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Nikhil Samuel
Nikhil Samuel
Nikhil Samuel is a graduate of George Washington University with a degree in International Relations. At New Lines he interned under Dr. Kamran Bokhari's Eurasian Security and Prosperity portfolio. He specializes in Middle Eastern and South Asian security affairs, having studied language in both regions.

The Killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, Diaspora Politics, and the Future of Indian Allyship  

The nature of the official Canadian response to the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh leader whose death was allegedly directed by the Indian government, shows a growing centrality of diaspora politics in Western policymaking. Canada’s Sikhs have become a politically active and vocal population, ultimately leading the Canadian government to maintain a relationship with India that reflects Sikh political goals for national autonomy. With Indo-Canadian relations deteriorating as a result of this incident, a serious blow to the strategic partnership with India has been dealt. In March, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reaffirmed Canada’s allegation that the Indian government was involved in Nijjar’s killing, stating his government’s decision to level the accusation wasn’t “declared lightly.” The ongoing crisis should remind policymakers that diaspora politics can have a critical influence on the legislative development of foreign policy decisions in Western democracies.  

The influence and power of Sikh-Canadian voters entered the global spotlight with Trudeau’s public accusation that the Indian government bore responsibility for Nijjar’s death. Indo-Canadian relations, long strained by a Sikh population with fringe extremist elements living in Canada, had been maintained out of strategic necessity, largely over shared Canadian and Indian security interests in the Indo-Pacific. The diplomatic meltdown between India and Canada transcends Nijjar’s death from an issue of law to a geopolitical crisis. Effectively, Trudeau’s public condemnation was the ultimate sign that the political organization of Canadian Sikhs had made their diaspora politics official state policy.  

Nijjar was gunned down during the summer of 2023 outside a gurdwara in British Columbia; this incident alone activated a renewed wave of pressure from Canada’s Sikhs for justice. India had accused Nijjar of being the “mastermind” behind the Khalistan Tiger Force, a Sikh militant group championing the Khalistan movement, the aspiration for an independent Sikh homeland in the Indian region of Punjab. Before his death, India’s National Investigation Agency had announced a $12,000 reward for information regarding Nijjar, claiming his involvement in an alleged conspiracy to kill a Hindu priest in India. Nijjar’s close companions reported that Canadian intelligence officials had warned him that he was on an Indian hit list. His death resulted in an outcry against India within Canada’s Sikh community, an influential and politically organized demographic.  

In May 2024, three Indian men were arrested in Edmonton, Alberta, in connection with Nijjar’s killing. The individuals who had lived in Canada for only three to five years and are not Canadian residents, likely hold the answers to questions about Nijjar’s death and any role India may have played.  

Canadian Sikhs: An Influential Bloc  

The influence of the Sikh population and its diaspora politics has catalyzed a complication in Canadian-Indian relations as the Sikhs have been an increasingly important component of the Canadian electorate. Sikhs currently constitute approximately 2% of the Canadian population and 4% of the members of the Canadian House of Commons, with 15 representatives, 12 of them members of the Liberal Party and two in the Conservative Party. The 15th, Jagmeet Singh, leader of the New Democratic Party, has been critical to Trudeau’s political survival. In 2021, Trudeau calculated that his government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic would secure a Liberal Party victory, prompting him to call for snap elections. However, Trudeau’s party lost two seats, leaving it with 157, only enough to form a minority government. Singh’s New Democrats, meanwhile, won 25 seats, which currently uphold Trudeau’s government in the House of Commons. Trudeau’s reliance on perhaps Canada’s most recognizable Sikh politician has clearly necessitated that he act to maintain the support of the influential Sikh voter base.  

Though Sikhs are a small portion of the Canadian population, they are far more politically engaged than Hindus in Canada, whose population approximately equals that of the Sikhs. The vast majority of Sikh Canadians elected to any office represent areas with significant Sikh concentrations, indicating that Sikh voters consistently support Sikh candidates. With most Sikh MPs being part of the Liberal Party, Trudeau is incentivized to champion Sikh causes to maintain the number of Liberal MPs in the House of Commons and, ultimately, a Liberal government.  

Trudeau’s Support for Sikh Issues  

The role of Sikh voters in legislative strategy has effectively bridged the gap between Sikh diaspora politics and official Canadian policy. In 2020, India’s controversial farm reform laws provoked a backlash from the agrarian Sikh Punjabi community, leading to major protests in New Delhi that made global headlines. Indian police responded with what many experts referred to as excessive force. In the midst of the tumult, Trudeau affirmed his solidarity with protesting Punjabi farmers while expressing concern over India’s response. Trudeau’s commentary was met with backlash from Indian leadership, which accused the prime minister of interference. This vocal support for a global Sikh issue shortly before the 2021 election signaled a clear attempt by Trudeau to secure the favor of Sikh voters. That Trudeau knew his advocacy for the Sikhs on any issue would provoke India further demonstrates his commitment to securing the support of his Sikh constituents at any cost. With the next Canadian elections approaching, Trudeau’s condemnation of India for Nijjar’s death, despite the resulting diplomatic crisis, was essential for Trudeau to secure Sikh support.  

Further evidence of the role of diaspora politics in characterizing the Canadian response to the slaying is the juxtaposition of this incident with the U.S. response to a similar situation. In November 2023, the U.S. charged an Indian citizen in connection with a plot to assassinate Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a Sikh political figure with U.S. citizenship. In the same month, in a press release, the FBI accused the Indian government of involvement in the plot. Although no killing took place, the lack of a condemnation paralleling Trudeau’s reveals the flexibility enjoyed by U.S. leadership, which has no political need to answer to a Sikh American voter bloc as it does not carry the same collective political weight as do Canadian Sikhs. U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have voiced no public condemnation, although they report the matter is being discussed with India behind closed doors.  

The story of Trudeau and the Canadian Sikhs serves as a critical case study in the broader examination of the relationship between diaspora politics and foreign policy. An organized, politically active Sikh community, coupled with the significant Sikh presence in the Canadian Parliament, has provided Sikh diaspora politics with leverage over broader Canadian policy. That Canada cut consular services in India signals its commitment to Sikh issues beyond just rhetoric.  

The killing of Najjar and the attempt against Pannun have animated secessionist attitudes among the Sikh diaspora in the West that continues to push for the creation of a Khalistani state. This sentiment is evidenced by the significant participation of Western Sikhs in a referendum calling for a separate Khalistan, pushed by the advocacy group Sikhs for Justice. An October referendum held in Surrey, British Columbia, drew 200,000 Sikhs to cast their vote, 30% of whom traveled to the polls from outside the city. Organizers reported Nijjar’s slaying motivated many voters to participate. In March, Sikhs for Justice organized a nonbinding election in Sacramento, California, attracting approximately 40,000 voters. Again, organizers reported that fear of transnational repression by the Indian government resulted in large numbers of Sikhs participating in the referendum. 

The Legacy of Diaspora Politics  

Scholarship on the impact of diaspora politics as a foreign policy determinant, though slowly evolving, reveals they are a critical factor on the horizon for the strategic futures of Western democracies. Political scientist Dr. Cynthia Salloum describes diaspora communities as binding “domestic and foreign affairs together” by “circulation and transnationalism.” Theorists point to diaspora politics as an effective determinant in a nation’s foreign policy decision making. Diaspora communities occupy a strategic role as advocates for specific foreign policy agendas that simultaneously hold the leverage of the vote. As demonstrated by the case of Canada, diaspora populations play an underrecognized yet critical role in determining the nature of foreign policy decisions in Western democracies.  

The phenomenon in which diaspora politics influence foreign policy has been a recurring theme throughout Canadian history. In the early 2000s, Canada’s Haitian community mobilized to push the government to sanction the island country’s military regime. 

 In 2004, Canada became a leading global champion for stabilizing the conflict in Darfur, South Sudan, partly due to the role played by Canada’s South Sudanese community. The diaspora population, accompanied by nongovernmental organizations, lobbied the government to take an active role in stopping violence against South Sudanese civilians. Then-Prime Minister Paul Martin condemned the atrocities and committed $150 million to relief efforts, making Canada the cause’s largest financial contributor. 

Following the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, the Pakistani-Canadian community organized to call on the Canadian government to provide disaster relief. Ultimately, their efforts were met with Canada’s decision to provide financial support and aid resources. In an additional display of responsiveness, Canada deployed its Disaster Assistance Relief Team to Pakistan. 

These examples all illustrate Canada’s receptiveness to the demands of diaspora politics to a point of action. The Canadian government has consistently responded to outcry from its citizenry with action. This trend further evidences the direct effect of Canada’s Sikhs on the diplomatic meltdown with India. 

The Emerging Power of Diaspora Politics  

As diaspora communities further acclimate to Western political culture, diaspora politics will play a more pivotal role in Western democracies’ foreign policy. If, like the Sikhs, diasporas can successfully form a politically organized community with members in elected office, the weight of diaspora politics in Western democracies will increase. The Canadian Sikhs, through their organization, have succeeded in making their issues a strategic imperative of the prime minister.  

The recently departed first minister of Scotland, the prime minister of the United Kingdom, the U.S. vice president, and two former candidates in the U.S. Republican Party’s presidential primary election represent various facets of the South Asian diaspora that are now becoming central voices in Western politics. Policymakers and scholars must commit more research to examine the history and trends related to the increasingly prevalent theme of diaspora politics. As demonstrated by Trudeau, what has long been confined to the realm of a sociological case study may very well become a norm in determining the foreign policy of Western democracies. 

Nikhil Samuel is a graduate of George Washington University with a degree in International Relations. At New Lines he interned under Dr. Kamran Bokhari’s Eurasian Security and Prosperity portfolio. He specializes in Middle Eastern and South Asian security affairs, having studied language in both regions.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not an official policy or position of the New Lines Institute.