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Rise in Extremism or Rise in Hysteria? Canadian Sikhs Setting the Record Straight

April 27, 2010 | By

It has been a tough month for Canadian Sikhs. The festival of Vaisakhi is supposed to be a time of celebration – when Sikhs have a public opportunity to share their values and explain their faith to their fellow Canadians. Instead, numerous incidents have occurred in recent weeks shifting the focus away from the Sikh principles of equality, compassion, freedom of expression, and religious freedom. Fuelled by misinformation and irresponsible leadership, public hysteria has grown over a supposed increase in extremism in the Sikh community. Here are the myths and realities behind the current controversy.

Myth: Extremism in the Sikh community is on the rise and is worse than it was 25 years ago.

Reality: This myth was first perpetuated by the Government of India for its own political interests, and quickly sealed with a stamp of approval by some opportunistic politicians. There is no evidence of any rise in extremism, and politicians or media who assert otherwise should provide proof of their claims. What there has been a rise in, is the Sikh community’s involvement in larger social causes. Whether raising millions of dollars for Canadian hospitals, sending volunteer teams to Haiti, setting up food kitchens to feed the homeless, or organizing blood drives for the Red Cross, Canadian Sikhs are at the forefront of social activism across the country.

Some recent threats against Ujjal Dosanjh have been made by unknown persons claiming to be Sikh. These have been used to support the indictment that extremism is rampant and on the rise in the Canadian Sikh community. Nothing could be further from the truth. Canadian Sikhs unanimously agree that the threatening comments posted on Facebook are reprehensible and deserve unqualified condemnation. These are criminal matters that must be addressed by the police, and the perpetrators need to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

If an entire community is to be indicted based on anonymous posts made on internet sites, then the hateful comments posted in recent weeks against the Sikh community on several Canadian news sites, could arguably be used to show a rise in racism in Canada. No doubt, in their defence, Canadians would say, nothing could be further from the truth.

What Canadians should really be concerned about is the rise in extremism in Canadian politics. Knee jerk reactions and marginalization of visible minorities has become the flavor of the day. Whether it is proposed legislation to ban the Muslim woman’s right to wear a niqab, or a call for an end to multiculturalism, or a review of “religious accommodation”, these are but examples of the fall-out from the mass hysteria that is being generated in Canadian society. The Sikhs are just the most recent victims of this frenzy.

Myth: Sikhs who support Khalistan are extremists and terrorists

Reality: One need only to look at the case of Quebec, to know that separatism does not equal terrorism. The Bloc Quebecois which is a separatist party wishing to break Quebec away from Canada, sits in the Federal Parliament. The Parti Quebecois, another separatist party, governed Quebec for several years. No one would legitimately suggest that Quebec separatists are extremists or terrorists. Yet, the same courtesy is not extended to Sikhs who may support the right of self determination for those Sikhs living in India.

There are many Sikhs who support the idea of an independent Sikh state, most commonly called Khalistan. As with Quebec separatism, this issue has been in existence in the Sikh community for decades (since at least the independence of India in 1947). Peacefully advocating for the right of a people to self-determination is a right protected by the United Nations, and promoted andsupported (at least in the case of Quebec) by the Canadian government. Canadian Sikhs should have the same right to peacefully and legally discuss these issues.

Myth: Recent violence in Brampton is related to extremism and Khalistan

Reality: There is nothing to suggest that recent events in Brampton are in any way linked to each other, to extremism, or to the call for Khalistan. On April 2nd an altercation occurred at the Sikh Lehar Centre during a protest in relation to a figure in the Sikh community. A different and unrelated incident occurred on April 18th at the Guru Nanak Sikh Centre, over the control over the management of the Gurdwara. In each incident there was some unacceptable and criminal behavior by some isolated trouble-makers that resulted in violence. The matters are being investigated by the police. Khalistan had nothing to do with either incident, and the wrongful parties in both situations have been condemned by the larger Sikh community.

Myth: India is in danger from a rise in Sikh extremism as reflected by recent warnings to the Canadian Government.

Reality: This is a myth created by the Government of India for its own political gain. Since the early 1980`s, Sikhs in Canada have been concerned about the plight of their families and other minorities in India, and have continuously raised these human rights concerns in the international arena. Canadian Sikhs have tried to expose the continuous suppression of religious minorities across the sub-continent; the alarming rate of genetic mutations in Panjab due to the Indian government`s failure to regulate the use of pesticides; and the shocking rate of depletion of Panjab`s ground water. As the Sikh community becomes even better educated and gains in its ability to expose these abuses in India, the Indian government`s desire to marginalize and suppress the Sikhs` voices also increases.

In February 1987 four Indian diplomats were expelled from Canada for undercover activities to destabilize Sikh diaspora. This was confirmed by no other than one of the expelled diplomats, M.K.Dhar in his book “Open Secrets”. These activities continue to date. The clear bias and un-relentless attack on Canadian Sikhs is only too apparent in a recent interview with CBC Radio, by India’s High Commissioner to Ottawa, Shashishekhar Madhukar Gavai. Mr. Gavai said, “ The rise of Sikh extremism anywhere is a legitimate concern for us. And I think it should be a cause of worry to Canadians as well.” He went on to say, “I mean this clearly shows the mindset of these people. They are violent, they are extremists and you know they want to suppress a freedom and voices of reason…”

Such comments from an Indian diplomat about the Canadian Sikh community are highly offensive and irresponsible. Rather than being condemned unilaterally by Canadian politicians as they should have been, some politicians have irresponsibly used these comments to score political points for personal gain. These same politicians turn to the Sikh community each election year, going on speaking tours in Sikh places of worship, in a blatant attempt to gain votes.

Sikhs in India have suffered ongoing human rights abuses and have yet to receive justice for the massacre of thousands of Sikhs in November 1984. Several of those implicated in leading the massacre continue to hold ministerial positions in India’s governing Congress Party. Before indicting Sikhs as being “extremists” who are bent on suppressing freedom and the voice of reason, Canadians should ask India to explain why it has been repeatedly identified by Amnesty International and other human rights groups as a persistent violator of basic human rights.

Myth: There is a sense of pervading fear in the Sikh community and mainstream voices are silenced.

Reality: If mainstream voices felt frightened and silenced, then the publication of this document would not be possible. The Sikh community feels safe, and does not feel threatened by mythical extremists. Mainstream, rational voices compose the overwhelming majority of the Sikh community. There is an ongoing push to expose and sideline the few bad apples that surface from time to time and give the Sikh community a bad name, irrespective of what political stripe they wear. Whenever irresponsible comments have been made by some isolated individuals in the Sikh community, they have been publicly denounced by the community, which loudly asserts its Sikh and Canadian values. Just because some media have failed to report these denunciations, does not mean that mainstream Sikh voices have been silenced. One need only to review the numerous press releases and statements given by mainstream Sikh organizations such as WSO over the years and in recent weeks, to understand this.

Myth: Vaisakhi parades are hijacked by extremist and radical elements in the Sikh community

Reality: The only people hijacking Vaisakhi parades are the opportunistic and self-serving politicians who attend them every year in an effort to gain votes and score political points. It is these few politicians making irresponsible and ill-thought statements that have once again aided in casting a shadow over Vaisakhi celebrations this year.

Vaisakhi parades are an opportunity for Canadian Sikhs to share their faith and culture with their neighbours. Tens of thousands of people gather for parades across Canada, which are great fun, well organized and peaceful. In all the years that these parades have been held, despite numbers reaching as high as one hundred thousand attendees, there has never been even one violent incident. Thousands of people are generously fed for free over an event that lasts several hours. And when the event is over, the city streets are left cleaner than when the event started. In stark contrast, the post Stanley Cup playoff celebrations on the streets of Vancouver have posed a greater threat to public safety.

Note: The World Sikh Organization of Canada (WSO) is a non-profit organization with a mandate to promote and protect the interests of the Sikh Diaspora, as well as to promote and advocate for the protection of human rights for all individuals, irrespective of race, religion, gender, ethnicity, and social and economic status.

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