Indian politics front and centre in Ontario as legislature debates law declaring Sikh genocide

Diaspora politics at its worst (the Ford government also changed the requirement for Canadian Sikhs to wear helmets given similar pressures).

Concordia Professor Frank Chalk’s comments at the end position the issue correctly:

The emotionally fraught politics of India are poised to again engulf the Ontario legislature, as opposing Indo-Canadian factions pressure lawmakers over a contentious private member’s bill commemorating a 36-year-old massacre.

The legislation to create a “Sikh genocide week,” introduced by the MPP brother of federal New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh, marks riots in 1984 that saw thousands of Sikhs killed in New Delhi and elsewhere in India.

The killings, encouraged by leaders of the then-ruling Congress Party, remain a festering wound for many Sikh-Canadians. But the terminology in the bill is a red flag for Delhi, and a previous Ontario motion that called the attacks genocide helped raise tensions between Canada and India.

Allies of the current Indian administration — itself under fire for persecution of another minority group, India’s Muslims — were expected to show up in force at Queen’s Park Thursday to voice their opposition to the bill.

Sikh organizations have been working behind the scenes to rally Ontario’s governing Conservative party to back the legislation, adding to expected votes from the NDP and Liberals. One source said more than 40 Tory members pledged their backing this week, anxious not to alienate the powerful Sikh voting bloc in the suburbs west of Toronto.

With that amount of Conservative support, the bill would easily pass second reading in the 124-seat house, a rarity among private-member’s initiatives.

Ivana Yelich, Premier Doug Ford’s press secretary, said Wednesday only that the government is “reviewing” the legislation, and could not reveal what was said about it at a Tory caucus meeting Monday.

Meanwhile, a leading academic expert on genocide said Wednesday the 1984 attacks, as horrific as they were, simply did not meet the internationally accepted definition of the term.

New Democrat Gurratan Singh, who introduced the bill last month, could not be reached for comment. But as he unveiled the legislation, he said the Sikh community’s cries for justice over the event have gone unheeded.

“The trauma of this genocide is real and still impacts Sikhs that call Ontario home,” said Singh. This bill will create a time to allow for reflection and help begin the process of healing for thousands of Sikhs (who) continue to suffer.”

But Anil Shah of the pro-New Delhi Canada India Foundation said the killings were reprehensible acts of revenge, not government-perpetrated genocide. Suggesting otherwise will further anger the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who already believes the federal Liberal government favours the Sikh independence movement. He pointed to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s ill-fated trip to India, where Modi largely gave him the cold shoulder.

“There are going to be repercussions” if the bill passes, Shah predicted. “At this point, we should talk about building relations with this country, we should talk about the trade. Something that happened 35, 36 years ago … that has no relevance.”

After two Sikh bodyguards murdered prime minister Indira Gandhi in 1984, a wave of pogroms saw at least 3,000 Sikhs slaughtered by rampaging Hindus, encouraged at times by prominent Congress officials.

The Ontario legislature passed a motion in 2017 at the instigation of a Liberal member describing the events as a genocide. The Indian government at the time called the motion “misguided,” and a misunderstanding of India’s history and legal system. It added to a perception in New Delhi that Liberals federally and in Ontario favoured the Khalistani or Sikh separatist movement and helped put a chill on relations.

But is there, in fact, merit to declaring the vicious pogroms of 1984 as something akin to the Holocaust or the Rwandan massacre?

As it turns out, there is United Nations genocide convention that defines the term, and what happened to the Sikhs, while likely a crime against humanity, does not meet that definition, says Frank Chalk, a Concordia University history professor and past president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars.

While the  victims were clearly targeted because of their religion, the killings were not part of a “long-term, sustained and systematic” effort, perpetrated by government, to wipe out the Sikhs, which is how genocide is described in the UN convention, he said.

“I have enormous sympathy for the Sikh community and the crimes inflicted on the Sikh people in India after Gandhi was assassinated,” Chalk said. “But I fail to sympathize with the priority that some leaders of the community in Canada — not all — give to labeling their suffering and victimization as genocide. I know that gets more media attention … so it’s understandable from the point of view of communications and public relations.”

Source: Indian politics front and centre in Ontario as legislature debates law declaring Sikh genocide

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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