With Singh, a new chapter for Canada-India relations

A look at the history of the bilateral relationship and what Jagmeet Singh's activism means for its future. 

By: /
November 20, 2017
New Democratic Party federal leader Jagmeet Singh in Brampton, Ontario, Canada, July 13, 2017. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

Jagmeet Singh’s election as leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP) on October 1 — the first time a visible minority candidate won national party leadership in Canada — is a significant totem and path-breaking political achievement.

Symbolically, Singh’s victory is a triumph for all minorities and people of colour in Canada who have faced some form of discrimination or exclusion due to their race, ethnic origin, religion or skin colour. It is an unimpeachable marker of progress for immigrants who have steeled themselves to stomach slights, both big and small, in their lives.

Not only is Singh the first person of colour to become leader of a major federal political party, he is also the first Asian and first Sikh to do so. Undeniably, his election is a significant accomplishment on all three counts.

For the Canadian Sikh community, however, Singh’s election is a capstone nearly a century after confronting visceral racism upon arrival to the shores of British Columbia. 

Singh’s election heralds major shifts in Canadian politics and society, but also has international implications, given his and the Sikh community’s contentious tangles with the Indian government, which might be revived through his controversial stances on the Indian government’s handling of the political crisis wrought by Sikh separatism in 1984.

Singh’s own life story, his declarations on the treatment of Sikhs by Indian authorities and ostensible defence of Sikh secessionist elements could reopen wounds that still fester in both countries. Even as Ottawa and New Delhi have managed to forge a workable relationship in the last two decades, driven largely by economic ties and trade, time has not entirely healed scars caused by the crisis in 1984.

The evolution of Canada’s Sikh community

Sikh migration to North America owes itself to the British Empire. Some of the first South Asian migrants to Canada were members of Sikh army regiments who landed in British Columbia in 1887. Pejoratively known as ‘Hindoos,’ Sikhs were considered to be ostensibly ill-suited to the local environs. Sir Wilfrid Laurier, then prime minister, noted derisively that “the situation with regard to the Hindoos is serious…and, to speak frankly, I see no solution for it except quietly checking the exodus from India.”

William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada’s longest serving prime minister, was more crude, stating, “the Hindu is not suited to the climate of this country.” Locals in British Columbia irked by Sikh arrivals echoed these views. In 1914, the Japanese ship Komagata Marucarrying 376 Sikhs, was forcibly returned to Calcutta, having been refused entry in Vancouver. Soon thereafter, Ottawa enacted immigration controls that restricted Asian emigration for the next three decades. 

Changes to immigration laws in the 1950s spawned a sharp rise in emigration. A large influx of Indian immigrants entered Canada from the 1970s. Two types of migrants entered — educated professionals, who secured entry based on skills and experiences, and individuals who arrived through the family sponsorship program given family ties to existing migrants.

Through the 1970s and '80s, however, the numbers clearly favoured the latter group, who largely found blue collar jobs (as labourers, machinists, craftsmen) across industries. Tough economic times stoked tensions between migrants and locals. Many Indian and Sikh immigrants experienced intense hostility and racism. Conditions were harsh. Sikhs who came via the sponsorship route grew more orthodox than their forebears and relied on their kin and faith for relief. 

In Vancouver and Toronto, Sikh communities established several places of worship in the 1980s. The newer, more orthodox Sikhs split from their less-doctrinaire brethren who were more open to Canadian traditions. Tussles between the more ‘fundamentalist’ Sikhs and moderates broke out across many Sikh temples. Rifts also surfaced between Sikhs and those in the East-Indian community who chose to combat racism through political mobilization. 

This increasingly nativist, orthodox and insular Sikh community found solace with fellow Sikhs in the Indian state of Punjab who were in the throes of a secessionist struggle with the Indian government. Things quickly got worse. Military forces were dispatched to flush out Sikh extremists and reassert control. More violence ensued. Soon, then-Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi joined the list of casualties after being gunned down in 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards, who were enraged by New Delhi’s raid into the Golden Temple to ferret out separatist insurgents. Her killing sparked retaliatory attacks on the Sikh community in New Delhi and Punjab, causing over 3,000 deaths. The crisis, as a whole, resulted in thousands of deaths and arrests and displacement, with Sikhs fleeing abroad to escape persecution.

Such levels of political violence were not alien to India, which had experienced similar paroxysms during Partition. But the Punjab crisis represented the worst threat to India’s territorial integrity since that seminal event in 1947, which resulted in massive levels of troop deployment to keep a lid on a simmering situation. 

Sikhs were being targeted in both Canada and India. The searing conflict between Sikh separatists and New Delhi redounded back onto the Sikh diaspora in Canada. The community’s anger swelled. Those persecuted Sikhs who had to move to Canada as refugees grew resentful of India, with the potential of retributive violence from incendiary elements not inconceivable. New Delhi feared such deep-seated anxieties within the Canadian Sikh community could precipitate “a disaster waiting to happen,” as government officials put it, a fear justified by the tragedy that followed. 

The Air India factor

In 1985, an Air India flight from Toronto en route to Delhi crashed mid-air off the coast of Ireland, killing all 329 members aboard. The bombing was traced back to Sikh groups in western Canada. The man widely alleged to be the mastermindTalwinder Singh Parmar, later became a naturalized Canadian citizen, and was killed in India a few years later, in 1992. Another perpetrator, Inderjit Singh Reyat, was convicted and has now been released on parole.

Individuals aside, the culture of resentment and hostility that morphed into violence against the Indian government was shared in the Canadian Sikh community. Those sentiments remain palpable today amongst some Sikhs who clamour to hold New Delhi accountable for 1984.

Jagmeet Singh belongs to this group. 

Such views vex the Indian government. No stranger to separatist politics, New Delhi has long disdained transnational currents that question its territorial sanctity or deride its treatment of ethnic minorities. Sikh critics who propagate such views are regarded with suspicion.

Singh, in particular, has been on New Delhi’s radar, not for want of cause. He has been conspicuously prolific and consistent in criticism of India’s treatment of Sikhs during the 1984 crisis. Singh has pushed the narrative that the Indian government sought to purge Sikhs during the crisis.

"Singh’s advocacy for Sikh victims and condemnations of Indian government has not gone unnoticed in New Delhi."

At a public rally in June 2015, Singh proclaimed his views on the 1984 attacks against the Sikhs: “I was so frustrated. I was so angry that this could happen to my people. I thought, what can I do with this frustration?” 

Singh’s appeals for justice for Sikhs harmed during the riots appear linked to his own hostile experiences as a young turbaned Sikh in Canada. His desire to enter provincial politics was triggered by the Ontario government’s welcoming of Kamal Nath, the former Indian cabinet minister and alleged architect of the 1984 riots, for a visit in 2010.

Singh’s advocacy for Sikh victims and condemnations of Indian government has not gone unnoticed in New Delhi. In December 2013, the Indian government denied Singh, then an elected Ontario MPP, a visa to enter India. The reasons were clear. Akhilesh Mishra, then India’s consul general in Toronto, stated “anyone indulging in, directly or indirectly, attacking India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is not welcome to India.”

In a way, New Delhi might have served as the grist behind Singh’s recent advocacy on the Sikh issue. In December 2014, India’s Home Minister Rajnath Singh referred to the 1984 Sikh riots in Punjab as “genocide,” pledging that the Indian judiciary would dispense justice for victims. 

In June 2016, Singh called for a motion urging the Ontario legislature to recognize the 1984 crisis in Punjab and violence against Sikhs as genocide. Though Singh’s effort failed, another motion to that end passed this April. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs dismissed the April motion, judging it to be “misguided” and “based on a limited understanding of India, its constitution, society, ethos, rule of law and the judicial process.” Singh’s repeated claims that the Indian government “initiated a genocidal campaign” within its borders possibly transgresses norms governing international relations, particularly that of sovereignty. 

Growing economic ties

It is this delicate balance that Singh must adroitly navigate as NDP leader if he continues to opine on the Indian government’s actions toward the Sikhs in 1984. Not only does Singh risk roiling another state’s internal affairs as a high-level Canadian political leader, he also potentially risks straining the Canada-India relationship that has ticked upward since 2004.

Will Singh’s election as NDP leader and his politics of social justice and accountability affect Canada-India relations, which have seesawed over the last 50 years?

During the Cold War, bonhomie developed between Ottawa and New Delhi from their shared commonwealth status and consonant views on the importance of United Nations and multilateralism and global development. Differences over Cold War crises in Korea, Hungary and Vietnam gradually strained the relationship. India’s nuclear program and development tested ties further. In the 1980s, Ottawa’s interest in India was kindled by rising emigration. Troubles hereafter, as highlighted earlier, however, plagued the relationship until the early 2000s. With limited prospects for trade or security relations, there was no basis for meaningful diplomatic engagement.

Since then, however, much work has gone into reviving the relationship from its nadir in 1998, following Ottawa’s criticism of New Delhi after India became a nuclear weapons state. Investment and trade form the heart of the relationship now. 

Singh’s pointed criticism of the Indian government over the 1984 crisis will not necessarily upend a diplomatic relationship that is on a firm footing from growing economic ties. The bilateral relationship has become more instrumental and transactional, less saddled by political (diaspora) or security (nuclear) issues.

Convergence between both economies — given India’s growing demand for food and energy and Canada’s noted advantages in these commodities — will likely sustain this trend. Canadian prime ministers since Paul Martin have seen India as an attractive market for Canadian exporters. Bilateral trade has increased. Total trade in 2006 was US$3.2 billion, with India’s exports to Canada constituting US$1.7 billion and Canada’s exports at US$1.5 billion. In 2016, total trade between the two countries was US$8 billion.

Investment levels have also risen; India now invests three times as much in Canada (US$3 billion) as Canada does in India (US$1 billion). Trade spans a multitude of sectors like agriculture, oil and gas, telecom, construction and infrastructure and precious metals, etc. More Canadian provinces are involved in trade with India than ever before. Trade estimates from 2015 tell us that the leading trade provinces with India are Saskatchewan (44 percent), Quebec (16 percent), British Columbia (15 percent), Ontario (13 percent). India has become Saskatchewan’s fourth largest trading partner, given the province’s strength’s in exports like lentils, pulses, potash and fertilizer.

On a visit to India in 2014, then Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall remarked: “India is one of our most important trading relationships — our fourth largest market in terms of exports, but it’s growing faster than most.” Other provinces seem interested in the Indian market.

In effect, the Canada-India relationship has become sufficiently delinked from prickly diaspora issues. India’s economic rise has papered over fissures that have preoccupied bilateral relations, particularly issues related to the political role of the Sikh diaspora.

Here, it is important to flag the impact of the non-Sikh Indian diaspora. Hindu organizations and groups, more sympathetic to current Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party, have sought to reframe bilateral relations, emphasizing the importance of trade and investment. 

Moreover, the terms of trade are sufficiently balanced, at this point, to offset the costs of any retaliatory or punitive move by an India incensed by renewed Canadian commentary on Sikh persecution. But as India rises, this balance may prove difficult to maintain for Ottawa.

A diplomatic challenge for Singh — and Canada

While the Canadian government may attempt to find the right balance between politics and economic interests, Singh’s acerbic views of the Indian government, specifically regarding minority rights and social justice for victims of state sanctioned violence, could have unintended political reverberations in India.

The last year has seen several high profile incidents of persecution against minorities in India. Muslims, in particular, have been targeted by groups, supporters and sympathizers of Hindu nationalism. Mob violence linked to the protection of cows, a hallowed symbol for Hindus, has convulsed India. Lynchings have been carried out on Muslim men on suspicions of consuming or carrying beef. Some Hindu nationalist groups are focused on controlling ‘love jihad,’ where Muslim men allegedly conspire to marry Hindu women and convert them to Islam. 

In Kashmir, the political situation has been palpably tense since 2016, when the death of a young militant leader ignited a civilian uprising in the valley that was met by a ruthless response from Indian security forces. Young Kashmiris have borne the brunt of India’s response. Indian journalists critical of Hindu nationalism have been targeted, with some killed.

Such developments prompted Neerja Chowdhury, a prominent Indian journalist, to note that, “India is moving right. Whether India moves further right, and Modi begins to be looked upon as a moderate, I think that only time will tell.”

The Modi government has generally lagged in condemning such reprehensible activities by groups that form its base. Implicit tolerance enables the rot to spread. And the rot reinforces concerns many Canadian Sikhs hold against India — concerns that now have a high-profile political voice in Singh.

"Saying nothing could also prove damaging since Singh’s defence of Sikh rights, coupled with ideas of social progressivism, has effectively steered his rise."

Singh’s pleas for minority rights and justice could find new meaning given the Modi government’s failure in recognizing the perils of Hindu-supremacist politics; critical comments from the new NDP leader, in turn, could amplify domestic pressures on New Delhi to act.

What Singh chooses to say could harm the way India is perceived abroad. Saying nothing could also prove damaging since Singh’s defence and advocacy of Sikh rights, coupled with ideas of social progressivism, has effectively steered his rise.

Singh might touch upon such themes while mobilizing particular ethnic groups, Sikhs in particular, for the 2019 federal election, when he will face off with Conservative leader Andrew Scheer and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Singh’s pronounced advocacy for justice also markedly differs from the views of high-level Sikh officials in the Trudeau government, notably Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, who appears to hold a neutral view on the matter — supporting the rights of Sikh Canadians to openly voice their grievances against the Indian government while holding out for New Delhi to work with Ottawa to get justice for victims of the 1984 riots. Sajjan’s equipoise pales in comparison to Singh’s trenchant attitudes.

Nonetheless, New Delhi will definitely not tolerate a key foreign political figure’s mentions of its past or current failures with respect to minority rights. The lone caveat here is the extent to which Singh publicly articulates avowed grievances of the Indian government and how scrupulous the Canadian media is in interrogating this issue further, including his refusal to denounce Parmar and not just the Air India bombing.

Should the Canadian media’s focus or public dialogue bring the issue of Sikh rights to the fore, which could invite critical remarks from Singh toward New Delhi, the prospects of a diplomatic row would rise. Good or bad, Jagmeet Singh stands to usher a new chapter in Canada-India relations.