There is a Problem With Canada……But It Isn’t New

By Poonam Sharma, SAFN Fellow

Pic Wikimedia Commons: The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi meeting the Prime Minister of Canada, Mr. Justin Trudeau, in Davos on January 23, 2018.

India’s External Affairs Minister, Dr. S. Jaishankar, has spoken plainly about Canada providing a safe haven to extremist elements, saying that “people have organized themselves politically and become a political lobby. In some democratic countries, politicians are made to believe that if they pander to these people, they can gain community support. These groups have tried to create political space for themselves.”

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s warning to Pakistan on harboring terrorists comes to mind: “You can’t keep snakes in your back yard and expect them only to bite your neighbors. You know, eventually those snakes are going to turn on whoever has them in the back yard.” What proved true for Pakistan should alarm Canada also. Some Canadians understand this.

Consider the following words from Canada’s High Commissioner to India: “The constant stream of protests from the Indian government over objectionable Sikh activities in Canada generated an ongoing and uncomfortable level of stress, not only for myself but on a trickle-down basis to other members of the mission…Nasty incidents took place across Canada with incursions into Indian consular missions, threats to diplomats, desecration of the Indian flag and the like. For example, in June, at virtually the same time that I was providing, on instruction from Ottawa, assurances to the Foreign Secretary with regard to the upgraded security being provided at Indian missions in Canada, an armed gunman walked into the Consulate General in Toronto, fired some shots, and then slipped away unimpeded. Through the late spring and summer of that year, I was summoned to the Foreign Ministry to receive strong protests on some eighteen occasions. The situation was so serious that there were even suggestions that India might see itself compelled to withdraw its high Commissioner from Canada in order to emphasize its displeasure and concern. I personally was very understanding of India’s anger; indeed this anger differed little from my own at what I perceived as the cavalier treatment these protests were receiving at home. My requests for a firm explanation as to concrete actions being taken largely remained unanswered. My point to the Canadian authorities was: “Simply enforce the law. That is all that is being asked.” The Indians knew my feelings. They perceived me as an ally and a valuable spokesman in getting their message across to Ottawa, and I believe this contributed substantially to keeping bilateral relations on a relatively even keel. As events moved inexorably towards the cataclysm of autumn, Canada was regarded as very much part of the overall problem. How could we, with a straight face, keep on reassuring Indians of our good intentions when virtually every week seemed to produce yet another outrage?” 

These words back up EAM Jaishankar’s viewpoint on Canada’s role in providing an encouraging environment for anti-India activities by extremist elements in Canada and its failure to provide security for Indian missions in Canada. However, this problem isn’t new. The above passage by Canadian diplomat Bill Warden describes Indo-Canada relations in 1984. Clearly, nothing has changed. Canada has never taken India’s national security concerns seriously. It is this attitude of permissiveness that has allowed the glorification of political assassinations and violence and the targeting of Indian diplomats with impunity in Canada.

Jaishankar has recently commented that it is not so much a problem in the US; India’s biggest problem right now is in Canada. “In Canada, the current party in power, as well as other parties, have given legitimacy to extremism, separatism, and advocates of violence in the name of free speech. When you challenge them, their response is, “We are a democracy, and it is free speech.” However, they need to understand that the world no longer operates as a one-way street. If certain things happen, there will be pushback. Newton’s law of politics applies here as well; there will be a reaction and counteractions. For example, the attacks and threats to our embassies concern me deeply. I ask the foreign minister, “Suppose it happened to you? If it was your diplomat, your embassy, your flag, how would you react?” We have to maintain a strong position.

While US authorities have started noticing threats from criminal gangs using religious places to escape scrutiny, the move by the Canadian parliament to observe a moment of silence for Nijjar shows the extent of subversion of democracy by these groups.

Ethnic Politics in Canada?

The Globe and Mail recently reported that when Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in 2021, Canadian Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan directed special forces to rescue Afghan Sikhs, which took resources away from getting Canadian citizens and Afghan allies out of the country. Responding to this allegation, Sajjan said, “Let me address the Globe article quite directly because I’ll be honest with you: it was utter BS.” He emphasized that there was an approved government policy to safely evacuate as many vulnerable Afghans as possible, which included religious minorities like the Afghan Sikhs and Hindus. Sajjan added that he didn’t think he would get those questions if he weren’t wearing a turban. Nevertheless, this has ignited a debate on ethnic politics and pandering to ethnic minorities and led to calls to the government to investigate his actions. 

Front page story on Harjit Sajjan instructing troops to rescue Afghan Sikhs during the fall of Kabul.

39th anniversary of Air India bombing

On June 23, 1985, Air India Flight 182, known as Kanishka, exploded mid-air over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Ireland while flying the Montreal–London–Delhi route. This tragic event, a result of a cowardly act of terror carried out by Canada-based Khalistani terrorists, claimed the lives of 329 innocent passengers. The victims included Canadian and other foreign nationals, many of whom were Indian, including children.

This tragedy remains the worst in Canadian aviation history and an unbearable loss for the victims’ families and humanity as a whole.

As in previous years, the High Commission of India in Ottawa and the Consulates General of India in Toronto and Vancouver, together with family members of the victims and members of the Indian diaspora, solemnly remembered the victims of this heinous act on June 23 in Ottawa, Toronto, and Vancouver.

The 39th anniversary of the Air India bombing should have been a solemn day to honor the memories of the victims and unequivocally condemn terrorism. However, a small group of individuals used the occasion to peddle conspiracy theories and insult the memory of the victims, tarnishing what should have been a day of respect and remembrance.

In a repugnant display, the Khalistani group Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) held so-called solidarity rallies at the sites of the Air India victims’ memorials to ‘pay tribute’ to the victims of the Kanishka bombing while simultaneously glorifying the mass murderer responsible for their deaths. On the eve of the 39th anniversary of the Air India bombing, SFJ General Counsel Gurpatwant Singh Pannun accused India of masterminding the bombing and announced a $5 million fund to investigate India’s role in the Kanishka bombing. Khalistani activists also handed out letters from Pannun to the victims’ family members, claiming that pro-Khalistani Sikhs stand in solidarity with them and demanding that the Canadian government investigate India’s role in the bombing.

Pannun’s letter which was distributed to family members of the victims of the Air India bombing.

Over the past thirty-nine years since this cowardly act, terrorism has unfortunately become a significant threat to global peace and security. It transcends borders, nationalities, and races, remaining a challenge that the international community must face together.

India has been at the forefront of the fight against terrorism, with support from allied nations. India’s EAM Jaishankar has stated, “Combating terrorism is a battle in which there is no respite. The world cannot afford attention deficit or tactical compromises.” The spirit of this statement is the best tribute to the victims of Air India Flight 182 Kanishka. Any act of glorifying terrorism is deplorable and should be condemned by all peace-loving countries and people.

No support for Khalistan

In an interaction with the Sikh congregation in the Greater Washington area in 2019, Former Indian Foreign Secretary and the then Indian Ambassador to the US, Harsh V. Shringla, emphasized that the so-called Khalistan Movement lacks support in India. Shringla highlighted the prominence of Sikhs in high positions, including President, Prime Minister, and Chief of Army Staff. He noted that some individuals collaborate with hostile countries, indirectly referencing Pakistan. Addressing the concerns of the Sikh community regarding the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, he mentioned the formation of a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to re-investigate cases and ensure justice, leading to some convictions. Additionally, the Indian government has provided compensation to the victims and financial aid to the ‘Jodhpur Detainees’ from 1984.

Veteran Canadian journalist Terry Milewski wrote in his book Blood for Blood: 50 Years of the Global Khalistan Project, “Sikhs were not aliens in India. They weren’t before partition, and they aren’t now.” In a 2021 Pew Research Center Report on a survey of religion in India, 95% of Sikhs said they are very proud to be Indian, and 70% said a person who disrespects India can’t be a Sikh. In such a scenario, what makes the Khalistani idea still survive amongst the diaspora in the West- especially in Canada, the UK, and the US? In an interview with GSV, Milewski noted that the Khalistan movement persists in the diaspora due to a small, organized minority adept at leveraging media and politics. Many diaspora members, isolated from India’s developments due to lengthy bans from visiting, remain unaware of changes like the election of Sikh leaders, including former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh—this detachment, coupled with their self-selection as emigrants, fuels separatist sentiments. Furthermore, the movement is bolstered by the tolerance and pandering of some mainstream political parties.

Christine Fair, professor in the Security Studies Program at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, noted in a podcast with the Straits Times that pictures of AK-47s and Bhindranwale (whose violent campaign for autonomy for the Sikh state of Punjab and armed occupation of the Harmandir Sahib [Golden Temple] complex in Amritsar led to a violent and deadly confrontation with the Indian military in 1984) on cars are common in Punjab, and his image is readily available in marketplaces near prominent gurdwaras, including the Golden Temple. This revival resembles how Western youth wear Che Guevara shirts, often unaware of his violent history. The youth in Punjab, born after the region’s turmoil, view these symbols without understanding the past context. Fair says, “These youths in Punjab were born well after the actual troubles in the region. People my age and older have nothing but disdain for the idea of Khalistan. The only backing comes from a very small, vocal minority within the diaspora communities, but in Punjab, there is no significant support for it.”

Diaspora doesn’t know the reality

In Punjab, you don’t see overwhelming support for an independent Khalistan as you do in the diaspora, but the diaspora doesn’t know the reality, says Milewski. In Surrey, where about a quarter of the population is Sikh, there’s been an increasing, belligerent display of martyr posters, such as those of the Air India bomber Talvinder Singh Parmar, who is advertised as a martyr and the mastermind of the Air India bomb plot.

It’s extremely bizarre that this man, who slaughtered 331 innocent civilians in the supposed pursuit of an independent Khalistan, is held up as a martyr and a role model for Sikh youth. How does this idea prosper? In part, it’s because Canada allows it. Canada has been completely tolerant and has normalized the display of what you might call terrorist iconography. This includes posters of Parmar, not just in the Langar Hall, but life-size on the outside wall of a major gurdwara in Surrey.

2023 Angus Reid Institute study found that nine in ten Canadians say they have little (61%) or no (28%) knowledge of the Air India bombing, the worst single instance of the mass killing of their fellow citizens.  Three in five (58%) of those younger than 35 said they had never heard of it. In British Columbia, where the conspiracy to commit the bombings was hatched, and Ontario, where many of the victims lived, awareness is higher, but fewer than one-in-six in each province say they know a lot about the attack.

Freedom of Speech Doesn’t Mean Freedom to Threaten

Sikhs for Justice has been issuing what Milewski calls “killer posters” in Canada, explicitly targeting Indian diplomats and glorifying violence, like the assassination of Indira Gandhi. Their videos often reference violent events.  At a recent parade in Brampton, Ontario, there was a float celebrating the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, indicating a troubling acceptance of such displays. Canada’s freedom of speech allows these sentiments to flourish, unlike in India, and political parties in Canada avoid condemning these displays to secure votes from the diaspora community, maintaining silence on these controversial issues for electoral gain. No prominent politician has taken a stand against this glorification of violence, perpetuating the problem.

Milewski notes that political pandering to Khalistanis in Canada transcends party lines, with all sides avoiding criticism due to mutual participation in this behavior. This pandering allows Khalistanis to maintain influence by supporting politicians who, in turn, overlook displays that glorify terrorism. “Posters of Talwinder Singh Parmar, the leader of the Air India bomb plot, and thereby, Canada’s worst ever mass murderer, are paraded in the Vaisakhi parade and garlanded with gold tinsel. They are making him out to be a hero, a model to Sikh youth, and a martyr of the Sikh nation. This man butchered 331 completely innocent civilians who had nothing to do with any actions by the Indian government against the Sikhs or anything like that. He didn’t care who he was killing,” says Milewski.  Motivated by votes, politicians ignore these issues, allowing the celebration of controversial figures to persist, portraying them as heroes and martyrs.

Foreign money – K2

Professor Fair notes that the US has laws about taking money from foreign entities. “Many of us have long suspected, though we lack smoking gun evidence due to not being intelligence operatives, that there is collusion between Khalistani and Kashmiri groups. They often conduct rallies together. In recent years, you rarely see Khalistanis without Kashmiris and vice versa. The common link between them is the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence agency. Fair emphasized that the US, Canada, the UK, and Australia should seriously scrutinize these groups.

Milewski, in his interview with GSV, said that although there is a common strategy between Khalistani militants and Kashmiri militants (the so-called K2 strategy), it is remarkably ineffective “because if you are going to support an independence movement in Punjab, there needs to be an independence movement in Punjab. The actual movement wanting independence in Punjab has died out to the point where people outside trying to promote it have no one to work with.”

Propaganda and misinformation

Mileswski notes that the Khalistanis are winning the propaganda war or information war, and the West has generally sat back and allowed this to happen without pushing back. As a result, a whole generation in the Sikh diaspora in Canada has grown up believing that Sikhs want an independent state. “They haven’t been to Punjab and are unaware of basic facts. For instance, in the last election, the only separatist party running got around 2.5% of the vote and no seats. In the election before that, they got 0.3% of the vote, even less than the “None of the Above” option. The idea of an independent Khalistan gaining traction is an illusion. If there’s no significant support for it in Punjab, and India would never tolerate such a thing, it’s going nowhere. The diaspora, while vocal, represents only a tiny minority of Sikhs worldwide, with 75% of them living in Punjab.

Milewski stressed the importance of countering this misinformation and engaging in the information space to correct misconceptions because “at the moment, the Khalistanis are winning that battle, and we need to wake up.”

India’s Security Concerns Need to Be Addressed

The 2021 Hudson Institute report, Pakistan’s Destabilization Playbook: Khalistan Separatist Activism, recommended that activities of Khalistani groups in North America should be investigated within legal boundaries to prevent violence similar to that of the 1980s, including the Air India Flight 182 bombing. The report notes that the US has been hesitant to act on Indian intelligence regarding Pakistan-supported Khalistani militancy, partly due to Pakistan’s logistical support for US operations in Afghanistan post-9/11. Additionally, China’s continued obstruction of the designation of Pakistan-based terrorists at the UN Security Council complicates the issue. 

Utsav Chakrabarti, the Executive Director of HinduACTion, an organization representing American Hindus, expressed concern about the rising influence of Khalistanis in Canadian and American politics. “There are lessons to be learned from our experience with 9/11. The same extremist elements who we promoted and supported in Afghanistan turned against us and perpetrated the worst terror attack in our history. The Khalistan cult has a very violent record. It is important that we educate our policymakers about the risks of ignoring their record of egregious violence.”

Allegations of transnational repression against India are recent, but if you juxtapose the US actions regarding the allegations of a murder plot against a US citizen (SFJ’s Gurpatwant Singh Pannun) and Canada’s actions in the Nijjar murder, the difference could not be starker. The US Department of Justice charged an Indian national with murder-for-hire and conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire. In response, India instituted a high-level inquiry. In contrast, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced in the Canadian parliament that authorities were pursuing “credible allegations” of links connecting agents of the Indian government to the slaying of a prominent Sikh leader (Nijjar) on Canadian soil -before the investigation was completed, before an indictment, and without providing evidence according to the Indian government- leading to a diplomatic fallout with India. As with Canada, the US is still reluctant to criticize the Khalistanis and SFJ. It seems as though they see a strategic advantage in refusing to condemn. While allegations of transnational repression are being investigated, Western nations also need to reevaluate this strategic reticence and confront the permissive attitudes that historically enabled extremism and the tragic Air India bombing.

Poonam Sharma is a Fellow at SAFN and journalist from Washington DC. She is the founder and Editor of Global Strat View. Previously, she was the Managing Editor of India America Today (IAT) for seven years, and launched its print edition in 2019 with IAT’s Founder and Editor, the late Tejinder Singh.

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