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Nevin Al Sukari - Sana'a - File photo of demonstrators gather across from the High Commission of India in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada September 25, 2023. — Reuters pic
OTTAWA, Sept 30 — Canadian Sikhs are grateful to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for giving voice to their fears and standing up to India at the risk of severe backlash from New Delhi, which he said could be linked to the murder of a Sikh separatist leader.
The Indian government considered Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian citizen who was shot to death in June in British Columbia (BC), a terrorist because of his advocacy for Khalistan, an independent Sikh state.
India forcefully denied its involvement in Nijjar’s murder, which took place in the parking lot of a Sikh temple in Surrey, BC. But Canadian Sikhs are unconvinced, and the minority who are active proponents of Khalistan are afraid.
“There’s a lot of fear,” said Sentokh Singh, who was among the small group who protested in front of the Indian High Commission (embassy) in Ottawa this week. “That’s why we are here today.”
Both countries expelled diplomats in a tit-for-tat retaliation after Trudeau’s bombshell announcement last week, but India has gone further, issuing a travel warning and halting visa issuance to Canadians.
Trudeau’s move risks derailing a strategic economic and political shift many Western countries are making towards India to counter China. It also distracted attention from his push to address cost-of-living concerns, which have weighed heavily on his popularity in opinion polls.
Canada is home to about 770,000 Sikhs, the highest population outside the northern Indian state of Punjab, and the Indian government has for decades expressed its displeasure with some community members’ outspoken support for Khalistan.
Sikhs punch above their weight in Canadian politics. They have 15 members in the House of Commons, more than 4 per cent of the seats, mostly from key battlegrounds in national elections, while comprising only about per cent of the Canadian population.
Furthermore, one member is Jagmeet Singh, leader of the opposition New Democrats, a left-leaning party that is supporting the Trudeau’s minority government.
“In political terms, this is no-brainer: You got to get out ahead of the story and you got to express outrage,” said Fen Hampson, professor of international affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa.
Trudeau’s “unsubstantiated allegations” seek to shift focus away from “Khalistani terrorists and extremists who have been provided shelter in Canada,” India’s foreign ministry said.
Canada says Sikhs have a right to peaceful protest and there has been no evidence of violence, terrorist activity or wrongdoing.
File photo of demonstrators gather across from the High Commission of India in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada September 25, 2023. — Reuters pic
A friend of Nijjar’s, Gurmeet Singh Toor, is an active member of the same temple and a Khalistan supporter. He was told in August by the federal police that his life might be “in peril”, according to a document he was given by police that provided no details about the potential threat.
The RCMP would not corroborate the document, saying it could increase the risk to the individual who received it.
An insurgency seeking a Sikh homeland of Khalistan killed tens of thousands in the 1980s and 1990s and was crushed by India. It has almost no support in Punjab today.
However, on Friday hundreds of Sikh activists staged a demonstration outside the Golden Temple in Amritsar, in Punjab, demanding punishment for the Nijjar’s killers.
Mukhbir Singh, a member of the Ottawa Sikh Society, said he backs the idea of Khalistan, but that Canadian Sikhs’ views on the issue are not monolithic. He said Trudeau is sticking up for Canadian democratic values.
“Prime Minister Trudeau has taken a stance” to make “paramount” the safety of its citizens, he said, even though the Canadian government does not support Khalistan. “In Canada, we have the right to express our opinions even if they don’t align with the opinions of the government.”
Trudeau, the longest serving progressive leader in the G7 group of wealthy nations, is trailing badly in opinion polls. As he rolls out a series of measures to address cost-of-living concerns and try to claw back support, the tensions with India have interfered with attempts to communicate those new policies, senior officials in Ottawa said.
Suk Dhaliwal, a Sikh Liberal member of parliament for Surrey, told Reuters he is not a Khalistan separatist, but a Canadian, and Canadians have a right to protest peacefully. He said his constituents have suspected since June the involvement of the Indian government in the murder.
“The community feels a bit relieved now that at least there is someone who has shown leadership to bring this message forward,” Dhaliwal said. — Reuters
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