One of the two bodyguards who assassinated Indian PM Indira Gandhi in 1984 was posthumously feted last month by some Canadians. The implications of this go far beyond our bilateral relations with India.
The issue of Khalistani separatism has been a feature of Canadian politics for 4 decades now. In September, Prime Minister Trudeau catapulted this long-running issue into the stratosphere by accusing the Indian government of complicity in the killing in June of Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Surrey. For a couple of months, the main criticism of his statement boiled down to the fact that he had offered no evidence – or even some basic corroborating facts – to support his accusation. Then, in the final week of November, the situation changed (especially for those who believed him) when federal prosecutors in the US unsealed an indictment in a similar case involving the alleged plot (although an aborted one) to kill another Khalistani activist, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, on US soil. However, as veteran journalist Terry Glavin has dissected in his National Post article, “(the) unsealed indictment does not implicate the Modi government in either the foiled Pannun plot or Nijjar’s murder’. Sadly, in the slanted landscape of public discussions in Canada, a sizeable proportion of Canadians are unlikely to read the fine print in the US indictment as Mr. Glavin has done.
In the meant time, an event took place in Canada that – if one deigns to take notice of it – serves to bolster the claim of the Indian government as to how official Canada turns a blind eye to events happening here that are bound rile up the Indians. Of course, these events are on a wide spectrum and thus evoke different reactions from India in terms of intensity. Demonstrations by Khalistanis in front of Indian diplomatic missions are of different intensity from issuing barely veiled threats against Indian diplomats posted in Canada, for example. In early November, an event of this nature took place in Toronto that, in my view, would be especially aggravating to the Indians – but curiously, doesn’t seem to have evoked any response from them, at least publicly. I also do not find it having been reported in the Canadian media (more on that later).
As most of us know, on 31 October 1984, Beant Singh and Satwant Singh, the two bodyguards entrusted with the safety of the then Indian Prime Minister Indiara Gandhi, opened fire on her, killing her instantly. The two were captured alive, but Beant Singh was killed soon afterwards in a dispute with the guards who had arrested them.
On November 5 of this year, a shaheedi sammelan (gathering for the martyrdom) of Beant Singh was held at the Sikh Spiritual Centre located in the Rexdale area of Toronto:
In fairness, I must mention that according to the Wikipedia entry on Beant Singh, the highest religious authority in Sikhism, the Akal Takht, declared both Beant Singh and Satwant Singh as ‘martyrs of Sikhism’ in 2008, and has observed their ‘martyrdom day’ on 31 October every year since then. However, it is doubtful if this ‘martyrdom day’ is observed in Indian states other than Punjab (and possibly the bordering state of Haryana) – or indeed anywhere other than at the Akal Takht. Therefore, the usual opposition to / criticism of the defense of ‘freedom of expression’ in relation to Khalistani activities gets complicated in this case: if it happens in India – even if at only one location – why should it be problematic if it happens in Canada as well?
A FINE DISTINCTION
This brings us to the fine distinction between what is legal versus what is desirable. My view is that the desires and actions of the Khalistani activists in Canada are directly – and increasingly, seriously – athwart Canada’s interests vis-à-vis our relationship with India. We see this happening in relation to diasporas from other countries as well – but let us stick to this one for now.
Here it is worth revisiting the oft-stated truth that for all practical intents and purposes, the Khalistan movement is dead in India, whereas it thrives in Canada. Therefore, it is likely that the Indian authorities view the observance of ‘martyrdom day’ in the Akal Takht as being not problematic – but they may view similar events in Canada through a different lens. But my main point in this article is to explore the implications of this even beyond our bilateral relationship with India. Let me offer my thoughts on this.
THE JOURNALISTIC ANGLE
As the month of November began, I was approached by a major publishing house in Canada to write an article on the current state of Canada-India bilateral relations. I had just come across the information about the shaheedi sammelan for Beant Singh, which I included in my article. About 3 weeks later, when the news of the US indictment broke, I wrote to them, asking if they wished me to amend my article to incorporate that news in my analysis. The editor wrote back to me saying that they had decided not to publish my article.
Now, publishers deciding not to publish articles submitted to them is routine. However, there were several aspects that made this an unusual case. For starters, I had not submitted my article unsolicited – they had asked me to write it. In a sense, they had commissioned the article. Secondly, they were perfectly aware of my stance on this issue, so the gist of what I had written should have come as no surprise to them. Ditto for my style of writing. And lastly, if they did decide not to publish my article, in light of the fact that they had invited me to write it, the least that they could have done was to let me know of their decision not to publish it. Their decision and subsequent silence could only be due to something that they were apprehensive about publishing. Given their familiarity with my writing, one would naturally wonder as to what this ‘something’ was. The way I see it, the only part of my article that could have come as a surprise to them was the information relating to the ‘martyrdom day’ for Beant Singh.
This leads me to a disturbing conclusion: A major publishing house in Canada decided not to publish a piece of writing ONLY because it included a fact – I repeat, A FACT – that is seen as politically sensitive. For all my criticism of the way the media functions in Canada, this was still a letdown of serious proportions. But what can we conclude about ALL the media based on one instance involving one media outlet? That is a valid question.
The answer is that, given the heightened tensions between Canada and India over the past 12 weeks (as of today), I would have expected at least one of the media outlets to get wind of the ‘martyrdom day’ for Beant Singh and bring it to the public arena for discussion. But they haven’t – not even our taxpayer funded ‘national broadcaster’ that is supposed to be (or at least carries on like) the defender of Canadian national interests. This forces me to conclude that it is likely an unwritten rule in the media generally to steer clear of contentious issues, even if their silence is detrimental to our national interests, if it is apprehended that speaking about them might anger some powerful constituency. We have been seeing another instance of this over the past 2 months where CBC has steadfastly refused to refer to Hamas as a terrorist group, even though the government of Canada has listed them as one for many years.
THE POLITICAL ANGLE
Let us now ponder why no political party has made any noise about this ‘martyrdom day’. To start with, as the governing party, the Liberals would be naturally hesitant to invite more criticism for PM Trudeau’s decision to make unsubstantiated allegations against a country that is supposed to be a democratic ally of Canada. One can only speculate about the behind-the-scenes goings on, but it is likely that they want the issue not to be discussed any more than it has been already. Given their dismal (and deteriorating) polling numbers over the past few months, this is quite likely. On the other side, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh’s affinity for the Khalistan cause is well known, so I suppose they saw nothing
Worth talking about in this instance. Moreover, given that this ‘martyrdom day’ is observed at the Akal Takht for close to a decade and half, it is more than likely that it has been similarly observed by the Khalistani faction of the Indian diaspora in Canada for as long. That leaves the Conservatives, who have also been silent on the possible implications of such an event in terms of our (now much heightened) dispute with India.
Here, it is particularly worthy of mention that CPC MP’s Tim Uppal and Jasraj Hallan, as Sikhs, are well-connected with the Sikh community in the GTA. It beggars belief that they would have been unaware of the observance of this ‘martyrdom day’. Did they mention it to their party leader Pierre Poilievre or other party officials? Or did they believe that this was no big deal? And if they did bring it to the attention of the relevant people in their party, did the party believe that it was not worth risking the fallout from talking about it?
The two main entities that bring important issues to public notice are the media and the political class. But in this case, neither of them did so. My opinion is that this was because the idea was considered too controversial or risky. Whether this is a unique instance or not (and I think it is not) it leads me to conclude that we have an environment – that affects the arena where public debates happen – devoid of sunlight; the only rays piercing the darkness coming mostly from independent voices like yours truly, and the few mainstream journalists like Terry Glavin etc. At times, MSM picks up on a story that was broken by an independent voice, but only if they believe they can shoehorn it into their pre-existing narrative. For example, when I posted on X about a food bank in Brampton refusing food to international students, a whole bunch of MSM outlets reached out to me – but in almost all cases, their angle was whether this was a case of discrimination / racism. If you read the comments by readers / viewers on their websites or social media posts, the vast gap between the angle that they wanted to push and how ordinary Canadians were viewing the situation became clear… as daylight (pardon the pun).
This is what I wanted to get to in this article: the fixation with making every story fit into a predetermined mould – and the neglect of stories when they can not be so twisted – cannot but harm our interests as a nation. In fact, we have ample evidence that this harm has already happened – in spades or to a lesser degree, depending on your point of view. I wonder if this article will attract the attention of the mainstream media – and if it does, what lens they will apply to view it. I sincerely hope that it does not degenerate – as such debates do, when they happen at all – in to partisan jockeying for positioning, because a society that fails to carry out frank debates of contentious issues cannot look forward to a bright future for all its members.
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(Image Credit: Jo Christian Oteerhal via flickr.com; the image is at this link. Used without modification under Creative Commons License)