Vancouver Sun – How the Liberals’ alleged support of Sikh separatists is fuelling Canada-India tensions

Tom Blackwell

Vancouver, 29 May 2017. When Prime Minister Trudeau headed to the stage at the Sikh-Canadian community’s annual Khalsa Day celebration last month, he was thronged by a cheering, photo-seeking crowd.

It was little surprise, given the Liberal leader is not only a staunch supporter of multiculturalism but also has four MPs of Sikh origin in his cabinet.

Thousands of kilometres away in New Delhi, however, Trudeau’s appearance struck a decidedly more sour note.

The appearance was the latest irritation for an Indian government reportedly worried that the Liberals are too cozy with a peaceful but “growing” Sikh-separatist movement in Canada.

It came three weeks after the Ontario legislature passed a private-member’s motion, introduced by a Liberal MPP, that called the 1984 Sikh massacre in India an act of genocide, a politically explosive label.

India’s Foreign Ministry has issued separate protests to the Trudeau government about each episode, as the Liberals’ traditional politicking among a vote-rich community, combined with the sub-continent’s fraught history, throws a wrench into the two countries’ burgeoning friendship.

“All of those things add up (and) present a picture that isn’t particularly pretty when India is looking at it,” said Anirudh Bhattacharya, Canadian correspondent for the Hindustan Times newspaper.

“There was always a concern (in New Delhi) that this particular government would be somewhat beholden to the gatekeepers to the Sikh community, to some of the more radical groups.”

Tossed into the mix have been unsubstantiated allegations by Amarinder Singh, Punjab state’s newly elected “chief minister,” that Trudeau’s Sikh ministers are themselves separatists; and a thwarted terrorist cell in Punjab with alleged Canadian links.

Indian media reports suggest New Delhi was livid about Trudeau’s appearance at the Khalsa Day event April 30, though the public language was more circumspect. “We have taken it up with Canada in the past and the practice has not been discontinued,” said Vishwa Nath Goel of India’s high commission in Ottawa.

Quoting a Foreign Ministry statement, he was more blunt about the Ontario legislature’s Sikh genocide resolution on April 6.

“We reject this misguided motion which is based on a limited understanding of India, its constitution, society, ethos, rule of law and the judicial process,” said Goel.

But a spokesman for the group that organized the event Trudeau attended, and which backs the Ontario motion, said it’s only natural for the prime minister to appear at such functions, regardless of the religion.

The reaction from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP government simply follows a pattern of suppressing Sikhs and other minorities, which itself fuels widespread support in Canada for the creation of a separate Sikh country called Khalistan, said Balkaranjit Singh of the Ontario Sikhs and Gurdwara Council.

“There is a certain underlying policy and current going on (in India) that is continuously discriminating against a minority,” he said. “Yes, the Sikhs are left with no choice but to push for a separate homeland.”

Andrée-Lyne Hallé, the prime minister’s press secretary, argued that ties remain strong between the two countries, and portrayed Trudeau’s appearance at the commemoration of a Sikh holy day as routine.

“‎The prime minister marks and celebrates events and holidays celebrated by Canadians of all backgrounds,” she said.

The Sikh separatist cause had largely fallen quiet after years of turmoil that culminated in the bombing of an Air India flight from Canada in 1985, killing 329 people.

The attack was blamed on Canadian-based Sikh extremists, enraged by Indian troops storming the Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest site, to oust armed rebels in 1984, and incident’s bloody fallout.

After two Sikh bodyguards murdered prime minister Indira Gandhi, a wave of pogroms saw at least 3,000 Sikhs slaughtered by rampaging Hindus.

Sikh terrorism is a thing of the past in Canada, but most of the major Ontario gurdwaras (temples) are today controlled by non-violent Khalistanis, says Balraj Deol, editor of the Punjabi-language newspaper Khabarnama.

“Support for separatism is growing; it has grown considerably,” he said.

Yet Canadian Sikhs are in a different “silo” from the millions who live in Punjab itself, and have largely abandoned the struggle for an independent homeland, Deol said.

In March, Punjabis even elected the Congress party, perpetrators of the Golden Temple attack and implicated in the later massacre, to state government.

But Indian authorities are concerned that if the Khalistani movement builds in Canada, “it bleeds into the Punjab,” said Bhattacharya.

Singh argued that separatist sentiment is alive in Punjab, but vocal Sikh activists there have either been killed or emigrated, and those who remain are cowed into silence.

Meanwhile, Canada’s 460,000 Sikhs, politically active and concentrated in a few Ontario and British Columbia ridings, have long been courted by all parties.

Navdeep Bains, a leader of Sikh Liberals and now innovation minister, backed Trudeau in the 2013 leadership race.

The Liberal-sponsored resolution in Ontario’s legislature declaring the 1984 massacre a genocide, also supported by the NDP and Conservatives, was the first of its kind in the world and was seen as a jolt for the independence movement, said Deol.

An Indian prime minister did apologize for the riots in 2005 amid growing evidence of Congress party complicity in the savagery, but no one has ever been prosecuted for it.

Whether the episode qualifies as genocide is another question, and in New Delhi the terminology is seen as dividing religious groups at a time of relative peace, said Bhattacharya of the Hindustan Times.

Meanwhile, Indian police announced last week the arrest of two alleged Khalistani terrorists in the Punjab and a small cache of weapons, purportedly overseen by an Ontario-based “hardliner.”

Gill said the case looks on the surface like a fabrication, designed to cast aspersions on Canada.



The Hindu – India protests Canadian PM’s presence at ‘Khalsa Day’

Event in Toronto saw felicitation of separatist elements; parade included floats glorifying Sikh militant leaders, including Bhindranwale

Suhasini Haidar

New Delhi, 10 May 2017.  India indicated that it has taken up the issue of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s attendance at a Sikh community event in Toronto that saw a felicitation of separatist elements again, after earlier protests on similar issues appear to have gone unheeded by the government.

“We have taken up such issues in the past with the government of Canada, and in this particular instance, without getting into details, I can tell you the practice has not been discontinued,” said Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Gopal Baglay.

On April 30, Mr. Trudeau addressed a parade for ‘Khalsa Day’, which included floats glorifying Sikh militant leaders Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, Amrik Singh and former General Shahbeg Singh who were killed in the siege of the Golden Temple and Operation Bluestar in June 1984.

The procession, organised by the Ontario Sikhs and Gurdwara Council, also felicitated the legislator from Mr. Trudeau’s Liberal Party, Harinder Kaur Malhi who had moved a resolution on “genocide” against India for the anti-Sikh riots of November 1984, that was passed by the Ontario Assembly on April 6 this year.

India had raised a strong protest after the vote (34-5), calling it a “misguided motion based on a limited understanding of India, its constitution, society, ethos, rule of law and its judicial process,”, with the government expressing its unhappiness both with the High Commission in Delhi, and with the Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan when he met with Defence Minister Arun Jaitley in Delhi on April 18.

But the tussle between the Indian government and the issue of Sikh groups in Canada is an ongoing one, say Indian diplomats.

“This is an issue we will have to grapple with, not just in the provinces, but in the House of Commons, where many of these Sikh separatist groups believe they now have a sympathetic ear,” a former diplomat well-versed with the issues, told The Hindu, speaking of the election of the Liberal party to power.

The party includes several prominent figures of separatist Sikh organisations as elected leaders.

The Canadian High Commission in Delhi refused to comment despite several requests.

Mr. Trudeau is expected to visit India “late this year or early next year” according to Canada’s High Commissioner to India Nadir Patel, and the issues over the growth of Khalistani groups in Canada are likely to be highlighted further as other officials from Ottowa travel to India in the run-up to the Trudeau visit.

Meanwhile, Sikh groups who participated in the Khalsa Day event accused India of trying to bring “economic pressure” on the Canadian government by issuing statements over the event.

“Strengthening India-Canada ties are one thing, but on issues of human rights, you cannot stop the Canadian government from taking a stand on principle,” said Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, Legal Adviser for US-based hardline advocacy group ‘Sikhs for Justice’ over telephone.

Mr. Pannun is leading the campaign for a “referendum” in 2020, where he says all Sikhs in Punjab and the diaspora worldwide would be asked to vote on the issue of a separate state for Sikhs, flags and posters for which were also prominently featured at the event Mr. Trudeau attended, becoming the first Canadian PM to attend the ‘Khalsa Day’ event in a decade.