Daphne Bramham: Muslims and Sikhs of Indian descent want Canada to do more to protect them

Of note:

Like Canadians of Chinese, Uyghur, Tibetan, Russian and Iranian descent, organizations representing the Indian diaspora say their members have been subject to foreign intimidation and have seen evidence of India attempting to interfere in elections here.

They’re urging Canada to set up a foreign agents registry and add India to the list of governments exerting undue influence here.

“Canada’s racialized communities are simultaneously some of the most targeted — and vulnerable — for foreign interference, intimidation and harassment in pursuit of securing the policy objectives of foreign states,” says a March report released by the B.C. Gurdwaras Council and the Ontario Gurdwaras Committee.

That’s echoed in a joint report by the National Council of Canadian Muslims and the World Sikh Organization of Canada, also released in March.

While the reports are aimed at raising awareness, they also underscore just how complicated the issues of foreign interference and diaspora politics are.

The World Sikh Organization has been linked to the Sikh separatist movement. As recently as 2018, “Sikh extremism” was mentioned in the Canadian Security Intelligence Service annual assessment of domestic terror threats. The reference to Sikh extremism was later removed because it “unintentionally maligned certain communities.”

During Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s visit to India in 2018, concerns were repeatedly raised about Sikh separatists in Canada, and included the four Sikhs in his cabinet.

It’s a link so deeply embedded in the Indian consciousness that after a father was stabbed to death outside a Vancouver Starbucks last week and Inderdeep Singh Gosal was arrested, a Delhi-based journalist tweeted — without evidence — that it was “a shocking murder by a Khalistani radical.” Other Indian media websites posted similar descriptions.

The two March reports blame the continued stereotyping of Sikhs and Muslims on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-first policies and its attempt to spread its message to the Hindu diaspora through a network of organizations aligned with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

Since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014, human rights groups have raised concerns about the erosion of civil rights, arbitrary detention of activists, journalists and critics, and the use of counterterrorism laws to silence dissent.

In 2022, Amnesty International reported that the Indian government “selectively and viciously cracked down on religious minorities, and explicit advocacy of hatred by political leaders and public officials towards them was commonplace and went unpunished.”

It noted that “punitive demolitions of Muslim family homes and businesses were carried out with impunity.” Peaceful protests were treated as a threat to public order, and minority and marginalized communities continued to face violence and entrenched discrimination.

The joint Muslim and Sikh report alleges the Indian government — through its diplomats and an expanding network of aligned organizations — is attempting to spread the message through “bold and often public stereotyping of Muslims and Sikhs as anti-Indian, anti-Canadian, and Hindu-phobic terrorists working to discredit the BJP’s reputation and accomplishments across the world.”

The gurdwaras report echoes that concern, alleging that Indian diplomats and intelligence agencies are trying to “persuade Canadian policymakers to criminalize and prosecute Sikh political advocacy in Canada under the guise of ‘countering extremism.’”

Among the evidence cited of Indian government interference is a CSIS document filed in a 2018 immigration case. Global News reported in 2020 that CSIS said the Indian citizen, an editor known only by his initials, was involved in espionage.

It said he attempted to sway politicians into supporting Indian government interests following more than two dozen meetings in Canada with agents from India’s two main intelligence branches.

Since 2014, the joint Sikh and Muslim report says, there has been a rapid expansion of both the radical Hindu nationalist network called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Overseas Friends of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is listed on the American’s registry of foreign agents.

In 2018, the Canadian Overseas Friends of the Bharatiya Janata Party and its chapters in B.C., Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario changed their name to Canada India Global Forum.

According to the forum’s website, its mission is to “utilize the Indo-Canadian diaspora in Canada to help promote and strengthen the economic, bicultural and political ties.”

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh played a key role in Modi’s party winning successive majorities in 2014 and 2019. Quotes from its founders and early leaders citing Nazi Germany as an inspiration are included in the report. It warns that the Indian government’s nationalist policies pit Hindus against other religious minorities and that message is being exported here.

It also says that the “sectarian, discriminatory, and often hateful antipathy toward those framed by RSS and Hindutva ideology as enemies … pose a direct threat to Muslim and Sikh communities, as well as to the social fabric of Canada.”

It singles out Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh as part of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s Canadian network, noting that photos on the group’s Facebook page include images of some of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s earliest leaders “often strewn with flowers.”

Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh is a tax-exempt charity with 25 Canadian chapters or shakhas including some operating out of public schools in Ontario.

According to the its website, it encourages “maintaining Hindu cultural identity in harmony with the larger community” through structured programs of regular athletic and academic activities that develop leadership skills “emphasizing values such as self-discipline, self-confidence and a spirit of selfless service for humanity.”

Coincident to foreign interference in Canada widely discussed last month, hundreds of people gathered in Vancouver outside the Indian consulate and rallied in Prince George to protest mass arrests, internet and mobile phone shutdowns in Punjab as police hunt for activist Amritpal Singh.

Singh has been described as the leader of a renewed Sikh separatist movement and is being sought by police for attempted murder, obstruction of law enforcement and creating disharmony.

If this is a harbinger of rising Sikh separatist sentiment in Canada, Canada will have to respond, adding a further complication to the knotty problem of protecting Canadians from foreign interference, while also ensuring all citizens’ right to speak freely and be free from discrimination.

Source: Daphne Bramham: Muslims and Sikhs of Indian descent want Canada to do more to protect them

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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