In early October, ripped out pages from a Sikh holy book were found strewn over a rubbish heap in the Punjab. Four weeks later the North Indian state is torn with political strife, the waves of turmoil washing up onto Canada’s shores.
Through this past month, Sikhs in Vancouver, Calgary, and Toronto have held public vigils decrying the act and the subsequent police violence perpetrated against protesters across Punjab, a state approximately twice the size of Vancouver Island.
— PunjabiDaily (@punjabidaily) October 25, 2015
Sikhs in Vancouver, Calgary, and Toronto have held public vigils decrying the act and the subsequent police violence.
Two are dead from the violence and scores are injured. The conflict has also broken out outside of Punjab, India. In London, UK, Sikh protesters outside of the Indian Embassy clashed with police, leading to numerous arrests and injuries, and a subsequent apology from Scotland Yard for the heavy-handed use of police force.
Though the sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book, is threatening to topple the Punjab government, nobody seems to know who did it or why. The mystery has yielded fertile grounds for conspiracy theories: the state government blames the followers of a seditious local holy-man with movie star ambitions; the Indian central government is questioning the role of usual suspect Pakistan; and there are even whispers the eminence grise is ISIS from Syria — as if they didn’t have greater concerns.
The most troubling theory though for the Punjab government may be that God indeed works in a mysterious ways and that his divine hand has sacrificed the holiest of Sikh artefacts in order to reveal the rot festering at the core of Sikh institutions like the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC). Given Sikhism’s rich history of martyrdom and fighting for the just cause regardless of the self-sacrifice required, this idea is as dangerous as it is indelible.
And so finding the culprits has become a secondary concern for a Punjab government trying to prevent a meltdown. That containment, however, is proving vexing. Like the seemingly trivial assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that spawned WWI, this provincial incident is pulling on political and clan alliances across India and the globe. Interested parties from India, the UK, and to Canada and the US are are taking positions either to undermine or reinforce the Punjab government.
In the diaspora, the incident has again awoken dormant conversations.
In the diaspora, the incident has again awoken dormant conversations about issues like religious identity, values, and even political self-determination among the 2.5 million Sikhs who live in cities like Toronto, New York, London, and Kuala Lumpur. Thirty years ago these discussions were the kindling that blazed into a violent decade-long uprising for an independent Khalistan homeland after then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered the Indian Army to invade the Golden Temple — the holiest of Sikh shrines.
That act in turn led to her assassination, which spiraled into retribution attacks against Sikhs in Delhi, orchestrated by high ranking Congress Party politicians in that city. Over 3,000 Sikhs were killed over three days as the police and army were ‘delayed’ from intervening on frenzied Hindu mobs.
And now those conversations have roared back to life with the fury of a bear waterboarded out of hibernation. Last weekend, members of over 100 Sikh temples and organisations from across North America, including British Columbia, met in Yuba City, California, to discuss the ongoing crisis in Punjab and to deliberate upon the issues relating to Sikhs in Punjab and the diaspora. This was the first time in over 25 years that Sikh jathebandis came together to discuss problems facing the community.
Meanwhile, a new generation of energized Sikh youth have taken to social media and given legs to the hashtag #SikhLivesMatter, inspired by the events of Ferguson, Missouri. Despite some dissent in the community of co-opting the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, it has provided a central hub for Sikh voices to post a variety of grievances including the long unresolved Delhi killings of 1984.
A new generation of energized Sikh youth have taken to social media and given legs to the hashtag #SikhLivesMatter.
At a federal level in India, this proliferation of #Sikhlivesmatter is troubling for the Narendra Modi-led BJP government which is also a coalition partner in the Punjab government. The BJP has a well-deserved bad reputation of picking on minorities to appease its militant Hindu majority power base. Even current Prime Minister Narendra Modi was allegedly complicit in his state’s 2002 Gujarat riots when Hindu mobs burned and killed up to 2,000 Muslims. Now the Sikhs have a reason to join in with the Muslims, and Christians in believing they are a targeted minority in a country where, by law, all faiths are equal, but in practice some clearly more equal than others.
The BJP and even Prime Minister Narendra Modi have profited handsomely from India’s ugly communal politics. What is clear from these protests is that Sikhs want an end to such politics in Punjab. And in particular, they want a separation of church and state when it comes to Sikh religious appointments being controlled by the Shiromani Akali Dal political party — the BJP’s partner in Punjab’s ruling coalition.
The Akali Dal party is gripped firmly in the hands of the billionaire family of Parkash Singh Badal. His family’s tentacles have been wrapped around the state for decades, squeezing a little more air out of their wheezing host each year. Incredible as it sounds, it is Badal and the Akali party who appoint the highest priests (jathedars) to the Sikh Vatican, thus subjugating the religion to their own political ends. At nearly 90 years of age, Parkash Badal has no plans on retiring from office — next to Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, he may just be the most unshoehornable politician in the world.
In Canada, there are over 500,000 Sikhs…This community punches well above its weight class.
But that is not preventing Sikhs living overseas from trying anyhow to unseat him, creating the scene for a duel between a wealthy diaspora and aged crafty oligarch. In Canada, there are over 500,000 Sikhs who like their compatriots in the Jewish community are very politically active. This community punches well above its weight class — in the new Liberal government, there are 19 South Asian members of Parliament. And in the new open air Trudeau government, it is unlikely they will be silenced on raising issues in the House of Parliament that rattle the Indian government — such as whether the Delhi Sikh murders of 1984 constituted an act of genocide.
A petition of this nature was previously raised in the House by Liberal MP Sukh Dhaliwal from Surrey Newton in 2010 and was supported by now Cabinet minister Navdeep Bains from Ontario. Curiously, a few month later in 2011, the Indian consulate in Vancouver denied Dhaliwal a visa to visit India after he was invited by British Columbia premier Christy Clark to join her Team Canada mission to Asia.
For these new MP’s, given their constituents, #Sikhlivesmatter far more than the sentiments of the Indian government that has never prosecuted the Congress Party ringleaders behind the Delhi murders. The more momentum this hashtag gains, and the longer old unacknowledged human rights violations from 1984 are allowed to fester, the more impact these conditions will negatively bear on Canada-India relations.
It was only six months ago that the Indian Prime Minister was received by the Canadian government on an official state visit, ending decades of cool relations stemming from the early 70s when India used Canadian made CANDU nuclear technology to detonate an atomic weapon.
That visit ended with the Harper government blessing a $350 million sale of Canadian Cameco Corp uranium to power India’s nuclear power plants and growing cities. India is striving to increase nuclear energy output multiple-fold by 2050 which will translate into billions pouring into the Saskatchewan economy.
There is also the possibility currently tabled of India joining the new Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade pact for Pacific Rim countries like Canada, US, Mexico, Japan, Malaysia, and seven others. Membership would boost the prime ‘Make in India’ mission of the Modi government to transform the country into a manufacturing hub capable of competing with China, a key step to its manifest destiny of becoming a legitimate superpower. Ironically, this vision becoming reality will rely to some degree on winning the favour of Canada’s politically potent Sikh community.
India’s central Modi’s government, coalition partners with the Badal government in Punjab, has now been called on to investigate the Guru Granth Sahib sacrilege incident. If Prime Minister Modi is indeed sincere on transforming India into the next global heavyweight, he will need the help of G7 partners like Canada. And sometimes to make new friends, old ones have to either adapt with the times or be set free — the latter a move he will find welcoming from influential Sikhs in Canada and overseas.
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This article originally appeared in the Vancouver Sun, and it is shared here with permission.