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Jaskaran Sandhu: At A Crossroads, Sikh Canadians Choose Path Of Defiance
"Hardeep Singh Nijjar's assassination in the parking lot of Surrey’s Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara, under the spectre of Indian foreign interference, raises a moment for reflection and introspection."
June 20, 2023 | 5 min. read | Opinion
Sikhs in Canada find themselves at a crossroads.
What way do we go?
Hardeep Singh Nijjar's assassination in the parking lot of Surrey’s Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara, under the spectre of Indian foreign interference, raises a moment for reflection and introspection.
For Sikhs in Canada, do we allow ourselves to be either hushed or galvanized?
For Canadian politicians, across the ideological spectrum and at all levels of government, do we allow ourselves to be either meek or assertive?
For Canadian security agencies and actors, do we either watch helplessly as authoritative countries, like India, target, attack, and even assassinate Canadians on Canadian soil, or do we work with communities to take a serious stand against foreign interference?
Sikh Canadians have made it clear in the last 48 hours that they are standing firm on their convictions. This should be treated for what it is - a bold and confident statement, taken with effort and a deep understanding of the possible consequences, that our advocacy will not be silenced.
Crowds continued to gather at Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara last night as defiant speeches reverberated through speakers. We are a people that have a grasp of our own proud history. We have met unprecedented times with predictable courage over and over again.
That will not change, even in the face of a new development - the Indian state assassinating Sikh activists abroad.
While I have the utmost confidence in the Sikh grassroots to continue to stand with collective defiance against foreign interference, I am apprehensive about our politicians showing the same anakh, self-respect and honour, as those on the front lines of our community struggle display.
Sikh Canadians are not seeking much from Members of Parliament (MPs), to be quite honest.
Acknowledge the emotions being emitted by the very same people that have shaped and lifted you to the halls of power.
Lean on your lived experiences and roots in the community - the very same cultural competency that you advertise during elections will provide you with the ability to bring unique perspectives to the table.
Do not merely be a liaison or gatekeeper between community and government, but lead on the challenges facing the very people you swear to represent in ridings that are home to the largest Sikh community outside of Punjab. Issues including foreign interference.
I am somewhat sympathetic to elected officials when they sincerely share that their hands are tied under the party system, or that they may believe the expectations placed on them from the community are, at times, unrealistic, or that they are working quietly in the background. I have run campaigns, call many current and former politicians and staffers friends, and was even a candidate myself once (where attacks from Indian accounts made me the most targeted candidate for identity-based hate according to a Samara Centre report on toxicity faced by municipal candidates across Canada this past election cycle).
However, the burden of public duty and scrutiny is on those that have gained public office.
Politicians over-communicate on almost everything, from birthday parties and protests to policy announcements and committee meetings, and that should not stop when it comes to community issues that form a part of their constituency.
In the aftermath of a brazen assassination of a Gurdwara president, with a history of Sikh activism as well as being targeted by a foreign state, in the parking lot of a Gurdwara in a major Canadian city, we have not yet had a single tweet or message from politicians - aside from MP Sukh Dhaliwal speaking at a program for Nijjar last night - sharing concerns and standing with the community through this difficult time.
No calls for justice, no shock at the context of the events, no simple declaration that the community is seeking answers.
Imagine this was any other diasporic community, say an Iranian activist that was the president of a mosque being assassinated similarly, would it garner a similar non-reaction? I doubt it.
It was just two weeks ago that Jody Thomas, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s national security adviser, shared that India is among the top actors for foreign interference in Canada. We did not see MPs share or amplify those concerns either. That should have been an easy one.
Sikhs have every right to demand better.
Concerns cannot be dismissed on the basis of them being simply “Sikh issues”, removed from mainstream Canadian politics, either. What our politicians would be defending are the values and principles we like to claim are very Canadian. Values such as the right to free speech and political activism. Values which India does not care about, even for their own citizens, as it becomes an electoral autocracy that oppresses minorities and tears apart democratic institutions like the free press.
That is what is under attack here. That is what requires a response or even, at a bare minimum, an acknowledgement from our elected officials. Yet, once again, the bulk of the fight is coming from those with limited resources.
We also need Canadian security agencies to inspire some confidence. A foreign state is acting with impunity in Canada, targeting a minority group which is here in part due to escaping genocidal violence back in India. The man killed was not facing extradition, there was no evidence of him committing illegal acts, nor was he facing any criminal allegations. He was even on a list CSIS had concerning Sikhs facing threats and was in conversation with the security agency regarding it.
And now, he’s dead. Where is it safe for Sikhs?
Whether through the recent World Sikh Organization of Canada and the National Council of Canadian Muslims report, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) Network in Canada, or the recent British Columbia Gurdwaras Council and Ontario Gurdwaras Committee report, Indian Foreign Interference: Intimidation, Disinformation, and Undermining Canadian Institutions, it’s clear what is happening in Canada.
While China and Iran get the bulk of the attention from commentators on the issue of foreign interference, Canada’s sizeable and influential Sikh diaspora, now nearing a million strong and the largest outside of Punjab, has been fending off the bulk of Indian state interference for decades now.
The consequences of that have now become deadly.
So, we are at a crossroads.
What direction do we want to take as a community? How do we want those that have a fiduciary duty to serve our communities to act?
I know where I stand on that, and I am positive the Sikh Canadian community knows where it stands as well.
Jaskaran Sandhu hails from Brampton, Canada, and is the co-founder of Baaz. He is a Strategist at the public affairs and relations agency State Strategy. Jaskaran also previously served as Executive Director for the World Sikh Organization of Canada and as a Senior Advisor to Brampton’s Office of the Mayor. You can find Jaskaran on Twitter at @JaskaranSandhu_
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