Politics

Man charged with murder of Sikh activist arrested near site of planned Sikh gathering in Ontario

The arrest in Brampton, Ont. on Nov. 3, 2023 of Amandeep Singh — one of four men charged in connection with a killing that Ottawa has linked directly with the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi — happened just one day before a wedding in that city brought together a who’s-who of New Delhi’s Sikh enemies list, CBC News has learned.

Singh was arrested four and a half months after Hardeep Singh Nijjar — a prominent Sikh-Canadian activist, president of the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in Surrey, B.C. and a key proponent of the Khalistani movement, which campaigns for a Sikh state independent from India  — was shot dead in the parking lot of the gurdwara on June 18, 2023.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said repeatedly there is credible information pointing to the Indian government’s involvement in Nijjar’s death.

Amandeep Singh initially was charged only with firearms, drug and breach offences. He spent six months in pre-trial detention before he was hit with an additional first-degree murder charge in the Nijjar case.

Nijjar had been warned by RCMP that his life was in danger.

The Nov. 4, 2023 wedding of the son of a prominent Khalistani activist at a gurdwara in Brampton was attended by a number of people who also have reason to believe that their lives are in danger from the government of India, including some who have received “Duty to Warn” letters from the RCMP.

The RCMP issues “Duty to Warn” letters under a B.C. law that directs authorities to notify people when they become aware of a threat to their safety. The legislation that governs such notifications says the danger “must be a risk that is likely to happen.”

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Sikh insiders say the community expected that the man assumed to be one of India’s top-priority targets, U.S.-Canadian citizen Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, would be at the wedding as one of the oldest and closest friends of the groom’s father.

According to a U.S. federal indictment unsealed in November, Indian agents already tried to kill Pannun in New York City, but made the mistake of trying to hire a hitman through a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration confidential informant.

Gurpatwant Singh Pannun is a dual Canadian-American citizen who has been organizing non-binding referendums for Sikhs to vote for the creation of an independent homeland named Khalistan. (CBC)

In any event, Pannun informed the wedding hosts shortly before the ceremony that he would not attend because of security concerns.

On Sept. 10, 2023, the group Sikhs for Justice held one of a series of referendums on Punjabi independence from India.

The symbolic referendums have been met with angry statements from officials in Prime Minister Modi’s government. Pannun and Nijjar organized the referendum.

In Surrey, the polling station was overwhelmed by the high turnout and many local Sikhs were turned away without being able to cast a ballot.

A public meeting was held at the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara, previously led by Nijjar, to schedule a second round of voting for Oct 29, 2023.

An Indian man in a blue turban and blue shirt on security footage
This still of security footage shows Hardeep Singh Nijjar leaving the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara on the evening of June 18, 2023. (Submitted by name withheld)

Longtime Khalistani activist Santokh Singh Khela said he realized the second round of voting would conflict with his son’s wedding, scheduled for the day before.

“We have to postpone that because all the Sikh referendum volunteers, all the guys, organizers, everybody was coming to the wedding. So we decide over there, [the] wedding will be set up in one week. After that, the date was 4th of November,” Khela told CBC News.

The new wedding date was announced publicly. Confidential sources have told CBC News that there are informants within the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara who relay information to the government of India.

India’s most wanted

Pannun currently lives in the U.S. and travels with protection. He’s the leader of Sikhs for Justice, the group behind the worldwide referendum effort. India has declared him a wanted terrorist. He says his group uses peaceful means only.

He told CBC News that it was universally assumed he would be in Brampton for the wedding of the son of one of his dearest and oldest friends.

“This was the general perception in the community, that I would be attending a religious function, because that’s the only function I have ever attended in the past,” Pannun said. “If somebody is so close to our organization and so close to the Khalistan referendum campaign, I do go sometimes and attend their religious ceremony in the gurdwaras.

“Until a day or so (before), I was very sure that I would go.”

In the end, though, Pannun said he decided his presence would be a burden for his host and other guests, so he called Khela and said he would skip the gathering.

WATCH: The arrests in the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar 

Our reporter breaks down his reporting on arrests in Sikh activist’s killing

CBC News senior reporter Evan Dyer breaks down his exclusive reporting on the arrests made in connection to the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, and the increasingly blurring lines between organized crime and Indian foreign policy.

“I come with a lot of liability and I do not want it at their religious function, you know, which is a celebration for the community,” he told CBC News from New York City.

“And this is a son who is 30 years old and he’s getting married. I do not want it to weigh them under my security threats and bring in all that attention.”

Pannun was not the only person under threat who was expected to attend the wedding in Brampton.

Moninder Singh Bual was a close friend and collaborator of Nijjar. Both had received “Duty to Warn” letters from the RCMP at about the same time in 2022.

Bual said he has since received a second formal warning from the RCMP that his life is in danger.

He arrived in Brampton from British Columbia on the evening of Friday, Nov. 3, 2023.

“It was the night before the wedding and I was there for it,” he said. “And it was a typical — should have been a typical — kind of weekend, you know. You attend the wedding, you meet some old people you haven’t seen in a long time.”

Bual said he did hear chatter while in B.C. about potential dangers in Ontario.

“I had heard something as I was leaving Vancouver, that I should be very careful while I’m in Toronto, as in there were people here in Vancouver that potentially could be in Toronto now that might want to harm us in some way,” he said.

“But the reality is that during that time, every week or two, we were hearing things like that.”

A woman is consoled as people mourn Sikh community leader and temple president Hardeep Singh Nijjar during Antim Darshan, the first part of day-long funeral services for him, in Surrey, British Columbia on Sunday, June 25, 2023.
A woman is consoled as people mourn Sikh community leader and temple president Hardeep Singh Nijjar during Antim Darshan, the first part of day-long funeral services for him, in Surrey, British Columbia on Sunday, June 25, 2023. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press via AP)

The guest list, said Bual, was heavy on Khalistanis.

“I think you would refer to them as probably Sikh leadership from across the country,” he said. “A lot of people that were there that day, whether they’re from Toronto or Calgary or Vancouver or from Montreal, you know, are fully invested within that Khalistan movement.”

There may have been not a better opportune time than that weekend, when a lot of us were gathering, for something to actually potentially happen.​​​​– Sikh activist Moninder Singh Bual

The same Friday that Bual arrived in Ontario, Peel Regional Police made two traffic stops — the first at noon in Vaughan, Ont. and the second about four hours later in Brampton.

They arrested Amandeep Singh, who was held on firearms, drug and breach of conditions charges.

Last month, he was also charged with first-degree murder in the death of Nijjar. As yet, he has entered no plea on any of the charges.

Four other men were arrested in the two vehicle stops. All are listed as residents of Brampton and all remain in custody on firearms possession charges. They were not charged with drug offences and are not accused in the Nijjar murder.

None of those arrested face any charges related to the wedding the next day.

CBC News does not know what intelligence led Peel police to make the arrests, and does not have any information suggesting Peel police were acting on a request from the RCMP or the investigators probing Nijjar’s death.

A Peel Regional Police news release in November made it clear that these were not random traffic stops. They were conducted by Peel’s Strategic Tactical Enforcement Patrol (STEP) unit — which targets gang activity — along with backup from the Tactical Unit. (The news release has since been removed from the internet. Peel Police say they typically remove all releases after six months.)

An unusual pistol

The first traffic stop produced a loaded FN509 9mm handgun containing a prohibited 24-round extended magazine. The second stop produced two more loaded extended magazines.

Peel Police have not described the nature of the breach charges laid against Amandeep Singh. He had given undertakings following a previous B.C. charge of flight from police and dangerous operation, reported by CBC News last month. He has not entered a plea on those charges.

In that case, Singh signed an undertaking not to possess weapons or be in the driver seat of a car.

In a video obtained by CBC News, Amandeep Singh can be seen driving a car on a road at night with his left hand on the steering wheel and an earth-coloured semi-automatic pistol in his right hand.

The 12-second video clip was posted to social media at some point last summer before Singh’s arrest in Ontario. CBC News obtained the video from a source in the B.C. Sikh community and has verified independently that the person in it is Amandeep Singh, although it is not clear where and when the video was shot.

Asked about the video, Singh’s lawyer said he had “no comment.”

In the video, Singh can be seen releasing the slide of the pistol to load a cartridge and then firing one unaimed shot from the window of his moving car while Punjabi music plays on the car stereo.

The pistol appears to be the same snake-engraved handgun subsequently confiscated by Peel police.

The weapon also holds a 24-round extended magazine, although it lacks the after-market laser sight it had affixed under the barrel on the day Singh was arrested.

Khela said CSIS has communicated with him several times since the wedding, encouraging him to take precautions by, among other things, installing cameras at the front and back of his house.

Bual returned to B.C. the day after the wedding with no knowledge of the arrests on Nov. 3.

“Looking back on that weekend, the types of arrests that were made of the fourth shooter in Hardeep’s case,” he said, “now it seems like there’s a lot of dots that could be connected for that weekend.

“We have the U.S. indictment that comes out a couple of weeks later that says that it wasn’t just Hardeep. There were three or four other Sikh Khalistani leaders in Canada [allegedly targeted by India]. There may have been not a better opportune time than that weekend, when a lot of us were gathering, for something to actually potentially happen.”

Narendra Modi speaks at a microphone.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses his supporters during an election campaign rally on Tuesday, April 16, 2024. (Reuters)

Pannun, Bual and Khela all say that the arrests of Amandeep Singh and seven other men — including three others charged in the Nijjar murder — have not put an end to the danger they face from the Indian government.

“Mr. Modi, Mr. Jaishankar, their external affairs minister, their defence minister Mr. Rajnath Singh, have all made statements that they’re actually taking credit almost for these types of assassinations in foreign countries,” said Bual.

On May 23, Modi appeared to take credit for overseas assassinations at a campaign rally in Patiala, Punjab.

Modi told the crowd his government “has the courage to go into the homes of the terrorists and kill them.”

Bual said the Khalistani activists do not expect the Canadian government to give them round-the-clock protection. They would like to see more done to constrain the government of India’s activities in Canada, however, and are asking for a public inquiry into India’s operations in Canada.

“Until that happens, I don’t think we can get a semblance of public safety. I think until then, a lot of us potentially are sitting ducks as well for the Indian government,” Bual said.

Pannun said Indian authorities are not getting clear enough signals from the U.S. and Canadian governments that illegal activities in North America won’t be tolerated.

“(Modi) said when he comes back to power within six months, there will not be any designated terrorists left,” he said. “They are going to eliminate everyone.”

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