The Justin Trudeau government apparently removed references to Khalistani extremism in a report on terror threats to Canada because of a warning that leaders of the ruling Liberal Party wouldn’t be allowed to speak at parades marking Baisakhi, the Punjabi harvest festival.
Pressure from sections of the Sikh community had mounted on the government over references to Khalistani extremism in Public Safety Canada’s report released last December.
Last week, the government released an updated version of the report that removed all mention of Sikh and Khalistani extremism, much to the chagrin of India.
With federal elections due in October, ‘nagar kirtans’ or parades are considered prime locations for politicians to reach out to tens of thousands of voters. For instance, the Baisakhi event at Surrey in British Columbia attracts almost 500,000. And its organisers decided that Liberal Party leaders would be banned from speaking at the massive Khalsa Day observation.
“I definitely think the decision we made as a collective had an impact, otherwise we would not have seen such a quick response within 36 hours by the Liberal government,” said Moninder Singh, president of Gurdwara Sahib Dasmesh Darbar and one of the principal organisers of the event in Surrey.
April is the month for nagar kirtans across Canada, with some events stretching into the early weekends of May. There was concern within Liberal Party circles of a domino effect, across cities and provinces. Singh confirmed his group had “started discussions for other nagar kirtans in Calgary, Toronto and Montreal to follow suit as well”.
Prime Minister Trudeau attended a nagar kirtan in Vancouver less than 24 hours after the decision to remove all references to Khalistani extremism from the report was made and the changes were in place.
The Liberals also received a scare recently when a slate backed by fathers of two major figures of the Sikh community, cabinet minister Navdeep Bains and MP Ruby Sahota, was soundly defeated in elections to the management of Ontario Khalsa Darbar in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA.
GTA and Metro Vancouver area (where Surrey is located account for a trove of seats in the House of Commons, and a majority of Liberal MPs elected in 2015, including Bains and defence minister Harjit Sajjan, are from these areas.
There was also the unspoken threat they could be ostracised by some hardline gurdwaras.
As Singh said, “There was consistent pressure from many different places that pushed this through and forced the Liberal government to take a strong look at the type of language they had used and agree that it was maligning and would not be used in future.”
Veteran GTA-based journalist Balraj Deol agreed: “This was a victory for Khalistani groups. Removing it [the references] is a political decision. It’s not a security agency assessment. This happened because of pressure of Khalistanis – they control most of the gurdwaras that hold parades.”
London-based activist Jasdev Singh Rai, who has been in talks with the Narendra Modi government to resolve issues of overseas Sikhs since 2015, said there was “frustration and anger” among Sikhs worldwide over Canada labelling “Sikhs as extremists and terrorists”. There was also anger that this was done when Canada had Sikhs at the highest levels of government, including in security.
“Canada is the only country which has officially now established a black list of Sikhs denied entry. While India has brought down its list with a few exceons, Canada has set up a black list,” he added. Rai said he also believed the Trudeau government was “bending over backwards” to appease India after his disastrous visit last year.
Rai believed Indian diplomats in Canada should adopt a “discreet, nuanced and respectful approach” towards gurdwaras, similar to that taken by the Indian high commission in the UK, adding he hoped the “process of dialogue and unobtrusive engagement is restored”.