The killing of Canadian Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada allegedly by Indian intelligence, is seen in India as stemming from the “Khalistan” issue and in Canada as a national sovereignty and freedom of expression issue.

Both these standpoints will bear scrutiny, but they are inadequate to understand the killing of Nijjar.

The killing is actually a reflection of a deep-rooted malaise in the Sikh community in Canada, a malaise which has been much written about but not tackled with single-minded devotion.

Political extremism, secessionism and violence among immigrant Sikhs in British Columbia stem from conditions there that allow the growth of these phenomena and give them ideological legitimacy.

Drug-related crimes and the violence that goes with them are noticeably present in British Columbia, a region intimately associated with Sikh immigrants for decades.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) had consistently ranked Indo-Canadian gangs as number three among Asian gangs, say Louis A. Pagliaro and Ann Marie Pagliaro of the University of Alberta’s Substance Abusology and Clinical Pharmacology Research Group.

In their chapter on Indo-Canadian gangs in Drugs, and Violent Crime among Canadian Youth: Facts, Trends, Issues, and Implications for Teachers, Schools, and Policymakers (2006), the Pagliaros say that about 40 Indo-Canadian gangs were active in British Columbia at the time of the publication of their paper.

The amount of guns that Indo-Canadian gangsters had was “astounding”, police said.

The root of the problem lay in the easy availability of drugs, British Columbia’s lax drug laws and a climate of permissiveness in the immigrant Sikhs’ social system.

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Most of the members of the Sikh gangs (the Pagliaros call them Indo-Canadian gangs) were adolescents and young men from middle-and upper-class Sikh immigrant families. They also were more likely to live at home with both of their biological parents. Many had some college or university education.

Although some gang members were recent immigrants, others were fourth-generation Canadians. Most were Sikhs with continued family ties to their place of origin –the Indian Punjab.

Adolescents and young men from India took up Vancouver’s drug trade and became notorious cocaine dealers in the 1990s. They were inspired by the exploits and the subsequent acquittals of cocaine-dealing gangs belonging to other Asian communities. Extensive media coverage had made these gangsters popular heroes.

An important factor noted by writer Jasbir Singh Kang in 2003 was the immigrant Sikh family culture. He pointed out that many parents worked 12-16 hours a day in search of a better and secure financial position. But their children were completely ignored. The kids got their cultural education not from their parents but from videos, American, Canadian and Indian, that had a surfeit of violence.

According to Harbans Kandola, head of a group called “Sikh Alliance Against Youth Violence” many Indo-Canadian gang members knew little or nothing about their own traditional Punjabi and Sikh cultural values. They would go into raptures over Canadian youth culture marked by “flash, cash, and women”.  

Their heroes were Indo-Canadian gangsters like Peter Gill, Bindy Johal, Ranjit Cheema or Jimsher Dosanjh.

Jagdeep Singh Mangat got introduced to drug gangs when he was in Grade 8. According to Media Magazine published by the Canadian Association of Journalists, young gangsters carried military assault rifles and earned an average of Canadian dollars 10,000 a week.

In 1994, Ranjit Singh Dosanjh (alias Ron Dosanjh)   and his brother, Jimsher Singh Dosanjh (alias Jimmy Dosanjh), were shot dead in a cocaine-related street brawl, a case that received big media coverage. Bhupinder Singh Johal (alias Bindy Johal and Raj Benji), with five other co-accused, was arrested and charged with first degree murder. But he was acquitted after a much publicized trial.  

According to the Pagliaros, such acquittals only emboldened the drug dealers and gangsters. After his mysterious death in 1998,  Bindy Johal became part of the mythology of crime. He was admired for beating up school principals and those who hurled racial slurs at him.

More importantly, he was making a lot of money even though he was only in his mid-twenties. He drove fancy cars, and had girls falling all over him. The police noted that Johal was also a bit of a Robin Hood, which widened his appeal among Sikh immigrants.

But the cost of such admiration was heavy. Between the 1990s and  2006, almost 200 adolescents and young men in rival Indo-Canadian gangs were murdered in the lower mainland of British Columbia, the Pagliaros said. Most of these murders, which for the most part had gone unsolved, were done in “execution style” in public.

Some of the killings were senseless, like that of Gurjant Singh Sidhu, a 45-year-old man. He was simply walking home on the evening of September 26, 2003 when he was attacked by a large group of drinking, partying teens near the Scott Road SkyTrain station. Sidhu suffered broken ribs, a collapsed lung, multiple facial injuries and a severe head injury, and was in a coma for a month.

Most incidents were not reported to the police because the victims feared reprisals.   

According to Harbans Singh Kandola, British Columbia’s soft laws on marijuana and the police’s inability to solve murder were to be blamed for many of the killings.

Former British Columbia Supreme Court Judge and Attorney General, Wally Oppal felt that Sikh temples needed to shift their focus away from hosting sporting events to tackling social problems such as the activities of the youth and gender inequality.

“That’s where a lot of gang violence comes from,” Oppal said.

People who had made money, no matter by what means, and contributed to the Sikh temples were hailed by the managements and their congregations. Temple priests and others high up in the community gave their blessings to such contributors.

In the traditional Sikh culture, boys are pampered. In Canada, they received Mustangs and BMWs even for passing a school exam. Boys could do no wrong. Parents, especially mothers, would defend their errant sons even when they were hauled up for serious crimes.

Canadian gagsters had brought unrest to the villages of Punjab in India. Indian police had noted an increase in crimes, particularly drug dealing and prostitution, associated with these non-resident Indo-Canadians, the Pagliaros say.

 “It is generally well-known that the Indo-Canadian gang members who return to India to live or to visit relations are also actively involved in recruiting young girls and women from the villages to come to Canada, purportedly, on vacation, while their true purpose is to act as drug carriers, or mules, moving drugs (primarily marijuana and cocaine) and other contraband,” they add.

Summing up the situation, the Pagliaros say: “The problems associated with the Indo-Canadian youth gangs in Canada appear to be getting worse. At least at this time, some small measure of relief can be obtained from noting that these gangs are predominantly confined to the lower mainland of the Province of British Columbia. With a better understanding of these gangs and with the help of community leaders, local police, schools, and other community resources, these problems, hopefully, can be addressed more effectively in the future.”

Seventeen years later in 2023, the conditions in British Columbia are not any better. Drug-related gangsterism is still there and in close association with political extremism, Sikh separatism, legal laxity and the unabashed patronage of White Canadian politicians.