats and harassment during such demonstrations. The document notes with concern the impact of these protests, while suggesting that the Khalistan activist movement is being assisted by public officials in Western countries.
“The pro-Khalistan organizations have become obviously more extreme,” the document says. “Their strategy has gradually shifted from narrative building to street protests, and inputs from our missions indicate that top officials of pertinent countries have provided a guiding hand in pro-Khalistan campaign which has posed a grave challenge to our global interests.”
Ties between India and Western countries have warmed in recent years, owing to a shared interest in containing China. Yet suspicions and tensions in the relationships remain, as the memo indicates. The document expresses the belief that Western politicians may be refusing to crack down on Sikh activists to exert pressure on India on other subjects, including its neutral stance on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“Notably, we have raised our concerns about those elements to the U.S. and Canada constantly. But they keep using human rights and freedom of speech as pretexts, asserting that these organizations have not committed any crime within their territories,” the memo says. “Although the relation between India and the West continues to gain momentum, the Khalistan issue has become a subtle leverage. While depicting India as a strategic partner to contain China and Russia, the West keeps utilizing Khalistan as a geopolitical tool to squeeze India amid the Russia-Ukraine conflict.”
The classified memo is signed by Vinay Kwatra, India’s foreign secretary, and listed for distribution to several Indian consulates in North America. Kwatra’s signature was analyzed by a forensic handwriting expert and found with high confidence to match records of his signature in other, publicly available documents reviewed by The Intercept.
U.S. and Canadian officials have issued statements indicating that shared intelligence, including intercepted communications of Indian government officials, allowed them to determine that India was involved in Nijjar’s murder. Unsealed court documents in the murder-for-hire plot targeting Pannun likewise indicate significant U.S. government interception of electronic communications between Indian officials and people working on their behalf in the U.S.
A man stands on a burning cutout of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a Sikh rally outside the Indian consulate in Toronto on Sept. 25, 2023.
The Indian government’s targeting of Sikh diaspora activists made global headlines with the brazen killing of Nijjar, who was shot to death in a hail of bullets outside a Sikh temple near Vancouver in June. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau publicly accused the Indian government of involvement in the gangland-style murder, leading to an ongoing diplomatic crisis.
In the months since Trudeau’s accusation, more details on what appears to be a broad-based Indian targeted killing campaign have become public, including the U.S. Justice Department indictment alleging that Indian intelligence agents also tried to assassinate Pannun, the New York-based American citizen and counsel for Sikhs for Justice. The assassination plot targeting Pannun was thwarted, a prosecutor in the Southern District of New York said, when an person working at the behest of the Indian government hired an undercover Drug Enforcement Administration agent to carry out the killing.
The indictment against Gupta, the 52-year-old suspect, who has a background in organized crime, includes statements alleging that more people in the U.S. were intended targets. According to documents from the case, Gupta, who is described in court documents as working in close cooperation with intelligence handlers in India, told the undercover DEA operative that India had “so many targets,” including individuals in New York and California, promising “more jobs, more jobs” to the hitman after Pannun was killed.
Sikh diaspora activists have alleged Indian government involvement in the mysterious deaths of other dissidents, including, most recently, a 35-year-old British citizen named Avtar Singh Khanda, who died this year in what his family claims to be a case of poisoning. Khanda had reportedly been harassed and threatened by Indian intelligence in the lead up to his death in a British hospital just days before Nijjar’s murder. The Intercept reported this September that the FBI had also visited Sikh-American activists after the Nijjar’s murder to warn them of intelligence showing that they were at risk of assassination.
An assassination campaign against diaspora Sikh dissidents also appears to be underway in countries outside the West. A Sikh activist in Pakistan named Lakhbir Singh Rode, along with another unnamed dissident, were reportedly targets, according to classified Pakistani intelligence documents previously reported by The Intercept. The Pakistani documents said Rode and the other activist were being surveilled and deemed to be at imminent risk of assassination by India’s Research and Analysis Wing. (Rode reportedly died in early December, with press accounts attributing his passing to illness.) At least two other Sikh dissidents in Pakistan have been killed in recent years. According to Pakistani intelligence assessments, “anti-state activists and local criminal networks” working under the direction of RAW were behind the plots and planned to commit more killings of both Sikh and Kashmiri separatists based in Pakistan.
While India has a hostile relationship with Pakistan spanning decades, the revelation that Indian officials have been carrying out offensive intelligence operations in friendly Western countries has become a source of embarrassment for the Indian government. India responded to accusations by Canada that it assassinated Nijjar by halting visa service for Canadians and accusing Canada of acting as a safe harbor for terrorists. In public pronouncements toward the U.S. since the revelation of its alleged involvement in the targeting of Pannun, India has been more conciliatory, promising to conduct an internal inquiry to discover the facts behind the case.
The Indian Ministry of External Affairs document obtained by The Intercept expresses considerable alarm about the growing influence of Sikh diaspora movements in the West. Several prominent Sikh politicians in Western countries have a tense or hostile relationship with India, including Jagmeet Singh, a Canadian parliamentarian and major opposition party leader who was barred from entry to India in 2014 over public comments about its human rights record.
“There are about 1 million Sikhs in North America alone,” the Indian memo says. “The growing anti-India activities and propaganda by pro-Khalistan elements are of great concern for India.” The document goes on to say that members of diaspora Sikh organizations have “penetrated the mainstream politics in the U.S. and Canada,” and are working to “manipulate the countries’ policy towards India.”
In addition to calling for a targeted crackdown on Sikh diaspora organizations, the memo advises Indian authorities based in the West to build closer relationships with local law enforcement agencies and “think tanks,” while monitoring Sikh activists own contacts with government officials. The memo also calls for the recruitment of the Indian diaspora in this campaign. “Indian diaspora needs to be mobilized,” it reads, suggesting outreach to a number of low-profile groups.
“These organizations could be cultivated as vital force in the street confrontation with Sikh extremists,” it says. “Special efforts should be paid to establish cooperation with moderate Sikhs, so as to integrate the neutral Sikh community.”
The fallout from Nijjar’s killing and the attempted murder of Pannun continues to impact Indian ties with Western countries. According to Indian press reports, the U.S., Canadian, and British governments reportedly expelled senior RAW officials working at Indian consular offices in response to Nijjar’s assassination, with the U.S. blocking India from replacing its station chief in Washington. The moves have left RAW with no official footprint in North America for the first time since its founding in 1968.
“The chilling effect on speech that Sikhs are experiencing today is real. Some people who would otherwise speak out against [Indian Prime Minister Narendra] Modi are nervous, some who would otherwise organize and protest over the recent foiled assassination plot are staying home for fear that they themselves could be surveilled, harassed, or experience violence of some kind,” said Arjun Sethi, a human rights lawyer and law professor at Georgetown University. “Many Sikhs left India seeking to seek refuge in North America, and it is unacceptable that some of those same people now fear that the India government could target them on Canadian or American soil.”
“Sikhs who speak out for Khalistan, which today is a political movement, who speak out to criticize India, or who speak out generally, could be caught up in the crossfire.”
Update: December 10, 2023, 1:40 p.m. ET
The story has been updated with the Indian government’s denial of the existence of the memo, received after publication.
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