The Canadian government has refused to stop Canadian Sikhs from expressing their views through holding of ‘Khalistan Referendum’ by linking it with a peaceful and democratic process within the legal parameters of the Canadian laws.
Commenting on the situation that emerged after an attack on a Hindu temple and the poster of a revered Khalistan Sikh leader, a Canadian government official said that Canadian nationals had every freedom to express their views under the Canadian laws relating to right to freedom of expression and right to free speech and assembly.
The official views came after lobbying by the Indian government urging the Canadian government to act against the rising pro-Khalistani sentiment in Canada, which is home to over 1 million Sikhs. A high-profile campaign for Khalistan is being run by the pro-Khalistani and pro-separatist group Sikhs for Justice (SFJ).
According to international media reports, the Indian government tried to apply diplomatic pressure on the Canadian government ahead of the Khalistan Referendum voting on September 18 at the Gore Meadows Community Centre in Brampton, Ontario. Hundreds of Sikhs gathered at the centre on Saturday to make preparations for the voting on Sunday.
The Canadian officials were quoted as saying that it could not take away right of the Canadians to engage in any kind of political activity and demand their rights through peaceful and democratic means.
Canadian parliamentarian Sukhminder Singh Dhaliwal also said that constitutional and democratic political expression could not be stopped.
Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, the counsel general of Sikhs for Justice and a New York attorney, said the Indian government used every trick to paint Sikhs in a bad light before the West, but democratic governments had refused to come under Indian pressure.
They recognised that the Khalistan Referendum sought to assess the desire for an independent Khalistan, he said, adding that once the voting process was completed, the case would be taken up at the United Nations.
Gurpatwant Singh Pannun reiterated that the SFJ and other pro-Khalistan organisations had no links with violence. “We are for ballot, not bullet. India hates our approach to peace,” he maintained.
Jatinder Singh Grewal, the policy director of SFJ, said, “The issue of Khalistan Referendum falls well within the right of freedom of expression, which is a fundamental right enjoyed by all Canadians. India has a difficult time understanding this principle as they have systematically criminalised political decent within their state and today countless Sikhs who wish to exercise their right to self-determination are labelled as ‘terrorists’. And now, India is trying to export this system to the West. But the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom guaranteed this right and no amount of Indian pressure would change this reality.”
According to media reports, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government felt perturbed at the scenes of thousands of Sikhs coming out in western capitals demanding freedom from India and the establishment of an independent state of Khalistan.
The issue of Sikh separatism was a major bone of contention of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s trip to India a few years ago. The Indian government had openly accused Canadian authorities of showing leniency towards ‘Khalistanis’ in Canada.
The Indian government demanded of the Canadian government to prevent people from misusing their right to freedom of expression to “incite violence and glorify terrorists as martyrs”, which was vehemently denied by the SFJ.
The Indian media said that earlier this week, Indian authorities launched a strong protest with the Canadian counterparts after Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan (BAPS) Swaminarayan Mandir in Toronto was vandalised with anti-Indian and pro-Khalistan slogans written at the entrance ahead of the Khalistan Referendum voting, which was set to attract tens of thousands of Sikhs.
The Indian government condemned the vandalism at the temple, calling on the Canadian prime minister to take action against the suspected Khalistani activists. “India had formally submitted a request in 2021 to the Canadian administration demanding a ban on the SFJ. However, looking at the way this organisation is conducting a referendum event with no intervention by the Canadian authorities, it can be safely concluded that Indian demands have fallen on deaf ears. The recent defacing of a Swaminarayan temple proves that the Indian government must take up the matter with its Canadian counterpart,” a leading Indian media outlet, News18, said.
“We strongly condemn the defacing of BAPS Swaminarayan Mandir Toronto with anti-India graffiti. Have requested Canadian authorities to investigate the incident and take prompt action on perpetrators,” the Indian High Commission tweeted.
In response to the attack, over 500 Sikhs protested outside the Indian consulate in Toronto, claiming that the Indian government was behind the attack on the posters of nationalist Sikh leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who was regarded as a martyr, saint and icon of Khalistan movement.
Despite the incident, PM Justin Trudeau had not uttered a word condemning the offenders. Even his coalition partner Jagmeet Singh, who was supposed to protect Indian heritage in Canada, had not spoken a word about it, according to a report by TFIPOST, an Indian social media platform.