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The religious face of India-Canada tensions

While Indian and Canadian politicians claim to care for religion, they both reduce it to their political agenda
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is seen with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in New Delhi on Sept 10

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is seen with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in New Delhi on Sept 10. (Photo: narendramodi.in)

Published: November 03, 2023 12:09 PM GMT
Updated: December 01, 2023 04:55 AM GMT

Earlier this week, officials from Canada and India made new comments about their bilateral dispute. Although the political dimension of their controversy cannot be ignored, one should not dismiss the importance of its religious roots.

Tensions between Canada and India are not something new. However, earlier in September, they erupted again.

After the cold reception that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau received during the G-20 in Delhi, he revealed that its government had "credible evidence" that Indian secret services were involved in the killing of Khalistani separatist, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, on June 18 in British Columbia, Canada.

Soon after, India rejected the allegations as absurd and restricted visa services to Canadians. A diplomatic tension followed, sinking the India-Canadian bilateral relations to a new low.

As observers continue to analyze the racial and political dimensions of this dispute, as well as its economic and geo-politic implications, too little attention is given to its religious dimensions.

On both sides, religion is mistreated by the state. But both sides have very different views on religious actors. Obsessed with petty political interests, however, religious traditions are not treated with the sense of wonder, respect, and attention that they deserve.

On the Indian side, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party are implementing a nationalist agenda rooted in the promotion of Hindu nationalism. For them, the destiny of the nation is linked to a Hindu religious tradition. 

In this unilateral promotion of Hinduism, very little room is left for the mystery and diverse sensibilities that human lives and social realities require. Non-Hindu religions are marginalized by the state apparatus. Discrimination and violence against Muslims and Christians are multiplying. Religion is turned into hard cement for national cohesion.

Simultaneously, religions that have emerged in the Indian subcontinent — Sikhism being one of them — are presented as a mere offshoot of Hinduism. Religion is not entitled to tell its own story — nor to claim sovereignty. Sikh religious leaders reject this englobing narrative, making the Indian government sensitive. 

Over the past few years, the use of violence to intimidate political opponents has become an effective tactic in India. Alternative religious discourses that do not fit into the pan-Hindu ideology are easily treated as political dissent.

 India’s political tussle with Sikhism began when the idea of a distinctly Sikh country – Khalistan – emerged during the Indian independence movement. It gained traction in the 1970s and 1980s in Sikh-majority Punjab state in the northwest corner of India.

Indira Gandhi, the then prime minister of India, ordered a military operation in June 1984 to flush out pro-Khalistan Sikh militants hiding in the Golden Temple, the most important pilgrimage site of Sikhism in the city of Amritsar.

Within months, on Oct. 31 that year, the prime minister was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards who were angered by the desecration of the Golden Temple and the disproportionate state violence in Punjab. Soon after, mobs went on the rampage in Delhi and other cities killing over 2,700 Sikhs in revenge.

While the Khalistan movement was repressed at home, it gained more support from the diaspora. On June 23, 1985, Sikh separatists planted a bomb on an Air India flight that exploded off the coast of Ireland killing 329 passengers and crew members.

Aiming to dismiss the sovereignty calls made by some segments of the Sikh community, the Indian government has constantly suggested that these calls were mostly from the diaspora — not at home. 

For sure, separatist support from the diaspora cannot be ignored, and should the frustrations of numerous Sikh Indians. Their complaints are not simply material and political. Their religious traditions need to be recognized in their own right at home.

This requires domestic and international dialogue. This requires openness to spiritual depth. Yet, instead of providing more room for diversity and mobilizing foreign partners to keep separatist support under control, many believe that Indian officials preferred to solve the problem by themselves.

With all the media coverage, the murder that occurred in Canada works as a powerful warning for Sikh separatists in India. If one can kill a leader abroad, others should not expect to escape from state scrutiny at home.

But this is not simply an Indian story. Canada has a part in it. First, one must keep in mind that Canada hosts the largest Sikh community in the world after India itself. There are about 772,000 Sikhs in Canada, and they represent about 2.12 percent of the Canadian population (which is a proportion higher than in India).

Therefore, the core questions of the Sikh community — whether these issues are related to ethnicity, social justice, or religious beliefs — should interest the Canadian government.

Unfortunately, as a former foreign policy adviser of the Canadian government explained, the Trudeau government has been more occupied with maintaining its support from White suburbs than giving the necessary attention and respect to the needs of the large Sikh community of the country.

Mobilization efforts from Sikh separatists and the legitimate concerns of the Indian government did not receive the necessary attention they deserved.

Paradoxically, this lack of attention has a religious root. In Canada today, religion is promoted as a space of essential freedom. Religious freedom is becoming an end in itself. The tendency is to celebrate religious coexistence to the point of dismissing the essential questions, social inequalities, and life injustice hiding behind it.

Too busy with their political interests, politicians prefer celebrating religious diversity to listening to the depth and complexity of religious communities. There are more urgent questions than regulating separatists who hope to mobilize their religious communities and traditions. Some naively believe that religious freedom should solve all problems.

In other words, besides the absence of direct violence, Canadian leaders are not giving more attention and respect to the complexity of religious traditions than their Indian counterparts. Limited interest is given to the Sikh minority and, even less, to the separatists.

While Indian and Canadian politicians claim to care for religion — either through the promotion of a nationalized Hinduism or through the unilateral celebration of religious freedom — they both reduce religion to their political agenda.

Modern states have deep difficulties to take religions seriously.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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