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How the Sikh community in Canada is reacting to the India-Canada standoff


The Canadian government charges that the killing in June of the Sikh Canadian activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar was an assassination by India. Mr. Nijjar was branded a terrorist by India. He advocated an independent Sikh homeland. Canada has the largest Sikh population outside of India. We turn now to Moninder Singh. He's with the British Columbia Gurdwaras Council and joins us now from Vancouver. Mr. Singh, thanks so much for being with us.

MONINDER SINGH: I appreciate the time. Thank you.

SIMON: We'll emphasize these are allegations. No proof's been offered, no legal cases filed. But what is your reaction to the charges?

SINGH: I think initially it was a combination of validation - I think the validation comes from 40 years of actually speaking about foreign interference on behalf of India and Canada, especially amongst the Sikh community. And I think there's a bit of frustration that came with it. For over a year, Hardeep Singh was warned by Canadian intelligence that his life might be at risk. Not much was done in the form of protection when he was shot and killed in a gurdwara parking lot. That kind of, like, caused this, now three months later, for this foreign interference piece to come out. So it feels as though it's a bit late, and we had to lose somebody to get here. But there's also - I know there's an appreciation in the community that at least the government has recognized India's role.

SIMON: Is the question of a separate Sikh state an important issue to Sikh citizens of Canada?

SINGH: I think it's becoming more and more important to Sikhs in any diaspora community, especially because once they leave Punjab, they start seeing the freedoms that are available to them in other countries, the fear that kind of goes out of them when they land out here as opposed to when they're living at home. And I think a lot of it - you have to take into consideration four decades of violence, abuse, discrimination that Sikhs have been kind of subject to. Now I think a little bit of that has changed as well with Hardeep Singh's murder. There are activists that are in our community now that are wondering that - you know, what they left Punjab for when they came to the West. It seems to have followed them out here as well.

SIMON: Do they feel vulnerable?

SINGH: I think that's a reality now for us that - after Hardeep Singh's death. So there is definitely that feeling amongst many activists, especially the newer ones. Some of us that are more, I think, seasoned - you know, we know India is capable of anything. We know that they could carry out potentially something like this. We've never seen it before. But I think there is a sense of anxiety within the activist circles for sure. But even amongst the general public, after stopping, you know, visa applications for anyone and - that go back to India in Canada, that was a harsh move, I think, for a lot of people that are just average citizens or, you know, average Sikhs that not actually connected to the Khalistan movement at all.

SIMON: Let's explain that. There's been a back-and-forth where both countries have expelled diplomats, and India has put a hold on visas to citizens of Canada.

SINGH: Absolutely. The impact is huge. You know, you have millions of people in this country that actually are from that subcontinent. And many of them have ties back home with family, with businesses, with just personal connections. And some of them are kind of apprehensive to go back because of this back-and-forth that's going on right now. So we're seeing and hearing a lot about that as well. That apprehension and fear and anxiety is rising as this back-and-forth continues.

SIMON: What do you hope might happen next that might make the atmosphere easier to live in?

SINGH: We need to know the truth. We need to know deeper, actually, as to how deep kind of India's infiltration actually goes in Canada. So our call is actually for a public inquiry. We would like a public inquiry within Canada, specifically on India's foreign interference that's undermining Canada's sovereignty. We'd like to see how far, how deep that goes. If they've gotten to murder now or political assassination on Canadian soil, how much more have they done to actually lay that groundwork? How many years have they been operating? Who are those operatives? One step beyond that, we also are calling for an end to all intelligence-sharing and security agreements with India, which actually - there will be short-term loss, maybe, when it comes to going back and forth between India for some people. But for the greater good of actually what we need here, especially after India has potentially done, it has to be followed up on. And an inquiry is the only way, in our opinion.

SIMON: Ostensibly, India and Canada are friendly countries with each other. India is the largest country in the world now and an economic power, and Canada doesn't want to close themselves off from a relationship with India. How do you balance that?

SINGH: I think that for us, it's up to Canada how they balance that and the government specifically. I think you have a fair point that there's a lot of relationships here that are at stake that are very kind of, like, broad to all Canadians and not just the Sikh community. But as the Sikh community that's kind of impacted by this political assassination, our job and our work is to continue with the call for the public inquiry and a freezing of these agreements.

SIMON: Moninder Singh is with the British Columbia Gurdwaras Council. Thank you so much for being with us.

SINGH: I appreciate it. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Hadeel Al-Shalchi
Hadeel al-Shalchi is an editor with Weekend Edition. Prior to joining NPR, Al-Shalchi was a Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press and covered the Arab Spring from Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, and Libya. In 2012, she joined Reuters as the Libya correspondent where she covered the country post-war and investigated the death of Ambassador Chris Stephens. Al-Shalchi also covered the front lines of Aleppo in 2012. She is fluent in Arabic.