Cohn: Sikh Separatists Out Of Touch With Homeland

Cohn: Sikh separatists out of touch with homeland

April 27, 2010

Martin Regg Cohn - Deputy Editorial Page Editor - The Star, Toronto, ON
Police came out in force, deployed for a weekend parade by as many as 100,000 Sikhs marching through the streets of downtown Toronto. The media also took up positions for potentially the biggest story in town on a slow news day.

It’s been a bad news month for Canada’s Sikhs: a bungled B.C. parade that glorified Sikh separatists and terrorists as martyrs; sinister warnings for politicians to stay away; death threats on Facebook; and unseemly brawls in Brampton.

Against that backdrop, it’s worth taking stock of all the bad news swirling around Sikhs — and stacking it up against the reality on the ground. Not just in Canada, but in India’s Punjab, the inspiration for much of the recent tension in B.C.

As much as some Sikh Canadians cling to the dream of Khalistan — a separate Sikh homeland — it exists only as a historical footnote in India. Despite the distant rumblings in Canada, all is quiet in Khalistan.

A quarter-century ago, the epicentre of Punjab’s political earthquake was the Golden Temple in Amritsar, near the border with Pakistan. Revered by pious Sikhs, it is now cultivated assiduously by visiting Canadian politicians harvesting votes back home.

Premier Dalton McGuinty paid his respects at the temple, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made the pilgrimage and Jean Chrétien before him.

Pilgrims and politicians alike circumambulate barefoot along its white marble tiles, beneath copper-plated roofs overlaid with 100 kilograms of gold foil. Turbaned worshippers bathe in calming waters of the pool of immortality.

But the walls are still pockmarked by bullet holes, vestiges of the 1984 battle that pitted armed militants against Indian army forces, leaving 1,000 dead. The insurgency spread like wildfire across the plains of the Punjab, claiming an estimated 17,000 lives.

Ordinary Sikhs played a decisive role when they turned against a movement beset by terrorist violence. There were human rights violations on both sides. But by the 1990s, the police were gathering vital intelligence from villagers and beat back the militants.

Today, the Punjab is at peace. And Khalistan is long forgotten.

Since 2005, India has been ruled by a Sikh prime minister, Manmohan Singh; from 2005 to 2007 the army was also helmed by a Sikh, Joginder Jaswant Singh. Sikhs could hardly claim they were being ruled by outsiders when their brethren were running the country — and the army.

Over the years, Sikh separatists have made their peace with the rest of India. When Chrétien visited the Golden Temple in 2003, his host was Manjit Singh Kalkatta, an erstwhile Sikh separatist.

When I returned to Amritsar two years later to write about the movement, I sat down with Kalkatta, a preacher and firebrand politician. He was still bitter about how separatism had been beaten back, but acknowledged that most Punjabis were enormously proud that one of their own had become prime minister.

At the time, the high priest of the Golden Temple, Giani Joginder Singh Vedanti, told me that Sikhs wanted greater autonomy but the separatist movement had lost its way.

"The violence was not accepted by the Punjabi masses, so it was unsustainable," he said, speaking in his capacity as Jathedar Akal Takht — the world’s highest Sikh authority. "We don’t want to be separate from the Indian nation, because we are very much part of the Indian nation."

So how can Canada still be incubating a virulent strain of Sikh separatism, while in India all is quiet? Why is it that an Indian prime minister, who happens to be a Sikh, has to take Canada’s prime minister aside to warn him about the activities of separatist militants on our soil?

One of the shortcomings of living in the diaspora is that you live at such a great distance from the daily lives of the people you left behind. If separatists in the Punjab have given up their dream, so too should their fellow travellers in the Canadian diaspora.

Not only are they desperately out of touch with the politics of the Punjab, they are on a different wavelength from their fellow Sikh Canadians in the mainstream.

Martin Regg Cohn writes Tuesday.