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Ajit Kalsi: Canada Must Not Enable India’s Rising Authoritarianism
In response to an opinion piece, “Canada and India must forge deeper partnerships to counter shared threats”, published in the National Post on January 16, 2022
January 20, 2022 | 7.5 min. read | Opinion
The National Post, a daily newspaper in Canada, published an opinion piece directed towards Canadian government officials earlier this week advocating for more cooperation between “great democracies” like India and Canada.
“Canada and India must forge deeper partnerships to counter shared threats” was co-authored by four writers, most notably Richard Fadden, the former head of the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service, Vikram Sood, the former head of India’s Research and Analysis Wing, and Sameer Patil, who previously served at the National Security Council Secretariat in the Indian Prime Minister’s Office.
The core thesis of the op-ed may appear quite reasonable at a quick preliminary glance: that India and Canada face shared security threats in Asia, such as China, and should work closely together to mitigate them as democracies.
Simple enough, right?
There is a lot to unpack here, however. We would like to draw our attention to three points.
To begin, the core assumption of the piece is that Canada and India are natural allies due to “the shared values and interests of great democracies like India and Canada”, unlike authoritarian regimes across the Indo-Pacific.
The second relates to stopping disinformation campaigns from authoritarians, which is one of their key arguments in support of the thesis: “...our democracies are under attack by authoritarians who are attempting to intimidate, disinform and polarize our people. Securing our democracies from foreign interference and state-backed misinformation operations is an urgent priority,” the piece states.
The third is a reference to Khalistan. “...Khalistan extremists continue to draw oxygen from authoritarians abroad. Their logic is unrooted in the facts around justice and reconciliation, and should be met by greater co-operation between both democracies,” it reads.
It is easy for Sikhs to simply get mad and curse at this piece and leave it at that, but let’s break this down in the same order as above, starting with the argument that equates India and Canada’s democracies.
While there is an argument to be made on great power politics and the importance of shared security threats, the four authors do not hinge their argument on that point. They instead opt for the easier and less relevant argument that India is a democracy that has the same values as Canada.
Let’s be clear about one thing, India and Canada do not share the same democratic values. In many ways, India has become the very authoritarian state the authors claim Canada should be opposing.
The World Press Freedom Index ranks India at 142 of 180 countries, somewhere between not so democratic Myanmar and Russia. In fact, India ranks closer to China than it does to Canada, and it is a wide gap. “India is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists trying to do their job properly,” the RSF finds in their report.
Freedom House has seen India’s rankings decline over the past five years, as it remains a “partly free” country. They put particular emphasis on the growing lack of internet freedom in the country. In fact, India has had the most internet shutdowns in the entire world, by a significant margin.
“Rather than serving as a champion of democratic practice and a counterweight to authoritarian influence from countries such as China, Modi and his party are tragically driving India itself toward authoritarianism,” Freedom House goes on to report.
In their 2021 report, the V-Dem institute noted that India’s democracy has weakened considerably in the past 10 years, going so far as to now name India an “electoral autocracy.” The report refers to the clamping down on civil society, the usage of draconic sedition laws to criminalize dissent, something that has disproportionately impacted Sikhs in India, and the silencing of government critics as core reasons for this decline in freedom.
Then there are the problematic human rights violations in India, widely covered by the likes of HRW and Amnesty International. Amnesty was actually forced to end its operations in India by the Indian government, not something you would typically see in a robust democracy. And, under Modi’s leadership, we have seen a marked increase in violence against minorities, including against Muslims, Christians, and Sikhs, as his Sangh Parivar and Hindutva government builds a Hindu Rashtra (Nation) inspired in part by Hitler’s Nazi Germany.
The core scenario that the four authors present, where India is a vibrant and pluralistic democracy, just like Canada, that stands as a bulwark against the forces of authoritarianism in Asia is a lie. The truth has more shades of grey, which Canada should be calling out, not enabling.
Moving on to the second point.
“[O]ur democracies are under attack by authoritarians who are attempting to intimidate, disinform and polarize our people,” the four authors state, unironically.
In reality, when it comes to disinformation campaigns unleashed in Canada, to intimidate, disinform and polarize our people, India has often been the source of it.
“Huge pro-India fake news network includes Canadian sites, links to Canadian think tanks,” reads the headline of a CBC article. The piece was based on an investigative report by the EU Disinfo Lab which had found the network attempting to disinform and polarize people in support of India’s interest.
One of the Canada-based pro-India fake think tanks connected to the huge disinfo network recently popped up again, publishing a dubious report in regards to Afghan Sikhs which was then used by India’s pro-government media outlets to support controversial anti-Muslim legislation in India. All of which was exposed by Baaz.
“Federal parties being warned of efforts by 6 foreign countries to influence election,” reads another CBC headline. Those six countries included China, but also India. Canada should not take foreign interference directed at minority communities, like the Sikhs, lightly.
“A network of fake social media profiles of people claiming to be Sikhs, and promoting divisive narratives, has been exposed,” reads an explosive BBC article a few months ago. The report was on the bombshell findings from the Centre for Information Resilience on India-driven disinfo campaigns aimed to intimidate and polarize people in support of the Modi government.
The findings aligned with a Baaz investigation by Mansi Kaur from early last year into the infamous BJP IT Cell, known for spreading disinformation to intimidate, disinform, and polarize people in India and abroad.
Canada definitely needs to urgently secure its democracy from “foreign interference and state-backed misinformation operations.” Including from increasingly authoritarian India, one of the biggest sources of said operations. The authors of the National Post opinion piece seem to have conveniently forgotten to mention all of this when making their arguments.
Let’s now move to the third part, Khalistan, and the first claim that “extremists continue to draw oxygen” from foreign authoritarians and the second claim that “their logic is unrooted in the facts around justice and reconciliation.”
As an aside, to be clear, Khalistan is not a bad word, self-determination is a core human right recognized internationally, and what is in fact often being criminalized in India, or labeled “extremist”, is political free speech, dissent, and peaceful mobilization by Sikhs.
Again, anyone commenting on this article could refer to other sources that refute claims made by the authors, but for our purposes let’s stick to their piece and its own sources.
To support their claims, the National Post piece refers to an article originally published in the Times of India called Why the US Shouldn’t Ignore Pak-Supported Khalistanis Operating From Its Soil. Keep in mind, once again, that India’s press freedom ranks incredibly low, unlike robust democracies, and is at times used by the state to push pro-India propaganda and disinformation campaigns.
The Times of India article makes two claims: first, that the Khalistani movement is funded by, and operates for, Pakistan; and secondly, that Khalistani activism is growing in the United States, specifically the growth of peaceful protests and demonstrations.
For loyal readers of Baaz, you may have already seen similar criticism of this very position in the past.
In brief, the claim that the Khalistan movement operates at the behest of foreign powers is a tired argument being made since the 1980s that attempts to strip Sikhs of any agency within and outside India as it relates to their self-determination or political will.
As for the second claim, about Khalistanis mobilizing peacefully, what are the authors even arguing? Even if peaceful activism was growing substantively, that is not really a security issue. What do the writers propose should be the response to peaceful protest? Behave like an authoritarian government and arbitrarily and violently shut down the right to political free speech and organizing? While that does sound like something India would do, as seen over the Farmers’ Protest, for example, I do not believe it is a path Canada should follow.
Finally, the op-ed misunderstands, intentionally or not, the past and current status of Sikhs in India - regardless of a BJP or Congress central government.
The National Post piece uses this 2018 article by the Macdonald Laurier Institute’s Ujjal Dosanjh and Shuvaloy Majumdar, neither are Sikhs, to show that Sikhs should be fine with their current status in India. Blowing past the condemnation and ridicule of a 2020 report published by the Institute from Terry Milewski (that report is also currently facing a legal challenge and MLI and Milewski have faced some early setbacks aside from the academic ridicule). However, this 2018 article does warrant its own breakdown.
Briefly, the MLI argues that Sikhs should be proud to be Indian because Manmohan Singh apologized for the “riots” in the 1980s and because things are better now than back then. The shortcoming of reparations made to date is an argument for another day.
At its core, funny enough, the MLI article does not support the National Post’s claim that the logic of Khalistanis is “unrooted in the facts around justice and reconciliation.” The MLI allows that justice has not been complete and that reconciliation has not completely happened. Therefore, the core logic for supporting separatism is unaffected.
The National Post draws no such distinction and instead attacks the logic of Khalistan because it can. A haphazard and lazy argument that fails to adequately argue the point in any substantive way, ignoring the long history of how the Indian state continues to fail to deliver justice for the Sikh Genocide. Not to mention that both Majumdar and Dosanjh would go on to mock Sikh Genocide commemorations in their foreword to that 2020 Milewski report for MLI.
In the end, the piece shows a lack of nuance in discussing Indian and Sikh issues and continues to rely on old tropes, debunked sources, and blog posts to make its argument for greater cooperation between the Canadian and Indian governments.
India is not some black box that is too complicated to be understood by Canadians, nor is it a monolithic entity that can be explained in simple terms. Canadian news organizations are already concerned about the effects of disinformation, and articles like this one in the National Post do not help.
As for the Canadian government officials that may read the plea from the four authors, maybe what should be done first is hold India accountable for its rise in authoritarianism instead.
Ajit Singh Kalsi is a government employee and academic based in Ottawa where his research specializes in security and defense policy. He also tends to moonlight as a Hollywood film critic and columnist. You can follow him on instagram @originalajit
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