RANKED No. 12 on the 2022 Global Peace Index, Canada is trying to make sense of India’s recent advisory that noted “a sharp increase in incidents of hate crimes, sectarian violence and anti-India activities in Canada”. The leading daily here, Toronto Star, captured the bewilderment of many: “The language employed by Indian diplomats was that which one might expect to be used more to describe Iraq, Libya or Afghanistan”.
In April, an Indian student, Kartik Vasudev, was gunned down in front of a subway station in Toronto. More recently, on September 12, another Indian student, Satwinder Singh, was fatally shot in a shooting rampage that resulted in two more deaths in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). But it hasn’t been established yet if these were hate-motivated attacks. Toronto Police say they haven’t seen a notable increase in hate crimes targeting people of Indian or South Asian descent.
Two Hindu temples in the GTA have reported acts of vandalism in the last few months. Last year, a Khalsa religious school was also vandalised in Brampton, a large city bordering Toronto that has the highest concentration of Indians in Canada.
Yet, many feel the trigger for the advisory is a controversial September 18 “Khalistan Referendum” in Brampton, held by a pro-Khalistan organisation Sikhs for Justice (SFJ). While the organisers claimed a turnout of about 100,000, some said the figure was “wildly exaggerated”.
The advisory is being seen as a pointed rebuke from New Delhi to the Justin Trudeau government, given Trudeau’s support to the farmers’ protests in 2020.
The referendum has put many Sikhs, who want to distance themselves from hardline groups like the SFJ and aren’t exactly vociferous supporters of the Indian government, in a bind. Meanwhile, the results of the referendum will be declared once the voting has taken place at other venues across Canada and the world. Besides Brampton, voting has already been held in places such as London, Rome and Geneva.
The SFJ called the advisory “a threat to the freedom of speech and expression of Sikhs in Canada who are supporting liberation of Punjab”. “The MEA is creating an atmosphere of ‘hate-mongering’ after the Modi regime failed to stop the Khalistan referendum through diplomatic channels,” SFJ’s general counsel Gurpawant Singh Pannun said in a statement.
The SFJ, which is banned in India, is said to have claimed responsibility for the Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) attack at Punjab Intelligence headquarters in Mohali in May this year.
Khalistan has long been a wedge issue between Sikhs and Hindus in Canada. Daljit Singh Sekhon, a religious leader who identifies as a Khalistan supporter, said there’s no threat of violence between the two communities.
However, Manan Gupta, a Brampton resident who often speaks in local media on community issues, said there have been attempts to create a divide between the Indian diaspora. He cited recent attacks on a few local Punjabi broadcasters who are perceived to be pro-Indian government.
“The ministry had no other way but to raise alarm to protect and safeguard the interest of Indian nationals. This was also intended to let Canada know that India won’t let its national interests be compromised due to vote bank polarisation games played by Canadian politicians. I don’t think we will see Leicester (UK) type incidents but there have been numerous attempts to create a rift between communities. This trend needs to be reversed,” Gupta said.
Diaspora politics, over the last few years, has led to tensions between Sikhs and Indo-Canadian Hindus. Last year, at the height of farmers’ protests, there were support rallies and pro-Indian government counter-rallies in Canada.
But that’s no cause for alarm, said Mississauga-based lawyer and community leader Harminder Dhillon, who has lived in Canada for nearly four decades. “I came to Canada 37 years ago. It’s a peaceful, diverse and welcoming country. There are incidents, but these are few and far between. I haven’t seen any uptick in violence against Indians recently,” Dhillon said.
“Regarding sectarian divisions, it’s a painful reality of the diaspora – it’s tied to whatever is happening back in South Asia. Are the divisions sharper than they were in the past? It’s difficult to quantify, but sure, sometimes there’s tension and it flares up, then it calms down. But most of the time it’s related to the events happening back home,” Dhillon added.
Attempts on social media to equate farmer protests and Khalistan – as well as past violence associated with the movement – also dissuade many Sikhs, who don’t identify with the secessionist movement, from speaking openly on the issue.
“Ontario has a Sikh population of about 180,000. Out of that, 100,000 voting for Khalistan is a wild exaggeration. I am a Sikh, and I know thousands of other Sikhs in the GTA, none of them voted in the referendum,” said another resident of Brampton who didn’t want to be identified. “I am proud of my Indian heritage, but I don’t want to be branded as someone supporting the BJP government’s politics,” he said.
Beyond the Indian diaspora, too, the advisory was a major talking point. A report in The Globe and Mail noted in its headline: “Indian students warned of hate crimes in Canada”. The focus on students is important because Canada is a major destination for Indian students.
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According to the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) department, 2,17,410 student visas were issued to Indians in 2021; China, with 1,05,265 student visas, was a distant second.
“Overseas students bring in 22 billion dollars (Canadian) every year. The Canadian government’s own data shows that. International students support over 170,000 middle-class jobs. Nearly half of those students come from India alone. They are practically bankrolling Canadian post-secondary education. If the message goes out that Canada is an unsafe place for Indian students, it can lead to some serious revenue loss,” said a Toronto-based industry watcher.