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Home > Sunday Mid Day News > A familiar fear

A familiar fear

Updated on: 24 September,2023 07:53 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Gautam S Mengle |

Isolated from family and threatened by Khalistanis, Indians living in Canada find themselves in the shadow of the 1980s, a wound that they thought had healed

A familiar fear

While Sikhs in Canada face threats for not supporting the Khalistan cause, Hindus, too, are being targeted by Khalistanis with open threats to their lives and social media posts asking them to leave the country. Pics/Getty Images

At last count, the Hindus Against Injustice group had 287 members, and the count is still rising. The WhatsApp group has been formed by the Hindu community in Canada in an attempt to create a concerted effort against the rising anti-India sentiment in the country, which has become all the more pronounced over the last one week. One member talks about how he overheard someone at a mall in Mississauga, speaking about Indians using the choicest of expletives. Another talks about constantly looking over his shoulder while having lunch at a restaurant in Toronto. 

The agenda, however, is not just Hindus. The group members are vocally supportive of the Sikh community in Canada as well. One of them shares a TikTok video of a local leader’s statement, asking, “Why is he saying ‘Sikh community’ [instead of Khalistanis]? He is trying to imply that all Sikhs want a separate Khalistan. Others will be completely misinformed by this video.”

Hardeep Singh NijjarHardeep Singh Nijjar

Back home in India, retired Assistant Commissioner of Police Sunil Deshmukh, who served in the very first Anti Terrorism Squad formed by the Mumbai Police in 1989 to deal with the rising Khalistan menace in the city, is feeling a pronounced sense of deja vu. “The Sikh community has lived in fear all their lives when the Khalistan movement was active in Mumbai,” he says “They were forced to stay silent or part with their lives, and the killings were brutal in nature. People who survived that era have just now started to talk about their horrible experiences. It pains me to see the same thing happening all over again in Canada.” He underlines that the innocent always pay the price for any communal clash, as his mind drifts back to a family of three that was made to lie on the road while a truck was driven over them, because they refused to support the Khalistan cause. 

“We’ve hardly stepped out of our house for the last one week, except a couple of times to buy groceries,” a 31-year-old advertising professional from the Sikh faith tells mid-day. She lives in Ontario with her husband, having moved there a year ago, and says that their fear is two-fold: On the one hand, they are worried about the uninformed citizens automatically assuming that they are Khalistanis because they are Sikh; while on the other, Khalistanis themselves have made no bones about the fact that the Sikh community can either toe the line or prepare to become collateral damage.

Sunil Deshmukh and Rakesh Sharma Sunil Deshmukh and Rakesh Sharma 

“I grew up listening to stories about how bad it was in the 1980s, when the Khalistan movement in India was at its peak,” she says, “Now, I finally know what it was like. The Khalistan movement here has earned us many enemies. But with [PM Justin] Trudeau’s statement and the resulting backlash, I feel definite fear. My husband wears a turban and sports a beard, and he does not feel safe going out in public anymore.” 

For lakhs of Indians like her, the future is suddenly uncertain. Many of them were planning to visit India for festivities or bring family members to Canada, but all of these plans are now on hold. She tells us of a family friend, a man in his 60s also living in Ontario, whose 90-year-old father is in the hospital in a critical state. His son has given up hope of going to see him.

Khalistan supporters protest outside the Consulate General of India in Toronto, Canada earlier this month. Lakhs of Indians in Canada are currently living in fear as the two countries lock horns over the murder of Khalistan supporter Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada earlier this yearKhalistan supporters protest outside the Consulate General of India in Toronto, Canada earlier this month. Lakhs of Indians in Canada are currently living in fear as the two countries lock horns over the murder of Khalistan supporter Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada earlier this year

As per the 2021 census, close to 1.4 million people of Indian origin live in Canada, with over 7.7 lakh of them being Sikhs. In addition, there are those on work visas and students shouldering massive education loans. Each one of them has been looking over their shoulder since Trudeau’s statement.

“My parents have been calling every day since the news broke,” says a 25-year-old Sikh legal assistant staying in Vancouver. “Everybody is worried, and no one knows what news we will wake up to tomorrow.”

On Monday, Canadian PM Justin Trudeau accused the Indian government of killing Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian citizen and vocal supporter of Khalistan, a separate state for the Sikh community. Wanted in India under the Terrorist Act for a string of serious cases including assassinations and bombings since the early 2000s, Nijjar was said to be involved with the Khalistan Tiger Force, a militant outfit created for the Khalistan movement, and named as a terrorist by the government. He was shot dead by two masked men outside a Gurudwara in Vancouver on June 8.

Trudeau’s statement sparked off furious reactions from India, leading to suspensions of new Indian visas for Canadians and the Ministry of External Affairs issuing an advisory, cautioning Indians in Canada to exercise “utmost caution, in view of growing anti-India activities and politically condoned hate crimes and criminal violence”. Canada, meanwhile, has expelled an Indian diplomat and the US, too, issued a statement in Canada’s support.

While governments of the two countries battle it out in the international arena, the Indian community in Canada—Sikh or otherwise—has been living under an ever-expanding cloud of fear.

The Hindu community in the country has been the target of increasingly vile content on social media. The hateful posts, they say, surged sharply after Nijjar’s lawyer Gurpatwant Singh Pannu posted a video on social media asking Indo Canadians to leave Canada immediately. Pannu is another known Khalistan supporter and the spokesperson of Sikhs For Justice, a US based secessionist group that supports the Khalistan movement.

“It has added to the stress that we were already living with,” says Gaurav Dharmani, a 29-year-old marketing specialist who has been in Canada for five years. “It was bad enough to see images of Bhindranwale at gurudwaras. They made me feel unwelcome to a place I’ve always gone to for peace of mind,”

Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale, who was shot dead in Operation Blue Star in 1984, was the leader of the Khalistan movement in India, and also responsible for prolonged bloodshed and terrorist activities in the country. 

Dharmani emphasises something that every Sikh has been crying hoarse about—not every Sikh is a Khalistani.

“You can recognise a Khalistani by the way they behave or talk to you when they know you’re Indian or Hindu,” he says, “It irks me that they are still stuck in the 1980s. It was a horrible period but India has healed and grown since. I have seen protests against India by Khalistanis here but I’ve never once seen Indians striking back.” Sharma, who stays in downtown Toronto and heads a financial company, echoes Dharmani’s statement.

“Tiktok, which is quite popular here, is full of videos now asking us to go back to India. We are getting open threats to our lives from Khalistanis and are very scared. Who are they to tell us to leave? It is no longer like two people discussing an issue amongst themselves. The hate is blatant and right out there,” says Sharma, who is the creator of the Hindus Against Injustice group.

The group members have written to Chandrakanth Arya and Anita Anand, Indo-Canadian Members of Parliament, seeking their intervention. Their email says: “The recent call by Sikhs For Justice for Hindus to leave Canada is deeply disturbing. Such divisive rhetoric has no place in our diverse and inclusive society, and it threatens to further polarize communities. We need strong leadership to address these divisive elements and maintain Canada’s reputation as a welcoming and harmonious nation.” 

Former Canadian Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh tells mid-day that he is hearing similar reports of distress from other Indians in Canada. “There was a bit of a divide between Hindus and Sikhs in 1984, which has healed over time,” he says, “But when you have the likes of Pannu talking the way he did, it is not good for the future of our community. It is the long-term impact of such things that worries us.” He adds that the allegations made by Trudeau, too, need to be taken seriously. “India doesn’t realise that the reputation of [and consequences to] Indian minorities, no matter where they are, depends on what the government does. There is no need to be jubilant about Nijjar’s killing. It is not seen as a great act by the international community. We need to stop being jingoistic and act with the maturity expected from an emerging power like India,” he says.

A former Indian High Commissioner to Canada, on condition of anonymity, tells mid-day that Canada has always been a hotbed for the Khalistan movement since the 1980s, which has escalated because of Trudeau’s vote bank politics. “Non-Sikh Indo Canadians have always faced threats from Sikh extremist organisations,” he says. 

The worst attack by Khalistani terrorists was even orchestrated from Canada in 1985, when a bomb exploded on an Air India flight from Toronto to London, killing 329 people on board. The attack was traced to Talwinder Parmar, a known Khalistani terrorist hiding in Canada. India had sought his extradition in 1982 and the request was turned down by the then Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau—Justin’s father.

“It is the duty of the Canadian government to ensure that the right message is sent out,” says the diplomat, “but I’m not seeing any such attempt from Trudeau so far. Meanwhile, innocent people have become collateral damage.” 

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