Sukhmeet Grewal: Sikh Australians Fight False Narratives As Media Maligns Community
"All these articles target Sikhs, stoke anti-Sikh sentiments, and endeavour to fabricate a link between Sikh activism and 'terrorism'."
December 12, 2022 | 6 min. read | Original Reporting
A little under a month ago, Melbourne, Australia, was host to its annual Nagar Kirtan honouring Guru Nanak’s Gurupurab. The day saw Melbourne’s Kings Domain parkland full of Sikhs in procession, including those from all the major Gurdwaras in the state.
Not long after the Nagar Kirtan, which went without incident, a pro-Modi and Hindutva digital outlet, The Australia Today, released an article co-authored by Jitarth Jai Bharadwaj, Pallavi Jain, and Amit Sarwal in which they highlighted and attacked the presence of Khalistani flags, brochures, and chants, that were present during the Nagar Kirtan. The news was then picked up by national Indian media and eventually mainstream Australian press.
The article, full of common anti-Sikh rhetoric and misinformation, suggested that the presence of Khalistani materials was “swamping.” Local Sikhs that spoke to Baaz feel that the article, and the associated campaign by pro-Indian forces, have the simple objective of maligning Khalistan, its supporters, and the general Sikh community in Australia. Something that has been seen across the Sikh diaspora.
The rhetoric also comes at a time when Sikhs in Australia prepare for the next stage in the Sikhs For Justice Khalistan Referendum tour, which is taking place next in Melbourne on January 29, 2023. The referendum is non-binding.
The Sikhs For Justice is a banned organization in India and is most well known for political advocacy for Khalistan. In a major setback for the Indian Government, Interpol had rejected its request for a Red Corner Notice on terror charges against the organization, with some reports suggesting that it was due to India’s misuse of laws and attempting to criminalize what is otherwise non-criminal and protected free speech.
Over 100,000 Sikhs participated in the Khalistan Referendum in Brampton from September this year, undermining Indian state narratives that Sikhs do not care about Khalistan or sovereignty. Similar Indian diplomatic and media pressure has been seen in Canada as a result.
The Australia Today article attempts to use Sikh voices to discredit the Nagar Kirtan. What surprised locals the most was the inclusion of an allegedly “high-ranking” person within the Victorian Sikh Gurdwaras Council (VSGC), the organization that organized the Nagar Kirtan. This source spoke to the outlet on the condition of anonymity, with many locals speculating that it is because the source does not actually exist.
This anonymous individual, who The Australia Today claim is in a “decision-making position” is given the moniker “Singh Saheb.” He explains how the organization categorically rejected the proposal by a “Khalistan supporter group to have some time at the main stage of Nagar Kirtan, to make a call for donations and volunteer registration towards proposed Khalistan referendum in Melbourne”
This “Singh Saheb” adds that the presence of Khalistan supporters at the Nagar Kirtan was driven by Amritvir Singh, an individual who liaison between the Khalistan supporters and the VSGC.
VSGC has since issued a press release clarifying that no individual from any position within the Council spoke to The Australia Today, and the quote is false.
“After a discussion with all members of the VSGC, we can confirm that none of our members - either officially or unofficially - have given any statements of any nature to this media outlet,” the VSGC stated.
“The article’s contents seem politically motivated to tarnish the image of VSGC and the Sikh community and a poor attempt to squander the decades of honest, genuine and positive work Sikhs have done in Australia,” they go on to add.
The Australia Today also personally targets Amritvir Singh through the anonymous source, including mentioning his professional and volunteer experience, in what many feel is an attempt to dox the young Sikh activist. Young Sikhs that spoke to Baaz feel that rather than having a chilling impact on their activism, it has only emboldened them to continue their peaceful advocacy work.
It is unclear which journalistic practice the condition of anonymity was provided and allowed to be used in targeting specific individuals.
The Australia Today article also leans on controversial and often debunked Canadian sources and talking heads to legitimize its attack on Sikhs in Australia. The piece includes the work of individuals like Terry Milewski and Ujjal Dosanjh as supposedly relevant sources on Khalistan and the Sikh diaspora. Important to note here is that Terry Milewski’s report on Khalistan, which The Australia Today quotes, was soundly critiqued by over 50 Sikh scholars.
The coverage, and subsequent Indian national media reports plus Indian government protests, also trigged coverage from the Murdoch-owned The Australian, which looked at the “rise of Sikh Separatists in Australia.”
Ben Packham and Damon Johnson, the two writers from The Australian writing on the topic, released an article titled “India warns Anthony Albanese over Sikh Separatists and terror links,” a piece many local Sikh advocates argue unfoundedly paints those advocating for Sikh sovereignty as terrorists, and potential threats to Australia, without any evidence of the such.
Packham and Johnston describe the Nagar Kirtan as a “major Indian community event,” which removes all the procession's religious, historical, and political context, showing little cultural understanding of the topic.
The article also suggests that the “Khalistan Movement” is “suspected to be backed by Pakistani intelligence” without offering any evidence to the statement. It also pushes a one-dimensional Indian state narrative that the pro-Khalistan groups were linked to “terrorism” during the 1980s and 1990s, without anchoring context on the Sikh Genocide and state violence which was unleashed against the minority community triggering the Khalistan movement.
Johnston has gone on and released four different articles, all targeting Sikhs, and each failing to provide appropriate nuance and context, as well as evidence supporting allegations against Sikhs in Australia.
All these articles target Sikhs, stoke anti-Sikh sentiments, and endeavour to fabricate a link between Sikh activism and terrorism. Whilst Johnston stuck to the written word to amplify Indian state narratives on Sikhs, Packham decided to up the ante.
In a National Press Club address with MP Clare O’Neill, Packham posed the question, after a preamble that echoed Indian state narratives, of whether “the Australian government would consider proscribing pro-Khalistan groups as terrorist organizations?”
A bizarre leading question to ask, considering there is no evidence of terrorist activities or violence of any sort stemming from Khalistan supporters in Australia.
In fact, the only recent record of targeted violence in Australia involving Sikhs is that of Hindutva extremists attacking Sikhs. Hindutva and pro-Modi actors have been a cause of concern in Australia, including a planned Hindutva rally targeting a Gurdwara which was stopped by the police.
The MP’s response did not do much to inspire confidence in the Sikh community either, as she describes Packham and Johnston’s articles as “very good news stories.”
By consistently speaking and linking Khalistan with the words “terrorists” and “terrorist organizations,” Packham and Johnston, as well as other pro-India actors, are establishing a connection between the two in a situation where no connection is warranted.
The Indian state is known to engage in foreign interference through media manipulation, with security experts raising alarms in countries like Canada about the tactic. Nonetheless, Sikhs in Australia did not hesitate to fight against misinformation and disinformation.
Sikh Gurdwara Perth published a press release on the same day condemning the articles.
They explain how the article has “hurt sentiments of the Sikh community and poses a massive damage to on the selfless works done for the people of Australia.”
They end the release with a call to action asking “on behalf of the Sikh community of Western Australia” to “pull the article off immediately and publish a public apology to the Sikh community around the world.”
Politicians have also spoken out, as MP Rob Mitchell, the Federal Member for McEwen, and David Shoebridge, Greens Senator for NSW, released open letters denouncing the articles as well.
Mitchell relayed his “disappointment in the recent articles published in the Australian this week regarding the Sikh community of Melbourne. Whereas Shoebridge added that “these attacks are not based on any material evidence.” When describing the problematic articles, he goes even further by stating that The Australian erred by allowing “an anonymous representative of a foreign government to attack the Sikh community in Australia.”
“We will continue to stand beside the Sikh community to speak truth to power and to ensure their rights are respected,” Shoebridge ends.
Sukhmeet Grewal hails from Melbourne, Australia, and works alongside Sikh Youth with a focus on education, advocacy, and sewa. You can find him on Twitter at @Sukhmeet_Grewal.
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