Disputing Sikh extremism

Ottawa Citizen
16/07/2010
Citizen Special

As a Sikh Canadian, who was born in a Toronto suburb, roots for the Leafs, did law at the University of Ottawa, and works for a human rights organization, I'm astounded to hear claims from politicians that so-called "Sikh extremism" in on the rise.

If that's the case, there's no word of it among the more than 400,000 members of the Canadian Sikh community. The only thing we see on the rise is racism fuelled by these reckless comments.

As someone who wears the garb of his faith, I can tell you that the backlash we're feeling is beginning to look like state-sanctioned vilification of Sikhs.

The evidence justifying this hate campaign is minimal. Most cite an offensive Facebook page attacking Vancouver MP Ujjal Dosanjh. I share his outrage and can understand his fear. Everyone knows Dosanjh's personal history includes being beaten by thugs, and I sympathize with how that experience must have shaped his life.

But that doesn't give him the right to turn Sikhs into the bogeyman. Or whip up hatred for a visible minority.

The other piece of Canadian evidence comes from 2007: a float in the Surrey, B.C. Vaisakhi parade displayed a picture of Talwinder Singh Parmar, who died in Indian police custody in 1992 and is widely believed to be one of the masterminds of the Air India bombing. What most people don't know is that Parmar's handful of supporters call him a martyr because they believe he is wrongly accused in the Air India tragedy. Some people, particularly of past generations, can't believe anyone connected with the faith could be involved in a mass murder.

That makes them naive, not radical.

Perhaps the most persuasive piece of "evidence" comes from Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who has been telling news media that Sikh extremism is on the rise for more than three years -- although he offers little in the way of proof.

But his allegation is an effective tool for quashing legitimate discussion of India's human rights abuses, which is the real purpose of India's claim that the Sikh diaspora is harbouring "extremists," particularly in England and Canada.

Both countries are known as champions of free speech and civil rights, which means human rights groups like the one I work for, the World Sikh Organization of Canada, can and do highlight abuses in foreign countries. That's a problem for India as it seeks to rehabilitate its reputation and establish more trade in the West.

While India is a democracy -- citizens vote -- it lacks some critical liberal democratic values. The justice system is notoriously corrupt, there are few protections for minority groups, and the ruling government is just as likely to enforce its will with guns as parliamentary debate.

As Amnesty International's 2010 report on human rights abuses details, Indian security forces continue to terrorize their own citizens. The report also notes India's reluctance to prosecute those behind the 1984 massacre of more than 3,000 Sikhs that followed the assassination of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Canada has long been a leader in encouraging less developed countries to treat their citizens justly because oppressive regimes are ultimately unstable. That's dangerous internationally and bad business for a trading nation like Canada.

So it's shocking to hear Canadian politicians trying to erode our own free speech guarantees by labeling discussion as "extremism."

Recently Dosanjh took a distinctly Indian point of view when he told the Toronto Sun that disagreeing with the authorities is a sign of a radical.

"(Extremism) is much more entrenched, much more sophisticated (than it was in 1985)," Dosanjh said, after the release of the Major Commission report on the Air India tragedy. "It is much more moderate in appearance than you might otherwise see. People run peaceful campaigns and behind the peaceful campaigns is the evil design to hurt other people and to dismember other countries."

That's an interesting view for a member of the Opposition to hold. Are we to assume that when the federal Liberal caucus campaigns against the Tory government they're harbouring the urge to attack them with baseball bats?

We can trust they won't because that's not how we do it in Canada.

That the Sikh community has been linked to the Air India tragedy which took 331 innocent lives is a shame and sorrow the community will always bear.

But it's also worth remembering that the Major Commission found that in the 1980s Canadian Sikhs informed the RCMP of terrorist activities -- and were ignored.

Today, more than a generation later, even more Sikhs are Canadian-born and the community is fully integrated. To claim, "Sikh extremism is on the rise" without evidence is akin to linking Gilles Duceppe and the Bloc Québécois to 1970s FLQ terrorists.

To be blunt: Sikhs are a tight-knit community, if one of us was fomenting terrorism someone would have heard by now, and reported it.

But all we hear are accusations. And the warning to keep quiet about human rights abuses in India lest we be labeled "extremists."

I plan to ignore that intimidation tactic. There is a long, proud tradition in Canada of encouraging foreign states to improve their human rights practices.

My organization will continue to stand up for Sikhs in oppressive states, just as we will continue speaking up for our fellow Canadians when their right to don a kilt or a hijab or build a succah hut is denied.

Despite what foreign politicians are saying, there is no evidence of Sikh extremism and Canadian Sikhs are much like the rest of the country: We don't believe in violence (except at hockey games).

Balpreet Singh Boparai is legal counsel for the World Sikh Organization of Canada, a human rights organization that recently championed an Alberta teenager's right to wear a kilt to graduation.

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