Making sense of the overdrive to discredit Sikhs during Trudeau visit to India

Even before Canadian PM Justin Trudeau stepped foot in India, the media had began injecting Khalistan into their narratives. What really worries India? We bring to you some observations worth pondering

Canada PM Justin Trudeau and family visiting the Harmandir Sahib, Amritsar – Photo courtesy of Justin Trudeau Facebook page

“The Indian media machine has gone into overdrive trying to discredit Sikh Canadians; their obsession with our success betrays their attempt to try to appear unthreatened by Sikhs in the diaspora,” writes Canadian-based Jaspreet Kaur Bal in an opinion published by the Washington Post.

In the article commenting on Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent visit to India, she talked about “intergenerational trauma”, a term used to describe how a traumatic event can be residually transmitted into generations that may not have experienced the event firsthand.

In another opinion piece, British journalist Sunny Hundal argued that what ‘really worries’ the Indian government was the prospect of Sikh diaspora — singling out Britain, Canada and the US — getting into positions of power and challenging the abuse of Sikh civil rights in India.

“Most Sikhs call for a Khalistan not because they want to live in a theocracy but because they want a state where their Sikh brethren are treated equally and with dignity. They want a state that will protect Sikhs, not cover up thousands of extrajudicial killings,” he argued an article published in The Independent.

We share excerpts from works of Jaspreet and Sunny, as well as few others.

SUNNY HUNDAL: India’s indifference to the Sikh diaspora is damaging Western foreign policy towards the country

Why have relations between India and Canada suddenly turned chilly? Blame the Sikh diaspora. The Indian government says it is concerned Trudeau is too close to Sikh separatists and their growing influence poses a threat to India’s unity. A lot of these claims are hyperbole, but they reveal a broader concern among India’s elite.

Their concern is more than just about Canada. What really worries the Indian government is the prospect of Sikhs in Britain, Canada and the US getting into positions of power and challenging the abuse of Sikh civil rights in India. The Indian government mentions the revival of Sikh militancy in India too, but it is highly exaggerated. Among Indian elites there is palpable concern that Western foreign policy towards India will increasingly be shaped by Sikhs willing to challenge its interests. Hence the alarmist talk about Sikh separatism.

India has good reason to worry. Until recently the south Asian giant could broadly count on the West to put trade ahead of human rights.

But the political environment is changing. There are roughly half a million Sikhs in Britain, Canada and the US each. Canadians elected 20 Sikh MPs in 2015, the highest number ever. There are four Sikh cabinet ministers including Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, and the unofficial leader of the opposition party NDP, Jagmeet Singh, is also a Sikh. In Britain two visibly Sikh MPs were elected just last year and both have embraced Sikh issues with gusto. American Sikhs are a much smaller proportion of the population, but most of them are concentrated in California and many are working to mobilise them too. It’s merely a matter of time before American Sikhs become more politically prominent too.

These elected officials are far from Sikh separatists. Trudeau’s ministers are proud Canadian citizens who serve their own country. None has called for an independent Sikh state, let alone agitated for one. So why the accusations?

Sikh separatists exist; there is little doubt about that. Nor is there any doubt about their antagonism towards India (which I do not share). In recent weeks, over a hundred Sikh gurdwaras in the West have explicitly banned Indian officials on government business, claiming internal interference and citing the arrest of British citizen Jagtar Singh Johal. But the popularity of a Sikh state is much exaggerated, not just by the Indian establishment but separatists themselves.

The problem is this: Indian elite sees any demand by Sikhs for justice over the anti-Sikh pogroms in 1984 as a sign of separatism. Last year Ontario’s state parliament passed a motion describing the events of 1984 as a “genocide” against Sikhs. The Indian media, which largely prefers the term “riots” (as a way to continue the pretence that both Sikhs and Hindus were to blame), cited the motion as proof that Sikh separatism was growing in Canada.

But if raising awareness of human rights abuses is a sign of separatism, India may as well condemn all Sikhs. I have no desire to see an independent Khalistan – the name and the objective of the Sikh nationalist movement. Yet coming from a Sikh family I’m painfully aware of what hundreds of thousands of Sikhs went through in 1984 and afterwards.

The Indian government is shooting itself in the foot. Younger diaspora Sikhs are more attached to their religious identity than their parents and are more willing to speak out. But neither of India’s major parties will openly admit that Sikhs were systematically targeted in 1984, let alone deliver justice 30 years later. They prefer living in denial, thus fanning the flames of anger and giving further ammunition to separatists. If the government went further in assuaging anger over 1984 it would easily undercut the Sikh separatists’ narrative.

Most Sikhs call for a Khalistan not because they want to live in a theocracy but because they want a state where their Sikh brethren are treated equally and with dignity. They want a state that will protect Sikhs, not cover up thousands of extrajudicial killings. Instead India is going in the opposite direction: the rise of the Hindu nationalist Hindutva movement has minorities more concerned about their safety than ever before.

Justin Trudeau won’t leave India feeling dejected or snubbed – au contraire, his main aim was to learn more about the background of Canadian Sikhs. The rise of Jagmeet Singh is a bigger concern for the Canadian PM than the Indian media. Instead it is India that has lost out from this cackhanded diplomacy. It could have used this opportunity to mend fences with Sikhs and grow trade with Canada but it has done neither.

India’s indifference to the Sikh diaspora is damaging Western foreign policy towards the country by Sunny Hundal (The Independent, 25 Feb 2018)

ASIA SAMACHAR: Two Indian magazines and how they treat Sikh related

Two publications with two contrasting tones. Indian magazines, Outlook and The Caravan, splashed Canadian Sikh-related themes on their cover in their latest issues, but taking starkly different positions.

Outlook went on a tirade of how Canadian Sikhs are fuelling the Khalistan agenda for Sikhs in India with a headline ‘Khalistan II: Made in Canada’. The Caravan front-paged up and coming Canadian politician, posing the question ‘Jagmeet Singh: Hard questions for the poster boy of Canadian multiculturalism’.

The context: Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau maiden visit to India starting February 17. In the one week working visit, Amritsar is on the itinerary, possibly to the consternation of some Indian political segments that have in the past played up the anti-Sikh card.

A casual media reading would consign such reporting, especially the supposed Khalistan spectra, to be mere sensational work in light of the Trudeau’s visit.

Two Indian magazines and how they treat Sikh related stories (Asia Samachar, 11 Feb 2018)

SUPRIYA DWIVEDI: Canada’s media oversimplifies Indo-Canadian relations

This entire debacle, though, has once again unfortunately led to a number of oversimplifications and misinformation from our own media as it relates to the on the ground reality in India.

For starters, the whole issue of India thinking Canada is soft on Khalistani terrorists isn’t exactly new. In fact, it’s about as old as I am, dating back to the Air India bombing. And yet it was largely presented by our media as some novel diplomatic dust-up.

On the issue of Khalistan, our media has once again failed to provide any context or nuance. As I’ve noted before, anyone with even a superficial understanding of Indian history and politics could see why Sikhs would want an independent state, especially during times when India is ruled by a Hindu nationalist government. But this isn’t even really about Khalistan anymore. This is about Sikhs in Canada, the U.K. and the U.S. speaking out against the Indian government’s treatment of religious minorities generally, and specifically the demand for some sort of justice over the anti-Sikh pogroms in 1984 following Operation Blue Star and the assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi.

COMMENTARY: Canada’s media oversimplifies Indo-Canadian relations, By Supriya Dwivedi, (Global News, 2 March 2018)

JASPREET BAL: What Indians need to understand about Sikhs in Canada By

Sikhs have inherited the trauma of their ancestors in a way that continues to shape our thoughts, our behavior and our relationships. In June and November of 1984, more than 15,000 Sikhs (by conservative estimates) in Punjab were the victims of horrific, intentional and strategic attacks by the Indian government. As the Ontario legislature cemented in a historic motion last year, what happened to Sikhs in Punjab in 1984 was genocide. Leading up to the massacre, a post-partition Punjab was struggling to regain some semblance of self-governance. From this arose the Anandpur Sahib Resolution (ASR), a document derived from the consensus of the Sikh community that demanded specific linguistic and cultural rights while still maintaining that Punjab remain an Indian state. Sikhs were asking for rights to their own land, water and education as well as access to their own capital city (which still remains in the control of the central government).

As this struggle continued, in the late 1970s and early ’80s, the Indian state began to increasingly target Sikhs in extrajudicial attacks. In 1978, 13 peaceful protesters were killed in a massacre for which no one has been held accountable, even 40 years later. This conflict, between citizens demanding democratic rights and an increasingly authoritarian government, came to a head when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered a full scale military attack on Harmandir Sahib, the central socio-religious institution of the Sikhs. She did so with the stated purpose of “flushing out militants” who were simply the Sikh political leadership, none of whom had been charged with any crime. Equipped with tanks and guns, the Indian military brutally murdered the thousands of civilians who were at Harmandir Sahib seeking spiritual refuge. Simultaneously, Indian troops attacked other Sikh institutions, burned down libraries, declared a media blackout and maintained a state of emergency. No one was ever charged for these crimes.

The astounding thing is, despite baseless claims to the contrary, Sikhs have not been radicalized by their trauma. Rather, they have been strengthened by it. As a generation raised in the aftermath of the 1984 genocide is now working as educators, activists, artists, homemakers and laborers, we have used our experience to transform the Canadian landscape. We have taken our parents’ fight for justice and used it to become engaged in politics. We have taken the stories whispered from our widowed grandmothers’ lips and turned them into poetry. We have taken our love for our identity and taught our young daughters to care about the little girls on whose land our daughters are settled. We have heard the calls to action of those whose land we occupy and have committed to helping them, because we know all too well the experience of state violence.

Last week saw the dusting off of the trope of the Sikh terrorist. Journalists have been pulled out of retirement to make their same tired statements. There are endless experiences of being Sikh Canadian; to group us all as terrorists is not only harmful but also lazy journalism. The media coverage this past week, which has rushed to reclaim that radicalism is flourishing in Canada, has not paused to make the distinctions that Sikhs are not terrorists. Asking for basic rights, speaking out about human rights abuses and contemplating a day when your people are not discriminated against does not make you an extremist. One can only assume these elementary distinctions are disregarded not out of apathy but rather out of a willful attempt to paint all Sikhs with one brushstroke.

What Indians need to understand about Sikhs in Canada By Jaspreet Bal (Washington Post, 26 Feb 2018).

BUSINESS LINE: Hide-and-Sikh politics

Even as the Canadian PM’s recent India visit dissolved into a diplomatic disaster, Indian liberals lost a valuable chance to display their solidarity with Sikhs and their pursuit of justice

The state curbed the Khalistan movement in the mid-’90s, pushed through electoral democracy in 1992 with 23 per cent voter turnout. But every political party since then has betrayed their mandate. India has still not addressed the lapsed trust — explained why Operation Blue Star took place, or brought justice to the victims of 1984. Once politicians of all hues allow impunity for organised murder, other evils like corruption, nepotism and violation of systems follow. A quarter century later, a lumbering Punjab seeks to escape from the quagmire of poverty, farm debts, farmer suicides, unemployment, and drugs. Yet, tiny Punjab — with 1.5 per cent of the nation’s land — continues to be the farmer and soldier of the nation. In spite of its own ecological disaster — through the over-exploitation of its water table and pollution of earth — it continues to contribute 60 per cent wheat and 40 per cent rice to the Central pool. Punjab continues to stand between not just India and hunger, but also India and Pakistan — a role it has performed since 1965, when the Punjabi Suba movement raged for the creation of the State.

Seeing the systemic breakdown at home and the possibility of better lives abroad, many Punjabis have escaped and are busy making their overseas dreams come true. Their emotional and familial ties with Punjab remain. Now, a new generation has grown up abroad on stories of India’s apathy. Given the freedoms available abroad, a small number in the Sikh diaspora continue to raise these issues. These voices are labelled as support for Khalistan. Yes, there are also those who still seek an independent Khalistan, but their numbers are few. However, their flashy presence makes for media stories through which the political parties back home keep the lid on Punjab, don’t hear its voice, and keep it enmeshed in Khalistan. That is how they deflect from questions of development and keep a cover on the violations by the state.

These days the liberals battle for Najeeb Ahmed, the JNU student missing since October 2016 after an on-campus brawl with members of the right-wing students’ union ABVP. According to a recent report, Punjab has 8,257 Najeebs, or Singhs, or Kumars — the kind of enforced disappearances and killings being reported right now in Uttar Pradesh and earlier in Gujarat. The liberals battle for the CBI Judge BH Loya, who died under mysterious circumstances midway through the hearing in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh encounter case. Do they forget Advocate Khalra? Don’t the liberals see Operation Blue Star as a blot on India’s conscience that needs addressing? Don’t they see the 1984 pogrom as a model for Babri and Godhra?

Though Punjab has returned from violence, it has a long way to go to heal. Healing needs trust. Trust needs solidarities. During Trudeau’s visit, and the media spin on it, the liberals had a chance to display their solidarity with the Sikhs. They had a chance to nuance the term Khalistan — to take the sting out of separatism by advocating the pursuit of justice. They failed. Sadly, Punjab, a laboratory for sectarian violence and human rights violations, is fairly accustomed to isolation. It no longer cares. But the liberals needed to care, they didn’t.. After Trudeau left, NITI Ayog brazenly told Punjab: the nation does not need its produce, the Centre has refused aid. If in the future things turn haywire, let it be noted the liberals remained silent at this critical juncture in Punjab’s history.

Hide-and-Sikh politics By Amandeep Sandhu (author of Roll of Honour, a novel on 1984), The Business Line, 2 March 2018.


Overplaying the Khalistan card (Asia Samachar, 21 Feb 2018)

Two Indian magazines and how they treat Sikh related stories (Asia Samachar, 11 Feb 2018)

Canada Sikhs journey from hostility, heartache and finding home (Asia Samachar, 7 Feb 2018)

Why Khalistani narrative about Canada is a disservice to Sikhs – DailyO (Asia Samachar, 5 June 2017)

ASIA SAMACHAR is an online newspaper for Sikhs / Punjabis in Southeast Asia and beyond.Facebook | WhatsApp +6017-335-1399 | Email: | Twitter | Instagram | Obituary announcements, click here |