Sunday, 11 March 2018 17:42

Khalistan – Theatre of the Absurd

Commentary by: Jagdeesh Mann in Vancouver, BC

It’s likely Prime Minister Justin Trudeau saw events playing out differently than how they actually turned out for his recent state visit to India.

Like most Canadians, he probably thought February an ideal time to fly someplace warm. He would take the family to India, enjoy a weeklong vacation, get some great photo ops at sites like the Taj Mahal and the Golden Temple, and then meet India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a day of official state business to wrap up his trip.

Though he would never admit it, Trudeau probably also hoped to out-Instagram his new arch rival, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who was getting married in Mexico this past weekend.

And, last but not least, by taking his four Sikh cabinet ministers along for the trip, Trudeau would score points with his Sikh electoral base back in Canada.

While Canada’s PM did get in his photo-ops, he and his team was put on the defensive throughout the visit by accusations of his government being in league with "Khalistanis"—shorthand for "Khalistani terrorists". These charges came from multiple fronts.

Indian reporters dogged Trudeau with questions about harbouring "Sikh separatists", another term for "Khalistanis", at every opportunity, while leading media outlets like the Times of India, Hindustan Times, NDTV and others pushed the Khalistan narrative relentlessly.

Indian news magazines like Outlook published polemical essays about how “a new real threat of Khalistani terror” has emerged due to support from Sikh temples patronized by unwitting "liberal white politicians", like Justin Trudeau.

Meanwhile, members of the Indian government provided a lesson in how to put the "host" into hostility by repeating the provocative allegations against their guests. Captain Amarinder Singh, the chief minister of Punjab, where most Sikhs hail from, did his central government’s bidding when he stated, “There seems to be evidence that there are Khalistani sympathizers in Trudeau’s cabinet,” alluding to Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, whom Singh has called a Khalistani in the past.

Sajjan has never made a statement in support of a separate Sikh state. If anything, he has spoken against it.

And then, into this charged environment, enter ex-Khalistani terrorist Jaspal Atwal, who makes an appearance at an event with the Trudeaus in Mumbai. A Canadian security official, reported to be Daniel Jean, told Canadian media outlets that it is possible that the presence of Atwal at the function with the Trudeaus was not an accident and had been engineered by elements within the India’s intelligence services.

Even if this turns out not to be the case, the fact that Atwal, an actual ex-Khalistani who tried to kill an Indian government official in Canada in 1986, was granted a visa to enter India at the same time as the Trudeau visit arouses suspicion. Canadian security officials like Jean are in the right to consider all possibilities about Atwal’s incidental presence at an event hosted by the Canadian High Commission in Mumbai.

Meanwhile, back in Canada, mainstream outlets could have benefited from a dose of Jean’s skepticism. Instead Canadian reporters on the most parroted the opinions of Indian media through analysis pieces that stated there has been "a revival of Khalistani terror in recent years". Despite the scraps of evidence the Indian government has presented to push this claim, it highly spurious at best.

A quick refresher here: Khalistan is the name of a currently nonexistent Sikh homeland. It is based on the state of Punjab, a territory slightly larger than Vancouver Island, separating from India. For sake of analogy think of the Basque region declaring independence from Spain, the Kurdish north opting out of Iraq, or Quebec leaving Canada.

Over 30 years ago in the early '80s, this idea of a Sikh homeland erupted overnight out of dormancy into a full-blown political cause when the Indian government made the pivotal error of turning their tanks on the Golden Temple, or the Sikh Vatican. Thousands of people would die in the Punjab from the ensuing violence over the next decade, including over 15,000+ in the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi in 1984, murdered by mobs who were provided weapons and transport via Indian government officials. Nobody has even been charged for that mass killing.

And here—the most important wrinkle to this story—it has been over 20 years since a terror attack has been credibly linked to the Khalistan movement. In the late '90s, at the same time the IRA signed its peace agreement in Northern Ireland, the Khalistan militancy faded away. Funds dried up, and the fighters who took up its cause retired back into normal lives.

Even the last of the hardcore holdouts like Lakhbir Singh Rode, the head of the International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF), one of the two key groups at the centre of the Khalistan militancy, now keeps a day job running a meat business in Lahore, Pakistan.

Khalistan died. Khalistanis died. But the Khalistan narrative won’t die. And that is because it won’t be allowed to rest in peace because politicians in India, and ironically, even here in Canada, won’t let it.

The "threat" of Khalistan has more value alive than dead.

And so the storyline of Khalistan terror continues to develop, even if the movement is gone. The theatrics are necessary to showcase it as a viable threat.

Scottish national Jagtar Johal, 31, is one person who seems to be ensnared in this net. The Sikh activist who ran a website called NeverForget1984 was in India for his wedding last November when he was taken by Indian police. Johal is being detained, without charge, for allegedly having a role in a series of political assassinations in Punjab over the last two years.

Sikhs around the world have rallied around the #FreeJaggi hashtag to liberate Johal on what appear to be a politically motivated detention.

Over 100 Sikh temples around the world reacted to the #FreeJaggi controversy by recently barring Indian diplomats from their premises. The response from Indian politicians was predictable—the temple officials, from all 100+ organisations, are Khalistanis.

And now Justin Trudeau leaves India having been compelled into signing a Framework for Cooperation on Countering Terrorism and Violent Extremism between Canada and India. Canada and India had an intelligence-sharing arrangement before, during the height of the violence in Punjab in the '80s and '90s. That arrangement, however, was ended after the Khalistan movement died out. It is now on the path to coming back into place, renewing a fear that India’s corrupt police and paramilitary will be able to shake down the Indian relatives of Canadian Sikhs whose names appear in intelligence reports shared by Canada.

So what is driving this Russian-style disinformation campaign by India against its own former citizens and their descendants? It is not a terror attack the Indian government appears to be most fearful of. Rather, it is the disproportionate political influence of Canada’s Sikh community on Canada, a G7 country, that has New Delhi in fits.

As unified as India seems, it is an unwieldy coalition of 1.3-billion people with multiple ethnic groups, languages, and religions. The Indian government holds a reasonable fear that external influence could stir trouble again in the Punjab, especially in a country where the ruling BJP, a right-wing pro-Hindu party, itself governs through cold-blooded divide and rule machinations—the BJP frequently turns a blind eye to the violence of its own militant wing, the RSS, when it targets minority groups like Sikhs, Christians, and Muslims.

Currently, four of Trudeau’s cabinet ministers are Sikhs. There is also the possibility the next prime minister, or at least the next kingmaker, could be Jagmeet Singh, also a Sikh and someone with a social justice agenda. With an overall population of close to a million people in Canada, the Sikh community will only continue to grow in political influence for the years to come.

What the Indian government fails to recognize—or refuses to—is that politicians like Jagmeet Singh and others from a new generation of Sikhs are motivated not by separatism but by social justice causes. When they seek to redress past wrongs from incidents like anti-Sikh mass killings of Delhi in 1984, they are looking for reconciliation to heal past wounds, not for further division.

But this nuance is lost on the Indian government and so it indiscriminately responds to any criticism by undermining opponents with labels like "Khalistanis". Or it resorts to an old tactic of withholding travel visas. While ex-terrorist Jaspal Atwal can obtain an Indian visa—on multiple occasions it should be noted—NDP leader Jagmeet Singh cannot.

Singh was denied a visa in 2013, as was Liberal MP Sukh Dhaliwal in 2011. Both men brought forward motions in the Ontario provincial legislature and in the House of Commons respectively to have the Delhi mass killings classified as a genocidal act.

The motion was eventually carried last year by the Ontario government. The Indian government responded by calling it "misguided".

Ironically, however, hammering down on opponents with the Khalistani cudgel is not beneath the use of Canadian politicians either. In a Sikh community that is as politically active as it is diverse, some groups have also repeatedly resorted to labelling their opponents as "Khalistanis", regardless of how the reckless use of this language can indelibly stain an entire community.

In Trudeau’s Liberal government, it is no secret the World Sikh Organisation, a group that once advocated for the Khalistan state, has the ear of the PM, keeping at bay other voices from the community. The backroom fighting to get into such a position has caused simmering resentment among other Liberal members from the South Asian community. One of these flashpoints for this bitterness was in riding of Vancouver South in 2014 when Trudeau "parachuted" in star candidate Harjit Sajjan and closed the open nomination process.

There was justifiable frustration among the ousted Sikh faction that was likely to win that nomination. But their response was also predictably toxic.

"The Liberal Party, especially Justin, is in bed with extremist and fundamental groups. That's why I decided to leave the Liberal Party," said Kashmir Dhaliwal, ex-president of the powerful Khalsa Diwan Society which operates the Ross Street Temple in South Vancouver.

Ujjal Dosanjh, the former NDP premier of British Columbia and federal Liberal health minister, himself repeated this "Khalistani" critique to describe the Sikh insiders within the Trudeau government. In a radio interview this past week on CBC’s As it Happens, he bluntly stated that Trudeau’s government was infiltrated by Sikh separatists.

None of Trudeau’s Sikh cabinet ministers has spoken out in support of a separate Sikh state—if anything they have spoken against it. Dosanjh, meanwhile, has found himself on the outside without a role in the current Trudeau government.

"Khalistan 2.0" is a term that has been dubbed by Indian media to denote the future resurgence of the Sikh separatist movement led by "radicalized" Sikhs from countries like Canada. But in actuality, Khalistan 2.0 is already here.

It is a cheap, troll-friendly, media smear campaign—perfectly suited for the social media environment—wielded by the Indian government to discredit diasporic Sikhs, whether they criticize the Indian government’s human rights record or seek redress for legitimate grievances from the state-organized mass killings of Sikhs in Delhi in 1984.

And because this faux Khalistan narrative is so effective, it doesn’t even need an actual real terror incident to find its way on to frontpages of Canadian or international news outlets. It just needs a politician—Indian or Canadian—willing to do anything to advance their personal agendas. Unfortunately, those are a dime a dozen.

Jagdeesh Mann is a media professional and journalist based in Vancouver. Mann is also a member of the NCM Collective and regular contributor for New Canadian Media. This piece was republished under arrangement with the South Asian Post. 

Published in Commentary
Wednesday, 26 October 2016 19:08

Impatient India Riding a Treadmill: Editor

by Our National Correspondent in Ottawa

INDIA’s galloping national economy has made its people so impatient that growth under seven per cent a year could have a deeply de-stabilizing impact for the country, a well-respected Indian editor, Shekhar Gupta, told an audience of academics and South Asia watchers in Ottawa Tuesday.

Comparing such a slow-growth scenario to “falling off a treadmill,” Gupta noted that consistent progress over the last 25 years of economic reform (since 1991) has raised expectations and created high aspirations among the country’s 1.2 billion people.

“For Indians to be really happy, 8.5 to 9 per cent growth would be ideal,” he suggested.

Based on his extensive travels for a variety of news organizations, the veteran journalist said Indians are “leapfrogging” across social and wealth divides in both villages and cities.

He senses a “churn” in his country, driven by three realities – a smartphone in the hands of all Indians, widespread use of motorbikes to travel and cheap college education.

Argumentative democracy

This has resulted in social and economic mobility, but most importantly, widespread literacy programs have empowered the people to make India “an argumentative democracy”.

“Democratic politics is meant to be competitive. The voters can throw you out if you don’t perform,” he pointed out, adding that this is exactly what’s happening in most of India today.

In both states (similar to provinces in Canada) and at the federal level, leaders who deliver on economic growth have won re-election, sometimes several times over. The reverse is also true. Over the last quarter-century, politics has become “meritocratic,” accompanied by the rather unusual trend of rising voter participation – unlike most other democracies.  

Continuing his decidedly optimistic take on Indian affairs, the television host and newspaper columnist sees the media business also being a growth industry – again, unlike most other democracies. He pointed to his own start-up enterprise, The Print, as indicative of an industry that is still hiring journalists.

He repeatedly referred to a “value chain” along which Indian citizens climb the rungs, including in the area of language. Typically, in his view, it begins with a vernacular mother tongue, then learning Hindi and then eventually, English.

Modi phenomenon

Gupta was delivering the annual Dhahan lecture organized by the Canada – India Centre for Excellence at Carleton University, on the theme “India in transition”.

He generally gave high marks to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for instilling pride in Indians and his ability to impress audiences wherever he goes – both at home and abroad. “Modi has made India the most selfie crazed nation in the world.”

The Modi government suffers from "an intellectual deficit," in Gupta's opinion, but has proven good at project implementation. "It's a government in a hurry."

However, Modi has also swung India to the socio-religious right – not the economic right – and harped on nationalism. This nationalism combined with national pride could prove to be a “double-edged sword,” Gupta warned, pointing out that politics in India is not divided over economic policy differences, but rather over what it means to be a secular country.

The last 25 years has seen a move away from an almost-agnostic national ethos to a muscular nationalism that appeals to the Hindu majority population. “This will be the ideological and philosophical point of argument in the years to come,” Gupta forecast.

Dangerous cocktail

Anil Varughese, a South Asia expert at Carleton, who was among those who heard Gupta, offered this assessment: “Gupta’s lecture was a splendid testament to his wide-ranging knowledge of India and the remarkable complexity and richness of Indian democracy. In a tour de force, he captured the chief drivers of fast-paced change in contemporary India.

“His basic premise was that consistent high economic growth combined with easier access to information has spawned far-reaching transformations to India’s politics, society and culture, making its people impatient for change.

“His most valuable insight, I thought, was his remark that to understand changing India, one needs to ‘read the wall’ (the billboards). While his optimism for a more aspirational and assertive India was palpable, his caution against the dangerous cocktail of high economic growth and brazen peddling of nationalistic pride was prescient.”

Published in Top Stories
Friday, 05 June 2015 12:55

Akali Dal Seeks Sikh Votes in Canada

India’s oldest regional political party, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), which rules Punjab, is sending special teams to Canada to woo votes from Sikhs who have left their homeland.

For the first time in its 95-year history, the party will send out a large contingent of senior leaders led by state cabinet ministers to woo the so-called Non-Resident Indians or NRIs to set up a structured organization and create a SAD base outside India.

"I am sending teams of my party in June-end to set up our organization in America, Canada and Europe," SAD president and Punjab deputy chief minister Sukhbir Badal told the Times of India. 

"We will start a membership drive in these countries with each member getting a digital identity card."

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]The Akali Dal operates on the political position of far-right, with a political ideology of Sikhism. In other words, the basic claim of existence of the Shiromani Akali Dal is in catering to the demands of the Sikhs across Punjab and all around the world.[/quote]

The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) will initially focus on the diaspora in the U.S., Canada and the EU. It will divide each of these regions into four zones and appoint a president in each zone. In the second phase they will head to Australia and New Zealand.

"We will create an entire organization with vice-presidents, general secretaries, working committee members, unit heads," Sukhbir added. "In October, I want to invite my presidents from around the world."

According to his plan over the next 45 days, three teams will visit various countries one after another. 

They will meet community leaders and also arrange some large gatherings. Each team will be led by a Cabinet minister. The teams will also identify people who are ideologically compatible so that they can be given important positions.

The Akali Dal operates on the political position of far-right, with a political ideology of Sikhism. In other words, the basic claim of existence of the Shiromani Akali Dal is in catering to the demands of the Sikhs across Punjab and all around the world.

Presently, the Akali Dal is in alliance with the BJP and forms a majority in the state, with 56 of its own members and 12 members of the BJP in the Punjab Legislative Assembly. The current Chief Minister of the state is Sukhbir Singh Badal’s father and party patron Prakash Singh Badal. 

The Akali Dal controls the various Sikh religious bodies and is highly revered among Sikhs in the country as well as across the world, for its efforts to safeguard religious, cultural and linguistic minorities. 

Following the Prime Minister's Lead

The move to woo the Sikh vote around the world comes at a time when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has set new standards in engagement with NRIs during his various trips abroad, including Canada in the past year.

It also follows fears of heightened Sikh militant activities by supporters of the Khalistan movement, which is seeking an independent homeland of Punjab.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]The SAD leadership feels that many Punjabi NRIs are tired of being seen as just moneybags that send dollars back home to keep their family and village happy.[/quote]

In 2011, the Canadian Government estimated there to be at least 800,000 Sikhs living in Canada.

Observers said the SAD has a fairly tough task when seeking to secure the support of Sikhs overseas as many of the opinion makers in the diaspora were hardliners who had fled Punjab during the militancy era.

However, the SAD leadership feels that many Punjabi NRIs are tired of being seen as just moneybags that send dollars back home to keep their family and village happy. They now want the influence they wield over their community to translate into some kind of say in the affairs of Punjab.

"Have you ever noticed that all prime ministers from countries where there are Punjabis come and visit the Golden Temple?" Sukhbir told the Indian media recently. "Because they need votes there, they have to be seen at the Darbar Sahib. They have to be seen with us."

Virtually every Canadian politician makes a beeline for Sikhism’s holiest shrine, the Golden Temple in Punjab, for photo ops when in India.
Canada’s relationship with India’s central government in New Delhi and the state government of Punjab has been testy.

In August 2013, Sukhbir had cancelled his 10-day visit to Canada after the Canadian government said it would not provide immunity against any civil suit that may be filed against him there. 

Sikh groups in Canada had tried to file a case against him and Punjab police chief Sumedh Singh Saini for "crimes against humanity."

Meanwhile, seeking an independent Sikh country, “Ontario Gurdwaras Committee” (OGC) a Canadian umbrella Sikh organization passed a historic resolution in support of holding a referendum in the state of Punjab in the year 2020.

Since the military invasion of Sikhism’s holiest shrine, the Golden Temple, in June 1984 in the operation code named “Blue Star”, Canadian Sikhs have been supporting the movement for creation of “Khalistan”, a sovereign Sikh country. 

The OGC said that on May 3, a gathering of more than 150,000 Canadian Sikhs unanimously passed the Punjab Referendum Resolution during annual Khalsa Day parade in Toronto.

Chanting slogans in favour of Independent Sikh country, participants walked over 11 kilometres from Malton to Sikh Spiritual Centre Toronto carrying placards demanding referendum in the state of Punjab.

Published in Partnership with South Asian Post


Published in South Asia

by Ranjit Bhaskar 

The timing couldn’t have been more perfect to project the commonalities between Canada and India.

“Two great democracies, India and Canada, both champions of human rights and human dignity,” said Jason Kenney, Canada's Minister of Employment and Social Development and Minister for Multiculturalism, heralding the yet-to-be-made-official decision by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India not to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is the only other leader boycotting the summit over human rights violations by the Sri Lankan state. India has not made the move public as diplomatic etiquette dictates that the host country be informed of the decision first.

Both Mr. Harper and Mr. Kenny were at the 13th national celebration of Diwali on Saturday, held for the first time outside of capital Ottawa. They said the Indian festival is now a “Canadian celebration for all Canadians.” Chris Alexander, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, resplendent in an Indian outfit, introduced his colleagues to the large audience.

The change in venue was for a good reason as the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) has become a key testing ground for the federal Conservatives. Most members of the party’s caucus from the area were on hand at the well-attended celebration.

‘Putting India at the centre’

Mr Harper, who was attending the celebration for the seventh time as prime minister, said it was the biggest and the best one yet. Affirming that his “government is putting India at the centre of Canada’s Asia policy,” Mr Harper said his second trip to India exactly a year ago, which lasted 12 days, was his longest to any country as prime minister. Diwali is by far the most popular festival in India.

“Canada has a larger and more important presence in India now than in virtually any other developed country. And that is because we believe in India as the world’s largest democracy, we believe in India as a reference point for our pluralism,” said Mr. Kenney. “We Canadians did not invent diversity. India was remarkably diverse even before we thought of the idea in this country.”

Mr. Kenney said Canada has developed its closest-ever relationship with India under Mr. Harper’s leadership. It took “courage and tenacity” to bolster the relationship after being in the “deep-freeze for 35 years for lot of different reasons.”  

That closeness was in evidence recently when Salman Khurshid, India’s foreign minister, was in Canada recently for the first-ever strategic dialogue with Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird. While Mr. Khurshid is likely to represent India at the CHOGM, Deepak Obhrai, the parliamentary secretary to Mr. Baird and one of the main the organizers of the Diwali event, will be going to Colombo on Canada’s behalf.

‘Cusp of deepening ties’

Akhilesh Mishra, India’s Consul General in Toronto, said recently at a Indo-Canadian forum that relations between the two countries were on the “cusp of a significant upgrading and deepening.” He said the “candour and warmth” during the meeting between M. Khurshid and Mr. Baird was exceptional.

“In a challenging neighbourhood with an abundance of opportunity, the importance of the Canada-India relationship is underscored in this first official visit of my counterpart in 15 years,”  Mr. Baird had said after his talks with Mr. Khurshid. “The frequent and diverse range of economic, security and global issues that Canada and India are now interacting on represents only the beginnings of the great potential of our bilateral relations.”

Trade-wise, that potential is yet to be exploited as the current level is a modest $5.2 billion. Investment wise, India has a much larger stake in Canada at $14.3 billion as against Canada’s $4.3 billion in India. India already imports 40 per cent of its pulses and 25 per cent of its potash from Canada.

Canada and India have been haggling over the details of a foreign investment protection agreement since 2004: the main purpose being to get New Delhi grant Canadian investments in India the same protection Indian investments enjoy in Canada. Ottawa recently signed a similar deal with Beijing that had been 18 years in the making.

The bigger prize in the Indo-Canadian sphere is a bilateral free-trade agreement, which the two have been discussing since 2010, that would see annual trade triple to $15 billion by 2015.

Nuclear ‘freeze’ over

The earlier freezing of Indo-Canadian relationship that Kenny talked of at the Diwali event was triggered after India tested nuclear devices - first in 1974 and then again in 1998.

Having overcome those differences, Canada and India have now taken the next step towards full implementation of a nuclear co-operation agreement. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission and India’s Department of Atomic Energy finalized an arrangement this April that would allow Canadian companies to export nuclear items to India for peaceful uses.

India has announced plans to build 12 new reactors by 2021, so the country’s demand for uranium is expected to triple to about $650 million in annual purchases. Canada is the world’s second-leading producer of uranium, behind Kazakhstan.

“Yes prime minister, I am counting and would continue counting,” quipped Mr Obhrai about the future Diwali events he foresaw Mr. Harper attending.  – New Canadian Media

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Published in Top Stories

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