Jungfateh Singh: Challenging Decades Of White Gatekeeping In Mainstream Media's Sikh Coverage
"It cannot be overstated how important white mediocrity, racist views, and gatekeeping were in giving these journalists the title of 'authoritative voices'"
June 10, 2023 | 7 min. read | Opinion
My garage has been filled with boxes full of books and pamphlets for years. These boxes came from the home of the late Dr. Awatar Singh Sekhon, managing editor of the International Journal of Sikh Affairs, a name that may not be familiar to you and that has been consigned to the pages of history. He lived and died in Edmonton. I must admit that I had never met him before, although it is possible that we crossed paths during my childhood, and I simply do not recall. For years, many of us had contemplated the idea of meeting him, engaging in a discussion about his body of work and his past endeavours. However, that opportunity never materialized. Eventually, he would die. One day, not long after his passing, I received a phone call asking if I could store the boxes that had been taken from his home. I agreed. They have been sitting there for years, collecting dust. I decided that it was time to put them to use and distribute them to people who might find them more useful than the shelves in my garage.
Maybe it's just a coincidence, but I've been mulling writing on the gravely problematic gatekeeping by white journalists surrounding the Khalistan struggle for the past few weeks. As I sat in a coffee shop, I had an impulse to read some of these writers' stories, starting in the early 2000s, to see what I could learn. I opted to zero in on reporter Kim Bolan since she has built a career out of covering the issues of the Punjabi Sikh community, whether they revolve around Khalistan or "Indo-Canadian" gangs. You can imagine my surprise as I sat there when one of the first results came from a congressional record from 2007 that contained a letter written by Dr. Awatar Singh Sekhon that questioned the journalistic integrity of Kim Bolan. When I read his letter, I wasn't so much surprised as I was awed and humbled.
As the world has rapidly transitioned to social media, our understanding of effective activism, lobbying, and the promotion of Sikh interests has also evolved. With some derision, we look back at our elders, thinking that perhaps they didn't go far enough to ease our anxieties and that perhaps we are now making up for decades of blunders. However, many decades ago, they lived in a vastly different landscape, navigating through significantly different modalities. In that particular landscape, supporting Khalistan and engaging in a more nuanced and authentic conversation about it often meant relying on white reporters to interpret the cultural and political complexities involved. Those reporters guarded the entrances to the coverage for decades, sifting through the acceptable and sifting away the irrelevant. That has significantly changed, and those voices are currently gasping for air and drowning in a world where social media has offered a more egalitarian source of information.
When Jagmeet Singh was elected as the leader of the federal NDP, the CBC chose Terry Milewski to conduct his first interview. There have been rumours that Jagmeet Singh's team was understandably anxious about this situation. Terry Milewski would seize this opportunity to ask Jagmeet Singh for his thoughts on the Air India bombing. This interview left an incredibly uneasy feeling amongst Sikhs. When asked by Vice to elaborate why such a line of questioning was directed at Jagmeet Singh, the CBC stated that: “Mr. Milewski's question recognized Mr. Singh's previous involvement in speaking out in support of Sikh grievances against the Indian government.” However, throughout his career as a reporter and in the history of their news organization (the CBC), Sikh grievances have rarely received significant coverage or been given more than a passing mention in their reporting.
In the previous few decades, Terry Milewski, Kim Bolan, and Terry Glavin maintained their positions as the go-to authorities on Khalistan, Sikh "terrorism," and regional Sikh politics in Canadian media outlets. Although there are others on the periphery, these three individuals have exclusively maintained this position. The most delicate issues facing our communities have been addressed by Canadian media, including the National Post, The Globe and Mail, the CBC, and others, using white voices while mostly erasing the perspectives of Sikhs. Or, as Dr. Awatar Singh Sekhon wrote all the way back in 2007, these journalists and media companies “are virtually devoid of the `Sikhs' history from the Sikhs' point of view'’” Insofar as they serve as unwilling agents in how “the social reality transmitted by the news media is constructed”, the voices of Sikhs are, in fact, of absolutely no significance to these journalists.
It cannot be overstated how important white mediocrity, racist views, and gatekeeping were in giving these journalists the title of "authoritative voices," yet as times have changed, so too has their ability to be relevant. While previous generations had limited access to mass communication platforms, we now find ourselves engaging in real-time debates about these very relics of journalism. We get them to admit their ignorance and dishonesty by making them uncomfortable in these online discussions. Because of this discomfort, they have closed themselves off to criticism by blocking and becoming hostile toward anyone who dares to criticize them. This blocking of dissenting opinions must be understood for what it is: the culmination of decades of attempts to silence Sikh voices on Sikh concerns.
Posting his latest article in the National Post to Twitter, Terry Glavin baits Sikhs with a strange, almost childish tagline on Twitter: “Come at me, ya lunatics. Let's have ye then.” The article doesn't offer any meaningful analysis of the circumstances behind Shaheed Bhai Hardeep Singh Nijjar's assassination, nor does it question the moral standing of the Indian state in demanding that Canada crackdown on "extremism." Unfortunately, it reads just like everything else Glavin has written about since the 1980s. In a 2018 article in the Ottawa Citizen, Glavin writes about his alleged interviews with Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. He writes:
From his perch in the Akal Takht, “the throne of the timeless one,” the genocidal hatred of Hindus that Khalistani supreme leader Jarnail Singh Bhinderanwale expressed during our interview was helpfully informative. It confirmed everything that so many Sikhs back in Canada had been trying to explain to Canadian politicians. Khalistan was the ethnically cleansed theocracy that Bhinderanwale wanted to carve out of Punjab.
Of course, we're expected to accept Glavin at his word despite the lack of evidence that Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale had ever declared any such thing (none of his public addresses have ever suggested anything of the sort). For the next few decades, Glavin's reputation as an interpreter and authority of Sikh affairs would rest on this facile (and probably wholly fabricated) account. Glavin, like his contemporaries, didn't put much thought into the motivations of the Sikhs' armed struggle or into the decision for those like Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale to fight and give Shaheedi in 1984 at Darbar Sahib. What’s shocking is that it’s not that they’re not capable of engaging in this analysis. In a 2018 article in the Ottawa Citizen, “Canada's 'business as usual' approach to China undercuts human rights,” Terry Glavin notes that:
For more than a year now, there has been mounting, detailed evidence that Beijing has been rounding up hundreds of thousands of harmlessly devout Muslim Uighurs — perhaps a million of them — and forcing them into re-education camps where they are subjected to ritualized humiliation, Communist Party indoctrination, beatings and torture.
Despite admitting that Canada was doing "business as usual" with China, Glavin has been predominantly unable to make a similar critique of Canada's approach to India, where there are very serious fears of a rising genocide against Muslims.
Similarly, Terry Milewski writes critically about the Chinese government and its human rights record in a 2016 CBC story, citing organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in his criticism. Certainly, this was no aberration. In April 2023, Milewski tweeted how China “sabotages its own image-polishing by jailing two brave human rights lawyers for planning to talk about a freer China.” Will Milewski provide similar outrage over India’s longstanding history of jailing human rights lawyers? If it so helps him, Amnesty International has long spoken of this, and so has Human Rights Watch. Both of these Terrys seem selective on where they place their outrage.
Dr. Awatar Singh Sekhon would also take notice of these Canadian journalists’ indifference, writing, “I would like to hear from the journalists like Madam Kim Bolan on the genocides of the Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, Kashmiris and other non-Brahmin and non-Hindu minorities carried out by the Indian democracy?” For her part, Kim Bolan never would respond or engage in any meaningful conversation around this question. To this end, Dr Awatar Singh Sekhon would conclude: “why are they anti-Sikhs and write against the Sikhs, it is only known to them.”
I don't think for a second that these journalists will ever have an honest conversation with Sikhs; on the contrary, I'm confident that as long as they exist, they will continue to demonize, minimize, and reimagine our fight and our very existence. They consciously decided to pursue this line of inquiry, and our established media consciously decided to give them a forum for their work. For us Sikhs, we need to temper our expectations without tempering our fight. Like Dr. Awatar Singh Sekhon, we must continue to challenge and interrogate these figures and institutions, and like him, we must also embrace the lessons of Gurbani to give us resolve: aapan hathee aapanaa aape hee kaaj savaareeaai - with our own hands, let us resolve our own affairs.
Jungfateh Singh is an organizer, writer and producer, and has worked on Sikh issues across the globe for over 15 years.
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