India’s Sikh Sensitivities and Canadian Politics

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India’s Sikh Sensitivities and Canadian Politics

By-elections are usually a local matter, but India was probably watching a recent election in Vancouver.

India’s Sikh Sensitivities and Canadian Politics

Jagmeet Singh at the Ontario Federation of Labour Convention, November 21, 2017.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Ontario Federation of Labour

Traditionally by-elections are not events that elicit much international attention. When electing a single member to a local constituency, the ramifications are usually locally bound. Through a wider lens the results may provide some evidence of a ruling party’s health, or the momentum of other parties leading up to a bigger election, or may indeed have national consequences if the numbers in the country’s legislature are tight. However, even then, these facets have usually remained the concerns of only the most obsessive political nerds, with little cause for wider interest.

Yet with the increasingly transnational nature of most societies, these local affairs can now find ways of rippling out across borders. In October, a by-election in Australia triggered a dispute between the country and Indonesia, when the governing Liberal Party tried to please a local Jewish constituency with the prospect of shifting Australia’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Jakarta, a firm supporter of Palestine, issued a rebuke to Canberra, and delayed the signing of a free trade agreement as a result.  And last week, in the suburbs of Vancouver, Canada a by-election took place that was likely watched with a very keen eye in New Delhi.

In October 2017, Canada’s New Democratic Party (NDP) held a party leadership contest where Jagmeet Singh, a young lawyer and former Ontario provincial politician, was endorsed to lead the party. The NDP occupies a unique space in Canada’s multiparty democracy. The party has never formed government federally, although it seemed destined to do so in its time as the official opposition from 2011-2015, before being overrun by the second wave of Trudeaumania. However, the NDP regularly forms government at the provincial level. The NDP currently governs British Columbia and Alberta, and is the official opposition in Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. In Canada’s highly decentralized federation, this makes the NDP a powerful political force, and to be led federally by a “visible minority” (to use the Canadian parlance) is a prominent symbol of the maturity of Canada’s multiculturalism.

Yet upon his ascension to party leader, Singh did not have a seat in the House of Commons, thus limiting his ability to fully consolidate his new position. The vision of party leaders actively interrogating each other in a country’s legislature provides recognition and authority on news broadcasts and in other media. Although party leader, Singh not being present in parliament was significant in hindering his public exposure. He had hoped to wait until the forthcoming federal election (scheduled for October) to contest a seat in the Toronto suburb of Brampton, an area with a large South Asian, and in particular, large Sikh population. Yet pressure for Singh to enter the House in order to counter the drop in the NDP’s polling numbers by exerting his authority as party leader became increasingly strong. When a NDP politician from Vancouver resigned his seat, Singh took the opportunity to run in the subsequent by-election held in late February, where he achieved a comfortable victory.

For New Delhi, its interest in Singh is not one of pride that a person of Indian origin could rise to become the leader of a major political party in a powerful Western state. Instead, India will be concerned that having entered the Canadian parliament, Singh will now have a far larger and more consequential platform to continue his activism with regard to attempting to seek justice for a number of violent episodes in India’s past.

During the 1980s, militancy emerged in the northwestern Indian state of Punjab, with a focus on gaining greater autonomy for the Sikh-majority state and, at its most extreme, creating a separate Sikh country called Khalistan. In 1984, with a number of militants basing themselves inside the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple) — Sikhism’s holiest site — Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered Indian forces to storm the temple complex. Operation Blue Star killed almost 600 people and caused significant damage to the temple, generating great affront to Sikhs worldwide. Several months later Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. In retribution, mobs in Delhi and Punjab enacted retributive violence upon random and uninvolved Sikhs, resulting in the death of at least 3,000 people. A 2005 report determined that some of this violence was organized by members of Gandhi’s Congress Party (this is disputed by current party leader, Rahul Gandhi, Indira’s grandson).

In response, the Sikh terrorist organization Babbar Khalsa, whose leadership had based themselves in Vancouver, bombed Air India Flight 182 from Toronto to Delhi in 1985, killing all 329 people on board. A second bomb that was intended to destroy another Air India flight exploded while still on the ground at Narita Airport in Japan, killing two baggage handlers. Babbar Khalsa’s leader, Talwinder Singh Parmar, a Canadian citizen, was deemed the mastermind of the attack. Fleeing Canada, he was killed by Indian police in 1992. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, Babbar Khalsa’s leadership are now sheltered in Pakistan, where they are allegedly assisted by Pakistani intelligence.  

These events form the framework within which a small but active and vocal section of the Canadian Sikh diaspora organize themselves in Canadian society, and approach the country’s relationship to the Indian state. While the Khalistani movement was considered subdued in India by the early-to-mid 1990s, it lives on in the romanticism of sections within the Canadian Sikh diaspora, where a radical element continue their hostility toward the Indian state. A gurdwara or Sikh place of worship in Surrey, British Columbia, that maintains a portrait of Talwinder Singh Parmar on its exterior is a demonstration of this lingering contempt among some communities.

Singh has distanced himself from these radical elements within the Sikh diaspora, condemning the actions of Parmar and rejecting violence as a means to achieve political goals. However, he hasn’t ruled out continuing to share platforms with the more extreme elements in the Canadian Sikh community in order to advocate for justice for the victims of the violence of the 1980s. Singh maintains that his peaceful and positive approach toward seeking justice can counteract those with more forceful tactics. As a provincial politician, Singh used his seat in the Ontario legislature to condemn the Indian state for its attack on the Golden Temple, and attempted to have the 1984 anti-Sikh riots classified as a “genocide” (a bill Singh sponsored failed to pass, but a second bill sponsored by a Liberal politician was successful, much to New Delhi’s irritation).

As a result of these actions, Singh has been viewed with deep suspicion by the Indian government. In 2013 he was denied a visa to visit India on the grounds that he was “misusing the pretext of human rights to pursue [his] insidious agenda of disturbing the social fabric of India and undermining the peace, harmony and territorial integrity of India.”

As a provincial politician this is notable, but as the leader of a major political party with a seat in the country’s main legislative body, this suspicion toward Singh by a friendly country is of greater potential consequence.

Although the issues can overlap, India seems to conflate those seeking justice for the victims of the 1980s violence and the agitation for a separate Sikh state. This attitude in itself indicates just how sensitive New Delhi is toward anything that it perceives as a threat to its unity. The country has already been partitioned once; it therefore has little tolerance for any movements that could threaten further division of the state.

Singh himself remains vague on the subject of Khalistan, indicating he supports the rights of people in culturally distinct regions to self-determination, pushing the question back to Sikhs in India. However, the idea of Khalistan seems to have greater traction in the Sikh diaspora than it currently does in Punjab, which is why India seems more concerned about diaspora movements that agitate for its creation than internal movements. This, and the fact that India is comprised entirely of culturally distinct regions, making its current integrity reliant on a compact of pluralism.

This compact of pluralism is something Canada shares with India, both as a country of strong regional identities and as a modern multicultural state. Canada’s Sikh community form an integral part of this pluralism, and due to Sikhism’s theological focus on justice, ethics, and public service (seva), Sikhs have become highly active in Canadian political life. Jagmeet Singh’s ascension to the House of Commons brings the number of Sikhs currently in the country’s parliament to 18, out of a Canada-wide community of around 500,000. Four of these MPs are members of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet. This demographic over-representation, combined with the concentration of Sikhs in specific suburbs of Toronto and Vancouver, makes Sikh concerns a serious democratic calculation for Canada’s political parties.

Although the vast majority of Canadian Sikhs have no interest in agitating for a separate Sikh state, Canadian politicians tread a fine line when attempting to involve themselves in the Sikh community, needing to not be seen to inadvertently be advocating for separatist causes. India raised its concerns about Trudeau’s attendance at a Khalsa Day parade in Toronto in 2017, where Khalistani flags were waved and images of Sikh separatist leaders and militants were put on display.

Last year’s disastrous official visit to India by Trudeau demonstrated just how seriously Indian governments take the issue of Khalistani sentiment in Canada. The week prior to Trudeau’s arrival in India, the current affairs magazine Outlook ran an interview with Punjab’s Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh in which he stated: “On the face of it, there seems to be evidence that there are Khalistani sympathizers in Trudeau’s cabinet.”

Previously, Captain Singh had refused to meet with Canadian Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan due to this suspicion. Sajjan has denied holding such beliefs. The chief minister insisted on a clarification from Sajjan that he did not support the separatist movement before agreeing to meet with him during Trudeau’s visit. Upon meeting both Trudeau and Sajjan, Singh presented them with a list of nine Canadian-based persons India considers Category A terrorists and sought assurances from the prime minister that Canada would not ignore radical Sikh elements.

In Trudeau’s subsequent joint press conference with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Indian leader made it clear that any attempts to undermine India’s sovereignty and unity will not be tolerated. That this statement had to be made by Modi indicates just how much India-Canada relations have become hostage to the Khalistan issue.

In December, the Canadian government released its 2018 Public Report on the Terrorism Threat to Canada. The report stated that “Some individuals in Canada continue to support Sikh (Khalistani) extremist ideologies and movements.” The report stipulated that Babbar Khalsa International and the International Sikh Youth Federation were listed as terrorist entities under Canada’s Criminal Code. There remains some debate about where the line is drawn between radicalism and activism, or indeed whether an adherence to an ideology by itself poses a threat to Canada. Nevertheless, the funding of groups that seek to disrupt Punjab is clearly a threat to Canada’s relationship with India, and the nine names that Punjab’s chief minister gave to Trudeau all belong to the proscribed organizations.

For Jagmeet Singh, his success in rising to the leader of a major political party in Canada has brought him a level of scrutiny that he had previously not known. However, as a potential prime minister, the wider responsibilities he may hold, and the more complex nature of the problems he may have to confront, mean that an understanding of his activism for Sikh causes is an important facet of his background for Canadian voters to consider.

For now, as a parliamentarian, Singh’s broader responsibilities as a party leader will come more sharply into focus in the lead up to the October election. He finds himself leading a party that is deeply divided, with the Alberta and British Columbia NDP governments in serious dispute over an oil pipeline; a party facing serious fundraising deficits; and a party with a significant number of its experienced MPs who won’t be seeking re-election. If he wishes to use his new platform to bring light to the injustices of India in the 1980s, Singh may need to wait until the more direct concerns of his party are dealt with first. The realities of Singh’s role being primarily focused at home may just save New Delhi from having to be too concerned with him for the time being.