Todd: Trudeau’s defiance of India ‘killing two birds with one stone’

Analysis: Trudeau has deflected attention from his own failings while reinforcing political support among Sikh Canadians

Get the latest from Douglas Todd straight to your inbox

Article content

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.

Advertisement 2

Article content

Article content

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.

Article content

Advertisement 3

Article content

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.

Justin Trudeau ‘killed two birds with one stone’ in his high-impact defiance of India’s government, says Surrey radio talk-show host Harjit Singh Gill. The prime minister not only resonated with many Sikh Canadians, he distracted the country from issues hurting his popularity. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

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.

Advertisement 4

Article content

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.

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.”

Advertisement 5

Article content

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.

Barj Dhahan
Punjabi-Canadian Barj Dhahan doesn’t trust the referendum being conducted in Metro Vancouver on Khalistan, which is organized by the secessionist group, Sikhs for Justice. Photo by NICK PROCAYLO /PNG

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.

Advertisement 6

Article content

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.

[email protected]

Twitter: @douglastodd


Article content


Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user you follow comments. Visit our Community Guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.

Join the Conversation

Advertisement 1


Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button