Relations between Canada and India suffered a body blow on Thursday in the Ontario Assembly as it became the first legislature in Canada to carry a motion that described the 1984 anti-Sikh riots as “genocide”.
This came as a shock to New Delhi, which termed it “misguided”, as the motion was moved by a Member of Provincial Parliament or MPP belonging to the ruling Liberal Party of Ontario, which had voted down a similar motion last summer.
“We reject this misguided motion which is based on a limited understanding of India, its constitution, society, ethos, rule of law and the judicial process,” said external affairs ministry spokesperson Gopal Baglay.
He said the views of the government “have been conveyed to the government and political leadership in Canada”.
The private members’ motion was moved by Harinder Malhi, the MPP from the riding (as constituencies are called in Canada) of Brampton-Springdale, near Toronto.
After a debate, the motion was carried with 34 MPPs (the equivalent of MLAs) voting in favour and just five against. Those present at a vote numbered just about a third of the assembly’s total strength of 107.
India’s Consul General in Toronto Dinesh Bhatia, under whose jurisdiction this falls, had spent a frantic couple of days trying to prevent this occurrence.
A senior Indian official said this matter could have a negative impact on bilateral ties. Frustrated over the lack of action by prime minister Justin Trudeau’s lieutenants, an official said, “If they can’t manage their own party…they have to own the responsibility.” That was for allowing the MPP to proceed with the motion, thereby creating a platform for attacks on India over its “intolerance”.
In introducing the motion, Malhi said the Legislative Assembly of Ontario should “condemn all forms of communal violence, hatred, hostility, prejudice, racism and intolerance in India and anywhere else in the world, including the 1984 Genocide perpetrated against the Sikhs throughout India, and call on all sides to embrace truth, justice and reconciliation.”
While speaking on the matter, she said events following the assassination of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi could “only be described as genocide”.
Among those supporting the motion was Jagmeet Singh, MPP of the New Democratic Party or NDP, who had unsuccessfully moved a similar motion in June 2016. Singh, who is considered a serious contender to be the next leader of the national NDP, also criticised the Narendra Modi Government.
The NDP politician who was refused a visa to travel to India at the end of 2013, also said, “This is a country that continues to use visa denial as a form of silencing its critics.”
Sikhs gathered in the Assembly gallery to view the proceedings greeted the outcome with cheers and slogans.
The pro-Khalistan activist group Sikhs for Justice’s Director of International Policy Jatinder Singh Grewal stated, “All Sikhs applaud Ontario today and give thanks to Premier Kathleen Wynne and Liberal MPP Harinder Mahli for hearing us, appreciating the evidence that exists and officially recognizing that the murder of tens of thousands of Sikhs was an attempt at genocide. We will continue to press upon other governments here in Canada and globally to stand with us in Ontario on the side of justice.”
Mukhbir Singh, president of the World Sikh Organisation, noted in a release that, “For years, the term ‘1984 anti-Sikh riots’was used to describe the events of November 1984 which was a distortion and wrongly implied unorganized communal violence. Recognizing the state-sponsored violence that targeted Sikhs across India in 1984 is an important and historic step towards justice, accountability and reconciliation which we hope will be an example to other governments.”
While the Ontario Liberals under Premier Kathleen Wynne, who travelled to India early last year, were blamed by Indian officials for allowing the motion, they also warned that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, shared the onus for this damaging of ties.
Several prominent Indo-Canadian organisations, including the Canada-India Foundation, Panorama India and India Canada Chamber of Commerce had written to Wynne and their representatives asking them to oppose the motion. However, this concerted lobbying effort failed when it came to the final count. And the result will cast a serious shadow over the recent surge in bilateral ties between the two countries.
(With inputs from Jayanth Jacob, New Delhi)