On 15 June of this year, it was announced that UK-based Sikh activist and organiser Avtar Singh had died. He was in a hospital in the Midlands where he had been treated for the previous four days without improvement. The news came as a shock to many, particularly those closest to him here in the UK where he had resided for the previous decade and more. I met one such mutual associate this past weekend at a conference who spoke to me briefly about ‘Khanda’ as he was affectionately known. He was surprised that I had not written anything on the suspicious circumstances in which Avtar Singh had died; I explained that it was difficult to ascertain what had happened, although there was now a growing consensus that he had been murdered, but that I would duly oblige and share my thoughts in due course. That moment has come quicker than expected – not because I know any more than I did a few days ago about the facts of the situation, but because that isn’t what matters here and now.

I had first met and interacted with Avtar Singh around ten years ago in Whitehall of all places, where he was for a time engaged in a dedicated protest against atrocities taking place in Punjab. I did not know anything about him at the time but exchanged pleasantries and loaned him a book titled ‘Sachi Sakhi’ by Professor Kapur Singh, which he had read many times but no longer owned now that he was here in the UK. In the years that followed I bumped into him occasionally where he would take the time to pause and converse on whatever topic was popular within the Panth. His passion for Sikhi and knowledge in current affairs were admirable as was his smiling and pleasant demeanour. These skills were ably showcased in recent years, when he took on a position presenting from the studio on satellite television station KTV, ably interviewing a range of personalities from musicians to politicians.

In all his interactions with the public, his commitment to the cause of bettering people’s lives shone through. As did his dedication for the cause of Khalistan. And it is the latter that is being raised in relation to his death, quite naturally that has left Sikhs reeling and demanding answers. Some close to the situation, including our mutual acquaintance, have stated that Avtar Singh was poisoned, accounting for his rapid ill health and decline. The lack of an independent autopsy and official review into how he died has accelerated the veracity of those claims. Yet as this was being mooted, the situation took on a new complexion with the brazen murder of another Sikh activist and organiser, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, this time in Canada. Avtar Singh’s death had left Sikhs shocked and asking the question ‘how’; Hardeep Singh’s had no such ambiguity. And from this moment it became difficult to not see the two as connected.

There remain questions over the exact identity of Hardeep Singh’s murderer but within the Sikh community there are few doubts about the origins of the intent to murder him. It’s difficult in that light to see or say anything differently when it comes to Avtar Singh’s case. If they weren’t so vocal on the issue of Khalistan wouldn’t they both still be here? Whilst in Canada an investigation and resources were put in place, nothing appears to be forthcoming for Avtar Singh in the UK despite the pleas of those closest to him. He has not yet been afforded the dignity of a funeral even, perhaps a blessing if authorities relent and tests are conducted on his body.

The facts around exactly what happened to Avtar Singh will see the light of day in the future but it is those he touched here that I’m thinking of when writing this piece. I last saw him at the Nagar Kirtan in Southall in April of this year when he smiled broadly as we greeted one another; as I think back to that moment now, it sits as one of a dozen or so interactions I had with him in total, and it puts the situation into context – what solace have those who stood with him day to day been left with since 15 June? How are they supposed to find answers when all avenues to do so have been blocked so far? Why should they then not believe and state that he was murdered? Avtar Singh was the son of a Sikh freedom fighter, Kulwant Singh, who was murdered in Punjab by the Indian state in 1992. History has a habit of repeating itself in the Sikh story and perhaps it has done so again here; and with friends like the one I met of Avtar Singh’s over the weekend, it can only be a matter of time before they are able to present the truth for all to see.