The poisonous twin-seeds of pandering for votes and mainstreaming foreign disputes into Canadian polity have begun to bear fruit. The division of Canadian society has kicked into a higher gear.
For the last many years, several people have been warning against according too much importance to events happening in the countries from which immigrants originate. While it is true that we live in an increasingly globalized world, it is imperative to maintain local issues at the forefront of our national dialogue. However, this principle regularly collides, and loses against, the politicians’ quest for popularity. Another factor is the ever-increasing population of a handful of demographic groups courtesy of immigration. Whatever one may think of these groups’ increasing clout in Canadian politics, it is a reality that cannot be wished away. Politicians are, by their very nature, going to covet these groups’ support, and the groups are happy to provide it in return for the politicians’ support for their causes from ‘back home’.
I see a major difference in the benefits that accrue to these two components that together make up the side that is in opposition to the other side, viz. the one that seeks to maintain a predominance of local issues in local politics. While the individual politician’s gains last for a decade or two at best (after which their career in active politics is over), the demographic groups that they support gain a permanent advantage vis-à-vis other interest groups (and Canadians at large). Moreover, as time progresses, this clout gets consolidated and enhanced. In the zero-sum game of politics, this naturally results in the erosion of the influence / importance of other constituencies.
The need to strike a balance between the interests of specific constituencies versus the national priorities of Canada has largely been ignored in recent years. I believe that we are now entering a period where we will begin to see decisive outcomes of this ‘policy of neglect’.
In recent months, the passing of bills relating to farming in India has resulted in protests in the Indian diaspora, including in Canada. In a similar vein, there has been opposition to these protests, again in the Indian diaspora. When it comes to Brampton, I can say confidently that these protests & reaction to them have quickly degenerated into sectarian division. I came across the first instance of this about a month ago, when someone posted a clip of an audio call that he had received from an unknown person. Let us call them Person-A and Person-B respectively.
Person-A was at a store when the call came in. Person-B claimed to be a Sikh, and that he knows where Person-A lives. Speaking aggressively, Person-B issued threats, including a threat of sexual violence against Person-A’s daughter. Person-A posted this clip on a local Facebook group, where many members are Sikh. They rejected Person-A’s claim, saying that it was a ‘set-up call’ (akin to a ‘false flag’), and threatened him with police action if he couldn’t prove his claim. Person-A responded that he had already notified the police of the matter.
We should bear in mind that Person-B’s claim of being a Sikh cannot be proven from this clip. Pending the conclusion of the police investigation, it would be unwise to take the clip at its face value on this score. However, the clip does raise the disturbing question as to the degree to which internal dissension has progressed for such a clip (genuine or otherwise) to surface in the public sphere.
Person-A later shared with me details of the police notification. I consider it necessary in the interest of public harmony for their investigation to be concluded and made public in a timely manner.
As is common with issues where the Sikh-Canadian community is involved, in the case of anti-farm bill protests also, the discussion soon involved accusations about the involvement of the Khalistan movement, and their mirror-image, viz. accusations of malicious action by the Indian government aimed at maligning the entire Sikh community in the name of the Khalistan movement. When it comes to the discussions happening in Canada, one element of this complicated issue is missing, viz. that the idea of Khalistan, in its current iteration, was actually promoted by Mrs. Indiara Gandhi, as a way to regain power after her electoral defeat in 1977. The strategy succeeded, at least in the short term – she was re-elected in 1980. But by 1984, the movement that she had created became problematic for her, and eventually took her life in October of that year, when she was assassinated by her own Sikh bodyguards.
Supporters of the Khalistan movement in Canada will probably be loath to acknowledge that their movement was started by the person who was, and continues to be, the object of their intense dislike (to put it mildly). So it is to be expected that they never state this fact. What bothers me is that Canadian politicians who seek to gain political mileage via this issue either don’t bother to inform themselves of this reality, or if they know about it, maintain a discreet silence about it. The media is also largely silent on this.
The fact of the matter is that the Khalistan issue is immensely complex, and Sikhs in India have largely moved on. Whatever complaints that they have against Indian governments (and there are several genuine ones), they seek to resolve these within the framework of the polity of India. As far as they are concerned the movement is over. Unfortunately, pointing to this reality itself attracts and invites intense reaction from the supporters of the movement in Canada, as happened recently with former CBC journalist Terry Milewski and the organization that published his piece about this, the McDonald Laurier Institute.
The sum total of all this is that the origin, as well as the eventual fate (in India), of the Khalistan movement remain unspoken truths in the public sphere in Canada.
On February 28th, a group of Indo-Canadians in Brampton took out a car rally with a stated aim to celebrate the cooperation between Canada and India. This was, I suppose, prompted by the announcement of the delivery schedule of AstraZeneca vaccines from India to deal with the shortage in Canada.
I saw still and video images of the event that were taken as it was being disrupted by people who claimed to be pro-Indian farmers. The rally organizers claimed that these were pro-Khalistan people. There was some violence from the disrupters. I tweeted about this, as follows:
“The poisonous twin-seeds of pandering and mainstreaming foreign disputes in Canadian polity bore their inevitable fruit yesterday in Brampton. A rally to celebrate cooperation between India & Canada was violently disrupted.”
This tweet evoked replies claiming that the rally was, in fact, in support of Indian Prime Minister Modi, or of the farm bill. Going by their user names and profile photos, most of these people are Sikh. Perhaps they know why it is bad to take out a rally to support either, but I don’t. Whether I agree with the farm bill or not, I support people’s right to demonstrate and assemble in a peaceful manner. The organizers of the rally seemed to have informed the police in advance as well, as I saw police vehicles in the images of the rally.
Interacting with these responders on y tweet was interesting. One had a user name ‘Bhakt slayer’. The word ‘bhakt’ originally means ‘worshipper’, but in the current political context, is used for anyone who supports PM Modi of India, and is meant in a pejorative sense. This person identifying him/herself as a ‘slayer’ is problematic to some degree. Another person called me ‘RSS terrorist’. RSS is a sister organization of BJP, the party in government in India at present, to which PM Modi belongs. It is a controversial organization. The acronym stands for ‘Rashtriya Swayamseval Sangh’, meaning ‘national volunteer union’. Some of these respondents sent me private messages, with one of them saying that ‘You’re an idiot’.
For me, the whole situation boils down to this: The unquestioning acceptance of, and obeisance to, the narrative of one side in a foreign dispute by our political class has had the effect of importing into Canada the divisions that the dispute caused in the country of its origin. This is antithetical to unity in Canada.
Moreover, this also results in it being increasingly difficult to not only to offer a counter-argument to the narrative, but even to remain neutral about the dispute. In an online exchange with another person on this incident, I wrote, “When the two parties in a disagreement are Partisans and Non-Partisans, remaining non-partisan makes one a partisan”. In other words, unless one agrees unreservedly with what one party is saying, one is seen as an opponent.
Canadians pride themselves by deriding the intense partisanship in US politics (and elsewhere in the US society), claiming that we are a lot better. That may be true, but we are also getting there.
In the late 1980’s, one of my colleagues was a Sikh gentleman named Manjeet Singh. We were in Ahmedabad, the largest city in Gujarat state. Manjeet Singh had a beard, but his hair was shorn, and so he did not wear a turban. After a period of working together, we had become comfortable with each other, so I asked him why he didn’t wear a turban. He said that he used to, but in the anti-Sikh riots that followed in the wake of Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination, he had his hair cut, and stopped wearing a turban. A turban being an easy way to establish his identity as a Sikh, he felt safer not wearing one. I told him that this may have been necessary in Delhi (where he used to live when the riots happened) in 1984, but a couple of thousand kilometers away and five years later, he should feel safe.
He looked me in the eye and said, “Darshan, what if it happens again, in a different place, for a different reason?”
(As a side note: Even using the term ‘anti-Sikh riots’ is controversial in Canada, with many preferring to call it ‘genocide’. Using the former turn is seen with intense dislike. This ties in with the point about polarization that I mentioned earlier.)
One reason for Manjeet Singh’s apprehension was that, owing to the deep divisions in the Indian society, trouble could erupt at any time, and in any place. A couple of years before I asked the question to Manjeet Singh, there had been riots in Ahmedabad that lasted for over two months. A big part of the responsibility for this state of affairs was the policy of successive governments, going back to the times of British rule, to make laws, rules and policies aimed at specific segments of the society. Ostensibly for the benefit of these groups, these measures mainly served to deepen the pre-existing divides between them and other groups. Each piece of special favors and preferential treatment for one group exacerbated the animosity towards that group among others.
I believe that our policy of excessive multiculturalism, politicians’ tendency to opt for the easy method of pandering to various groups, and the increasing presence & relevance of cultural silos combine to produce the same incendiary conditions that exist elsewhere in the world, one which many people seek to move away from by immigrating to Canada. When they see their former reality catch up with them here as well, they are prevented from voicing their opposition because the social environment ostracizes any dissent on these matters. This only serves to increase their frustration – and to make the situation even more volatile. This, in turn, results in erosion of the sense of a shared destiny that makes a nation; each group has a vision that is different from, and incompatible with, the vision of other groups. The logical conclusion is that at some point, Canada will no longer be a nation in the true sense.
Some years ago, Prime Minister Trudeau made a remark that Canada is a ‘post-nation State’. Many people derided him for that remark. But looking at the social trends and political processes that are afoot, I am afraid that we may end up being a ‘non-nation State’ at some point. I am no social scientist, but I suspect that such States don’t survive for long. At the very least, their sovereignty doesn’t survive for long.
As the situation around the issue of India’s farming bills drags on, I am seeing disturbing messages floating around within the factions of the South Asian community. In one instance, someone exhorted people of his sub-ethnic group to refrain from patronizing businesses owned by members of another sub-ethnic group. Seeing this message reminded me of my schoolmate Inderjeet Singh, who explained to me how spoken Hindi differs from the Hindi that we were being taught in Grade 6. He wasn’t a very bright student (his forte was sports), and I still remember the satisfaction on his face at having been able to impart a piece of knowledge to a non-Hindi speaker. He did this without any expectation; sharing made him feel good. This prompted me to help him out in subjects like math and science over the year. As children, we knew, intuitively, the value of cooperation.
The division that is being fed by political processes, both local and foreign, has begun to fray the cooperation that existed between sub-ethnic groups in the South Asian community of Brampton. Instead of Canada making immigrants Canadian, immigrants and their politician supporters are making Canada more foreign. The silver lining in this disturbing situation is that we still have a nation, and our sovereignty, so we may have some time to redress the damage that has been done.