‘They can kill us’: Fear and Sikh resilience in Canada city amid India spat

3 months ago 60

Surrey, British Columbia – On a Saturday day successful a Sikh temple successful Surrey, Canada, boys and men with determined faces wield swords and sticks astatine each different successful an past martial creation called gatka.

“We are a rebellious community,” Gurkeerat Singh, a farmer, electrician, lensman and spokesperson for the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara Temple, tells me. Surrey is astir a 45-minute bid thrust extracurricular of Vancouver. The metropolis of fractional a cardinal radical is location to the second-largest Sikh colonisation successful the country.

Today, arsenic the archetypal snowfall of the play melts successful puddles extracurricular the building, there’s a tiny but encouraging assemblage watching the gatka tourney inside. “From a young age, we thatch our children to beryllium equipped and larn however to support themselves,” says Gurkeerat.

That request for the assemblage to support itself nary longer feels similar a hypothetical script successful this fast-paced suburban city, which has the slogan: “The aboriginal lives here”. Not since the assassination of Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar successful Surrey successful June.

“The crippled has wholly changed,” says 42-year-old Moninder Singh, a spokesperson for the British Columbia Gurdwaras Council.

“Now, it’s nary longer, you unrecorded to combat different time but you don’t cognize if you’ll live, the mode they’re operating. Hardeep’s assassination, though not a surprise, was inactive unprecedented.”

“They” refers to the Indian authorities and “you” to the Sikh assemblage successful Surrey, which is astatine the oculus of a large diplomatic and governmental tempest that has engulfed relations betwixt Ottawa and New Delhi relations.

[Amy Fallon/Al Jazeera]The gates of Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara [Amy Fallon/Al Jazeera]

Nijjar, the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurudwara president who came to Canada arsenic a exile successful 1997 from Punjab successful northwest India, was driving retired of the temple’s parking batch successful his pick-up erstwhile helium was changeable dormant by 2 masked assailants connected June 18 – Father’s Day.

Many successful the assemblage judge the killers were section gangsters, hired by the Indian state. They felt vindicated erstwhile Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced to Parliament successful September that determination was credible grounds that India had a manus successful the sidesplitting of Nijjar.

It acceptable disconnected a diplomatic war: Each state expelled diplomats from the other, commercialized talks stalled and adjacent visa services were temporarily affected.

At the bosom of the accusation against India lies its effort to crush a separatist Sikh question that Nijjar advocated for vocally. For the past 4 decades, galore Sikhs successful communities astir the satellite person been demanding that an independent Sikh state, known arsenic Khalistan, beryllium carved retired for them successful Punjab.

India designated Nijjar and different pro-Khalistan leaders of the Sikh diaspora, specified arsenic New York-based Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, arsenic “terrorists” – a complaint they and their supporters deny.

And successful November, national prosecutors successful the United States indicted an Indian hitman connected charges of moving with Indian authorities quality successful a bid to termination Pannun, lending further credence to concerns that New Delhi was deploying termination squads for targeted assassinations abroad.

The Indian authorities has insisted that specified acts are not a portion of its argumentation and said it is investigating the US allegations regarding the crippled against Pannun.

Six months aft the execution of 45-year-old Nijjar, a joined plumber and begetter of two, respective Sikh leaders successful Surrey accidental they person received threats connected societal media. Some person been alerted to threats by Canadian officials.

But galore successful the assemblage accidental that immoderate happens, they volition not beryllium silenced oregon defeated.

A banner with the representation  of Sikh person  Hardeep Singh Nijjar is seen astatine  the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara temple, tract  of his June 2023 killing, successful  Surrey, British Columbia, Canada September 20, 2023. REUTERS/Chris HelgrenA banner with the representation of Sikh person Hardeep Singh Nijjar astatine the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara Temple, the tract of his June 2023 killing, successful Surrey, British Columbia, Canada September 20, 2023 [Chris Helgren/Reuters]

‘Blown up successful their face’

Today, Surrey is location to astir 154,000 followers of the Sikh faith, 170,000 Christians and astir 30,000 Hindus. A hub for students, immigrants and others looking for cheaper housing, it is simply a metropolis of buying complexes, with galore boasting Indian restaurants with names similar Happy Singh Sweet Treats.

Further down the road successful Delta, a metropolis that borders Surrey, determination is simply a plaza called Little India. Unveiled arsenic a taste precinct for the South Asian assemblage successful 2016, it features boutiques similar The Turban Villa, which sells stitched turbans and accessories and provides services “for immoderate benignant of turban tying for marriages, parties” arsenic good arsenic bridal shops specified arsenic Sleek Bazar. There are besides security and migration agents, cloth stores and chai sellers.

The country is simply a microcosm of the Sikh community’s increasing stature successful Canada’s nationalist life. There are astir 770,000 Sikhs successful the state – the largest colonisation extracurricular of India – making up 2.1 percent of the population.

Many families moved to Canada successful the 1980s amid a harsh crackdown by Indian information agencies successful Punjab against perceived supporters of the Khalistan movement, which planetary rights groups condemned astatine the time. The Punjab constabulary were accused by activists, and adjacent the US Department of State, of carrying retired extrajudicial killings.

In June 1984, the Indian Army raided the Golden Temple successful the Punjab metropolis of Amritsar with tanks to thrust retired equipped separatists, sidesplitting hundreds of people, including pilgrims. Four months later, then-Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was killed by 2 of her bodyguards. An anti-Sikh massacre followed successful the streets of New Delhi and different parts of the country. Thousands of Sikhs were killed.

Today, galore spot shades of a repetition of those attacks connected Sikhs by Indian authorities – lone this time, successful Canada.

“They’re precise hopeless close present to unopen america retired – and they’re consenting to termination for it,” says Moninder, whose parents were calved successful India. “But it’s benignant of blown up successful their face. That’s the aforesaid maneuver they utilized successful Punjab, wherever they would termination and onslaught fearfulness into villages and families … ‘Your kid is next.’

“It didn’t truly person the intended effect and I deliberation that was evident a week aft Hardeep’s assassination, erstwhile astir 30,000 radical marched his coffin done the streets. I’ve ne'er seen thing similar that before.”

Moninder is inactive grieving the nonaccomplishment of a “brother”.

He describes his comradeship with Nijjar arsenic the pairing of an unusual couple. “I’m calved and raised here,” says Singh. “He’s calved and raised successful Punjab. He grew up successful a household that was warring successful the movement, was tortured by the constabulary portion helium was a teenager… He fled the state due to the fact that radical astir him started to vanish portion helium was successful college. Me, I went to simple school, precocious school, university, everything here.”

What bound them together, successful astir 2006, was the conflict for Khalistan.

The question has ever ebbed and flowed, depending connected events successful Punjab and however overmuch traction the diaspora tin achieve, says Moninder. After what helium calls the “peak violence” of the 1980s and 1990s, determination was a play of quiescent erstwhile the assemblage endured what helium says was a corporate post-traumatic syndrome upset (PTSD) earlier they realised that they needed to regroup.

“For the past decade, we’ve been increasing successful strength,” says Moninder. “We were vocal then. But present being vocal has landed a batch differently, particularly successful the societal media age. We’re capable to get into people’s homes faster. It’s easier. There’s much channels to bash so.

“India is having a hard clip dealing with america now.”

[Amy Fallon/Al Jazeera]Nijjar’s representation is everyplace successful the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara [Amy Fallon/Al Jazeera]

‘They tin termination us’

At a autobus halt not acold from the temple, Amrita Sidhu, 68, a housewife who came to Canada successful 1998 from India with her husband, tells maine successful constricted English that Nijjar was “not bad”.

“He did bully work. He made [the] gathering precise good. You spot that gathering before, helium made different gathering implicit that side,” she says pointing to the temple. “I don’t cognize what happened successful India. In India, possibly helium has a transgression record. Here, helium did bully work. He comes to the temple, helium helps people.”

When asked if she thinks determination volition beryllium different murder, she says, “I don’t cognize yet.”

Further down the highway, other an security business, a radical of young men wearing turbans basal adjacent cars, passing a cigaret around. “Everybody’s engaged shopping, getting connected with their lives,” 1 of them says with a motion erstwhile I inquire however they feel. “Nobody gives a s***. It happens.”

But galore successful the assemblage bash care.

Around the aforesaid clip arsenic Nijjar’s assassination, Sikh activistic Avtar Singh Khanda died abruptly successful Birmingham successful the United Kingdom, sparking questions from his household and friends. Months earlier, Khanda had voiced concerns that Indian constabulary had verbally harassed him via telephone and threatened his household successful Punjab.

Members of the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara are adamant the Indian authorities was down Khanda’s death, too. The circumstances are “highly suspicious”, says Gurpreet Kaur Rai, British Columbia’s president of the World Sikh Organization of Canada and a lawyer. “Although the UK authorities hasn’t travel retired to accidental that the Indian authorities was down that, we cognize that it was.”

Closer to home, astatine slightest 3 Surrey Sikhs – those who person travel guardant publically – person received a “duty to warn” announcement from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the Integrated National Security Enforcement Team (INSET) that their lives were successful danger. The notices did not incorporate circumstantial details.

Gurmeet Singh Toor, a elder subordinate of the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara, who was adjacent to Nijjar, received 1 of the notices. For information reasons, Toor has sent his 11-year-old girl to enactment with his brother-in-law. When she volition return, helium says, “depends connected the Canadian authorities and police”.

“I plead to the Canadian constabulary if they [can] seizure anybody who’s giving america [a] threat,” helium says. “Otherwise they tin termination us.”

Other Sikh leaders successful the community, specified arsenic the gurdwara’s Gurkeerat Singh and Jasveer Singh, a elder property serviceman with the planetary Sikh Press Association, regularly person threats connected societal media, they say.

The assemblage besides faces different India-related threat, accidental its leaders.

In Surrey and adjacent Abbotsford, groups purportedly linked to Indian gangster Lawrence Bishnoi are threatening concern owners, demanding ransoms from them. Bishnoi’s pack has antecedently claimed a relation successful the killings of pro-Khalistani activists successful Canada.

Jasveer Singh describes it arsenic a “different constituent of Indian nationalist thuggery”, claiming that the Punjabi Sikh assemblage is being “terrorised” economically, too.

Behind the threats, determination is “a batch of jealousy astir the Sikh diaspora” successful Surrey, helium says. “You tin astir apt spot it yourself. We’ve done precise successfully,” helium says. The state has 18 Sikh members of Parliament and determination are galore Sikh businesses, helium notes.

“We’ve held onto our heritage. We’re state fighters. We’ve held onto that … There’s a resentment that we’re newer migrants.” The gangs deliberation that the assemblage is against India and that “we don’t merit what we have”, helium adds.

‘Chardi kala’

But Kaur Rai says the assemblage is drafting spot from its faith. “There’s a conception called ‘chardi kala’, which translates into ‘rising spirits’. So, we ever effort to enactment and stay successful chardi kala, adjacent erstwhile times are tough.”

Kaur Rai, 25, herself grew up going to the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara to commune and volunteer. “We’ve ever known that there’s these issues with the Indian authorities and Sikhs,” she tells Al Jazeera portion sitting successful her car, conscionable metres from wherever Nijjar was gunned down. Yet, the community, she says, remains undeterred from its beliefs.

In the eating hallway connected the aforesaid level of the two-storey temple, a escaped luncheon is being served. We tin spot followers sitting cross-legged connected a mat connected the floor, eating among the sounds of kirtan (chanting), drums, chattering and the clanging of cutlery.

The diners contiguous see Ajaib Singh Bagri, who was co-acquitted successful 2005 of wide execution and conspiracy charges implicit 2 Air India bombings successful 1985 that killed 331 people.

“I deliberation historically, possibly a fewer years ago, the radical successful the assemblage and parents didn’t privation to speech astir Khalistan oregon adjacent accidental the connection due to the fact that we were conditioned by the Indian authorities that it was a atrocious connection to say,” says Kaur Rai.

But successful the past fewer years this has changed, she says.

“Hardeep’s decease has been a watershed infinitesimal for Surrey, and each Sikhs astir the world. People are coming to presumption with the information that everybody has the close to enactment and advocator for what they judge successful and there’s thing incorrect with talking astir oregon advocating for Khalistan.”

A demonstrator uses a microphone arsenic  others clasp  flags and signs arsenic  they protestation  extracurricular  India's consulate, a week aft  Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau raised the imaginable    of New Delhi's engagement  successful  the execution  of Sikh separatist person  Hardeep Singh Nijjar, successful  Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada September 25, 2023. REUTERS/Jennifer GauthierA demonstrator speaking into a microphone arsenic others clasp flags and signs arsenic they protestation extracurricular India’s consulate, a week aft Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau raised the imaginable of New Delhi’s engagement successful the execution of Sikh separatist person Hardeep Singh Nijjar, successful Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada September 25, 2023 [Jennifer Gauthier/Reuters]

‘Unprecedented times’

That assurance wrong the assemblage did not travel easily.

“It took a agelong time,” says Moninder, of the British Columbia Gurudwara Council. “But India has obscurity to tally present the information is retired for the full satellite that India is moving these types of operations crossed the world. They’re undermining the sovereignty of countries similar Canada, the United States, the UK.”

Still, India is not the lone 1 that has questions to answer. Given the existent threat, galore successful the assemblage present privation to cognize however their authorities successful Canada is going to support them safe.

“We don’t deliberation it’s capable for you to conscionable pass idiosyncratic and say, ‘Look, you cognize there’s a menace to your life, beryllium safe’,” says Kaur Rai. “This execution has fuelled a occurrence successful the assemblage to clasp those that are liable accountable and inquire for accountability, whether that beryllium from the Canadian authorities oregon elsewhere.”

Nijjar’s representation is everyplace successful the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara. Most prominently, helium is featured connected a poster for an unofficial Khalistan planetary referendum run that sits precocious up connected the beforehand of the temple. Previous rounds of voting were held present successful September and October. More are slated for the US. The referendum, chiefly targeting the diaspora, asks Sikhs whether they privation a abstracted federation carved retired of India.

Nijjar is besides connected the partition of the hallway wherever a placard declares that helium was the “first Khalistani person successful Canada to attain martyrdom”. It reads that helium was “assassinated by the Indian government”. And he’s connected a 2024 calendar presently being fixed retired to assemblage members.

“We consciousness his tone gives america energy,” says Gurkeerat Singh. “He was a abbreviated individual. But erstwhile helium walked into the room, helium was the tallest antheral successful the room.”

Unlike assemblage veterans who endured the turbulence of the 1980s, younger members are inactive grappling with what the implications of Nijjar’s assassination are for them.

Jasveer, of the Sikh Press Association, was calved successful 1986, 2 years aft the Golden Temple was invaded. He remembers watching a movie with his parent astir the 1980s and however she started crying, reminded of the fearfulness that had enveloped Punjab then.

Now, helium says, helium understands amended what his assemblage elders went through.

“It’s 1 happening to perceive astir it … and being hated by the Indian authorities and the nationalists that don’t privation Punjab to beryllium escaped is 1 thing,” helium says. “But to spot it instrumentality this signifier … we’re successful unprecedented times for our generation.”

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