Death threats are pretty routine for British Sikh journalist Jasveer Singh. When he posts stories on social media about his community, they’re often met with abuse. He’s been called a terrorist, as have the subjects of his stories. His accounts have been reported en masse for allegedly posting offensive comments, prompting the platforms to suspend them. “It does descend into direct threats,” Singh said. “‘We’re coming for you next… We’re going to shut you up.’ That’s a daily occurrence.”
It’s never entirely clear who is behind the campaigns, or if they’re actively being coordinated. But the abuse tends to flare up during moments of political scandal in India. The country’s deepening ethnic and religious divisions under the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi are plain to see in the digital realm. Trolling of minorities by supporters of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party is commonplace. India has used diplomatic channels to brand diaspora groups as terrorists, and has used digital channels to harass and disrupt potential opponents. Singh and other prominent Sikhs in the U.K. have received messages from X — the platform formerly known as Twitter — telling them that Indian authorities have demanded their accounts be blocked.
“I think most people have got fairly thick-skinned about these threats,” said Dabinderjit Singh, a prominent British Sikh activist and advisor to the Sikh Federation U.K., a lobby group. But then the killings began, and the threats got harder to ignore. In Pakistan, two prominent Sikh separatists were gunned down, one in January, the second in May. A third, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, was killed in June in Vancouver, Canada, in what the Canadian government alleges was a state-sponsored assassination. A fourth plot was allegedly foiled by the FBI in the U.S. “Perhaps the situation is somewhat different now that those threats appear to be potentially real,” Dabinderjit Singh said.
Adding to the sense of fear is the mysterious death of Avtar Singh Khanda, a Sikh activist based in the U.K.. Khanda, who had spoken publicly about receiving threats from the Indian authorities, died after a short illness in June. His family and colleagues are convinced he was poisoned and are demanding that the British authorities investigate his death.
British Sikhs are just the latest group to raise the alarm over the import of repression into the U.K. Uyghur exiles from China and democracy advocates who have fled Hong Kong have been aggressively targeted by people they believe work for the Chinese government. Iranian exile groups and media have been hit with cyberattacks and physical threats. Opponents of the Saudi and Emirati governments have been surveilled and harassed online. The multitude of cases show how authoritarian regimes are more willing than ever to reach across borders to target opponents living in western Europe and North America — and how much easier that has become in the digital era.
Democratic governments have struggled to deal with these abuses, but perhaps none more so than the U.K., which is diplomatically diminished post-Brexit, gripped by constant crises, and increasingly authoritarian in its own politics. While the Canadian and U.S. governments have been vocal in their criticism of India’s transnational abuses, and worked to reassure the Sikh communities in their respective countries that they will be protected, the U.K. government has been deafeningly quiet.
“Do one or two people have to be killed in the U.K. before our government says something?” Dabinderjit Singh said.
Transnational repression on British soil appears to be rising just as the U.K. navigates a world in which its exit from the European Union has left its economic and diplomatic powers seriously diminished. The government, now stacked with Brexit hardliners, is desperately seeking new commercial and political partners to help it deliver on the promised benefits of severing ties with the world’s largest trading bloc.
All this has led to some uncomfortable compromises. It’s difficult to stand up to superpowers (see China) or petrostates (see Saudi Arabia) when you know you may need to rely on them for investment and trade.
The U.K.’s particular vulnerability overlaps with an uptick in transnational repression globally, partly because technology has made attacks much easier to procure and to get away with. Lives lived increasingly online leave many openings for attack. Emails, social media accounts or cloud services can be hacked. Online profiles can be cloned or impersonated. Repression can now be performed remotely and systematically in a way that wasn’t possible back when intimidating exiles meant you had to physically infiltrate their spaces. It is also a lot harder to hold perpetrators to account. Online harassment campaigns can be dismissed as the actions of the crowd, and can be hard to definitively track back to a government actor. Perpetrators of digital surveillance too can be notoriously difficult to pinpoint.
These less visible components of transnational repression work in concert with more overt actions, often using international legal mechanisms, such as arrest warrants and Interpol red notices, to put pressure on people, limiting their ability to travel or access finances. To give themselves cover, authoritarian countries have often co-opted the West’s obsession with national security, echoing the excuses made by the U.S. and U.K. to justify their own adventurism.
“The availability of the rhetoric around extremism and terrorism, which arose as part of the War on Terror, gives countries a common language to talk about people who are dangerous or undesirable,” Yana Gorokhovskaia, a research director at NGO Freedom House, said. “It’s a way of catching someone in a web that everyone understands as bad.”
Uyghur communities in the U.K. have long complained about abuse from abroad. They say their online accounts have been hacked, they’ve received threatening messages over WhatsApp and WeChat, and their family homes back in Xinjiang have been raided by police. As revelations about the Chinese Communist Party’s massive “reeducation” camps and forced labor facilities in Xinjiang have emerged, these threats have increased.
China’s reach into the U.K. became even more intrusive in 2021, after the CCP’s crackdown on pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong, which was a British colony until 1997. The U.K. government — which in 2015 declared a “golden era” of Sino-British relations — failed to prevent the Chinese government from unwinding the “one country, two systems” principle that gave Hong Kong its democratic freedoms. But it did offer an escape route for Hong Kongers, more than 160,000 of whom immigrated to the U.K. on special visas. Among them were many prominent democracy campaigners and activists.
Former Hong Kong politicians and activists now living in the U.K. told me that they have had their emails and social media accounts hacked and that they have been doxxed and, they believe, followed by Chinese agents. U.K.-based activists, including the prominent labor campaigner Christopher Mung and the former protest leader Finn Lau have been put on a wanted list under Hong Kong’s National Security Law, with bounties of HK$1 million ($128,000) offered for information that leads to their arrest.
In April, NGO Safeguard Defenders alleged that the Chinese government was running unsanctioned “police stations” in British cities. Those allegations were picked up by the influential right-wing media as violations of British sovereignty, which seemingly prompted the government to start talking in more robust terms about Chinese interference in the U.K.
But the response — under a U.K. government scheme called the Defending Democracy Task Force — is mostly focused on tackling the obvious national security challenges presented by transnational repression.
What it doesn’t address is core human rights issues, like protecting people’s rights to free speech, free association and freedom from harassment, said Andrew Chubb, a senior lecturer in Chinese politics and international relations at Lancaster University who researches transnational repression. Security agencies don’t have a mandate to deal with human rights violations on British soil, unless they present a risk to the state — meaning that victims aren’t necessarily treated as victims, but as “potential threat vectors,” Chubb said. People facing human rights issues need to take their cases individually to court.
Framing the response in terms of sovereignty and national security means that victims of transnational repression — and whether or not their rights are protected — are subject to the U.K.’s diplomatic interests.
“India is important to the U.K.’s future strategy in the Indo-Pacific. And Saudi Arabia is important in the Middle East and as a buyer of weapons,” Chubb said. “There’s a very strong interest to overlook human rights issues where they concern these countries, which have not been deemed to pose national security threats.”
Simply put, this means that if you’re being targeted by a country that hasn’t yet crossed the boundary from trading partner to geopolitical rival, you’re largely on your own.
The concerns of the Sikh community in the U.K. wouldn’t have reached a wider audience were it not for a brazen attack in Canada. On June 18, two hooded men shot dead Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian citizen and Sikh nationalist, in a Vancouver parking lot. Nijjar had supported the establishment of a Sikh homeland called Khalistan — an idea that the Modi government aggressively opposes — and he was known to be on an Indian government wanted list. In October, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau publicly accused India of masterminding Nijjar’s death. The Indian government responded forcefully, expelling Canadian diplomats and denying its involvement. But a month later, the U.S. announced that it had foiled a plot to assassinate another supporter of Khalistan independence: Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a dual U.S.-Canadian citizen. The murder-for-hire scheme had been directed, U.S. Federal prosecutors say, by an Indian government official.
A week before Nijjar’s murder, Avtar Singh Khanda went into the hospital in Birmingham, U.K.. feeling unwell. Khanda, like Nijjar, was a vocal supporter of Khalistan independence, and his name was reported to have been included in a dossier of supposedly high-risk individuals that was handed to then-U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron by Modi in 2015.
Two days after Khanda was admitted to hospital, he was diagnosed with leukemia, complicated by blood clots. He died two days later. The coroner didn’t record the death as suspicious, but Khanda’s family and community couldn’t help but suspect foul play — acute myeloid leukemia, the form of blood cancer he was diagnosed with, can be caused by poisoning. For Khanda’s supporters, it was hard not to think of Russians like Alexander Litvinenko, who was assassinated with a lethal dose of polonium in 2006, or Sergei and Yulia Skripal, who were dosed with a nerve agent in Salisbury in 2018.
“If it was a Russian that lived in Surrey or London, then the first thing people would think about was poison,” said Michael Polak, a barrister and human rights activist who is representing Khanda’s family.
Polak says local police didn’t investigate the circumstances around Khanda’s death, despite his family’s pleas — something some Sikh activists say shows how little attention British authorities have paid to India’s adoption of the authoritarian playbook.
Dabinderjit Singh, the activist, said the U.K. has been too quick to entertain the Indian government’s narrative that Khalistan separatists are terrorists and extremists. After the dossier that Modi reportedly gave to Cameron, a study was commissioned into Sikh extremism for the U.K. government-funded Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats. It found that there was “no threat to the British state or to the wider British public from Sikh activism.” But the idea of Sikh extremism nevertheless began to appear in government studies and news stories. In 2018, British police raided the homes of five Sikh activists in London and the West Midlands, a county to the west of London centered around the U.K.’s second city, Birmingham. West Midlands Police said at the time, in a tweet, that the raids were part of a counter-terrorism operation, “into allegations of extremist activity in India and fraud offenses.” No one was prosecuted on terrorism charges as a result of the raids.
While Indian media and the Indian government openly amped up the supposed threat of Khalistan separatism in the diaspora, there were covert efforts to discredit the movement. In November 2021, the Centre for Information Resilience, a London-based research organization, uncovered a network of fake accounts, “the RealSikh Network,” on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter (now X), which pushed out messages portraying supporters of Khalistan as extremists. The aim of the network, the center said, was to “stoke cultural tensions within India and international communities.”
These tensions are rising in the U.K. Jasveer Singh said he has tracked what he believes are other attempts to drive wedges between Sikhs and Muslims in the Indian diaspora in the U.K. — social media disinformation that plays on lurid conspiracies about Muslim men grooming Sikh girls, and vice versa.
There are also signs that Modi’s Hindu nationalism is spreading to other countries with alarming consequences. Rising support for Hindu nationalism and the online demonization of minorities has already led to violence in Australia. In September 2022, Muslims and Hindus clashed in the U.K. city of Leicester. Analysts and academics have suggested the deterioration of relations between the two communities was partly due to the growing influence of right-wing Hindutva ideologies within the diaspora. Supporters of Hindu nationalism have routinely demonized Muslims in India, and tried to portray them as not really being Indian.
The South Asian Muslim community in Leicester is largely of Indian origin. After the clashes in the city, the Indian High Commission in London issued a statement condemning “the violence against Indian Community in Leicester and vandalization of premises and symbols of Hindu religion,” making no mention of the violence against Muslims.
With an election coming in India, these kinds of tensions are only going to grow, Jasveer Singh said. “It’s only a matter of time before we see serious incidents in the U.K., unfortunately.”
Singh said he feels that the Sikh community is a “political football,” being sacrificed to allow the U.K. to pursue its geopolitical aims. “We’re well aware this is tied up in trade,” he said. “It is kind of frustrating and suspicious that the U.K. government is keeping such a distance from saying anything, especially after we’ve seen massive floodgates opened by Trudeau and Biden. It’s like, now or never. So I guess it’s never.”