What Indians need to understand about Sikhs in Canada
The Indian media machine is trying to discredit Sikh Canadians; their obsession with our success betrays their attempt to try to appear unthreatened by Sikhs in the diaspora.
While the world was occupied with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Bollywood-themed outfit changes last week and the invitation of Jaspal Atwal to a Canadian reception in India, the conversation at my dinner table Sunday night took a very different turn. My 3-year-old niece was at my house in Toronto, and her parents were discussing a children’s book they had bought for her called “I Am Not a Number.” The book follows a little First Nations girl as she is put into a residential school. The residential school system, now acknowledged as an act of cultural genocide – an act for which the Canadian government has since apologized, saw children experience horrific physical, sexual and emotional abuse.
As we discussed what happened to Irene, the main character, my niece, proud turban wrapped around her unshorn hair, said, “They cut her hair.” She understood the pain of the act of cutting Irene’s hair as it linked to her own faith and experience as a Sikh. This moment, this conversation, this empathy for an 8-year-old First Nations child was entirely a product of what my niece has inherited through her own history.
“Intergenerational trauma” is a term used to describe how a traumatic event can be residually transmitted into generations that may not have experienced the event firsthand. Indigenous communities in Canada (First Nations, Métis and Inuit) have experienced many forms of violence at the hands of the Canadian state, and these in turn have informed the actions of generations.
Similarly, Sikhs have inherited the trauma of their ancestors in a way that continues to shape our thoughts, our behavior and our relationships. In June and November of 1984, more than 15,000 Sikhs (by conservative estimates) in Punjab were the victims of horrific, intentional and strategic attacks by the Indian government. As the Ontario legislature cemented in a historic motion last year, what happened to Sikhs in Punjab in 1984 was genocide. Leading up to the massacre, a post-partition Punjab was struggling to regain some semblance of self-governance. From this arose the Anandpur Sahib Resolution (ASR), a document derived from the consensus of the Sikh community that demanded specific linguistic and cultural rights while still maintaining that Punjab remain an Indian state. Sikhs were asking for rights to their own land, water and education as well as access to their own capital city (which still remains in the control of the central government).
As this struggle continued, in the late 1970s and early ’80s, the Indian state began to increasingly target Sikhs in extrajudicial attacks. In 1978, 13 peaceful protesters were killed in a massacre for which no one has been held accountable, even 40 years later. This conflict, between citizens demanding democratic rights and an increasingly authoritarian government, came to a head when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered a full scale military attack on Harmandir Sahib, the central socio-religious institution of the Sikhs. She did so with the stated purpose of “flushing out militants” who were simply the Sikh political leadership, none of whom had been charged with any crime. Equipped with tanks and guns, the Indian military brutally murdered the thousands of civilians who were at Harmandir Sahib seeking spiritual refuge. Simultaneously, Indian troops attacked other Sikh institutions, burned down libraries, declared a media blackout and maintained a state of emergency. No one was ever charged for these crimes.
The astounding thing is, despite baseless claims to the contrary, Sikhs have not been radicalized by their trauma. Rather, they have been strengthened by it. As a generation raised in the aftermath of the 1984 genocide is now working as educators, activists, artists, homemakers and laborers, we have used our experience to transform the Canadian landscape. We have taken our parents’ fight for justice and used it to become engaged in politics. We have taken the stories whispered from our widowed grandmothers’ lips and turned them into poetry. We have taken our love for our identity and taught our young daughters to care about the little girls on whose land our daughters are settled. We have heard the calls to action of those whose land we occupy and have committed to helping them, because we know all too well the experience of state violence.
Last week has saw the dusting off of the trope of the Sikh terrorist. Journalists have been pulled out of retirement to make their same tired statements. There are endless experiences of being Sikh Canadian; to group us all as terrorists is not only harmful but also lazy journalism. The media coverage this past week, which has rushed to reclaim that radicalism is flourishing in Canada, has not paused to make the distinctions that Sikhs are not terrorists. Asking for basic rights, speaking out about human rights abuses and contemplating a day when your people are not discriminated against does not make you an extremist. One can only assume these elementary distinctions are disregarded not out of apathy but rather out of a willful attempt to paint all Sikhs with one brushstroke.
The Indian media machine has gone into overdrive trying to discredit Sikh Canadians; their obsession with our success betrays their attempt to try to appear unthreatened by Sikhs in the diaspora. They are inadvertently highlighting that the very population they tried to systemically eradicate has come to flourish and be in a position to mediate their interactions with the free world.
So, while the world outside our home talks about Trudeau’s fashion choices and his mistakes with Atwal, our conversations around the Sikh Canadian dinner table are very different. Trudeau needs to come back; his work here is waiting for him. We need him to come home and get clean drinking water on reserves, complete the inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, and address the suicide epidemic for young indigenous people on this land. Having survived the atrocities of the Indian government, we will not sit around while Trudeau’s government fails to actually remedy the continued violence against those on whose land we have settled.
Jaspreet Bal is on the board of directors for the Sikh Feminist Research Institute. She is based in Toronto.
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