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Indian officials visit Canada gurdwaras once shunned by govt

Some gurdwaras in Toronto and its suburbs once notorious for their pro-Khalistan stance and considered no-go zones for Indian government representatives have slowly started seeing regular visits from officials, marking a significant change.

world Updated: Feb 14, 2017 23:32 IST
Anirudh Bhattacharyya
Indian govt visits Canada gurdwaras
India’s consul general in Toronto, Dinesh Bhatia, at a local gurdwara to observe Guru Nanak Jayanti.(HT Photo/Anirudh Bhattacharyya)

Last week, a senior Indian diplomat visited the Ontario Khalsa Darbar, better known as the Dixie Gurdwara, in Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto. The occasion was a condolence meet for a senior member of the community who had passed away recently.

Over the past couple of years, Indian officials have been to this particular gurdwara at least thrice. While this may appear a commonplace occurrence, this particular temple, once known to be frequented by pro-Khalistan elements, was long considered forbidden territory for any representative of the Indian government.

Other gurdwaras also thought of as “out of bounds” because they were controlled by hardcore elements have witnessed such visits. The official who was at the Dixie Gurdwara, India’s consul general in Toronto, Dinesh Bhatia, has also been to temples in Rexdale, Malton, Scarborough and Brampton.

Ranjit Singh Dulay, secretary of the Dixie Gurdwara, told Hindustan Times, “The gurdwara is open for everybody. We cannot refuse anybody as long as they are coming to pray.” However, he did add people were “upset” after the events of 1984 and its aftermath but following overtures and apologies from the Indian government, “sometimes the relationship starts changing, and people are getting softer”.

While Bhatia did not comment on specific visits, he said, “It is a privilege to receive blessings at Indo-Canadian places of worship. I’ll continue to seek support and blessings at religious places important to the community. The cohesiveness of the Indo-Canadian community is visible at these places of worship.” 

Ontario Khalsa Darbar, better known as the Dixie Gurdwara, was once known to be frequented by pro-Khalistan elements. (HT Photo/Anirudh Bhattacharyya)

These forays to temples once aligned to the Khalistan cause is part of an outreach programme undertaken by the government that includes backchannel talks with former Khalistani extremists and pruning of a blacklist.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Canada in the spring of 2015, one of the more significant stops on his schedule was at the Khalsa Diwan Society’s historic Ross Street Gurdwara. 

While such visits would not have been contemplated even five years ago, when portraits of Khalistani “saints” such as Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale were, at times, prominently placed at some gurdwaras, “time has been a great balm”, as one official put it.

More moderate elements are being elected to gurdwara managements, reflecting the change in the mood. That is partly due to newer immigrants from Punjab having little to do with the Khalistan movement. However, as the number of hardcore advocates of Khalistan has dwindled, those remaining have become more strident.

There are about 40 gurdwaras in the province of Ontario, and of those nearly 30 are in the Greater Toronto Area. The vast majority of these have never been inclined towards the radicals.

The few remaining that have some support for separatists also now appear to be on the path to moderation. Still, the visits by Indian officials so far have been for public events, such as condolence meets, and officials have yet to be formally invited to some gurdwaras.