The immigrant Sikh community of Canada enjoys a curious relationship with Justin Trudeau and his party. They support his economic ideas, but are uncomfortable with his social policies.
But what about Trudeau, how much of his politics caters to the Canadian-Sikh constituency?
Justin Trudeau, like his ideological polar opposite, Donald Trump, loves a good media controversy. His visit to India was expected to put the immigrant Sikh community in the spotlight. What eventually transpired though was an avalanche of misinformation, political shadow boxing, wild speculation, and at the end of it all, like always, a billion dollar business deal, delivered with a smile and a sound byte.
Just another day in the office for the remarkable Mr Trudeau.
With the business done and dusted, it is time for a little perspective on all the information we have been flooded with these last few days.
Sikhs make up less than 2 per cent of Canada’s population – other immigrant communities such as Chinese, Italians, Blacks etc, far outnumber the Sikhs. There are more Muslims and Hindus in Canada than there are Sikhs. Islam, in fact, is the second largest religion in Canada after Christianity. With the exception of Vancouver city in the western province of British Columbia, in no city or province are Sikhs concentrated in sufficiently large numbers to have any demonstrable effect on electoral politics. Canada, on the whole, remains predominantly White, Christian and English-speaking.
Why then all the noise?
In October last year Jagmeet Singh, a Canadian Sikh was elected the head of the New Democratic Party or the NDP, the third largest political party in Canada – a significant achievement for South Asian immigrants anywhere. On the Canadian political spectrum, the NDP is the left-most political party – to the left even of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party which defines itself as left of centre. The Conservative Party of former prime minister Stephen Harper is the only party that is right of centre.
Coming from a prosperous family of landed gentry and senior army officers in Punjab, Jagmeet Singh scripted his rise to the top of the NDP by arguing for greater multi-culturalism, higher taxes on the wealthy, greater recognition of LGBTQ rights and the rights of religious and ethnic minorities worldwide for self-determination. Jagmeet Singh’s progressive views are not endorsed by large segments of the Sikh population in Canada. As of now Singh’s politics remains a confused mix of socialism and religious conservatism. For instance, his open support for Islamic observances such as the hijab does not go down well with many Sikhs who view the foundational core of their faith as having developed in response to Islamic persecution, while at the same time tensions among immigrant Sikhs and Muslims in many countries often flare up due to predatory sexual practices such as ‘grooming’ practised by certain radicalised South Asian Muslim groups.
Torn Between Two Worlds - The Politics Of The Immigrant
Immigrant communities tend to largely favour Liberal and left leaning parties because of simple economics. Left-liberals support easier immigration laws, progressive taxation in which the rich are taxed more, and first and second generation immigrants being more likely to be located lower than higher up the economic hierarchy, stand to gain. The increased taxation is then planned to be invested in providing a wider range of social services, all of which are more likely to benefit the immigrant.
At the same time immigrants might not be very supportive of cultural aspects of left liberal politics such as increased support for LGBTQ rights, feminism, marriage outside the community etc. The world of the immigrant is made up as much of the traditional, patriarchal society of the country he left behind as it is of the new first world country, which he now calls home. The immigrant lives in a constant fear of losing touch with his roots and being reduced to a cultural nothing. The free flowing, assimilative nature of Liberal politics can threaten the instinct for self-preservation of migrant communities forcing them towards a social conservatism. For instance, migrants may prefer to be endogamous and may not want their children marrying outside the community – a stance not always appreciated by a left liberal world view.
This constant conflict between support for economic liberalism and social and cultural conservatism is a defining feature of immigrant politics.
Thus, immigrant support for left liberal politicians such as Trudeau or Jagmeet Singh therefore must not be viewed as an unconditional backing for every opinion they endorse.
The Illiberal Politics Of Punjab
Politics in Punjab is a tug-of-war between the ostensibly secular Congress party and the panthic-dharmic alliance of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with the latter often gaining the upper hand.
The Congress Party has been able to give a good fight to the SAD-BJP combine mostly because of the towering presence of Captain Amarinder Singh, the head of the erstwhile Patiala Royal Family, held in high esteem by Hindus and Sikhs alike. After the Sikh kingdom of Maharaja Ranjit Singh was annexed by the British following the Anglo-Sikh wars, Patiala replaced Lahore as the centre of Sikh revivalism and rejuvenation. As the largest of the princely states in Punjab, the Maharaja of Patiala naturally acquired the leadership of the Sikh community.
The Patiala royals though didn’t always have a rosy relationship with the Congress. At the time of partition, Nehru accused Maharaja Yadavinder Singh (Capt Amarinder’s father) of having orchestrated a genocide of Muslims from the dominions of the Patiala princely state to avenge the killings of Hindus and Sikhs in West Punjab. Capt Amarinder Singh however was swayed by Nehruvian high modernist ideals of building a modern nation-state from the wreck of colonialism and Partition, and joined the Congress party, aiming to capitalise upon his family’s standing as the preeminent voice of the Sikhs as well as enjoying the trust and support of a large segment of the Hindu population.
The Shiromani Akali Dal on the other hand identifies as a panthic and dharmic party which believes that dharma as defined in Sikh and Indic traditions should be the guiding principle of polity. As such the Akali Dal does not outright endorse secularism and liberalism, but believes firmly in a Hindu-Sikh alliance born out of a shared culture, theology, and shared destiny, that would strive to create an environment in which all individuals would be free to pursue their own faith, convictions, and interests. The Akalis thus found a natural ally in the BJP and are bitterly opposed to the Congress. The Shiromani Akali Dal is in fact the oldest ally of the BJP in India. Throughout the militancy period in Punjab, the Akali Dal remained firmly opposed to secession. The Akali Dal, like the BJP espouses, a more or less socially conservative viewpoint, which it believes is the ideal ground for the preservation and advancement of religious and cultural traditions.
This socially conservative worldview of the Akalis remains highly influential among a large section of Sikhs worldwide who do not find progressive and liberal ideals consistent with the practice and preservation of their faith.
50 Shades Of Justin Trudeau
When Justin Trudeau was elected Prime Minister of Canada in 2015, there was jubilation in India, not least because his cabinet counted at least four Sikh ministers of Indian origin. Not many had heard of Trudeau or the politics he espoused before 2015. At a time when conservatives were looking to storm political bastions everywhere – Narendra Modi had already become the Prime Minister of India, and Donald Trump and Brexit were becoming increasingly threatening, Trudeau became the toast of liberal media worldwide. Fuelled by short attention spans, and helped by the professed , it seemed the auburn-haired Trudeau with his boyish good looks could do nothing wrong. Trudeau’s PR team brashly flirted with promotional gimmicks that bordered on outright absurdity to further his image as a champion of liberal politics.
The facade however, soon began to crumble under its own weight, and the world took notice.
Nothing displayed this more starkly than when in 2016, while confidently mouthing platitudes on human rights and world peace, – a country with among the world’s worst records on human rights. Canadian-made military equipment was later reported to be used by the Saudi army in Yemen which produced one of the worst humanitarian crises of our times.
Young Canadian voters, like each generation before them, learned a critical lesson – politics is all about compromise and seldom about values. World peace and human rights are important, but so is money.
Following the outcry, Trudeau has since cut down on his rhetoric. In 2017, he sold helicopters worth $200 million to the Philippines, where President Rodrigo Duterte’s regime has been accused of thousands of extrajudicial killings. But this time, the sale was more businesslike with no catchy soundbytes on love and humanity making their way to the media.
1984 – The Wound That Festers
Part of the rise of immigrant left liberal politicians such as Jagmeet Singh in Canadian politics owes to the fact that he has often called for a motion in the Canadian assembly recognising the 1984 riots as a ‘genocide’ – a stance that won him the appreciation, if not the vote, of most Canadian Sikhs. The motion was finally passed in 2017 in the provincial legislature of Ontario, though it wasn’t Jagmeet Singh but another Canadian Sikh legislator, Harinder Malhi of Trudeau’s Liberal Party who passed the motion. The motion was a diplomatic disaster for India with the Indian embassy rushing to
The issue of 1984 riots remains an emotive issue with Sikhs everywhere. More than 33 years later, the conviction rate for those charged in the riots remains a sorry 1 per cent, with many of the most powerful conspirators having died of old age or other natural causes. Till 2013, there was a widespread belief that as long as a Congress government remained in power at the centre, no justice was possible. With the election of a BJP government, there was renewed hope in the community that justice would finally be served. The Shiromani Akali Dal was expected to influence its oldest ally to restart investigations. In this however, as subsequent events showed, Sikhs worldwide were to be disappointed. Despite repeated efforts by eyewitnesses, many of whom are now old and infirm, to depose before the CBI, little progress has been made.
Among the diaspora, this grievance gets amplified multiple times as many of the immigrants are either victims of the riots or of the subsequent violent insurgency that engulfed Punjab. For Canadian politicians of the left liberal hue such as Trudeau, this throws up an important electoral plank given their avowed concern for human rights the world over.
Talking Business Trudeau Style
Given Trudeau’s past performances, it should hardly come as a surprise that the issue of Khalistan occupied disproportionate amount of newsprint. In the ensuing media frenzy, most commentators, ignorant of Sikh politics on most days, helped further misguided narratives. For instance, reports of Trudeau’s cabinet minister, Amarjit Sohi, floating in certain sections of the Indian media mentioned that he had been arrested in 1987 under TADA. A little due diligence would have revealed that Sohi – a non practising clean shaven Sikh – was arrested not for espousing Khalistani separatism but for its ideological polar opposite – communism. Far left radical politics was popular in Punjab, especially among Sikh youth from 1930s till the 1980s. The communists, being atheists were bitterly opposed to Khalistani militants and many of their number fell to the militants’ bullets. Amarjit Sohi himself has repeatedly denied ever having supported separatist movements in India.
In the Sikh political arena, any man, woman, party, or ideology that promises justice for 1984 will instantly be lionised by a community starved for justice. In India, this is an electoral plank that has been used by politicians of every hue – from Congress’ famous ‘apology’ for the ‘84 riots to the BJP’s campaign of 2013 to Arvind Kejriwal reopening investigations in 2016. It is an even more effective tool for politicians like Trudeau or Jagmeet Singh who being citizens of another country do not have to shoulder the responsibility of actually making the machinery work, while the credibility of Sikh political figures in India – from Captain Amarinder Singh to the Badal family gets constantly undermined by their inability to secure justice. For Trudeau, for instance, all the noise about Khalistan presented a wonderful opportunity to showcase himself, once again, as a champion of human rights worldwide, thus bolstering his liberal credentials back home even among white Canadians.
In Punjab though, Captain Amarinder Singh showed himself to be a tough talking leader who made the stance of the Indian government clear to all – any support, real or perceived, to secessionist elements, will not be tolerated.
The drama, for the most part a hysteria, whipped up by ill-informed and eye-ball hungry media, appears to have reached its logical conclusion – setting aside the fluff and talking business, Justin Trudeau shook hands with the Captain and promptly announced with India, which was the main purpose of his visit. Indian companies are likely to invest $250 million in Canada while Canadian companies will invest $750 million in India creating 5,800 jobs.
In true Trudeau style, however, the pot had to be ‘liberally’ stirred and shaken first.
At the end of Trudeau’s term, it looks highly unlikely that Canada will vote to remain Liberal, leave alone going even further left to the NDP. Trudeau’s approval ratings have – from a high of 65 per cent in 2015 they’ve dipped to well under 50 per cent two years later. Conservatives are expected to make a strong comeback in the next elections and Jagmeet Singh’s NDP doesn’t seem to be in the reckoning to form a government anytime soon.
At the same time, it is equally important for India to understand that neither Jagmeet Singh nor most of his supporters have ever publicly supported secessionism in India, and that Sikh secessionism is not an idea espoused by the vast majority of Canadian Sikhs, who are in fact, a very small and industrious minority, and not an overtly powerful, numerous, and impenetrable illuminati-like brotherhood controlling the affairs of Canada as is portrayed by certain channels.
What left-liberal politicians abroad do have in their hands in the form of an electoral beating stick is India’s poor track record of prosecuting the perpetrators of one of the worst communal pogroms in its history. And they will not hesitate to use it for whatever political mileage it can generate. The onus is thus on the Indian state to demonstrate that it intends to and is capable of protecting the rights of its minorities, and put an end to all loose talk once and for all.