Jatinder Singh: Killing Sikh History With A Thousand Cutlines
Why did The Globe and Mail erase mention of Operation Bluestar?
June 6, 2023 | 5 min. read | Opinion
On November 28, 2022, Robert Fife, Ottawa Bureau Chief for the Globe and Mail, and Steven Chase, Senior Parliamentary Reporter for the same paper, published an article on India’s concern about so-called funding of the Khalistani movement from within Canada.
The piece solely relayed the concerns of the newly arrived High Commissioner for India without alternative opinions. Much of what was presented was done so without evidence, and neither journalist critiqued what they were being fed. Rather, they asked softball questions such as whether India ‘considers Canada one of the worst countries in terms of Khalistan supporters’ or about Jagmeet Singhs’ ‘past involvement in Khalistan events.’
There was no Sikh voice in the piece whatsoever.
The article itself was not the focus of my interest in the review of the piece. In today’s geopolitical atmosphere, India has lots of leverage over Western powers who routinely ignore its Hindu Nationalist assault on minorities within the country in order to both access its markets and hope it is a counterweight against China.
Journalists play their part by parroting Indian talking points without question or presenting alternative voices. This Globe and Mail piece is a great example of that; typical drivel one sees from those desperate to promote Canada-India trade and using the Sikhs as the bogeyman somehow preventing this from happening.
What struck me, though, was the image used for the article and its caption. A picture’s cutline describes what you are seeing, giving context to the image and can set a tone for the article. An untruthful or misleading cutline can easily deceive the reader. With millions reading their news online, often through social media platforms that prioritize the image as the first thing you see to entice you to click on the article, such things become very important.
Here is the image and cutline used.
First, I realized they had used an image of Sikhs protesting within India in an article that claimed that Canadian Sikhs were the problem, not those within India. I also knew that protests are rare at Harmandir Sahib, and there must have been a reason for this one that was missing in the cutline.
Someone not familiar with the Sikhs would not realize this.
They are left viewing an image of protesting Sikhs with no context of the protest itself. Of course, the date gives it away. This was clearly related to Operation Bluestar, the horrific army assault on the Golden Temple Complex in 1984 that led to the death and incarceration of thousands of Sikhs.
I visited the Getty Images page where this picture had been obtained from and realized the photojournalist had actually mentioned the context of this protest.
Not only did he mention Operation Bluestar, but also that prayers had been held. Why would the paper omit these two important facts about the protest? I raised this on Twitter with the journalists as well as through email with the editorial team but received no response.
The Sikh Press Association (SikhPA) also reached out to the paper. Receiving no response either, they filed a formal complaint with the National NewsMedia Council (NNC). Due to technical issues, it would take the paper several months before they would respond. Sylvia Stead, public editor for the paper and someone who has written about the importance of the cutline, surprisingly informed SikhPA ‘I feel the trim that was made was fair and does not alter the meaning of the original caption.’
This is the same editor who felt an upside-down photo of a plane taken from a water reflection deserved formal clarification in the paper.
SikhPA rejected this explanation and requested the NNC to adjudicate. In Mid-March, the Globe and Mail responded that ‘the original photo caption had to be trimmed for space,’ a claim they had failed to disclose earlier. This just was not true. A subsequent article by the same journalists on December 1st providing Ottawa’s response to India’s concerns again used the same image, but now with the full cutline.
The SikhPA was also told, ‘Globe readers and Canadians are well aware of what happened in Amritsar and would understand the background, as it has been covered for years.’ There is no evidence for this. Rather, the polling we have seen concerning Sikhs consistently shows a negative view of them from other Canadians.
Couple this with a history of Canadian media presenting Sikhs as a threat to Canadian society and their preference to frame Sikhs in a manner that mostly parrots Indian media narratives, you would think journalists need to be more careful and should have seen that removing mention of Operation Bluestar and prayers would be considered extremely troubling.
Was the attack on the Darbar Sahib Complex intentionally erased from the cutline to ensure the narrative of the protesting Sikh was not obscured with sympathy for why they were protesting?
By the end of March, the NNC made their decision and dismissed the complaint. They acknowledged SikhPA’s concern that including a reference to Operation Bluestar in the cutline could have provided additional context but had determined that the removal of this detail did not significantly alter the interpretation of the events captured in the image in the mind of an ordinary reader.
The ordinary reader likely knows little of Operation Bluestar and the Genocide that has occurred in India against the Sikhs. Erasing this history is extremely problematic.
To be honest, the NNC decision is baffling. Questions remain on why the NNC did not challenge the reason for the need for space given by the Globe and Mail, considering the full cutline was used in a subsequent piece by the paper, notably after complaints came in about the first piece.
For me, though, it is also difficult to move away from the thought that this omission of Operation Bluestar and prayers from the cutline was deliberate, to ensure readers who viewed the image would have no sympathy for the Sikhs, so that when they read the piece they would walk away solely with an impression of an irrational extremist Sikh, devoid of any information about the gross human rights that have been inflicted on the Sikhs.
Thanks to Jasveer Singh of Sikh Press Association for providing me with access to the communications concerning this matter and his efforts in raising this as a formal complaint with the NNC.
Jatinder Singh is the National Director for Khalsa Aid Canada. You can find him on Twitter, IG, and FB at @jindisinghka
Baaz is home to opinions, ideas, and original reporting for the Sikh and Punjabi diaspora. Support us by subscribing. Find us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook at @BaazNewsOrg. If you would like to submit a written piece for consideration please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.