The hullabaloo over the description of Sikh (Khalistani) extremism in the 2018 Public Report on the Terrorism Threat to Canada has missed a point.
Critics are mostly upset over clubbing the Sikh religious identity with extremism, which is understandable, as an entire community should never be painted with the same brush because of the actions of few individuals within the group.
Nevertheless, the real and much more serious issue here is the growing influence of the Indian establishment over Canada.
The report issued by Public Safety Canada has listed not just the Sikh extremist groups, but identified a few other extremist organizations from other minority communities with a similar description. This is something that the public report should have avoided as it reinforces racial stereotypes against minority communities that frequently face racism in this country.
Undoubtedly, Canada has witnessed violence in the past by those seeking Khalistan—a separate Sikh homeland to be carved out of India—but not all Sikhs support Khalistan and therefore to bracket Sikhs with extremism is problematic. The same goes for other extremist movements that often claim to represent the collective interest of different ethnicities, but that isn’t always true.
What sets apart the case of the Sikh community from others is the significance of the timing of this report. It follows continued rhetoric against Khalistan by the Indian government and coincides with a heavily redacted report prepared by the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICP) on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s visit to India early this year.
Politicians in India continue to complain that Canada remains a safe refuge for those seeking Khalistan and want to spread violence in India. These politicians have repeatedly accused Trudeau and his Sikh colleagues of patronizing Sikh separatists.
This is despite the fact that the movement for Khalistan, which was very popular between mid-1980s to mid-1990s and left thousands of people dead in Punjab, has lost its charm. Rather, India currently faces much more serious challenge of majoritarian extremism that has grown under a right-wing Hindu nationalist government in New Delhi. The Indian government has clearly failed to deal with it the way it dealt with Khalistanis.
Khalistan movement died partly because of large-scale police repression, whereas extremists who wish to see India turned into Hindu state enjoy the backing of the government.
The Khalistan movement had a very strong support base in Canada where the now-banned Khalistani terror groups Babbar Khalsa and International Sikh Youth Federation were very active. In fact, the 1985 Air India bombings that left 331 people dead are widely blamed on Babbar Khalsa activists based in B.C. Around that time, moderate critics of Khalistan, like a future B.C. premier, Ujjal Dosanjh, were assaulted by the extremists.
Today, in spite of all these claims emanating from India, the Khalistan movement is mostly confined to propaganda. Even in Punjab, the pro-Khalistan political parties have been repeatedly rejected by the voters. Several Khalistani ideologues have surrendered these beliefs and moved into mainstream politics.
Interestingly, the report itself admits: “Violent activities in support of an independent Sikh homeland have fallen since their height during the 1982-1993 period when individuals and groups conducted numerous terrorist attacks.”
And yet, the executive summary of the document says that Khalistani extremism remains a cause of concern because “some Canadians continue to support these groups”.
The tone and tenor of the report mimics the narrative of Indian government that continues to portray it as a very big issue instead of going after those who are bent upon turning India into a Hindu theocracy by using violent means.
The first sign of the growing influence of Indian agencies over Canada came in the form of a report prepared by the NSICP to review Trudeau’s unpleasant visit to India. If an almost blacked-out section that deals with foreign interference is any indication, Canada has clearly decided not to antagonize India in spite of its dismal human rights record and many glaring instances of the ongoing interference in Canadian affairs by Indian diplomats.
The report also acknowledges that the portions redacted were deemed injurious to national security and “international relations”.
The (NSICP) report was necessitated after Trudeau came under attack from the Indian media and politicians. The presence of a former Sikh militant, Jaspal Singh Atwal, at one of his events in India stirred a huge storm.
Atwal was convicted of attempted murder in an attack on a visiting Indian minister in B.C. more than 30 years ago. He was also accused of attacking Dosanjh, but wasn’t convicted for that incident. Atwal's presence was used by the Indian media and the politicians to embarrass Trudeau even though Atwal separated himself from the Khalistani movement a long time ago and is a changed man. So much so, he has frequently travelled back to India even as an Indian blacklist has prevented many Khalistanis from going back to their home country.
The NSICP report points out that before Trudeau’s official visit began, Indian politicians had been repeatedly raising the issue of the Khalistan movement in Canada.
The reference to Khalistani extremism as a challenge in the Public Safety Canada report cannot be delinked from the developments that took place during Trudeau’s visit to India and the subsequent NSICP report. That the report does not even try to take into account the activities of supporters of right-wing Hindu nationalist movement in Canada also says a lot.
It is pertinent to mention that Hindu supremacist groups also exist in North America, but there is general silence about them in the mainstream media. If this is not enough, Canada has never even once raised the issue of growing attacks on religious minorities in India since the Hindu nationalist BJP government came to power with a brute majority in 2014.
All this only suggests the growing Indian influence over Canada and the weakness of Canadian politicians—including those of Indian origin—to stand up against it.