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The truth behind the story engulfing Canada's Sikh politicians


May 30, 2016
So, the Trudeau India debacle just keeps on spreading, and is now engulfing Jagmeet Singh. This thing isn't over yet. Not by a long shot.

Unexpectedly, Trudeau's India expedition ripped open the wounds caused by the 1985 Air India bombing when it was revealed that Jaspar Atwal, convicted of attempted murder for his role in a 1986 attack on an Indian politician, was photographed with Sophie Grégoire Trudeau at a Canadian government reception in Delhi.

It was all too much for Canadian media and the public. Prior to Trudeau's trip, Indian media had unleashed a blizzard of criticism of the Liberal government, essentially accusing it of complicity in Sikh terrorism. On February 12, Outlook India said of the Trudeau visit: "A new real threat of Khalistani terror, fuelled and funded by foreign gurudwaras patronised by liberal white politicians, has revived memories of a blood-drenched era of Punjab’s history."

For a convicted terrorist to be found at a Canadian government reception in India was unthinkable.

Fresh on the heels of that news comes the coverage of Jagmeet Singh's appearances and public statements regarding Khalistan.

Emotionally and intellectually, this sent Canadians and our media reeling. We instantly transported back to exactly where we were when Air India Flight 182 blew out of the sky, killing all 329 aboard.

For Canadians old enough to remember that bombing, with its ghastly media coverage of cold little bodies being scooped from the sea, it's as if we are all trapped in the amber of those days. It turns out, that after all these years, we have not moved on. We won't ever move on. Killers walk our streets, free and fearless. They are unforgiven and unforgivable.

That will never change. It should never change.

For Canada, the Atwal fiasco was so shocking that it eclipsed our own media's ability to see the contemporary international context of these events, and to be more skeptical about why this issue is suddenly front page news.

When the Modi government's friendly media voices cast aspersions against Canadian Liberals and Sikhs, we saw nothing else. We didn't see that he made the same allegations against British Sikhs three years ago. Or that UK national security experts investigated those claims and dismissed them. We didn't see that Sikh violent militancy has not been a major security threat in Canada or India for over 20 years (it exists, but at a low-level). We didn't see that the Indian government, supposedly so fearful of Sikh militants, had zero problem with Atwal.

We certainly didn't see that Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has a clear pattern of violent persecution of minorities, that he himself has been implicated in extremist violence, or that his government routinely accuses its political adversaries of terrorist sympathies as a political ploy. According to the BJP, political foe Sonia Gandhi is responsible for terrorism. Rahul Gandhi sides with terrorists. Muslim Bollywood stars Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan are terrorist sympathizers. British Sikhs are terrorists.

We didn't see Modi's game, because we were the pawns.

Perhaps the most striking feature of this controversy is the vast gulf that opened between a largely Caucasian media's perception and that of South Asian journalists who are much more familiar with key Indian subtext. Those voices are routinely, and often very rudely, dismissed and shouted down by reporters in social media.

By and large, the major media reporters who dominate commentary on Sikh issues today are Caucasian veteran journalists who covered Air India. Broadly speaking, they have fixated on whether gurdwaras display pictures of militants. We'll get into that.

Their tunnel vision on posters, Air India and the events as they stood in 1985 has obscured the larger arc of Indian politics that governs current events. If Canadians are to make any sense of what's going on in the Sikh community today, they desperately need the context of India's profoundly altered political reality since its election of a Hindu supremacist in 2014.

No coincidence that sudden inflammatory accusations arrived with the election of Hindu extremist Modi
While older Canadians have not moved on from Air India, the world has. The issues and circumstances of Sikh militance and terrorism, separatism and the more evolved movement for human rights and democratic freedoms in India have fundamentally changed over the last thirty years. It is no coincidence that the suddenly inflammatory accusations and rhetoric arrived with the election of Narendra Modi, an extremist Hindu supremacist.

More on Modi later, but keep this in mind. His own personal extremist background is so serious that he was denied a diplomatic visa by the U.S. government for many years. The ban on his travel to the U.S. was only lifted after he was elected prime minister. Suddenly, the issue of Sikh terrorism, which had been a closed file in India for over twenty years, turns into a major diplomatic feud. And not just in Canada, but the UK too.

I've followed the issue of Sikh extremist violence quite closely for over 30 years. As a young prosecutor, I was working in the Crown office when Air India Flight 182 was bombed. Although I wasn't on assigned team, I was there during its initial investigation. I vividly recall in the 80's when the Crown office was informed of the worst law enforcement bungling in Canadian history: CSIS had erased all the wiretap tapes—all evidence of phone calls and recorded conversations were gone as evidence.

Everyone's blood ran cold that day. In our bones, we knew then how this would all turn out.

I later married into a family of mixed Hindu and Sikh heritage, who immigrated to Canada almost a century ago. We do business with India every day—with people of all religions. We sponsor and host Indian artists, writers and political figures who appear in Vancouver. One of those visitors now serves as India's minister of state for external affairs.

So albeit through a glass darkly, I've learned about the labyrinth of Indian politics only enough to understand this: whatever you think you know about India, you probably don't. Yet getting very basic facts right goes a long way in explaining what's happened here. Media have a responsibility to widen their sources and rely less heavily on individuals with a personal interest in local political entanglements.Repetition of opinion from the same sources is not reporting.

Sikh extremist terrorism, like the IRA and FLQ, burned out decades ago
If you go to the same well every day, you'll get the same water. But not necessarily the facts.

The fact is, despite what most of the media has led Canadians to believe, Canada doesn't have Khalistani terrorists under our beds or in our cabinets.

Overwhelmingly, Sikh activism today centres on justice, human rights, democratic freedoms. There is a something of a trend in some diaspora communities favouring a Sikh homeland, but to be obtained through democratic means. There is no popular support for violent militancy.

This chart, published by the Journal of Punjab Studies at UC Santa Barbara, tells the story. It tracks Sikh insurgency-related fatalities since 1981. Journalists reporting on contemporary Sikh politics should be telling Canadians this one fact: Sikh terrorism ended as a significant threat from this community by 1995. More than 20 years ago.

Chart reproduced from Economics of Civil Conflict: Evidence from the Punjab Insurgency, Journal of Punjab Studies, UC Santa Barbara

This is not the first time that the Modi government falsely raised alarm bells over Sikhs abroad. In 2015, Modi himself made similar inflammatory claims of dangerous radicalization among British Sikhs. Those allegations were investigated and discredited by the UK Centre for Research on Evidence and Security Threats (CREST). CREST found:

  • "There is no threat to the British state or to the wider British public from Sikh activism... Instances of Sikh on Sikh violence are most often a consequence of a) the contested nature of religious authority within the Sikh tradition, or b) local power politics most often as a consequence of personal and familial disputes."
Modi or his henchmen have similarly accused a host of other real or perceived opponents of terrorism or terrorist sympathies. [More on that later] For starters, Canada has had no repeat incidents remotely resembling the Air India bombing. Indeed, contrary to Western perceptions fanned by Modi, experts widely identify 1983-93 as the period of the violent insurgency, terrorism, and confrontation which took an estimated 20,000 lives. A period which had a well-defined beginning and end.

What you need to know is that Sikhs comprise just a sliver of a minority in Hindu-dominated India today—only 1.7 per cent out of a population of 1.3 billion. There are more Christians than Sikhs in the country, which is 80 per cent Hindu and 14 per cent Muslim. Sikh extremist violence was not a long-established pattern. It emerged quite suddenly in the 1980s in response to specific events in India. It caught fire in 1984 then was resolved as a significant public safety threat by 1993, over twenty years ago.

Just as many Québécois hold fast to the dream of an independent Quebec and always will, so do many Sikhs. It is especially common for millennials in the diaspora to dream of a homeland to call their own.

Yet on the ground in India itself, it is settled public opinion that Sikh separatism is finished as a serious political project. The great majority of Sikhs there are reconciled to a future within India. The Indian Sikh public today is far more occupied with economic prosperity, education for their kids, human rights and democratic freedoms than with violence or an independent state.

The practical challenges of separatism simply proved too daunting an aspiration to sustain.

Google can tell you why Khalistani separatism died
Five minutes on Google will tell you why the separatist movement died in India.

The tiny landlocked Indian Punjab state, roughly the size of Maryland, resides in a dangerous neighbourhood, packed between two nuclear-armed mortal enemies: India and Pakistan. India's tiny Sikh population is overwhelmingly concentrated in Punjab, but their majority there is much too small to achieve independence. Sikhs form only 58 per cent of the region's 28 million inhabitants, and are surrounded by an Indian subcontinent of 1.5 billion Hindus and Muslims. By comparison, francophones in Quebec number almost 80 per cent of that province.

In this globalized world, Khalistan wouldn’t last long enough for the ink to dry on its declaration of independence. Years of violence and political instability have exacted a heavy toll, and Punjabis know every rupee and drop of blood. They watched their economy and civil society crumble during the insurgency, and have no desire for a sequel. While separatist impulses and even radicalization persists in some circles, the pro-Khalistani movement today has evolved primarily into a human rights movement, pressed internationally by centrist and left-wing activists in the diaspora. Human rights activists are very inconvenient to authoritarian governments. Discrediting them as terrorists or terrorist sympathisers is right out of the tyrant's playbook.

Those who aspire to independence are not terrorists, nor are they even extremists. So long as they are peaceful, they are as free in Canada as anyone to support a religious homeland for their community, whether India likes it or not.

All of this is what Sikhs and others tried vainly to tell Canadians over the din of bombast by a media that has seems to have closed its ears to evidence. There could hardly be a better argument for an Inclusion Rider in media and journalism than the chasm between veteran Caucasian journalists with large media platforms and younger journalists of colour who are generally published in smaller outlets. Excellent analysis has come from many, notably Supriya Dwivedi of Global News, the UK writer, Sunny Hundal, writing in iPolitics, and Jagdeesh Mann in Vancouver's Georgia Straight.

Media has a special duty of care respecting claims that visible minority groups are a threat
There's a very painful human cost to getting a story like this so wrong. It tears at Canada's social fabric when a community of colour is singled out for harbouring or excusing terrorists. Fear is an extremely effective means of isolating and excluding minorities.

We do not need to fear our Sikh neighbours. If anything, we should hear them out, because their story matters.

While risk of radicalization is a persistent and legitimate concern to authorities, it's important to keep the perception of danger in perspective. Minority populations that are perceived as dangerous to the public are particularly vulnerable to attack and abuse. Canada saw ample evidence of this during the 2015 election, which inexplicably featured the niqab (a face veil) as a major campaign issue. Violence against Muslim women wearing the niqab, or even the hijab (headscarf) spiked sharply over that period.

That's why it's so important for Canadians to understand that in historical context, the era of Khalistani terrorism flared white hot for a decade, then ended almost as suddenly as it had emerged. Pro-Khalistani terrorism is not now and has not been a major public safety threat in Canada, the UK or India for over 20 years.

As I stated previously, to know why this issue has suddenly burst onto the scene, it's important to understand Modi.

Modi, Hindu nationalism, and exploiting Sikh politics
There is no understanding the undercurrents of this issue without understanding the rise of Narendra Modi, who was considered in diplomatic circles to be a controversial and dangerous figure. Modi rose to power advocating an overtly hard-line right-wing Hindutva doctrine of Hindu racial purity and supremacy. Its closest parallel in the West is unvarnished, state-sanctioned white supremacy.

Press intimidation is central to the Modi governing style. All India was shocked by the murder of journalist and well-known Modi critic, Gauri Lankesh, shot in the head on her doorstep in prosperous middle class Bangalore. Lankesh was but one murder among many that prompted the International Federation of Journalists to place India high on its list of most dangerous countries for journalists. An editorial in the South China Morning Post describes India's situation as the "murder of journalism" itself.

In I Am A Troll, a 2016 book, former BJP party IT volunteer Sadhavi Khosla outlines explosive allegations that she was part of orchestrated online campaigns of hatred, intimidation and harassment against perceived government critics.

“It was a never-ending drip feed of hate and bigotry against the minorities, the Gandhi family, journalists on the hit list, liberals, anyone perceived as anti-Modi,” said Khosla in the book. It was even claimed that in 2015 the troll team targeted a corporate sponsorship of Bollywood star Aamir Khan, who had expressed concern over rising intolerance under Modi. After sustaining a blizzard of BJP-organized troll attacks, Khan's sponsor dropped his contract. The BJP denies Khosla's allegations.

Sound familiar?

Modi's rule today is marked by the rise of Hindu mob violence against Muslims and minorities. Mob lynchings, especially of Muslims, have suddenly exploded in India, with little international attention.

All of the signs have been present from early days of Modi's ascent. On his path to power in the 2014 general election, Modi’s greatest obstacle was his own record as chief minister of the Gujarat state government during communal mob violence that killed thousands—primarily Muslims. Credible accounts raised questions about whether Modi tacitly condoned the murderous swarms, or maybe far worse. These accounts, taken very seriously in diplomatic circles, led to the suspension of his US visa.

Cars set on fire in Ahmedabad, India, on February 28, 2002, during a riot in Gujarat state. Photo by AP.

In a classic act of political genius, Modi shielded himself from controversy by accusing his opponent, Rahul Gandhi, of the same thing. In a pure, Donald Trump-style, Crooked Hillary manoeuvre, Modi distracted from his own record in the anti-Muslim killings by attacking Gandhi for his party’s complicity in the anti-Sikh massacre of 1984. "You're the puppet," he would say. It was brilliant. It was cold-blooded, exploitive. It worked.

It worked because Modi trapped Rahul Gandhi, grandson of Indira Gandhi, in the web of history and the events that destabilized India, plunged Punjab into chaos, and blew a planeload of Canadians out of the sky off the coast of Ireland. It was exploitive because Modi doesn't have the slightest intention of making Hindus pay for their slaughter of Sikhs.

The prologue and clues for Canada's Indian misadventure lie in Modi's ascent on the backs of Sikhs.There's no untangling that diplomatic debacle without understanding 1984, the year that galvanized the pro-Khalistani rebellion virtually overnight. India in the early eighties saw the emergence of a ruthless and charismatic Sikh nationalist, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Then-prime minister Indira Gandhi had once cultivated the religious zealot for her own political purposes. Now Bhindranwale directly challenged her authority by violently seizing and occupying Sikhism's holiest shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

In June 1984, Gandhi resolved to flush him out and imprison him. She authorized Operation Bluestar, the Indian army's brutal assault on the temple. It was a military, strategic, and political disaster of historic proportions. Operation Bluestar, headed by Sikh members of the Indian army, not only killed Bhindranwale and hundreds of his followers, it also killed hundreds of innocent religious pilgrims. It would be as if the government authorized a massacre of priests and visitors in the Vatican.

The Golden Temple assault electrified the entire Sikh faith. By slaughtering innocents along with Bhindranwale, Gandhi legitimized his cause and gave a face to Sikh religious persecution.

Bhindranwale's transformation from ruthless thug to religious icon and the face of Sikh religious persecution was complete. He became Sikhism's own Che Guevara. That is his power and symbolism within the Sikh communities. He is venerated today not because of his violent thuggery, but because he represents resistance to oppression and persecution.

Within days of Operation Bluestar, Sikh soldiers mutinied en masse from the Indian army in at least seven states. Gandhi paid with her own life, assassinated on October 31 by her own Sikh bodyguards. The next day and for days after Gandhi's death, India erupted in an orgy of murderous retribution by Hindus against Sikhs, carried out mainly in the government’s seat in Delhi. While police looked the other way, mobs of Hindu killers hunted Sikhs down in the streets. Thousands were hacked to death or doused in kerosene and burnt alive, while unspeakable atrocities were committed against women and children.

It was a massacre, known euphemistically today as the "1984 riots."

Gandhi’s own Congress Party voter lists and government school registration forms were used to pinpoint and mark Sikh homes and businesses for targeted attacks. Congress party government leaders and officials, particularly two high-profile public figures who went on to successful political careers, were directly implicated in planning and organizing the onslaught.

Counts of the dead run from 2,000 to 8,000 or even higher. Many non-Sikhs were cut down as they tried to intervene or offer sanctuary to their friends and neighbours.

At a rare sentencing of low-level attackers in 2009, the presiding judge ruled: “Though we boast of being the world's largest democracy and the Delhi being its national capital, the sheer mention of the incidents of 1984 anti-Sikh riots in general and the role played by Delhi Police and State machinery in particular makes our heads hang in shame in the eyes of the world...”

To this day, none of the state-level organizers have been convicted.

The bombing of Air India in June, 1985, falling close to the one year anniversary of Operation Bluestar, was a bloody answer to the slaughter that preceded it. All the killers on both sides now walk their home streets free and fearless, a repugnant affront to justice and their many victims.

Violence begets violence begets violence. The militant Khalistani insurgency lasted another eight years, eventually collapsing under its own weight. Ultimately, it was crushed from outside and de-legitimized from within by its indiscriminate violence and criminality.

Murders, rapes, kidnappings, extortion and common corruption by both insurgents and authorities were rampant. No one could be trusted. The whole thing was a tryst with disaster that nobody wants repeated.

2014 election: "Lock them up!"
Yet Modi found 1984 to be fertile ground in the national election of 2014. Promising Sikhs justice and retribution for 1984, Modi consolidated the BJP alliance with Punjab’s powerful pro-Sikh party, the SAD. Having reopened the wounds of 1984 for political gain, Modi now faces a growing chorus of calls, domestically and internationally, to follow through. High profile demands have come for the 1984 riots to be recognized as genocide, and for perpetrators to be punished. TIME magazine called for this recognition, as did the Hindustantimes editorial board and so did Modi's own Home Minister.

So did Modi's powerful Sikh political ally, the SAD.

But having opportunistically opened the Pandora's Box of Sikh grievances for political gain, the Modi government is now openly hostile to calls for justice. To date the condemnation that has provoked the strongest and most emotional response from India's leadership is Canadian criticism. An April 2017 motion by the Ontario legislature condemning "the Genocide" of 1984 came as a stunning diplomatic rebuke to India. As if its own cabinet ministers, allies, judiciary and major media had not themselves condemned the events in 1984 in exactly the terms of the Ontario government, the Indian government expressed shock and disbelief: “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,” the external affairs department told the Hindustan Times.

Notwithstanding that this was an Ontario legislature motion, the Hindustan Times also reported that an unnamed Indian official blamed Trudeau. "A senior Indian official said this matter could have a negative impact on bilateral ties. Frustrated over the lack of action by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s lieutenants, an official said, “If they can’t manage their own party…they have to own the responsibility."

Well, whaddyaknow?

Diplomatic trouble from UK and Canada
Meanwhile, Sikh dissidents and activists in the UK have also upped the diplomatic pressure on India by refusing the use of gurdwaras by Indian diplomats over the 1984 issue. British PM Theresa May was drawn into the fracas over allegations of torture by India over its detention without charge of the British national, Jaggi Johal, currently held on suspicion of murder. The hard line Modi, who has no love for justice-seeking liberal Sikh dissidents, was already feeling pressure ahead of Trudeau's visit.

Now critics are attacking Modi's Sikh political allies as dupes for lending their support to a leader who unapologetically espouses the very Hindu supremacy that produced the bloodbath of 1984 in the first place. The last thing Modi and his Sikh allies needed was for a charismatic and photogenic Canadian prime minister to bring his entourage to the Golden Temple.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visits the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India on February. 21, 2018. Photo by the Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick

So perhaps it wasn't at all surprising when Indian media took up the charge that Canada nurtures terrorists. The surprise is that, instead of demanding substantiation of such a shocking allegation, Canadian media widely repeated and amplified it.

In India, the retired Canadian terrorist Atwal can come and go at will. Muslims are lynched in the streets. Critics are targeted by online mobs hired by their own government's party. Journalists are murdered, or shot and left for dead. Minority film stars are targeted and attacked. Political opponents are accused of terrorism.

Why should anyone be surprised that popular Sikh politicians from Canada get the same treatment?

Yet only someone with virtually no literacy in current Indian politics could suspect Canadian Sikh politicians like the NDP leader Jagmeet Singh and Defence Minister Harjeet Sajjan of extremism. They are from different parties and hail from different parts of the country. Of the two, Singh is probably more supportive of an independent Sikh homeland, but this is decidedly not militant or extremist.

Yet they share one characteristic that's anathema to Modi and conservatives alike: they are progressive liberals.

Singh, like many other liberal and left-wing musicians, artists, scholars and intellectuals, is a challenge to Hindu supremacy. His public statements on 1984 fundamentally aligned with those of Modi’s mainstream political allies in Chandigarh and Delhi. For his part, Harjit Sajjan has made no public statements whatsoever supporting Sikh independence. He had a distinguished career as both a Vancouver police detective and decorated Canadian combat veteran.

It's an absurd fiction that Modi fears violence from Sajjan or Singh.

India, like every other country, is a mystery that never makes complete sense. As Churchill astutely observed of Russia, "It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key." In India, that key is stamped with a question: Cui bono—who benefits?

Turn that key, and solve the riddle.


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