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The ‘Canada problem’ in India’s farm protests

The troubled history between India and Canada on Sikh separatism, and its disturbed present under Justin Trudeau.

The sundial memorial at the Irish village of Ahakista in Country Cork which shows the time when the Air India flight blew up in mid-air and fell into the ocean near its shores.

The scores of farmers mainly from the northern state of Punjab protesting India’s new agriculture reforms are mostly complaining about an economic issue. So why has this got embroiled in a debate on separatism and sedition, and why, of all people, did the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau comment on this issue siding with the farmers?

On December 1, in an online event commemorating the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, Trudeau expressed support for the protesting farmers gathered in and around the Indian capital New Delhi complaining about easing of government regulation in agriculture. Several other government ministers and members of Parliament in Canada expressed similar opinions.

The Indian government issued a demarche to the Canadian ambassador in India warning that such actions “constitute an unacceptable interference in our internal affairs” and that “such actions, if continued, would have a seriously damaging impact on ties between India and Canada”. The demarche also highlighted that comments from Canadian leaders have promoted protests before Indian embassies and consulates in that country and urged that Canadian politicians should “refrain from pronouncements that legitimise extremist activism”. In response Trudeau dug down on his initial comments, leading to the Indian foreign minister cancelling a scheduled global anti-Covid meet led by his Canadian counterpart. The Indian suggestion is not that all farmers protesting in India are extremists but that extremist elements in Canada are making use of these protests to further other agendas. Trudeau insists that he is merely upholding democratic values and echoing concerns from a small but vocal community in his country.

All this has a disturbed history. For the quarrel being referred to is a longstanding issue between the two countries – of Canada harbouring extremists and terrorists who hope to break India’s Punjab state and allied territories to create a new nation of Khalistan. The word is taken from ‘khalsa’, a revered martial tradition within the Sikh faith.

It was a Khalistani terrorist group that bombed a plane of the Indian flag carrier Air India on the Montreal-London-Delhi route in 1985 killing 329 people – the most lethal incident of aviation terrorism in Canadian history, and the source of the most expensive investigation and criminal trial. The only person convicted was a Canadian national of Indian-Sikh origin.

Since then, the growth of Sikh extremism has consistently been an irritant between the two countries. Canada has the largest Sikh population outside India. In 2018, Trudeau was snubbed in India, including by the Indian government which sees him as being too soft on Khalistani extremists. It didn’t help that a convicted Khalistani terrorist and activist from Canada had been invited as part of a programme conducted for Trudeau by his government in Delhi. Even though Trudeau and his government had explained this as an error, the worries have never quite disappeared. Also, in 2018, a Canadian government report noted Sikh extremism as five of the country’s biggest homegrown terror threats.

Even though only a small proportion of Canadian Sikhs support the Khalistan movement, their voices have been louder in recent years. Trudeau’s remarks on an issue involving predominantly Sikh farmers in India has caused suspicion, not least because they came days after a ‘global referendum on Khalistan’ held in November 2020 by a US-based group called Sikhs for Justice which is banned in India, and its founder Gurpatwant Singh Pannun declared a terrorist by the Indian government in 2019. The Canadian government has distanced itself from the so-called referendum.

More recently, a seminal report by the respected Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Canada highlighted a fundamental aspect of the Khalistan movement which has been argued by India for decades. The call for Khalistan is supported by arch-rival Pakistan. The report details the support given by Pakistan to Sikh separatists, and the irony that the Khalistanis pledge loyalty and friendship to Pakistan where the Sikh population has fallen to abysmal numbers due to forced conversions and other kinds of attacks from Islamists. It also notes the lack of support for Khalistan (a political party running on that cause in the last elections in Punjab won 0.32 per cent of the vote) in India, and voters overwhelmingly chose a politician, Amarinder Singh, who is vociferously against separatism, and is a loud critic of Trudeau.

It also notes that “Canadian politicians of both left and right often assume that separatist groups… speak for the Sikh community. The evidence, instead, suggests that they speak for Pakistan”.

The Indian embassy in Canada has asked for greater security as protests outside their premises include separatists and Pakistani elements. Any incident of violence or any injury to Indian diplomatic personnel in Canada is likely to further strain ties between the two countries.


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