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Jaskaran Sandhu: Sikhs React To The Freedom Convoy, Ottawa’s Gurdwara, & Indian Disinfo
Baaz speaks to Sikhs appearing at the trucker convoy, OSS shuts down the Ottawa Gurdwara in response to a viral post, and Indian disinfo networks embellish the role of Sikhs in the protest
February 1, 2022 | 10 min. read | Original Reporting
As thousands poured into Ottawa over this past weekend as part of the trucker convoy, protesting various COVID-related government policies, it was hard not to miss social media posts of some Sikhs partaking in the demonstrations.
“The number of Sikhs we ran into was [close] to 100,” shared Jaskanwal Singh, a 32-year-old Amritdhari Sikh who visited the protest site from Toronto. He is not a trucker, and is unvaccinated, but travelled to Ottawa with a group of 30 friends that included some in the industry and a few that have taken the vaccine.
Jaskanwal’s approximate headcount aligned with what other sources shared with Baaz, ranging from a few dozen to approximately 100 Sikh protestors in total at Parliament Hill.
However, irrespective of the relatively small numbers at the protest, especially when also held against the high ratio of Punjabis in the trucking industry, “Sikhs” trended in Canada alongside trucker convoy-related hashtags on Twitter. Pro-convoy accounts with large followings, including Rebel Media’s Ezra Levant, helped in amplifying videos and images of Sikhs. Levant has taken positions against Sikh causes in the past.
Jaskanwal believes part of the reason why Sikhs attracted such disproportionate attention is that they “stood out”, but that did not cause them any issues on the ground.
“No one had any issues with our Nishan Sahibs, our kirpans, or shastars. They were curious, genuinely learning [about Sikhi],” he added.
Jaskanwal’s experience aligned with that of Gurkirpal Mangat, 55, a turban-wearing Sikh and a semi-retired former trucker. Gurkirpal would not disclose his vaccination status, although he shared a lot of suspicion around vaccines, and had travelled to Ottawa for the protest with some family members who were not truckers.
“There were a few turban guys like me, three or four guys. But wherever they were everyone was going to hug them [and telling them] ‘Thank you for coming, we are being told it is a white supremacist protest.’ I was really astonished and I said, no this is a protest for everybody.”
Various reports on the protest have alleged that some of the organizers and promoters have ties to white supremacy and other problematic movements. There have also been many critiques suggesting grievances within the trucking industry are being used and appropriated by non-truckers in a chaotic way to push forward anti-vaccine causes beyond just fighting mandates. Some trucking associations, like the CTA, have distanced themselves from the convoy.
“They say it is about truckers, and have raised over $6 million dollars on GoFundMe. But if you look at its organizers and promoters, you’ll find Islamophobia, antisemitism, racism, and incitements to violence,” read a report from the Canadian Anti-Hate Network - a non-profit organization that monitors hate groups and hate crimes.
Sikhs at the protest have conflicting feelings about those allegations, however.
“People are going to twist the narrative in whatever way they see,” Jaskanwal says, “personally, I don't know the organizers of this protest. The reason my friends and I joined is that they are not able to have their livelihood in the same way as before [due to mandates].”
Protestors and supporters of the truck convoy that spoke to Baaz on the condition of anonymity shared similar feelings about the possibility of problematic elements in the protest. Some organizers and promoters may be troubling, and the allegations may be true, but fighting mandates is a cause they feel passionate about. Fight the mandates today, and deal with the racists tomorrow, they stated.
Gurkirpal does not believe the allegations at all, however, irrespective of any evidence and news reports.
“It is media propaganda,” he says. “They are not giving full picture in front of people.”
His wife, Simran Mangat, 47, also semi-retired, agrees. She did not disclose her vaccination status but did challenge the widely accepted and prevailing consensus and science around vaccines.
“There is no such thing as [white supremacy at the protest]. It is probably the media defaming the protest,” she said.
When asked specifically about Nazi and Confederate flags appearing at the protest, as well as problematic statements and symbols popping up during the course of the protest, Gurkirpal does not believe it is reflective of the movement as a whole.
“This is a very friendly protest. Of course, there may be one or two elements. They have those Nazi flags. But I think this protest is the beginning of something big, and it is a very nice protest.”
Jaskanwal is not as dismissive of questionable elements appearing at the protest, or even being behind it, however, it is not a deal-breaker in supporting the demonstrations.
“Even if there is an angle that there is some element in the organization of this that we do not know or see eye to eye on with, there is a lot more to this that a lot of people are joining together for.”
As images and videos circulate of Sikhs at the protest over the past four days, others in the community have been criticizing those at Parliament Hill for allowing themselves to be used as tokens by organizers and protestors with ulterior motives and often anti-immigrant views.
Jaskanwal engages in some introspection when asked about how he rationalizes that possible conflict.
“We are definitely not oblivious to [being used as tokens], but that is not representative of what we saw. There were people that wanted to take pictures and videos, and we do not know what the intention is…but overwhelmingly people were talking with us, learning about Sikhi, learning more about us,” he continues, “even if there are some people thinking [about using us as tokens], that is not in our control. What is in our control is to spread what we know and stand up for what we believe in. That is not going to stop us…”
Gurkirpal is more accepting of being used as tokens, something he sees as an indictment against Sikhs for not more aggressively supporting the trucker convoy rather than of those possibly using Sikhs to soften the protests public relations issues.
“I think we should have had a lot of Sikhs there. Sikhs are sleeping, and that is why those that do show up have to be treated as tokens,” he says.
“I feel like that the Sikh community as a whole are not aware of this pandemic thing to the extent it should be considering the way our religion and community is, and the way our Gurus make us to be aware of freedom,” Gurkirpal states, raising suspicion around vaccines, government policies, and the doctors and scientists supporting them.
“I am not happy with the way our community is responding.”
Simran shares similar sentiments.
“People with turbans stand out, that is why they get called tokens. [However] our people are less in these protests, I agree. Our people are not aware.”
While Gurkirpal and others lament the lack of Sikh representation in Ottawa, Indian disinfo networks have begun to churn out content embellishing the role of Sikhs in the convoy for the purpose of targeting Justin Trudeau and the Farmers’ Protest.
“Hundreds of trucks and thousands of protesters, most of them Sikhs migrated from India, have blocked the streets towards downtown Ottawa to protest against the government's vaccine mandates required to cross the Canada-US border,” read a Tribune India article.
The Times of India joined in on the false information by stating “thousands of Sikh drivers have joined an epic convoy of tens of thousands of truckers…”
Pro-Modi Twitter accounts amplified the message, falsely equating Justin Trudeau’s call during the Farmers’ Protest to respect the right to peaceful protest amidst brutal Indian state violence to the truck convoy stationing themselves on Parliament Hill with limited state interference. Karma for supporting Sikhs in India, some of them stated.
Balpreet Singh, the spokesperson and legal counsel for the World Sikh Organization of Canada, which had released a report on India’s disinfo campaigns last year, is not surprised.
“Once again, in a very transparent manner, India's fake media networks are peddling the falsehood that the Trucker Convoy is somehow a Sikh issue and just desserts to the Trudeau government for having spoken in support of the protestors' human rights during the Farmers Protest. The argument is completely baseless but the consistency with which it is being parroted on Indian media clearly shows the orchestrated manner within which India's disinformation network continues to target Sikhs in Canada,” he said.
Ironically, Jaskanwal shares that a lot of his conversations in Ottawa surrounded what protestors perceive to be untrustworthy mainstream media.
“We are having deep conversations about the media and the angles there, putting a spin about this being a right-wing, white movement, and it was kind of similar to the Farrmers’ Protest and how the media there was trying to show it as a Khalistan movement.”
“It's about uniting and coming together for once instead of letting the media continue to divide us,” he goes on to add, “[the] truth is, it could be any protest against the government and the media/state will vilify it.”
Both Gurkirpal and Jaskanwal draw from Sikhi in making sense of the protest.
Jaskanwal shares that he is “standing up for choice, freedom of conscience, similar to what Guru Tegh Bahadur stood up for…for people’s right to choose how they want to live their lives.”
Gurkipal feels that mandates go against the very tenets of Sikhi.
“[The governments] are forcing everyone to do this and that, you can't eat here, you can't cross the border, they are snatching all the rights. Our Gurus didn't teach us to live like that. Our Gurus said if someone is stealing your rights, you have to fight back.”
His wife, Simran, agrees, touching upon Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the NDP and an Amritdhari Sikh.
“What is Jagmeet Singh doing? Stand for your values, where are your Sikh values?”
She did, however, find the Sikhs carrying signs directing vulgarities towards Jagmeet Singh to be unacceptable.
“I don't like that [sign which said “Fuck Jagmeet”]. We asked [the Sikhs holding the sign] that this doesn't look good. When you are holding the Nishan Sahib, you shouldn't have a sign like that. But it shows the extent to how much people are fed up,” she shares.
As an example of that Sikh spirit, many shared a screenshot of a private user’s Facebook post suggesting that protestors could use the local Ottawa Sikh Society Gurdwara as a “warm place to stay” and get food.
However, in response to the viral post, the Ottawa Sikh Society (OSS) shut down the Gurdwara on Friday, January 21, and Saturday, January 22, a decision for which they received some backlash online from both supporters and detractors of the convoy.
OSS clearly stated that they follow COVID protocols and vaccine mandates, and were taking the “drastic step” to in part mitigate against any “threats to the property and personnel”, including by “unvaccinated truckers”.
A volunteer involved with the Gurdwara, and familiar with its committee’s decision making, shared with Baaz that the move did not come lightly.
“Some people complained that this never happens and that the Gurdwara is open for everyone,” he shared, noting that the Gurdwara has in fact shut down on a couple of occasions in the past two years due to COVID concerns, as have others across Canada.
While the OSS closed due to worries of unmanageable crowds converging on Gurdwara property, others like Jaskanwal believe they could have kept the doors open with the assistance of additional security measures or volunteers.
“There is a large scale to the protest, and that can lead to lots of variables that are not in our control, but the Guru’s door is always meant to be open. It is upon us as a panth to be prepared and have a contingency, [and not close the Guru’s door],” he said.
While Jaskanwal tried to appreciate the Gurdwara committee’s thought process, Gurkirpal was less forgiving.
“The Gurus didn't teach us to shut down the Gurdwara. Gurdwara is there for anybody. Shame on our religion if we are closing Gurdwaras.”
The OSS source shared, however, that there were also concerns about how non-Sikh attendees to the Gurdwara, with limited or no understanding of rules and etiquette, such as no smoking, would behave with limited oversight and in large numbers. Since the Gurdwara management committee is all volunteer-based, they would not be able to consistently and regularly monitor such a big gathering, the source shared.
They also explained that there are elderly Granthis that reside on the property, alongside their families, and they do not wish to inadvertently expose them to COVID and put their health at risk.
Jaskanwal, however, does not believe all of that is grounds for allowing some to enter and others to not, including in terms of vaccination status, as described in the OSS open letter.
“[Vaccination status] is a distinction that should not be used to negate someone’s desire to connect with their Guru. And I don't think that's ever been a part of Sikhi to distinguish who has access to spirituality.”
As the protests continue in Ottawa, it has become clear that Sikhs form a small part of it when considering how large of a demographic the community is generally speaking in the trucking industry.
Jaskanwal feels that Punjabi truckers that do not see their specific issues, such as wage exploitation or road safety, highlighted in the current Parliament Hill protest should still take part.
“I feel like those truckers could have shown up and maybe they could have talked about their issues there, it would have been good for them to do that too,” he says, adding that Punjabi truckers should not shy away from the convoy.
“It is a chance to unite, find common ground, and try to work together, rather than sit back and say white people are all racist, extremist, and doing this for themselves,” Jaskanwal says.
As the protest continues and shows no signs of ending soon, it will remain a point of contention for some Sikh Canadians. While the reports of racist organizers and promoters continue to dominate headlines, Jaskanwal hopes that people also see it as an opportunity to dispel the xenophobia and racism that may exist within the movement.
“Maybe not everyone will be changed with love and understanding, but with kirpa people will start to see that what they have been told their whole life doesn't match person to person when they look into the eye of someone [that looks like me].”
As for what he plans to do next, now back home in Toronto, Jaskanwal remains steadfast in support of the demonstrations.
“We are planning to head back every few days or so whenever our schedules permit.”
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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