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Posted at: Dec 18, 2018, 12:06 AM; last updated: Dec 18, 2018, 12:06 AM (IST)

Why the Sikhs are angry with Canada

The 2018 Public Report on terror threat to Canada lists five current threats to the country. They include Sikh (Khalistan) extremism. The Sikh community has countered this, saying that this was for the first time that Sikh extremism was mentioned in any annual terror report, without providing any new evidence.
Why the Sikhs are angry with Canada
Fear of stereotyping: Some still think that someone with a turban is a terrorist.

Vappala Balachandran
ex-Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat

The Justin Trudeau government has been facing rough weather on national security and terrorism issues. This is not because terrorist violence in that country has spiralled out of control. On the other hand, their terrorism threat level has been judged as "medium" since 2014.  

The reason is the emergence of peripheral issues on security and terrorism now dominating public discourse as divisive factors in the country. It started when the government introduced the "National Security Act-2017", also known as C-59, to overhaul intelligence and operational branches. This was the most ambitious security measure undertaken since 1984 when the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) was created, replacing the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) as chief collector of national security intelligence. The Canadian Bar Association has generally welcomed C-59 as a positive change in modernising the legal security framework. 

However, fierce opposition has come from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) on what it describes as the new "disruption powers" conferred on the CSIS under the new Act. It has reminded the country that the CSIS was created to separate intelligence collection from criminal investigation and executive action on the recommendations of the McDonald Commission (1977-1981) which had investigated into the RCMP abuses. Now, the same CSIS has been given executive powers, like interrupting money transfers or planting forged documents, to disrupt alleged terrorist activity in the course of its intelligence collection. This, it felt, was against civil rights and could be misused.  

This antagonistic public discourse has delayed the progress of this Bill. After three readings in the House of Commons and Committee stage, it reached the Senate's second reading and referral to the committee on December 11, 2018. 

Public report on terror

However, what churned the security discourse into a public display of the Sikh community anger was the release of the "Public Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada" (2018). This has also put India in the eye of the storm. 

On December 11, 2018 Ralph Goodale, Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, released this report along with "National Strategy on Countering Radicalization to Violence".  Both these papers were meant to introduce more transparency in managing security matters. In fact, The National Strategy was developed by the "Canada Centre on Community Engagement and Prevention of Violence", also known as the Canada Centre, with public partnership, something like what the British "Channel" programme was meant to achieve in identifying community response to counter radicalisation.

While the National Strategy makes no mention of Sikh extremism, the Public Report lists five "current threats" to Canada: Sunni Islamist extremism, Right wing extremism, Sikh (Khalistan) extremism, Shia extremism and Canadian extremist travellers.  

Of these, the narrative on Sikh extremism is the shortest. It gives a historical oversight on their violent past, including the 1985 Air-India bombing, killing 331. The report admits that attacks in support of the Khalistan movement have declined. Yet, it points out that two key organisations in Canada (the Babbar Khalsa and ISYF) "remain listed terrorist entities" under the "Criminal Code" being associated with terrorism. 

Faced with the community's anger, Goodale announced on December 14 that his ministry would "reconsider the way Sikh organisations are described" in the report. He was "confident the security officials who wrote the 2018 report on terrorism threats facing Canada did not mean to malign entire religions when describing Sikh, Shia and Sunni extremism, but he is still asking them to make changes to be more precise." 

Sikhs counter terror charge

The Sikh community countered this, saying that this was for the first time that Sikh extremism was mentioned in any annual terror report without providing any new evidence. It said that the only incident mentioned was the 1985 Kanishka incident. "Reevaluating the language is fine, but just the fact that this section was there is very troubling, given that there is absolutely no context beyond something that happened three decades ago." 

Some observers also pointed out that the US State Department's compilation for 2017 released in 2018 does not mention any Sikh extremist organisations.

The Sikh community also protested at this mention in the Public Report: "Furthermore, Shia and Sikh (Khalistani) extremism also remain of concern because while their attacks in Canada have been extremely limited, some Canadians continue to support these extremist groups, including through financing." This, it alleged, was due to Indian pressure during Prime Minister Trudeau's visit to India. 

Simultaneously, Canadian media said that Trudeau spent "much of the India trip working to dispel accusations that Canada was a hotbed of Khalistani extremism. At the end of it, he agreed to a security framework with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is Hindu, that committed to combating terrorism, including several Sikh extremist organisations."

Ontario's "The London Free Press" (December 12) gave more reasons for the Sikh anger and fears of being "lumped up with a lot of Islamphobia" as Sikhs are already subject to hate crimes, being a "highly visible minority in this country". It quoted Rattan Mall, Editor of the "Indo-Canadian Voice", admitting that some groups in Canada use "anti-Indian" and "abusive" language, but there are many who do not support the idea of "Khalistan". Their main fear is "stereotyping", as there are still people who think that someone with a turban is a terrorist. 

The problem is the divergent way Canada and India look at these contentious issues. An Indian daily quoted our High Commissioner in Canada saying early this year: "Unfortunately, Canada is the only country which is providing a platform or is seen to be providing a platform to the Khalistani elements".

To this, Canadians say that advocating for an independent Sikh state is no different from wanting Quebec to separate from Canada, which is not a crime in Canada. Also, mere extremism without violence or overt acts is not an offence in Canada, the USA or even in the UK. Canada has been trying to reduce radicalisation through "Kanishka Project" since 2011.

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