Indian consulate and Sikh ballot face security concerns after PM's remarks on killing

The Vancouver Police Department has beefed up security outside India's Consulate after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said this week there was credible intelligence about a potential link between India's government and the killing of Sikh community leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in B.C.

But there are also safety concerns among supporters of Nijjar and an unofficial Sikh independence referendum that he was helping organize before being shot dead in Surrey in June.

The second stage of B.C. voting on whether a Sikh homeland should be established in India's Punjab province is scheduled to be held on Oct. 29.

Organizers say more than 135,000 people took part in the first stage of voting on Sept. 10 at the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in Surrey, where Nijjar was president and where he was shot dead by two masked gunmen.

But the location of the second stage of balloting is not being announced yet, organizers said Wednesday.

Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a U.S.-based spokesman for the group Sikhs for Justice that has been organizing the referendum votes around the world, angering India's government, said in a text message that the B.C. location would only be announced three days in advance.

This was to avoid "hate-mongering" by Indian Canadians opposed to the referendum, he said.

Harkireet Kaur, a Surrey Sikh activist, said in an interview the voting location "is undisclosed as of right now due to security measures."

"We don't want to tell people the location of the voting centre … obviously due to safety," she said at the Surrey temple.

Const. Tania Visintin, Vancouver police media relations officer, said in a statement Wednesday that police are "closely monitoring the situation" since Trudeau's announcement about the killing of Nijjar, a vocal supporter of an independent Sikh homeland known as Khalistan.

"We’re doing significant work behind the scenes, which includes continuous risk assessments, with a goal of maintaining public safety and preventing violence," Visintin said in an emailed statement.

Visintin said Vancouver police aren't aware of any specific threats to Indian consular officials, but have increased their presence at the downtown Vancouver consulate.

She said police are also working with city officials to implement a no-stopping zone on Howe Street outside the building that houses the consulate.

Two Vancouver police officers stationed outside the building in a police cruiser Wednesday morning said they weren't authorized to speak to media.

No one from the consulate was made available to comment on the police presence.

A sign on the door tells visitors to check in with security before visiting the consulate, with a private security guard stationed in the building's lobby screening entrants.

Sgt. Mark McLean with the West Vancouver Police Department said Wednesday that a property in the district that once housed India's consul general is "overgrown and empty" and no longer occupied, though the area is home to many consular residences.

McLean said the department was also not aware of "any specific threats."

Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly said last week that Canada had offered round-the-clock security to India’s diplomats.

A statement released by the Indian government Wednesday warns Indian nationals of "growing anti-India activities" in Canada, telling potential travellers to "exercise utmost caution."

The statement says Indian diplomats and others in the community have received threats for their opposition to what it calls "the anti-India agenda."

Signs blaming Indian diplomats for Nijjar's killing have been posted around B.C.'s Lower Mainland and elsewhere for months.

Joly said in July that such a poster advertising a protest in Toronto was "unacceptable."

Bhupinder Singh Hothi, general secretary of the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara Society, said at the temple on Wednesday that worshippers were fearful in the immediate aftermath of Nijjar's killing, but things have since returned to normal without ongoing security concerns.

"They're coming to the temple just like as usual," he said.

Hothi said the Sept. 10 vote had 10 police officers, about 20 private security guards and upwards of 40 volunteers monitoring the event.

He said the temple has no plans to curtail services, such as educational programs and providing food, because of safety fears. The temple provides free meals to anyone in need.

"There's nothing that will stop all the services," he said.

— With files from Brenna Owen.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 20, 2023.

Darryl Greer and Nono Shen, The Canadian Press