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India issued a diplomatic shot across Canada’s bow Friday and disguised it as a travel advisory.
It was a confusing and strangely vague travel advisory — particularly for those who haven’t been paying attention to the Canada-India relationship.
Which is precisely the point that New Delhi was trying to make: that Canada, and particularly Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, is paying no heed to India’s very serious concerns
Concerns that are chiefly to do with the Sikh separatist movement in this country and the lingering, simmering frustration that it has developed into a political force too great for any politician to challenge or defy.
“From a Canadian politician’s point of view, a riding is more important than relations with India,” Vishnu Prakash, a former Indian High Commissioner to Canada, told the Star.
A calculation that Indians can understand, even if they are, in Prakash’s estimation, fed up with their national unity and national security concerns being ignored in Ottawa.
The travel advisory was issued as a warning to Indian citizens and foreign students in Canada about “a sharp increase in incidents of hate crimes, sectarian violence and anti-India activities in Canada.”
The language employed by Indian diplomats was that which one might expect to be used more to describe Iraq, Libya or Afghanistan.
Indian citizens in Canada should “exercise due caution and be vigilant,” the advisory continued.
“The perpetrators of these crimes have not been brought to justice so far in Canada.”
Neither the Indian government nor the High Commission in Ottawa would explain, but it appears that the “crimes” referred are not multiple, but singular — a solitary, as-yet-unsolved, crime.
At 6:57 a.m. on Sept. 14, Toronto police received a call about graffiti that had been discovered at the front gates of the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Hindu Temple in on Clairville Drive in Etobicoke.
Social media accounts have posted video showing the words “Hindustan Murdabad” (meaning “Death to Hindustan”) sprayed in orange paint on two white columns at the temple’s entrance. On a plaque out front someone had sprayed a phrase that hinted at a possible motive: “Khalistan Zindabad” (meaning “Long live Khalistan”).
Khalistan is how Sikhs separatists refer to the homeland they want to establish in Punjab — one that would be politically separate from India.
The following day, temple officials issued a statement saying that they were “shocked and saddened by anti-India graffiti at the gates” of the temple — an act they attributed to “anti-social elements.”
“The BAPS temple in Toronto, like all temples of BAPS worldwide, is an abode of peace, harmony, equality, selfless service, and universal Hindu values,” the statement read.
“We are thankful to the appropriate authorities, including the governments of India and Canada, for their continued support and sympathy.”
Toronto Police Const. Sinderela Chung said that any incidents involving the desecration of religious sites of worship are automatically flagged to the force’s Hate Crimes Unit for tracking and followup investigation if necessary.
She said the police are still investigating the graffiti at the Hindu temple but conveyed the conclusion of Toronto’s Hate Crimes Unit that it “has not seen a notable trend in hate crimes against people of Indian/South Asian descent.”
With a shadow cast over the claims of a hate-crime increase — at least in Toronto — we move to the next possible source of the Indian government’s grievances: a vote.
Last Sunday, an estimated 100,000 people turned out at Brampton’s Gore Meadows Community Centre to vote in a referendum on whether the state of Punjab, where Sikhs are the majority, should separate from India.
It wasn’t a real referendum, in the sense that it was not organized by the government of India and its results will not be legally binding.
It was more an expression of will.
The vote was organized by Sikhs for Justice, an organization that calls itself a human rights group but is considered by the Indian government to be a terrorist organization. It was overseen by the Punjab Referendum Commission, a panel of independent political experts based not in Punjab or India, but in Arlington, Va.
The referendum votes, which have already been held in London, England and in Brescia, Italy, may be illegitimate in the eyes of the Indian government, but they are nonetheless a major source of frustration.
An Indian foreign ministry spokesperson referred to the Brampton referendum in comments this week as a “farcical exercise held by extremists and radical elements” and admitted that India had requested Canadian officials intervene to stop the vote from being held.
“India has consistently tried to marginalize and silence voices that support Khalistan. One of the talking points that India has used is that this is a fringe movement not supported by the Sikh community and that those individuals who show up at Sikh parades or at gurudwaras … are extremists and fringe,” said Balpreet Singh, legal counsel and spokesperson for the World Sikh Organization of Canada.
But Singh, whose organization was not involved in the planning of the referendum vote, said the turnout was both a strong display of support for the creation of an independent Sikh homeland and a rebuff to those who say that Sikh separatists are a radical minority of the total population.
And as proof, he pointed to an article published in the Times of India by a pro-India protester who showed up at the Brampton community centre.
Devanshu Narang said that a wide cross section of the Sikh community showed up for the referendum in Brampton and “there is no denying the fact that the event was far, far beyond the fringe.”
He wrote “people came in droves from everywhere and were of all age groups — young, old, very old in wheelchairs, children, men and women and from various parts of Ontario.”
Narang went on to say “for any person who stands up for a cause of united India, it was a depressing sight indeed.”
Narang wrote that he was “heckled, abused and called names” by people lined up to vote. “Many slurs were thrown at me by passersby … but the volunteers moderated them and asked them to allow me to continue protesting in peace.”
He went on to say: “the volunteers ensured that no one came near me and the moment the general public started abusing me, they tried to intervene,” and added, “the volunteers even offered me langar (traditional Sikh) food that they were eating and as they too are our brothers, even though misguided, I thanked them for the same and ate standing there.”
In the absence of other specific incidences of hate crimes and sectarian violence, one must wonder whether the Indian travel advisory was not so much a warning to travelling citizens and students, but to the Canadian government and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in particular.
That was the conclusion of Prakash, who was India’s high commissioner in Ottawa in 2015 and 2016.
“Khalistani elements are looking more emboldened with the Trudeau regime. Now they have a double advantage because you have Mr. Trudeau who is generally seen as friendly and well disposed toward the community,” he said.
“But also it’s a government in minority and they are leaning on the NDP for support and the colourful Mr. Jagmeet Singh does not hide his Khalistani leanings at all.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who is Sikh and has advocated in the past for Canada to recognize that Sikhs in India were victims of a genocide in the 1980s, has said that he supports the right of individuals to debate and advocate for sovereignty, whether in India, Spain, Scotland or Quebec.
“But because I am a federal leader in Canada, my position in Canada is for a united Canada,” he told CTV in 2018.
“But around the world it’s not my place to say whether Scotland should or should not vote for independence, whether that applies to Catalonia or to India, these are decisions made by the people who are in these communities and it’s up to them to decide.”
India’s beef with Trudeau goes back to at least 2017, when he was prime minister and attended a Khalsa Day rally with Sikhs at Toronto’s Nathan Philips Square.
At the rally there were flags and signs displaying support for Punjab’s independence but also posters glorifying Sikh militants as martyrs.
The Hindu newspaper reported on May 15, 2017, that one of those posters bore the image of Talwinder Singh Parmar, who was recognized as being responsible for terrorist bombings, including that of Air India flight 182 in 1985, which killed 329 passengers and was Canada’s deadliest terrorist attack. However, Balpreet Singh, of the World Sikh Organization of Canada, said that account is “not true.”
“No Parmar posters were displayed,” he said.
When Trudeau travelled to India in 2018 and visited the state of Punjab, he was reportedly handed a list of nine individuals in Canada — Brampton, Hamilton, Toronto and Surrey, B.C. — but Prakash said Canada has shown no willingness to crack down on Sikh militants.
“If I were to put myself in a (Canadian) politician’s shoes perhaps that makes sense to me,” Prakash said.
But it doesn’t lessen the sense of disappointment in New Delhi.
“I know for a fact that at the highest echelons of governance in India there is a lot of interest and goodwill. But it is frustrating when you get a sense that anti-India elements have been given a safe ride and safe haven,” Prakash said.
“We have tried to remain calm, but some kind of soul searching needs to be done.”
Clarification — Oct. 3, 2022: This story has been edited to include additional comments from Devanshu Narang’s letter to the Times of India, that clarify that he saw a wide section of the Sikh community at the referendum vote in Brampton and that in his view the vote was far from a “fringe” event.
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