23rd September 2020   •   opinion
A report on Khalistan illustrates how little some Canadians still understand Sikhs

Image: WikiMedia
Earlier this month, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute of Canada published a paper titled ‘Khalistan: A Project of Pakistan,’ written by former CBC journalist Terry Milewski.

In response, over 50 Sikh academics in Canada, Britain and the US jointly signed a letter condemning the report, calling it "vitriolic" and more. It's rare for so many Sikh academics to raise their voices in such a way, so it's worth commenting on this controversy.

The broader background is that in 2018 the Canadian government listed ‘Khalistani extremism’ as a key security threat for the first time. A backlash from Sikhs ensued and eventually the Trudeau government withdrew that part. Milewski thinks they wrongly gave in to 'extremists' and the report is an attempt to get this issue up the agenda again. I have to say it isn't very good.

For one, it largely ignores Canadian Sikhs themselves. Last year I co-authored a report with Dr Jagbir Jhutti-Johal for the UK Home Office on the Changing Nature of Activism Among Sikhs in the UK. It was a sensitive yet important project, and the only paper it has commissioned on the issue.

We covered the issue of Khalistan in part. Here's an extract:

"The theme of injustice was a common thread in responses. Many of our respondents said most Sikhs saw Khalistan as an abstract concept; a proxy for anger over events from 1984 and the treatment of Sikhs in India as second-class citizens. Some respondents who did not support Khalistan said the idea also remained popular because of the actions of the Indian government towards diaspora Sikhs."

Canadian Sikhs aren’t that different to American or British Sikhs on community affairs. If anything they look more integrated and patriotic than British Sikhs, with correspondingly higher income levels. The Air India bombing took place 35 years ago and the world has vastly changed since. But the very least a report should let Sikhs speak for themselves. It would have been unprofessional to generalize or lump all views together - so we didn't. We asked academics and activists to students and journalists, to illustrate a range of views. Terry Milewski doesn’t do that. Instead we get an institute with an almost-all-white advisory board, commissioning a white journalist, who largely relies on events from over 30 years ago to understand modern Canadian Sikhs. If it wasn’t so offensive it would be amusing.

And it gets worse. The big revelation in the report is that Pakistan is eager to support separatists in India. Milewski seems to think this is an exciting new discovery. Everyone knows Pakistani agencies have long meddled in Indian affairs, and vice versa. But just because both are eager to destabilize the other doesn't mean Sikhs are eager to be used as pawns. Both countries also use the other as a foil to cover up their failures. Last week they were blaming Pakistan for a locust invasion! It's a national pastime,

So journalists should take any claims that 'terrorists' are being funded by Pakistan (or India) with a bucket of salt. Milewski does not entertain the notion. Only fools would believe such a ridiculous idea! Moreover, western Sikhs have repeatedly raised and condemned hate-crimes against Sikhs in Pakistan - an issue the government would rather not discuss. The WSO itself has done so repeatedly (here, here, here). Is that how a proxy or an ally would behave? Does anyone see terrorist groups in Kashmir raising social justice issues?

The movement

The Khalistan movement is full of factions, splits, tiny organizations, big egos and a lot of idealistic dreamers. There are some who will take friends wherever they can find them - Sikhs For Justice for example - whose praise for the Pakistani and Chinese states clearly goes overboard. But they are also regarded suspiciously by others. (And I'm fairly sure they use bots to promote their attention-seeking campaigns). But all this tells us little about the broader movement.

I’m not a Khalistani. I’m British and my future lies in Britain not a state for Sikhs. But I know this much: the call for Khalistan is a call for Sikh dignity. It is a call for Sikhs to have a space where they are not persecuted for their beliefs. My brother Jagraj Singh used to joke that Canada could be Khalistan because it had the religious and political freedom Sikhs needed. He also said that instead of carving out a space in Punjab, Sikhs should aspire to convert all of India to Khalistan. The point is that there is a huge diversity of views in this movement.

I'll quote one last bit from our report:

"It is important Sikhs be allowed to debate the merits of a Sikh homeland without such conversations being reflexively labelled as ‘extremist’ or ‘terrorism’. The UK government should avoid criminalising such views as many accuse the Indian government of doing. Shutting down these debates would only drive them underground or create a backlash."

The Canadian government should consider this carefully. It may not be to India's liking but freedom of speech and political expression are worth protecting. The BJP's record of persecuting religious minorities, extra-judicial killings and worsening censorship aren't stuff of internet conspiracies - they have been widely reported across the international media. Either Terry Milewski chose to intentionally ignore this context or he didn’t think these issues were relevant to Sikhs. Both illustrates his bias. And it doesn’t come as a surprise since it was spear-headed by MLI’s Shuv Majumdar, himself a fan of Modi.

What it says about the Macdonald-Laurier Institute is another matter. Perhaps its board should reflect why it published such a shoddy piece of work in the first place.
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Sunny Hundal has been a journalist and commentator since 2004. He is editor-in-chief of Barfi Culture
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