English Sikhs demand investigation into activist’s sudden death
Featured VideoThe Sikh community in England has asked the country’s coroner to look into the sudden death of a prominent campaigner for a separate Sikh state. Avtar Singh Khanda died just days before Canadian Hardeep Singh Nijjar was killed in British Columbia earlier this summer.
For many Sikhs at the Guru Nanak Gurdwara near Birmingham, U.K., the circumstances surrounding the sudden death of a local Sikh independence activist just don’t add up.
Now they see a killing in Canada as a compelling reason why Britain’s government needs to probe deeper.
Avtar Singh Khanda, 35, died in a Birmingham hospital on June 15, three days before the shooting death of Canadian Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar, who was gunned down outside a temple in Surrey, B.C.
Friends and family say Khanda went to the hospital after he suddenly fell ill and was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia — a type of blood cancer. He died four days later of a blood clot, his family says, which is the official determination on his death certificate.
Both men openly supported the Khalistan movement, or the creation of an independent Sikh homeland, which is banned in India.
So Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent assertion that the Indian government played a role in Nijjar’s death is being hailed by many here as validation of their suspicions.
“I think that [Nijjar’s death] just convinced everybody that they are now eliminating Sikhs,” said Jas Singh, a friend of Khanda’s and an advisor to the Sikh Federation UK, which works to promote Sikh issues in British politics.
“Something is not right,” he said of Khanda’s death. “Something has happened here that’s resulted in Avtar losing his life.”
Although the circumstances of the two men’s deaths are very different, friends say that given Khanda’s prominence in the Sikh independence movement, his controversial political activities and his appearance on at least one so-called “hit list” broadcast on Indian television, the British government needs to conduct a formal inquiry to dispel any doubts of homicide.
Another friend and colleague from the Punjab Broadcasting Channel, where Khanda sometimes went on TV to discuss separatist politics, said he also has questions about Khanda’s death.
“In all honesty, it probably wouldn’t be a shock [if it were a homicide],” said Amrit Singh, the station’s manager, suggesting Indian security forces have killed “many Sikhs in India.”
“Whether he was physically poisoned before he went to hospital, whether he was given some kind of clotting agent, or whether something was given to expedite his deterioration and ultimate demise, are all working theories within the community,” said Jas Singh.
Earlier in the year, on March 19, Khanda took part in a pro-Khalistan protest outside of India’s High Commission in London, where one demonstrator climbed onto the building and tore down the Indian flag. The protest was widely reported in Indian media and Khanda was labelled as the chief instigator in several reports.
Khanda and his family were already well known to Indian security forces. In 1992, his father, Kulwant Singh Khukhrana, also a staunch supporter of the Sikh independence movement, was killed by those security forces.
As a teenager, Khanda came to the U.K. on a student visa while other family members remained behind.
After his death in June, his mother and sister were denied U.K. visas to attend his funeral. Sky News reports that the refusal letter indicates Khanda’s participation in the High Commission protest was a contributing factor in that decision.
But it was Canada’s allegation of Indian involvement in Nijjar’s killing, along with subsequent reports of U.S. authorities warning Sikhs in that country to be vigilant, that amplified concerns at the Guru Nanak Gurdwara.
The Indian government has called Canada’s claims “unsubstantiated,” and in retaliation has stopped issuing visas to Canadians wanting to travel to India. Other reports say India has told Canada to withdraw dozens of diplomats from its embassies and consulates abroad.
For its part, the British government has kept its comments about Nijjar’s case deliberately vague, calling Canada’s allegations “serious” but saying little else.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has indicated one of his government’s priorities is closer relations with India, including negotiating a free trade agreement.
The Sikh Federation UK has complained that, unlike in the United States, British security services failed to contact them after Nijjar’s killing and haven’t provided any security advice to high-profile independence leaders who may be at risk.
Indian television has since broadcast a number of so-called “hit lists” of alleged “Khalistan supporters” that the country’s intelligence services allegedly want to eliminate. While it’s impossible to verify the authenticity of such lists or even if they originated with India’s security services, the Sikh Federation UK says it is taking the threats seriously.
One person on one of those lists is Kulwant Singh Mothada, 61, another Khalistani advocate who is involved with the Guru Nanak Gurdwara.
Mothada showed CBC News part of the broadcast where he was named a “Sikh terrorist,” saying the photo of him was taken before 2010, when he moved to the United Kingdom.
“It’s a false charge on me,” Mothada said of the terrorism claim.
Mothada said he was tortured by Indian security forces for his pro-independence activities in the late 1990s, but has since led a quiet life in Britain.
Another supposed “hit list” circulating in Indian media has Avtar Singh Khanda’s face on it, with a red X splashed through. And the British lawyer representing the Khanda family said any threat should be taken seriously.
“In cases that I’ve done before in relation to Indian intelligence … there’s a very close relationship between the Indian government and lots of the press there,” said Michael Polak. “They seem to publish things at the behest of the Indian government.”
When you take into account Canada’s allegations of an extrajudicial killing, Khanda’s history as an opponent to the Indian government, and the fact Indian intelligence agencies were constantly raising his name, Polak says he believes it should be more than enough for England’s Chief Coroner to launch a formal inquiry.
“In this case, when you put everything together, how can you say there’s no reasonable suspicion?” Polak said in an interview.
British police have already ruled that Khanda’s death was not suspicious, while England’s coroner has not yet commented on the calls for an inquiry.
Movement stronger outside India
While the calls for an independent homeland has preoccupied some Sikhs for decades, the dream may resonate more strongly with the diaspora outside of India than within.
On a recent trip to the Punjab, a CBC News team found most people they spoke to had little interest in independence. Some also felt the Indian government was deliberately overstating the threat posed by so-called “Sikh terrorists” for political reasons and to fuel divisions within the country ahead of national elections.
Over the years, many Sikhs who support independence have fled to Canada or the U.K.
Among the faces lining the walls of the Birmingham-area temple is Talwinder Singh Parmar, a Canadian citizen notorious for masterminding the 1985 Air India bombing, which killed 329 people, the vast majority of whom were Canadians.
Parmar — an advocate for the Khalistan movement — was never brought to justice in Canada and died in a shootout with Indian police in 1992.
Asked whether the photo was defending Parmar’s actions, Jas Singh, of the Sikh Federation UK, insisted it was not.
“No Sikh condones terror,” he said. “Sikhs have always been open to truth and reconciliation. It is the Indian state that has continued this demonization.”