Gian Singh Sandhu’s new book, An Uncommon Road: How Canadian Sikhs Struggled Out of the Fringes and Into the Mainstream, helps in understanding real reasons behind controversies that dogged Justin Trudeau’s recent visit to India in February, as well as NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh's past involvement with Sikh activism.
One of the founders of the World Sikh Organization (WSO) and a B.C. businessman, Sandhu provides background on the hostilities of the Indian state toward Sikh activists in Canada.
The book also offers insights into India's mostly cold relationship with a country that's often portrayed as safe haven for Sikh separatists.
Trudeau received an unfriendly reception and bad press during his visit to India mainly because Indian politicians and the media in New Delhi continue accusing the Canadian government of being soft on Sikh extremists.
This has been occuring since the 1980s.
Not only have Indian leaders repeatedly raised concerns about the supporters of a Sikh homeland of Khalistan who are living in Canada, Trudeau has been accused of patronizing Sikh politicians with links to leaders of the Khalistan movement.
The fathers of two Sikh ministers, Harjit Singh Sajjan and Navdeep Singh Bains, were associated with the WSO that Sandhu cofounded. Sajjan is also related to Sandhu.
The presence of former Khalistani militant Jaspal Singh Atwal—now a changed man in the mainstream of society—on the list of those invited for dinner with Trudeau in New Delhi became a big embarrassment for Canada.
However, it was the Indian government that gave a visa to Atwal, raising speculation that this could have been part of a grand design of Indian agencies to sabotage Trudeau’s visit.
A B.C. resident, Atwal recently issued a statement in Vancouver to set the record straight and assert that he is a proud Canadian of Indian heritage and regrets his actions in the past.
Likewise, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has repeatedly come under criticism for his past involvement with Sikh activism, especially with groups seeking justice for repression of Sikhs in India.
The Khalistan movement has its roots in the ugly political events of the early 1980s.
The mainstream Sikh leadership of Punjab, India, was fighting for equal rights for the minority Sikh community and political autonomy for Punjab and other states through democratic means.
The situation escalated out of hand with the emergence of a parallel extremist group that believed in an armed resistance against injustice.
Gradually, the movement turned violent and death squads began killing innocent Hindus and political critics in Punjab.
Under those circumstances, the Golden Temple Complex, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs in Amritsar, became a battleground. Accusing the militants of turning the place of worship into a fortress, then Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi ordered a military attack on the shrine in June 1984.
An army invasion left many innocent pilgrims dead and buildings heavily damaged. This enraged Sikhs all over the world, including Vancouver, where there was a huge demonstration.
The Indian government then started blacklisting Sikh activists by denying them visas until few years ago, when many names, including Atwal’s, were taken off the list because of changed circumstances.
Atwal has also acknowledged that he was drawn to the Khalistan movement because of the army attack on what's known as the Sikh Vatican.
On October 31, 1984, Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards at her official residence in New Delhi. This was followed by anti-Sikh massacres engineered by the slain leader’s Congress party in connivance with the police.
Years have passed and the victims' families continue to be denied justice and closure.
Jagmeet Singh is one of those Sikh politicians abroad who have been raising his voice for justice for the victims of the 1984 pogroms.
These ugly political developments galvanized the movement for Khalistan—an imaginary Sikh homeland to be carved out of Punjab.
Though it was never a popular demand prior to the events of 1984 as only a handful of fringe elements wanted it, the alienation created by the Indian government attack led many Sikhs to support it openly in years to come.
Nevertheless, the movement died out by the mid-1990s, partly because of police repression and partly because the militants lost public sympathy due to their excesses.
In the meantime, Air India Flight 182 was bombed mid-air above the Irish Sea in June 1985, killing all 329 people aboard. The crime was blamed on Vancouver-based activists associated with Babbar Khalsa, a banned terror group that supported Khalistan.
Barring one conviction of Inderjit Singh Reyat, who made the bomb used in the crime, the investigation remains inconclusive.
Sandhu argues in his book that this monstrous crime could have been the handiwork of Indian intelligence agencies, which have been active in Canada since the 1980s and have penetrated into the local Sikh community.
He points out that the WSO was formed to defend the rights of the Sikhs in the wake of 1984, and has always maintained a policy of achieving its political goals, including Khalistan, through peaceful means.
Yet Indian agents have been out there trying to malign it and link it with violent groups, such as Babbar Khalsa and the International Sikh Youth Federation—the banned group Atwal was previously associated with.
This is despite the fact that the WSO never endorsed their actions. In order to keep a safe distance from state provocateurs, it has always been encouraging its members to stay away from violence and to respect the law.
Sandhu believes that since both Canada and India are Commonwealth nations, there has always been a tendency by Canadian authorities to overlook allegations of human rights abuses in India.
The right-wing Progressive Conservative government in the past, he writes, was particularly indifferent to the WSO's concerns over the situation in Punjab and rather got carried away on many occasions by the Indian state's misinformation campaign about Sikh extremism in Canada.
So much so, the Indian agents tried to weaken the WSO through pro-India groups and individuals within the Sikh community. Not only was the WSO was dubbed as an extremist group, Indian diplomats discouraged Canadian politicians from mingling with its leaders.
Sandhu and some of the people close to him, including his neighbour living next door, were denied visas by the Indian government. It is a separate matter that this man's name has since been removed from the blacklist.
To counteract the WSO campaign for justice to the victims of the anti-Sikh massacre of 1984, propaganda was supplied to Canadian politicians.
Sandhu writes that he had arguments with extremists, including the late Talwinder Singh Parmar, the Babbar Khalsa leader who was accused of being the mastermind in the Air India conspiracy.
In addition, Sandhu continues to denounce a hate speech made by another Babbar Khalsa activist and former Air India suspect, Ajaib Singh Bagri, yet Sandhu also came under surveillance merely because of his advocacy for the Sikh community.
It is pertinent to mention that Jagmeet Singh has been frequently compelled to clarify his position on Parmar, who is glorified by several Sikh temples as a "martyr".
In a public speech at New York's Madison Square Garden, Bagri threatened that 50,000 Hindus would die. Though Bagri represented Babbar Khalsa, Sandhu writes that the media continued to drag the WSO’s name into the controversy, as the speech was made at a conference attended by WSO members.
An Uncommon Road clearly shows how Sikhs were seen with an eye of suspicion and became a target of racial profiling in Canada during the 1980s. Sandhu himself became a target of racial taunts after the Air India tragedy.
This is not to say that there was no racial hatred against the Sikhs before the Air India bombing.
When Sandhu migrated to Canada in the 1970s, he and his family had to endure prejudice. To become a part of the Canadian mainstream and fit in, he had to cut his hair—which was a painful act for someone like him, who is a devout Sikh.
For a true Sikh, cutting long hair is unthinkable. However, he later grew his hair back, embracing the Sikh faith after getting baptized.
But Sandhu never became bitter in his life. He's remained a cool-headed person who believes in resolving problems through conversation.
One such example recounted in the book is his cordial discussion with those who opposed the recruitment of turbaned Sikhs in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Through the WSO Sandhu also built bridges with other communities, such as Indigenous people, Jews, Muslims, and LGBT groups.
In a progressive move, the WSO supported the demand for allowing same-sex marriage in the face of criticism from many orthodox Sikhs.
The WSO eventually expanded its ground by standing up for non-Sikhs too.
An Uncommon Road is more like a historical document that will remain relevant as the struggle against racism and social injustice continues.
In light of the noise generated by Trudeau’s visit to India and growing attacks on religious minorities in India under a right-wing Hindu nationalist government, the book will help the readers in understanding what is really behind this recent hullabaloo over Sikh extremism, both real and perceived.More