Sikhs in Canada: A Thorn in India's Side

For many families in Punjab, shifting to Canada and being a permanent resident is the objective. Families want their sons to settle there and their daughters to marry the rich non-resident Indians. ‘Caneda’ is a household term and a second home for these Punjabis. The rate of migration is such that Punjabis in Canada form roughly 2% of the total population, with a majority of them being Sikh. Punjabi is the third-most spoken language in Canada, after English and French. For the rest of us in India, it only seems fair to imagine a day when Caneda’s Prime Minister is also a Sikh.

However, the broader picture of Indo-Canadian relations shows a little more animosity between the two countries. The two countries share various complementarities, like their democratic character and association with the Commonwealth. Despite this and both countries recognising the economic potential in their bilateral ties, the relationship has been rather tense on the political front and thus has not prospered.

A major factor for this has been the activities of the Khalistan supporters in Canada. Canada’s criticism of India has also been responsible for denting India’s interest in engaging with Canada as a strategic partner. These criticisms have involved past events such as the military action in Amritsar’s Golden Temple and the 1984 riots. Relations reached one of their lowest points in 1985, when Sikh extremists blew up Air India Flight 182 as it left Vancouver Airport for India, killing all 329 passengers.

Besides these issues, the current political scenario of Canada has also caused some concern for India. Because of the prominent involvement of Sikhs in Canada’s politics and the regionalisation of Indo-Canadian politics, issues affecting the Sikh diaspora have often become a part of the political discourse in Canada.

While moderates view India favourably and oppose secessionist sentiments, the fundamentalist groups, such as the Babbar Khalsa, vehemently advocate for the Khalistan cause. Events like the 1984 riots and the Golden Temple incident have been frequently introduced in Canada’s provincial legislatures, often in the form of petitions. In 2010, for instance, Liberal MPs Sukh Dhaliwal and Andrew Kania introduced a petition in the House of Commons asking Canada to consider the 1984 riots as an act of genocide and discuss the issue with India.

Justin Trudeau has often been caught in the crossfire between pandering to the Sikh population in his country and maintaining peaceful relations with India. Canadian politicians tread a fine line when attempting to involve themselves in the Sikh community, ensuring that people do not see them advocating for separatist causes inadvertently. The Sikhs in Canada form a voting bloc for Trudeau. In April 2019, his government removed a reference to Sikh extremism from a report that had earlier termed Sikh terrorism as one of the five threats facing Canada. He even attended a Khalsa Day parade organized by a radical Gurudwara in Toronto in 2017 where people waved Khalistani flags and put images of Sikh separatist leaders and militants on display.

Canada cannot curtail the right to freedom of speech and expression of its Sikh citizens, but New Delhi wants Trudeau to distance himself from Sikh separatists, publicly. PM Narendra Modi clarified that India would not tolerate any attempts to undermine India’s sovereignty and unity in his press conference with Trudeau. Punjab’s Chief Minister, Amarinder Singh has publicly accused Trudeau’s ministers of having sympathies with Canadian Sikh extremists and secessionists.

18 Sikhs were voted into the 338-seat lower house of the Canadian Parliament in the 2019 Federal Elections. However, only 13 candidates from the Sikh community were elected to the 543-seat Lok Sabha in the 17th General Elections in India. Sikhs form approximately 2% of the population both in Canada and India, but their representation in politics is unmatched.

Out of these 18 Sikhs is the leader of the National Democratic Party (NDP), Jagmeet Singh. A former criminal lawyer, Singh created political history in Canada when he made his debut in the House of Commons as the first non-white leader of a major opposition party in the country.

The pre-election polls showed he was the most popular of the three party leaders. Singh is your poster woke boy with swag. Recognised in Canadian media for his fashion sense and style, Singh identifies as a progressive and a social democrat. He supports a progressive tax system and a $15 per hour minimum wage. He strongly advocates for equality, and supports LGBTQ rights. He also wants to save the planet by reducing the carbon emissions levels of Canada to 30% of 2005 levels by 2025.

In Canada’s highly decentralised federation, forming the government at the provincial level makes the NDP an influential political force. Being led federally by a “visible minority” makes it a prominent symbol of the maturity of Canada’s multiculturalism.

The National Democratic Party, despite winning only 24 seats in the 2019 General Elections, has become one of the most talked-about parties. We can attribute two key factors to this popularity: (i) Singh’s speech in the democratic debate and (ii) the Liberal Party emerged as a minority party in the elections. Despite the Liberal Party staying a minority party in the House of Commons, forming a coalition with the NDP to govern, as the majority party, had been a general suggestion.

The Canadian media refer to Singh as the “kingmaker” in the legislative. The Liberal Party would need NDP’s votes on issues where the NDP and Liberals are more aligned than the Conservatives are, to pass any bill. For India, its interest in Singh is not one of pride that an Indian rose to become the leader of a major political party in a powerful Western state. Instead, the power Singh holds having entered the Canadian parliament has become a matter of concern for India. He has had a history of defending militants fighting for a separate Sikh homeland and lobbying for labeling a 1984 pogrom against Sikhs in India a ‘genocide’ by the government of Ontario. While he has not offered unqualified support to the Khalistan cause and remains vague on the issue, he has criticised India for Operation Blue Star. Singh will now have a far more consequential platform to continue his activism concerning attempting to seek justice for several violent episodes in India’s past.

In 2013, India denied Jagmeet Singh a visa to visit because he was “misusing the pretext of human rights to pursue his insidious agenda of disturbing the social fabric of India and undermining the peace, harmony and territorial integrity of India.” For a provincial politician, this is notable. But as the leader of a major political party with a seat in the country’s main legislative body, this suspicion towards Singh by a friendly country is of more substantial potential consequence.

India has dealt with a partition once before and thus has little tolerance for movements that could threaten further division of the state. This and the fact that India comprises culturally distinct regions make its current integrity reliant on a compact of pluralism. Khalistan seems to have more significant traction in the Sikh diaspora than it does in Punjab. Because of which India seems more concerned about diaspora movements that agitate for its creation than internal movements. Thus, India is sensitive towards anything that it perceives as a threat to its unity.

However, Singh is leading a deeply divided party that is facing severe fundraising deficits and a significant number of experienced MPs who won’t be seeking re-election. If he wishes to use his new platform to bring light to the injustices of India in the 1980’s, Singh would have to wait until he has dealt with the more direct concerns of his party first. The primary focus of the realities of Singh’s role at home may just save New Delhi from having to be overly concerned with him for the time being.


Devyani Arora

I am a nineteen-year-old student in Delhi University, pursuing bachelor's in commerce. You will find me having an existential crisis almost every two days and listening to The Local Train on loop.

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