As Canadian gurdwaras ban Indian diplomats, fears of a new Sikh uprising emerge
A little over a year ago, Indian consul general Dinesh Bhatia arrived at the Ontario Khalsa Darbar, better known as the Dixie Gurdwara, in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga. He was there to attend a ceremony in memory of a senior member of the community who had recently passed away. He was accompanied by two members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police or RCMP -- part of the protective detail provided by the Canadian government to Indian diplomats in the country. As some members of the gurdwara professed anger over the presence of the policemen, the incident set off a chain of events leading to the boycott of Indian officials by multiple gurdwaras across Canada — a phenomenon that later spread to other nations such as the UK, the US, and Australia.
The disquiet may have been caused less by the Mounties and more by an Indian diplomat entering the premises of a place like the Dixie Gurdwara, once considered off limits for New Delhi’s envoys to Canada. It drew an immediate reaction from hardliners such as the activist group Sikhs for Justice (SFJ). By February, the group had sent a communiqué to Canada’s foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland, asking her “to take notice of the activities of the Indian diplomats posted in Canada which have the potential of creating disharmony and discontent among the peaceful Canadian Sikh community”.
“Approaching the foreign minister is an initial step towards blocking Indian diplomats from attending events in Canadian Gurdwaras,” the SFJ’s legal advisor Gurpatwant Singh Pannun warned.
As 2017 wound down, those words proved prophetic. While the original Punjab separatist movement of the 1980s was rooted in Punjab, and thereafter spread abroad, a new version of the campaign is slowly emerging. The ban is one manifestation — being spurred by the diaspora, particularly in Canada. The objective, which worries the governments in both New Delhi and Chandigarh, is to have it exported back into India as the second coming of Khalistan.
At a meeting on December 30 at the Jot Prakash Gurdwara in the Canadian city of Brampton, the Ontario Gurdwara Committee (OGC), which claims to represent nearly 15 gurdwaras in the province, imposed a ban on Indian officials, including elected representatives, from entering their premises while in their official capacities. Among those leading the group was Dixie Gurdwara’s president Gurpreet Singh Bal, who said the reasons behind the move included “the Indian government’s interference in the community”. Within days, the boycott movement had spread across other Canadian provinces of Quebec, British Columbia and Alberta, and beyond its borders to America, the UK, and most recently, Melbourne in Australia. “Soon after we made the announcement, support started pouring in from various countries. The only reason that came to my mind is that in every country the Sikh community was suffering from Indian consulate’s infiltration,” said Sukhminder Singh Hansra, president of the Shiromani Akali Dal (Canada East) and a prominent pro-Khalistan activist.
A senior Indian official was disturbed by the development. “It’s totally coordinated,” he said, requesting anonymity. Other than India’s deputy high commissioner in the UK, diplomats have refrained from commenting on this issue, pointing instead to a statement from the Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson, who noted: “We take no cognisance of fringe elements which spread hate and communal disharmony.”
But the government has certainly been taken unawares by the move. Vishnu Prakash, who was till October 2016 India’s high commissioner to Ottawa, said, “I did not see this coming. One of the tenets of Sikhism is that places of worship are open to everybody. This is what they take pride in. I think this is a rather unfortunate development and I get a sense that radicals have become emboldened.”
In fact, the Narendra Modi government had introduced a slew of measures to woo some hardliners away from separatism. That outreach effort commenced with his bilateral visit to Canada, the first by an Indian Prime Minister in 42 years, in 2015. Among the stops on his schedule was the Khalsa Diwan Society’s historic Ross Street Gurdwara in Vancouver. The visa blacklist was pruned, even refugees were given travel documents, back-channel talks with some Khalistanis started, and visits by Indian officials to gurdwaras was part of the package.
As these initiatives were undertaken, extremist elements criticised each of these measures, particularly that of Indian diplomats visiting gurdwaras earlier considered off limits for them. There was anger at these bastions being breached. The backlash focused on the government behind the moves, the BJP-led NDA administration. This led to the recent inclusion on members of the BJP’s parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, in the proscribed list.
Though the movement espousing the ban on Indian officials has been widespread, it has also suffered from pushback. Four members of the management committee of the Dixie Gurdwara came out against the ban stating they “were not aware of this decision, and this issue was never discussed in the committee meeting and no resolution was passed”. They were joined by two more gurdwaras in Brampton. In recent days, the Sikh Spiritual Center in Toronto also opposed the ban, while members of the management of Sikh Society Hamilton Wentworth’s Gursikh Temple sent a letter to the India Consulate in Toronto stating they “never consented” to the decision taken at the OGC meet.
That, however, hasn’t fazed those behind the ban action, like Hansra, who said, “The formal approval of the ban was not required since almost every gurdwara already had an unwritten ban on the consulate general and Indian officials imposed for past 30 years. Any director who does not agree with the ban, does not change the position of the gurdwara in anyway.”
Ironically, the pro-boycott forces will not take any action against those who oppose the ban.
Among the reasons observers see for this trend of resurgence of pro-Khalistan sentiment in Canada is vote-bank politics. “Canada may be emerging as the epicentre of these radical elements. They find a permissive climate there. There is a broad level of coordination, but my sense is that there is no apex-level coordination and other hardliners take a cue when events like these occur. Certainly, Canada is a friendly country but it is allowing a platform to radical elements,” Prakash said.
Shinder Purewal, professor of political science at the Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia said, “What has prompted the move is closely related to the success of Sikh politicians directly, or indirectly, associated with Khalistani movement. It’s a bold move to assert the secessionist upsurge in local, provincial and federal governments in Canada, and similarly in UK and USA. It’s a popular move among people who are treated like sub-humans by Indian consulate.”
The Canadian government has argued it can do little about the propagation of Khalistan in the country due to its freedom of expression rights. But Prakash said, “When there is a will, there are so many ways to do it. Even soft measures can neutralise these elements.” Among those could be “their sources of funding could come under greater scrutiny”, he felt. This matter is almost certain to weigh upon the imminent weeklong visit of Canadian PM Justin Trudeau to India.
For now, though, there remains concern the ban virus could spread further, as Avtar Singh Pannu, member of the American Gurdwara Prabhandik Committee, indicated, “After the US, we will campaign to ban the entry of Indian diplomats across European nations also as activities of the Indian diplomats have created disharmony and discontent among the peaceful Sikh community.”
This chorus of attacks on the Indian state across countries could crescendo closer to the non-binding 2020 Referendum for an independent Punjab among Sikhs abroad.