Ahmar Khan for the Canadian Anti-Hate Network
Right-wing propagandists in India are trying to push a narrative that Sikh separatists living in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. are responsible for the farmers' protests engulfing their country. This includes senior members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who have attempted to shift blame from the hurried passing of three bills by their government which have been deemed as anti-farmer and attributed them to outside influence causing dissent. India is also trying to blame Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for encouraging gatherings of Sikhs extremists outside their consulate offices in Canada with little proof.
“[It] encouraged gatherings of extremist activities in front of our High Commission and Consulates in Canada that raise issues of safety and security,” said India’s foreign ministry.
In Canada, protests have occurred peacefully in Halifax, Toronto, and Vancouver, but the Indian government is attempting to shift the narrative to Sikh extremism, rather than farmers. Voices within the government have claimed that Sikh diasporic communities are pushing the protest narrative.
“Where's the proof of ‘extremist activities’ happening in front of Indian consulates in Canada? There is none,” said Jaskaran Sandhu, an executive with the World Sikh Organization in a response to India’s allegations.
Anyone posting criticism of the Modi government and their handling of the farmers’ protest has been subjected to hate-mail and tweets. The Toronto Star’s Joanna Chiu published an article addressing Canada’s relationship with India, and was bombarded with several hundreds of tweets originating from India, which called the article fake news, pushed the extremist angle and questioned if it was propaganda for the Chinese Communist Party. Sikhs living in the diasporic community have largely opposed the Hindu-nationalist Indian government's recent farm laws, which disproportionately affect Sikhs. In India, Sikhs are a minority and mainly live in the state of Punjab, where many are farmers. The set of new laws being introduced by India’s government would grant more power to corporations to have a bigger share of India’s farming sector. The issue has resulted in over 300,000 people embarking on India’s capital city, New Delhi, while across the country, millions more are engaged in protests, which has at times resulted in one-sided violence from the Indian government.
Protestors have been subjected to being water cannoned, attacked with tear gas, and struck with batons while trying to march. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke about the protests and farmers' right to march during a virtual event celebrating Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism.
“We’re all very worried about families and friends, I know that’s a reality for many of you. Canada will always be there to defend the right to peaceful protests, we believe in the importance of dialogue,” said Trudeau.
It’s not the first time that India has tried to engage Canada on the premise of Sikh extremism. Back in 2018 during Trudeau’s infamous trip to the country, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the topic with the Canadian PM.
“This is not anything new. I just think that they were very upset clearly that Canada spoke out against the concerns over the right to protest,” said Stephanie Carvin, an assistant professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University and a former national security analyst with the government of Canada.
While comments by India trying to paint protests in Canada as a rise in Sikh extremism aren’t necessarily surprising, the protests which have been attended by young and old alike have been peaceful in Canada.
“Just because it makes a government uncomfortable doesn't make it a threat. People protest all kinds of things, and even if you disagree with them, as long as they're not violent and they're sticking to the laws of Canada -- they are allowed to do that,” said Carvin.
“The definition that India uses for extremism is well beyond anything that we would consider to be threat-related activity in Canada.”
Sikh separatism and India’s treatment of minorities
To understand who India is trying to point the finger at, there has to be some understanding of the Khalistani movement and its origins. Sikhs were living in their own sovereign state until 1849 when annexed by British forces. During and following the 1947 India-Pakistan partition, which resulted in the creation of a Muslim state, separatism was still steadfast for some within the Sikh community. The creation of Khalistan would be a sovereign state occupying land in the Punjab regions of both Pakistan and India, but this was an idea that was not necessarily widely supported.
The movement picked up steam throughout the 70s and 80s and eventually, there was a more militant version of the Khalistani movement because of discriminatory policies created by the Indian government to target Sikhs. In 1984, the Indian government conducted Operation Bluestar, wherein to quash dissidence, they killed thousands of innocent bystanders and destroyed the Golden Temple — the holiest place for Sikhs — during an armed standoff with Sikh separatists. Following the standoff and destruction at the Golden Temple, extremist Khalistanis in Canada bombed Air India Flight 182, which is still considered the largest mass killing in Canadian history as 329 people, including 268 Canadian citizens, 27 British citizens and 24 Indian citizens perished.
The bombing was condemned and disavowed by the Sikh community.
While 1985 will forever be etched in the minds of Canadians, it doesn’t reflect the current inclination or methodology used by Sikhs or the pro-separatism movement at large. India’s right-wing Hindu nationalist government has attempted to claim any Sikhs who don’t toe the line of nationalistic pride for their country and government are dissidents and support extremism, especially those in the diaspora, but there is little substance behind the claims.
“A number of violent incidents occurred involving Sikhs throughout the 1990s, the majority of these appear to be internal Sikh issues relating to gurdwara governance, the contested nature of religious authority and local factional politics,” wrote Jasjit Singh, a Research Fellow at the University of Leeds who studies the Sikh religion.
The conditions for minorities living in India have worsened over time, especially with the Modi government in charge. Modi, once the Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat, was in charge when riots broke out in 2002 leading to the mass killings and rape against the Muslim minority. Modi’s policies ascribe to Hindutva, politics based on Hindu nationalism. This nationalism has contributed to Muslims being discriminated against through deportation and violence, according to an April 2020 report published by Human Rights Watch.
“Muslims in India have been increasingly at risk since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi was first elected in 2014,” reads the report.
With minorities becoming less comfortable in India, Sikhs have been emigrating from India to other cities across the globe where there is a strong community base such as Brampton, Surrey, Melbourne, Yuba City over the decades. Last year after suffering a devastating attack, Sikhs living in Afghanistan needed to leave the country. Despite being able to easily gain citizenship in India, they preferred to go to a western nation to avoid further persecution. In Canada, there may be a desire for separatism within diasporic Sikh communities, but there is little to no evidence of extremist behaviour occurring.
“They're trying to play on a stereotype that may no longer simply reflect reality in order to either discredit the protesters or to change the narrative,” said Carvin.
Canadian Sikhs speaking out
In Canada, Sikhs have gathered and used their voice and platforms to protest and call on their government to intervene and stop the violence being carried out by India towards their loved ones. The Modi government’s framing of the issue that Sikhs abroad are all engaged in a separatist movement doesn’t sit well with Sandhu, who had to field similar claims in 2018 following Trudeau’s trip.
“There is a repeated pattern from the Government of India to label anything they disagree with as "extremism", especially when that dissent is led by minority communities like the Sikhs, and this is another example,” said Sandhu.
The propaganda, as he views it, is working and he points to reporting by the CBC which repeated India’s talking points regarding extremism at protests. On Dec. 4, Salimah Shivji, the soon-to-be India Bureau Chief for CBC News, appeared on television and spoke about India claiming Trudeau’s statement on the farmers’ protests has led to extremism.
“The External Affairs Ministry is basically saying that these words have also prompted what they call quote ‘gatherings of extremists activities outside Indian consulates back in Canada,’” said Shivji.
Sandhu said that simply repeating the Indian government’s claim of extremism without a response from Canadian authorities is harmful to the Sikh community, of which many just want to support their loved ones. In 2018, the World Sikh Organization launched the #AskCanadianSikhs to counteract disinformation about the religious minority in Canada, and is encouraging the media to look at the farmers' protest and reporting on the Indian government through a more critical lens.
“Canadian media should be very careful in parroting these unsubstantiated claims without any critical analysis as it further stigmatizes and marginalise a visible minority community,” he said.
Follow Ahmar on Twitter at @ahmarskhan