From the day Public Safety Canada’s 2018 report on terrorist threats to the nation was released last December, remarking casually about “Sikh extremism,” not just Canadian Sikhs, but all worldwide Sikh community members, began living with huge guilt.
The guilt of being a terrorist. The guilt of a killer. The guilt of wrongdoing. A guilt that came with acute discomfort.
My reaction to this report was more complicated than just fear. Being put on the defensive made me feel guilty, like many other Sikhs. This is not the same guilt I know suspicious white people see in me when they look at the long beard on my face and the turban on my head, even though I know that a true Sikh would not be involved in extremist violence or killing.
It is a guilt created from knowing how hard it is to navigate being a visible Sikh in North America.
How long should I honour the lives lost before I begin to distance myself from their killers? How can I distance myself from terrorists without implicating my faith? And will any of this help me survive the rising temperature of anti-Sikh sentiment?
Canadian National security labeled Sikhs as extremists because of the few people who plotted and the others who applauded the Air India bombing on 23 June, 1985 that killed 329 people.
And how do I distance myself from those asking for a separate Sikh homeland – a “Khalistan?”
BC Premier Ujjal Dosanjh, in an interview with Anthony Furey, said that removing the “Sikh extremist” phrase from the report (see below for details on this removal) was unprincipled and essentially kowtowing to a few Khalistani vociferous elements who say that they represent the majority of the Sikhs. He said that these people do not represent Sikhs, but have loud voices.
I absolutely agree with him.
The whole Sikh community cannot be blamed because of a few Khalistani elements. At the same time, it was a big mistake by Canadian national security to use the word “Sikhs” in the same breath as “Khalistani extremists.”
I am sure that for some bigots it is infuriating seeing Sikhs who are proud, love each other, and openly reject blame. I am sure other, moderately-biased people wish we Sikhs would wait to talk about the few Khalistani elements and the ideas behind an independent Sikh homeland. But why should we? The backlash did not wait.
For years, Sikhs have been lumped together with minority extremist groups who sully our beliefs for their own political gain.
Just before the Khalsa Day celebration, the federal Trudeau Liberal government actually chose to rewrite the report by removing the phrase “Sikh extremism” and rephrasing it to “extremists who support violent means to establish an independent state within India.”
In the past few days, the controversy surrounding Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has balanced the cooling down of dissatisfaction in the Sikh community. The federal elections are just six months away, and the Liberal Party’s pandering to a politically influential Sikh community could prove to be a waste of time. Of course, the federal government has removed these words for the fulfillment of its political objective; but this significant victory for the Sikh community is significant because it is for the whole community.
Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) legal adviser Gurpatwant Singh Pannun said to India Today that the “damage has been done; PM Trudeau must resign over Labeling Sikhs as ‘Sikh Extremists.’ For close to a year you and your government stood behind a completely unsubstantiated terror report that labelled our community as Sikh extremists. It is despicable that you drop the offensive language from your report the day before you come calling for money and votes in Vancouver.”
Canadian Sikhs cannot just be seen as the cash cow’ to help fund elections, Pannun concluded.
This issue shows the power of political groups working together. It is also a matter of great pride for the Sikh community that all political parties in the federal parliament, unanimously, have accepted April as Sikh Heritage Month in Canada.
With this change, many Sikhs including myself feel “relieved” and lighter, rather having to live with guilt and be labeled as extremists.
This is just one story. But it makes me think that for Sikhs to try to live without shame, it might need to become everyone’s story.
Surjit Singh Flora is a veteran journalist and freelance writer. He is a popular media commentator on current affairs and member of the NCM collective.