Jatinder Singh: Canadian Sikhs Versus Spies, Surveillance, Disinfo, & Foreign Interference
Surveillance of Canadian Sikhs is at unprecedented levels and foreign interference continues across Canada, driving false accusations, disinformation, and the weaponizing of Canada’s institutions.
November 10, 2022 | 10 min. read | Original Reporting
Scottish blogger Jagtar Singh Johal (“Jaggi”), jailed and tortured in India since 2017, lodged a complaint this year in the British High Courts alleging it was information shared unlawfully by British intelligence agencies to their Indian counterparts that led to his arrest.
Last year, three Sikh men, known as the West Midlands Three, walked free from a British Court after an extradition case brought on by India collapsed. British solicitor and human rights activist Gareth Peirce said there were astonishing links between their case and that of Jaggi. Indian Police officers used by the British prosecution to provide evidence in their case had themselves been convicted of disappearances, torture and murder. One of these police officers had been identified by Jaggi as linked to his torture. British authorities allowed the case against the West Midlands Three to move forward despite this. All of which is leaving many Sikhs feeling that Britain’s legal system is being weaponized to besmirch Sikh activists at the behest of a foreign nation.
While more continues to be unearthed in the British context, it does help illuminate what is at stake here in Canada, on the other side of the Atlantic, Sikh activists share with Baaz.
The recent problematic interactions between Canadian Sikhs and intelligence agencies, Indian spy activities, and local groups with arm’s length association with Indian political parties are raising alarm amongst security experts, who have knowledge of Sikhs and national security, and community advocates that spoke to Baaz for this article.
Much has been written historically about law enforcement, the intelligence services, and Canadian Sikhs, especially concerning the horrific Air India bombings. However, our conversations with experts and the local community focused on more recent events and the implications these have for Sikhs, and the Indian government’s influence over Canadian authorities.
First, a brief introduction to the relevant intelligence agencies in Canada and India.
The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) came into existence in 1984 to oversee intelligence on threats to Canadian national security. It operates according to a legal mandate, most notably the CSIS Act. The Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness is responsible to parliament for the spy agency. Several governmental bodies also review its activities. This is important to know when you discover how its Indian counterparts are set up.
Recently, allegations of systemic racism and religiously motivated behaviour within the agency have become public. CSIS Director David Vigneault acknowledges systemic racism exists. The troubling level of cultural competency within the agency also flags issues for Sikhs. How much of the faith, history and present advocacy does CSIS truly understand?
There have been some recent incidents that have brought greater concerns. Take Maher Arar, a Syrian-Canadian tortured because Canadian intelligence gave false information to the USA, who then deported him to Syria. Consider also how a CSIS operative smuggled three British teenage girls from Turkey into Syria to join the Islamic State. So concerning was this that a senior CSIS intelligence officer flew to Turkey to persuade authorities to stay silent on the matter when the operative was arrested.
Until 1968, India's sole spy agency was the Intelligence Bureau (IB), managed under the Home Affairs Ministry. After the disastrous 1962 border war with China, India decided to establish the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), dedicated to external intelligence. RAW has no legal mandate within India, nor does it fall under parliamentary oversight. Instead, it reports directly to the prime minister, with the chief of RAW holding a position within the Cabinet Secretariat.
Since the 1970s, when mass migration from India began, IB and RAW started operating in Canada, developing operatives within Sikh institutions and Gurdwaras. Sources say these operations continue to this day, especially as Canadian Sikhs have grown in stature. Their operations have led some Canadian Gurdwaras to ban Indian officials from their premises.
Sources feel the Indian agencies continue to be purposeful and deliberate in their operations within Canada. RAW has also been instrumental in normalizing relations with some Sikhs by removing them from India’s blacklist of those forbidden from entering the country.
This brings us to recent activity over the last few years.
In December 2018, Public Safety Canada’s annual report on terrorist threats included a section on ‘Sikh (Khalistani) extremism’. There was significant pushback from Sikhs demanding evidence of the so-called threat. The section was subsequently removed in April 2019. To date, it is unclear why the report had this section.
Coincidently, Indian authorities claimed in September 2017 that Sikhs outside the country were involved in an alleged foiled terrorist attack. Then, in April 2018, two Canadian Sikhs were added to Canada’s no-fly list due to their supposed role in a foiled attack within India. It is unclear if this was the same foiled attack. Both men have challenged their flight ban. Earlier this year, the federal court upheld the constitutionality of Canada’s no-fly list but acknowledged problems with how Ottawa handled their cases. Significantly, the evidence against them had initially come from India.
No other threat is publicly known for this period, so it remains a mystery why the annual Public Safety Canada report added a section on Sikhs at all.
In 2019, the EU DisinfoLab uncovered a massive 15-year operation with a network targeting international institutions to serve Indian interests and discredit Pakistan. Among many other things, this network, which had ties to Canadian journalist Tarek Fatah and former Liberal MP Mario Silva, resurrected dead media with Canadian names and created obscure companies in Canada. While the aim was to produce and amplify content to undermine Pakistan, the Sikhs were also not spared, with Khalistan domain names purchased by the network to further their disinformation campaign.
In January 2020, it was reported that an Ottawa company was barred from national security work after one of its executives had been accused of frequent contact with Indian intelligence. Later that year, in April, it was revealed that Canadian politicians had also been the target of an Indian intelligence covert influence operation, specifically targeting “Caucasian” politicians to promote India’s interests. Cultivating influence over such politicians may be important to India when noting how two UK MPs, Barry Gardiner and Bob Blackman, often present Pro-India positions in British Parliament and maintain close links to India’s ruling BJP.
Also, in 2020, two Indian Nationals were convicted in Germany for spying on Sikhs and Kashmiris for India’s intelligence services. This was the third such conviction of people spying on Sikhs and is something all community advocates that spoke to Baaz believe is happening in Canada as well. The same year, the Indian consulate in Hamburg sent out an email requesting details of German Sikhs for data collection.
In late 2021, RCMP invited India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) to Ottawa to coordinate investigations on suspected terrorism and other criminal matters. While the High Commission of India did not specifically name Sikhs as being a subject of the coordination, Indian news outlets closely tied to the ruling BJP did. The RCMP stated nothing publicly about the meeting.
Advocates and experts speaking to Baaz shared concerns about interacting with the NIA considering allegations that it not only tortures but also forbids the presence of lawyers during questioning. The NIA routinely raids the residences and offices of journalists, NGOs, and activists. The UN also raised concerns about the NIA threatening a Kashmiri youth leader. It was also widely reported in India that British Police raids on the West Midlands Three’s residences in 2018 were at the behest of the NIA.
Concerning these interactions between India and Canada, Stephanie Carvin, Associate Professor of International Relations at Carleton University, shared with Baaz the following:
“Importantly, these visits are often routine where many different issues are discussed. As Canada is developing its Indo-Pacific foreign policy, India is seen as an important security partner. However, it is also the case that India views Canada as a security threat because of its Sikh population. When Canadian officials meet with their Indian counterparts, they are told that Canada should do more about what they view as its Khalistani-extremism ‘problem’. One can only imagine this has increased under Prime Minister Modi.”
She also mentions that “information sharing is governed by the Avoiding Complicity in Mistreatment by Foreign Entities Act, so there are limits to what the RCMP may provide. Nevertheless, given Canada’s history of providing information, it is understandable that activists are concerned.”
With the rising geopolitical importance of India as a counterbalance against China for the West, what risk does this pose to Canadian Sikh activists who provoke the ire of India?
In June of this year, two Sikh organizers of an event on Parliament Hill in Ottawa commemorating the 1984 Sikh Genocide in India were arrested after the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) received a tip-off that extremists with a bomb were present. The two men were released when it became evident the tip-off was a hoax. Law enforcement then contacted local Sikh leaders and promised an investigation.
Baaz reached out to the spokesperson for the CBSA about this investigation, and she would only confirm they do ‘not comment on ongoing investigations’. Sources in law enforcement said it was highly unusual for the CBSA to have received such a tip and not to have come first to the local police or intelligence services. There also seems to be no proper mechanism or standard in place for dealing with such tips.
Arm’s length state actors also work to target Sikh advocacy and politicians in Canada. On February 26, 2021, Overseas Friends of the BJP (OFBJP) Canada abruptly shut down. A support system for the Indian ruling party, OFBJP claims over 40 chapters across the globe. Initially, these chapters promoted the BJP and its platform. However, once the BJP came to power, it became a parallel structure to official government channels, such as Indian embassies and consulates abroad, conducting activities in foreign countries to promote the BJP’s interests.
The abrupt shutdown may be due to events south of the border. In September 2020, OFBJP USA registered as a foreign agent after the Department of Justice began devoting resources to enforce the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Without registering, those that engage in political activity could be criminally prosecuted. After their FARA registration, OFBJP members must declare when they meet with US legislators, hold public events, or receive funding from US groups.
Two days after the OFBJP Canada shutdown, a Tiranga-Maple Car Rally was organized by Naresh Chavda on behalf of a ‘Diverse group of Indo-Canadians’. Mr. Chavda was part of the OFBJP Canada leadership. His counterpart in British Columbia, Aditya Tawatia, routinely organizes protests outside the Burnaby constituency office of Jagmeet Singh, as per leaked phone calls with Mr. Chavda. In these calls, he admitted to intentionally organizing the rally to go into ‘the heart of Brampton’, which has a sizeable Sikh population, as a counter to the Indian farmer’s protests that were ongoing during that period. Mr. Chavda also proclaims on the leaked call that he is a three-year graduate of the RSS, an Indian right-wing Hindu nationalist and paramilitary organization. OFBJP Canada members have since rebranded themselves as Overseas Friends of India Canada, a federally incorporated not-for-profit.
One of the concerns pro-India groups in Canada have about Sikh advocacy is that it will impact India-Canada trade.
The bilateral product trade between India and Canada in 2021 was $8.9 billion. Compare that to the much larger $114 Billion trade Canada has with China, despite the more tense relationship between the two nations. Of note, Trudeau’s new national security adviser Jody Thomas is hawkish on China. With India-Canada trade being only a fraction of that with China, activists feel there is undoubtedly room to acknowledge India’s foreign interference and activities within Canada publicly.
Sources have said that they see China's threat to Canada taken seriously at all levels of the national security apparatus. Yet, the same level of concern is absent concerning India.
Online pressure on Sikh advocates is also at an all-time high. Many Canadian Sikhs’ social media handles are banned in India or face threats of being censored. Further, a coordinated operation was uncovered in 2021 using fake personas acting as influencers within the Sikh community to discredit actual Sikhs. They promoted the narrative that “real” Sikhs supported the Indian government and Indian nationalism and that advocates of Sikh autonomy and independence were extremists or terrorists. Many Canadian Sikhs were the target of this influence operation. The Canadian government is also not spared. Recently, an Indian hacker revealed to have been commissioned to break into the computer systems of Canadian ministries at the behest of Indian authorities.
What does this all mean for Canadian Sikhs? Sources in law enforcement provided the following advice. Concerning Canadian institutions, Canadians must ensure no harm comes from Canada sharing information with foreign nations. Accountability and transparency are also a must, sources shared. Sikhs should engage proactively with public safety institutions through oversight and consultation, and Canadians must ensure that weaknesses in national institutions are not weaponized to target Sikhs as well. Finally, Sikhs must continue to take up more space, and be clear about what they are doing, do it on their terms, and advocate unapologetically for the faith.
Jatinder Singh is the National Director for Khalsa Aid Canada. You can find him on Twitter, IG, and FB at @jindisinghka
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