The callers lined up like almost never before on Harjit Singh Gill’s radio talk show this week after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared there were “credible allegations” that Indian agents were involved in the June murder of a Sikh activist outside a Surrey gurdwara.
“Things are very hot in the community,” said Gill, who has a morning talk show on Sher E Punjab, 600 AM. Trudeau took a chance on going public about the bloody end of the Khalistan independence fighter, Gill said, and many of B.C.’s 300,000 Sikhs felt affirmed by it.
Sikhs, who make up B.C.’s second-largest religious group after Christianity, have complained to Ottawa for months that India’s government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who many call a Hindu nationalist, must have had a hand in the slaying of Hardeep Singh Nijjar.
A plumber whom Indian authorities have accused of murdering a Hindu priest and killing six in a Punjabi cinema bombing, Nijjar was shot in his truck in the parking lot of the giant Guru Nanak gurdwara, of which he was president.
Since Gill believes no politician makes such a big move without considering its electoral implications, he said Trudeau “killed two birds with one stone” in his high-impact claim, which Indian government officials have angrily denounced as “absurd and motivated.” They are now asking Indian nationals to be cautious about visiting Canada because of its “growing anti-India activities and politically condoned hate-crimes.”
Trudeau’s thunderbolt declaration, Gill said, was satisfying to many Canadian Sikhs, particularly advocates of a separate Sikh homeland called Khalistan, in the way it protected Canadians’ sovereignty and right of free expression.
The prime minister, Gill said, also brilliantly distracted voters from issues that were killing him in the polls.
They include the housing affordability crisis, China’s subversion of Canadian elections and Trudeau’s poorly rated performance at this month’s G20 summit in India, where Modi accused Trudeau of protecting Sikh militants who employ violence in their battle for the ethno-religious vision of Khalistan.
Trudeau’s attack on possible interference by India’s government will resonate not only among Sikhs, but among immigrants from all sorts of countries, says Andres Machalski, president of Mirems, which monitors more than 800 foreign-language media outlets in Canada.
Since millions of immigrants have come to Canada to escape discrimination and persecution in their homelands, Machalski said, “Trudeau’s unassailable message to all immigrants is, ‘We will stand up for you.’”
That message can hit home for people who have left behind all sorts of conflict-ridden nations, whether China, Ukraine or Sri Lanka, said Machalski. It reverberates for Machalski himself, since he came to Canada as a refugee from Argentina in 1976, when elected leaders were replaced in a ruthless military coup.
Specifically, Machalski said Trudeau’s declaration on the opening day of parliament, which “gained maximum attention” and divert from issues working against his popularity, was mostly aimed at garnering support from the roughly 800,000 Sikhs in Canada.
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Even though the number of Hindus in Canada is about the same, and many will be upset by Trudeau’s attack on the Hindu-majority country of India, Machalski said Punjabi Sikhs in Canada have a stronger group identity and are more politically organized, particularly in crucial federal and provincial ridings in Greater Toronto, Metro Vancouver and Calgary.
That’s the case, Machalski said, despite Punjabi Canadians disagreeing on just how much support there is for a separate Khalistan in this country.
“Many Sikhs kind of just tolerate the Khalistanis and their vociferous rallies,” he said.
Despite the wide distribution of vivid photos of Canadian Sikh protesters outraged at India, Gill agrees the Sikh population is “not monolithic.”
It’s hard to get numbers on how many Canadian Sikhs share the vision of Khalistan, said Gill, who looks forward to the results of the non-binding referendum that a secessionist group, Sikhs for Justice, has organized.
Last week vote organizers claimed 135,000 India-born Canadians in the Lower Mainland showed up to vote in the referendum that Nijjar, whom India accused of terrorism, had helped organize.
Earlier referenda were held among the large Sikh populations in Britain and suburban Toronto, which has contributed to Modi’s accusation that offshore agitators are stirring up division in his nation.
Prominent Punjabi Canadian Barj Dhahan, who has spent the past 30 years conducting business and philanthropy between B.C. and India, doesn’t trust the Metro Vancouver referendum. He says it’s not clear, for instance, who is eligible to vote in it.
And since Dhahan frequently travels to northern India, he says he knows the idea of Khalistan is virtually dead there. Sikhs in India “are much more worried about getting jobs and having a future.”
Gill, the talk-show host, also acknowledges the Khalistan movement is weak in India, in part because of changing demographics. In Canada, Gill said, views on Khalistan can differ sharply between Sikh fundamentalists and Sikh moderates, who often end up fighting for control of the province’s many gurdwaras.
Machalski, who monitors the discourse in dozens of Punjabi print and broadcast outlets across Canada, said there is no more uniformity among Canadian Sikhs on Khalistan than there is among Canadian Catholics on the pope.
Despite their wide range of views, Machalski said Sikhs in Canada are a powerful political force in electoral politics, including as MPs and MLAs, in part because of their ability to get assistance from the leadership of gurdwaras, which fill the role of community centres even for non-religious Punjabis.
Shinder Purewal, a Kwantlen Polytechnic University political scientist, and Dhahan have described how the Sikh population “punches above its weight” in politics for many reasons, particularly because of its ability to impact partisan nomination battles, including that of lawyer and NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, who was an early critic of India and defender of Khalistan supporters.