The recent decision of numerous North American gurdwaras (Sikh temples) to ban Indian government officials from speaking has not only angered the Indian establishment, but also its local apologists.
As many as 96 gurdwaras in the U.S. and 16 in Canada have prohibited Indian officials from addressing their congregations.
The decision follows growing harassment of Sikh activists in Punjab at the hands of the police and constant attacks on religious minorities in India under a right-wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government.
Officials of these gurdwaras have clearly announced that anyone can come to the temple as a devotee. But Indian officials, both diplomats and elected politicians, won’t be given special treatment.
Yet right wing and hawkish politicians in India, in addition to a section of the media, are trying to project the announcement as a radical act that, according to them, goes against tenets of Sikh faith, which is open to everyone.
What these commentators have conveniently overlooked is that temple officials have not banned anyone’s entry to the gurdwaras. Their act of resistance is being wrongly portrayed to create a false fear of Sikh separatism in an era of majoritarian politics.
Both the BJP and the so-called secularist opposition Congress party have criticized gurdwara leaders. This is despite the fact that attacks on religious minorities have spiked ever since the BJP came to power in New Delhi in 2014.
So much so that the Congress government in Punjab has failed to contain the threat of Hindu extremists. In order to please the BJP vote bank it is squarely accusing Sikh extremists of creating disturbances in the state.
Recently, Punjab police arrested some Sikh activists, including Jagtar Johal of London, for the murders of right wing political activists in the state.
Johal’s family and his supporters have alleged state use of torture to obtain false confessions from him.
Johal is among those who have been campaigning for justice for actions in 1984,. That's when an anti-Sikh massacre was engineered by the then Congress government in the aftermath of the assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.
He and others like him have also been critical of the BJP’s rhetoric against minorities.
Since then, there has been an outcry among the South Asian diaspora against the situation in India. There has been a feeling that Indian agents in the U.S. and Canada have also been spying on the political activists.
In order to suppress any voice of dissent, they allegedly blacklist people living abroad and often deny them visas.
Activists are also maligned by Indian politicians as separatists and extremists.
Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amrinder Singh even went to the extent of tarnishing the image of Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh.
Captain Arminder Singh accused these Canadian political leaders of inciting subversive elements in Punjab. Sajjan’s father was formerly a Sikh activist associated with the World Sikh Organization, while Jagmeet Singh has been raising the issue of anti-Sikh violence in India in 1984.
Under these circumstances, numerous gurdwaras came together to make a statement against the interference of the Indian state in the community's affairs and its high-handedness at the behest of its political masters in India.
First, their decision cannot be simply brushed aside by branding them as separatists. Even if they are, they did the right thing in a democratic sense.
That’s what community elders used to do in the past in Vancouver against the British Empire when India was under occupation. They boycotted the visit of King George V.
Several former Sikh soldiers even burned their medals and certificates inside the gurdwara to sever ties with the Empire after deciding to fight back against colonialism and racism.
A Canadian immigration Inspector, William Hopkinson, was spying on these activists until he was assassinated by Bhai Mewa Singh, one of the cofounders of the oldest gurdwara of Vancouver.
In fact, that gurdwara was built to provide a space for political activism against racism and colonialism. So we do have a history of resistance by gurdwaras.
Even otherwise, the founder of the Sikh faith, Guru Nanak, denounced state repression by the Mogal Empire.
Lastly, those critical of the decision of these gurdwaras to deny special treatment to Indian officials are being selective. Last year, when famous Indian journalist Rana Ayyub came to Vancouver, the oldest Sikh religious body run and managed by the pro-India moderate Sikh leaders did not allow her to address the congregation, citing her “controversial background”.
In her best-selling book Gujarat Files: The Anatomy of a Cover Up, Ayyub exposed violence against Muslims by the BJP in the state of Gujarat.
It is the same temple that welcomed Indian prime minister Narendra Modi in 2015 in spite of his controversial past.
Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat in 2002 when the anti-Muslim massacre was orchestrated in that state by the BJP.
Where are these people, who are now telling everyone that denying entry to Indian officials at gurdwaras is against Sikhism?
Was the act of the Vancouver Sikh temple against Ayyub justified?
Wasn’t that decision against the Sikh ethos?
Just because these particular temple officials chose to side with the Indian government, barring Ayuub from speaking became acceptable to all of these self-styled community gatekeepers.
It is pertinent to mention here that one moderate Sikh leader once announced on TV that Vancouver Sikh millionaire Ripudaman Singh Malik and Kamloops-based mill worker Ajaib Singh Bagri, who were acquitted in the Air India case in 2005, won’t be welcome to their gurdwara.
The Air India bombings left 331 people dead in 1985. The incident was blamed on Sikh extremists seeking revenge for the events of 1984.
Those who are making a big fuss about the decision of these gurdwaras against the Indian state should look at themselves in the mirror before throwing mud at others.
It is time to raise a voice against the state repression in India where under an extreme right wing dispensation, the situation has turned from bad to worse. We need to contextualize the decision of these gurdwaras instead of being judgmental.
You don’t have to necessarily agree with the politics of these gurdwaras, but their action must be seen as a significant step to mobilize global opinion against what is going on in the world’s so-called largest democracy.
Rather, we should expect these gurdwaras to go a step further and start challenging U.S. and Canadian officials too for ongoing structural violence against Indigenous communities, their soft approach toward Israel that continues to occupy Palestinian lands, and growing white supremacy in North America.