Canadian Sikh organization files $2.5M defamation lawsuit against India

OTTAWA — Canadian Sikh organizations fear the Indian government is trying to interfere in the upcoming federal election after a flurry of Indian media articles accusing Canadian Sikhs of inciting violence and militancy in Punjab and the Canadian government of supporting them.

Balpreet Singh, the lawyer for the World Sikh Organization in Canada, said a number of stories in Indian media in June and July have cited Indian government sources that Canadian Sikhs are behind terrorist activities targeting India. He believes the looming federal election is driving the stories because the Indian government wants to quiet the politically influential Sikh community in Canada.

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"There are going to be a lot of Sikhs running for political office and it's to ensure the Sikh community is seen through a paradigm of extremism, of suspicion, essentially to marginalize Sikhs in Canada," he said.

There were 19 Sikh MPs elected in 2015, most of whom are seeking re-election. Singh said these articles undermine Sikhs within Canada.

Singh said there is simply no evidence of any extremism or terrorist elements in Canada's Sikh community.

A government report last fall listed Sikh extremism as one of five major terrorist threats to Canada, though it acknowledged the number of actual incidents in Canada associated with it is extremely limited. After an outcry from groups that included the World Sikh Organization, Public Safety Canada revised the report to talk about extremists who support violent means to establish an independent state within India, instead of naming Sikhs as a community.

Many of the recent articles cite unnamed Indian government sources but some also directly quote Amarinder Singh, the chief minister of Punjab state, who has accused members of the Canadian cabinet of being Khalistani sympathizers.

In late June, Amarinder Singh accused the Canadian government of "overt and covert support" of the Khalistani movement, citing a 2010 Canadian report on the 1985 Air India bombing. Singh alleges that report proves Canada was complicit in not preventing the attack and suggested there should be United Nations sanctions against Canada to pressure the government here "to put an end to the use of its soil to unleash terror against India."

In 2018, Singh met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during his troubled state visit to India and gave Trudeau a list of alleged terror suspects in Canada to investigate. Singh said the fact nothing has happened to the people on the list is proof of Canada's complicity in pro-Khalistan activities.

Another article in the Hindustan Times, on July 6, suggests Canada's relationship with India will remain icy unless the Canadian government condemns any pro-Khalistan movements entirely. That article cites unnamed sources saying India's new foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, issued that warning both to Canada's high commissioner in India on June 19 and again to Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland when the two met on the sidelines of the G20 leaders' summit in Japan on June 28.

Canadian officials describe the meeting only as an introduction between Freeland and Jaishankar, who was only appointed to the post in May. Freeland's tweet about that meeting said "Canada and India are close partners with deep historical and people-to-people ties" and that it was "wonderful" to meet Jaishankar.

One Canadian organization is trying to fight back against the allegations in court. Sikhs for Justice, a Toronto-based human rights organization promoting the right of Sikhs to have their own independent state, filed a defamation suit in Ontario Superior Court July 8 alleging the Indian government was the source of at least three stories that falsely accuse Sikhs for Justice of colluding with the Pakistani intelligence agency to target Indian police officers and military personnel.

The Indian government has not yet responded to the $2.5-million libel suit, nor did a spokesman from the Indian High Commission respond to a request for comment from The Canadian Press.

"We want to show to the Canadian community that these are lies," said Jatinder Singh Grewal, the international policy director for Sikhs for Justice.

In March 2018, Canada's deputy ministers were warned about the risks the large Chinese and Indian communities in Canada are "vulnerable to foreign state-led campaigns that directly or indirectly work to influence diaspora communities across the country."

The warning, in a report prepared for deputy ministers attending a retreat on national security, was obtained under the Access to Information Act.

"While the increasing political participation of these communities at all levels of government is both laudable and reflective of the increasing diversity of the Canadian political system, the risk of these communities being influenced, overtly or covertly, by foreign governments with their own agendas cannot be overlooked," the report reads.

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