Indian anger against Canada grows over perceived support of separatist Sikhs

FILE PHOTO: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcomes Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau upon his arrival at Bharat Mandapam convention center for the G20 Summit, in New Delhi, India, Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023. Evan Vucci/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

NEW DELHI – Canada’s announcement that India might be behind the killing of a Sikh separatist was a bombshell to much of the world, but for many in India the death months ago of someone they saw as a wanted terrorist was about a more urgent matter – Canada’s tolerance of Indian separatists.

The allegations by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday ( Sept. 18, 2023) brought the tense relations between the two countries to a new low. India has in particular objected to the existence of a vocal Sikh separatist minority in Canada.

“The support these lawless elements have received under the cover of what you call freedom of expression and democratic rights of citizens has enabled the pursuit of a violent agenda by Khalistani activists in Canada,” said Nirupama Rao, a former Indian ambassador to the United States. “The choice is Canada’s – it must control such elements with a firm hand and cannot allow them to run free to foster terrorism and violence in our country.”

The anger at Canada’s perceived support of groups seeking an independent Sikh state called Khalistan in India’s Punjab region is putting Canada on the same level, for many Indians, as arch-nemesis Pakistan – which many Indian security officials believe provides refuge, money and arms to Sikh separatists.

“Is Trudeau aspiring to become Imran?” anchor Aman Chopra asked Tuesday on channel News18, referring to the Canadian leader and Pakistan’s former prime minister, Imran Khan.

“Canada is becoming to the West what Pakistan is to the East,” said Aseem Arora, a screenwriter who has worked on several spy thriller scripts for movies and shows. “Canada has to look in their own backyard. They have to look at what they are allowing to grow, what they are allowing to bloom.”

While New Delhi has described Trudeau’s claims as “absurd,” Arora found the whole affair to be an affirmation of India’s more recent strongman image.

It’s an image that Arora says is emulated in the new spy heroes found recently in several blockbuster films – including ones he has written – showcasing the exploits of the intelligence agency.

“Indian cinema has seen a cultural shift because our political establishment is much more vocal about the defense of the country being at a proud place,” said Arora. “The common man is much more aware of what the country’s security forces do. . . . No one spoke about it earlier. Now we all do.”

Social networking website X, formerly known as Twitter, was flooded with references to a “new India,” with several Indian users thanking Trudeau for confirming what they view as more evidence of India’s growing geopolitical power and military might.

Creators made reels on Instagram lauding Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar for his handling of the diplomatic crisis, especially the decision to expel a Canadian Embassy official in a tit-for-tat move this week.

The events, said international relations professor Rajesh Rajagopalan from Jawaharlal Nehru University, are likely to help Prime Minister Narendra Modi domestically. “There has for long been an envy that the Indian middle class has had about the kind of actions that Israel or the U.S. conducts against their enemies far away from their borders,” he said. “This kind of action, or even the suspicion that it was Indian action, likely leads to a lot of satisfaction among sections of the Indian public that is aware of such developments.”

The Indian government issued on Wednesday (Sept. 20) an advisory for Indians in Canada to exercise caution amid “growing anti-India activities and politically-condoned hate crimes and criminal violence.”

Some students in India hoping to study in Canada said they saw the developments as an impediment to their future. Ayush Verma, a 23-year-old aspiring diplomat currently studying for India’s civil service exam, said his peers are concerned about the impact on permanent visas and citizenship in Canada. “That is the kind of anxiety amongst my friends who aspire to go there. Canada has become very easy to access for Indian students.”

Verma is no fan of Modi but said it would be “legitimate” for India to have carried out the killing in June of the Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada.

“Everybody knew that if Trudeau is not going to take strict action, India will take it upon itself to address this issue,” he said. “India is ready to take strict actions if foreign leaders don’t change their handling of domestic politics.”

In an editorial that described Canada as the “lone exception” to India’s growing proximity to Western powers, the Indian Express put the blame for the current impasse on the extremist compulsions driving Trudeau’s domestic politics. “Now, when his popularity appears to be ebbing, Trudeau seems to be painting India as a foe to reverse that trend,” the piece said.

Even sober voices from India’s corporate world asked why the current Canadian government would put its weight behind people many see as terrorists.

“When Canadian truckers were protesting outside Ottawa, they froze their bank accounts, arrested their families and took them to jail,” said Deepak Shenoy, chief executive of Capitalmind, an investment firm. “These truckers are treated like terrorists. But there are actual terrorists who get political party support and walk clean in Canada. I got to call it out.”

Canada saw its Sikh diaspora grow after the 1980s, when a Sikh militancy calling for a state of Khalistan took India’s Punjab state by storm. Indians recall the bombing of a 1985 Air India flight that killed many Canadians of Indian origin. The Indian government sought the extradition of the accused mastermind, a Sikh man, and many Indians blame Canada for drawing out the investigation.

More recently, with pro-Khalistan protests in Canada, attacks on Indian diplomatic missions in San Francisco and London, and increasing threats against Indian diplomats in those Western countries, Indian authorities are beyond frustrated with their counterparts, who they believe are abusing freedom of speech.

The allegations from Canada came as Modi is at a domestic high point, having recently inaugurated a grand new Parliament building and successfully hosted the Group of 20 summit in New Delhi.

While official denials were buttressed by retired Indian intelligence officials giving out interviews claiming that this is not how India’s intelligence services operate, most people seem happy to revel in this display of “muscular nationalism” – a new cultural ethos that screenwriter Pawan Sony sees represented in the latest crop of Bollywood films.

While spy thrillers have been a part of Indian cinema since the 1960s, they took a back seat to social comedies and rom-coms in the 1990s, Sony said. Then came the massive success of the 2019 film “Uri: A Surgical Strike,” which dramatized a real 2016 attack that India carried out in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. The term “surgical strike” was gleefully used by Indians on social media after Trudeau’s accusations.

For some in Punjab, however, the disappointment lies in how developments like these paint all Sikhs as separatists. “There is no large support for this idea of Khalistan in the larger segment of the Sikhs,” said Punjabi journalist Gurshamshir Singh Waraich, adding that the Punjabis who migrated during the state’s militancy period have a “troubled memory” in which threatening actions and statements against their communities further contributes to their “psyche.”

Still, he said, “Sikh political activists in Canada should show restraint. If any unfortunate violent incident is reported there, then Sikhs in India and Punjab face serious repercussions.”

Waraich said that the “hypernationalism” in India’s new popular movies shows the “might of the Indian state in the most extrajudicial manner. There is a strong campaign to follow Israel in every way, including their intelligence agencies. It has an impact . . . in making people believe that such killings are justified when it comes to the sworn enemy of the state.”



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