Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, poses for a photograph after marching in the Vaisakhi parade in Vancouver, British Columbia, on April 13. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)
Global Opinions contributing writer

Is the Canadian government obligated to defend the moral legitimacy of Sikh separatism in India? It‘s a testament to Canada’s poorly designed political institutions that a question of such minimal public interest has come to play an increasingly prominent role in Canadian politics.

Though the danger has receded in recent decades, the violent extremism of so-called Khalistani separatists in India’s Punjab province remains a matter of worry in that country. A 2018 grenade attack in Punjab that killed three people and injured more than 20 was blamed on Khalistanis, as were a string of targeted killings of rival Sikh leaders in recent years.

The goal of establishing a sovereign Sikh theocracy at the point of a gun enjoys little support among Punjabis themselves — unsurprisingly, given 42 percent of them aren’t even Sikh. India often claims the movement is only kept alive by hostile outside forces, namely the government of Pakistan and some in the Sikh diaspora of Western nations.

There undeniably exist elements of Canada’s half-million strong Sikh community who are apologists, enablers or outright supporters of Sikh extremism. According to an intelligence assessment released by the Canadian Department of Public Safety in December, Sikh radicalism remains one of Canada’s top five flavors of homegrown terrorism, alongside Islamic radicalism and far-right fanaticism.

Under the heading “Sikh (Khalistani) Extremism,” the report noted that “some individuals in Canada continue to support Sikh (Khalistani) extremist ideologies and movements,” adding “two key Sikh organizations, Babbar Khalsa International and the International Sikh Youth Federation, have been identified as being associated with terrorism and remain listed terrorist entities under the Criminal Code.”

Though the report conceded “extremely limited” instances of Khalistani violence on Canadian soil, citing only the 1985 bombing of Air India Flight 182 by British Columbia-based Sikh extremists, both Babbar Khalsa International and the International Sikh Youth Federation continue to be blamed by Indian authorities for ongoing violence. The report explicitly refers to Canadian-based “financing” for such organizations.

Self-appointed Sikh community leaders (as well as multiple Sikh members of the ruling Liberal Party) were immediately outraged, and characterized the report’s language as an attack on Sikhism itself. To explicitly identify Sikh extremism as a danger was to malign an entire religion, they argued, and possibly even invite hate crimes. Others, however, clearly just get defensive in the same way whites or Muslims often get when extremism in their communities is highlighted.

In any case, following the push-back, the report was officially softened into incoherence last month — with revisions cynically timed to coincide with Trudeau’s attendance at Sikh festivities in British Columbia.

Out went any mention of “Sikh extremism” and their motive of a “Sikh homeland”; in came bizarrely euphemistic language about “Extremists who Support Violent Means to Establish an Independent State Within India.”

It was reminiscent of a similar episode last year, in which a proposed parliamentary motion denouncing “Khalistani extremism and the glorification of any individuals who have committed acts of violence to advance the cause of an independent Khalistani state in India” had to be dropped after certain Sikh activists complained. The Conservatives had been pushing the resolution as a way to embarrass Trudeau after it was revealed that a convicted Sikh extremist had accompanied him on a trip to India, but even this partisan goal was subject to veto by what the CBC’s Terry Milewski calls the “separatist lobby.”

Today, the Tories play a different game. At a recent gathering of Ontario Sikhs, Conservative MP Garnett Genuis earned “generous applause” when he “defended the right to peacefully advocate for Punjab independence.”

No one in the Canadian government honestly cares about appreciating the nuances of the Punjabi independence movement. “Khalistan” is an obviously stupid idea animated by fanatic chauvinism. Grandiose tales of Canada’s all-powerful “Sikh vote” are exaggerated, and are hardly synonymous with “the Khalistani vote,” in any case.

The real reason Canada’s political parties are forced to politely tolerate such nonsense is that they insist on appointing their parliamentary candidates through a ludicrously undemocratic pay-to-play nomination system that allows small, well-organized special-interest groups to gain influence completely disproportionate to their size.

Nominees for the House of Commons continue to be selected in small, secretive meetings attended by a couple of hundred individuals who have paid for the privilege. Such a process is easily corrupted, and frequently taken over by narrow religious, ethnic or ideological groups, ranging from evangelical Christians to eco-activists, who rightly perceive it as a shortcut to outsize power.

It is a testament to the political savvy of Canada’s small Sikh community that today nearly 5 percent of the Canadian parliament is Sikh, as are 12 percent of Trudeau’s cabinet ministers. Trudeau will even face down a Sikh opponent for the prime ministership in October — New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh.

Yet the same process through which Canada’s Sikh minority has secured such overrepresentation in Canadian politics has clearly secured inflated influence for the minority-within-a-minority constituency of Khalistani separatists as well. Pandering to fringe Sikh interests cannot be permitted to further compromise Canadian national security and the country’s relationship with a critical ally such as India.

Thankfully, the whole situation could be easily cured if Canada would simply adopt American-style primaries for public office. This means candidates chosen through professionally administered, open elections decided by the general public, as opposed to whatever unrepresentative gaggle of fee-paying special interests can be wrangled to fill a community hall.

Canada’s government wants a visibly multicultural democracy, and that’s fine. But there’s a marked difference between empowering a diverse populace to express its full range of opinion and merely pandering to whatever faction has learned to mobilize its grievances most efficiently.

Read more:

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