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Voices Supporting Khalistan Losing Ground in Canada

There may Canadian elements which identify with Khalistani separatism, but it’s not reflected in Trudeau’s cabinet.

Updated
World
3 min read
File photo of protestors being escorted from a memorial where Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper placed wreaths in Toronto on 16 April 2015. (Photo: Reuters)

Celebrations of India’s nationhood, like Republic Day or Independence Day in places like Toronto’s central Yonge-Dundas Square, often feature a background score of protestors, armed with klaxons, blaring their barrage of anti-India slogans. Indian officials point to Pakistani elements egging on the slogan-shouters. Proof of that, though, is usually lacking.

What matters is when it actually emerges from the shadows. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Canada last April, part of his agenda clearly was to woo the country’s Sikhs. His schedule included the historic Ross Street gurdwara in Vancouver, a location that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago.

Pro-Khalistani Elements in Canada

Pakistan may have concluded that flagging spirits require confidence building measures. Perhaps that’s what prompted Pakistan’s Consul General in Toronto, Asghar Ali Golo, to appear in the open with a person who is never shy of proclaiming his support for Khalistan. In fact, the Pakistani diplomat didn’t seem to mind that a Khalistan flag flew in the background and a banner seeking a referendum fluttered in the frame. That was captured in a bunch of photographs that were shared with me. Golo’s appearance didn’t make for a pretty picture. To be fair, the event was not organised by the Khalistan espouser, who told me he neither spoke to the Pakistani envoy nor knew him. However, Islamabad’s man in Toronto can hardly claim ignorance, since a diplomat, by his very nature, is careful about whom he appears with in public.

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Meanwhile, the Indian Government has made progress; after years, there is the prospect of those aligned with the Khalistan cause willing to enter into dialogue with New Delhi. Demographics within the Indo-Canadian community are changing, with larger numbers immigrating from outside Punjab, and even the new generation of those coming from that state having little patience for separatism.

Khalistani Links in Trudeau’s Cabinet

What has irked the Khalistanis even more than the depleted base, is what is perceived as a betrayal by Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Government in Ottawa. Soon after the October election, one person tracking extremists told me some groups, often associated with Khalistan, had supported the Liberal campaign and would expect payback. The fears appeared justified when two of the four Sikh Cabinet Ministers appointed by Trudeau came with credentials that included familial links to groups banned in India.

Nearly six months later, those hopes are muted. One of the them, Navdeep Singh Bains is the son-in-law of Darshan Singh Saini, who was once a spokesperson for the banned outfit, Babbar Khalsa. Bains, though, visited the Indian Consulate in Toronto before last year’s Federal elections in the country. Now Canada’s Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, he recently gladhanded India’s High Commissioner to Ottawa Vishnu Prakash. This Friday, he will be the guest of honour at a gala organised by the Canada India Foundation. Those are hardly the actions of an extremist. Similarly, Minister for National Defence Harjit Sajjan’s father Kundan Singh was associated with the World Sikh Organisation which espouses Khalistan. Sajjan, a veteran, has had first hand experience of combating terrorism while stationed in Afghanistan and is unlikely to have much sympathy for that. Another Minister, Amarjeet Sohi, was, in fact, once incarcerated in Bihar on terrorism charges. Those were never proven in a court and he was released and earlier this year.

I don’t support the breakup of any country. I’m a Canadian. I want to focus on Canadian issues.
Harjit Sajjan, Minister for National Defence in an interview to the Vancouver Sun
What happened to me is something I wish do not happen to anyone at all. But I have strong ties to India, those ties are still very strong and they will remain very strong.
Amarjeet Sohi, on being incarcerted in Bihar on terrorism charges

Future Scenario

Trudeau, himself, is pro-India, and had his first bilateral engagement with Modi in Washington, on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit. Once in Government, there’s the reality that Canada needs India, especially its market. There may be elements in the Liberal caucus that may still identify with separatism, but that’s not being reflected in the Cabinet, much to the chagrin of the supporters of Khalistan.

Squeezed by these phenomena arrayed against their movement, there is the distinct possibility of the more radical elements turning a little desperate. That poses a danger in itself. With Assembly elections due in Punjab in January 2017, we could be moving into a critical phase of this battle of wills and wits.

This exchange of moves is not quite chess but kabaddi, a sport that’s extremely popular within the Sikh community in Canada, as the long slog turns into a test of endurance.

(Based in Toronto, Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a columnist and author of the humorous political novel, The Candidate)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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