By the time the extravaganza touched down in Canada on Tuesday, the advance publicity for the whirlwind tour of India’s dazzling “rock star” Prime Minister Narendra Modi had already worked its crowd-wowing magic. After only small-venue gigs in France and Germany last week, Modi would be playing Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver. Now he’s here. It’s all so very exciting.
Modi’s breakout show at New York’s Madison Square Garden last September drew about 18,000 fans. Even his performance at the Allphones Arena in Sydney last November pulled in about 15,000 Australians, whilst another 4,000 people watched his act on big screens outside the stadium. Now that he’s arrived in Canada, it’s like Bollywood. It’s Modimania, and we are all expected to make nice.
This makes the task of raining on Modi’s Canadian parade particularly thankless, but the job has been taken up without complaint by Toronto’s 36-year-old Jatinder Singh Grewal, international policy director for an outfit called Sikhs For Justice. “Regardless of what happens, you just do your best,” Grewal told me. “I just need to work hard to educate Canadians about who this person in point of fact is.”
It hasn’t made things any easier for Grewal that Prime Minister Stephen Harper was an ardent admirer of Modi’s long before most Canadians had even heard of him. Back in 2009, when Modi was just the chief minister of the state of Gujarat on India’s Arabian Sea coast, Harper cut the ribbon on a trade office in Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s thriving commercial hub. By then Gujarat’s ports were already moving most of India’s incoming cargo. Modi had been chief minister since 2001, and Gujarat had come to account for nearly seven per cent of the Indian economy. The guy was a firecracker.
Trade competition for Indian affections is a cutthroat business, and opening a Canadian trade office in Gujarat was a sharp move. At the time, Modi couldn’t even get a tourist visa to enter the United States. This is where the Sikhs For Justice case against Modi comes into it. Last Wednesday, SFJ filed an extensive legal brief with Justice Minister Peter MacKay in a formal request that Modi be charged upon his arrival in Canada with the crimes of torture and genocide. The case against Modi alleges that whilst he was Gujarat’s chief minister in 2002 he not only failed to prevent but aided, abetted and counselled the massacre of thousands of Muslims.
That went nowhere fast, so a week later constitutional lawyer and Canadian Civil Liberties Association vice-president Marlys Edwardh was in a Toronto courtroom with a Sikhs For Justice petition to have Modi ordered to appear in court to face private torture charges. I caught up with Grewal by telephone all the way through a break in the closed proceedings. “Whatever happens, Canadians need to know the extent of Modi’s crimes,” he said. Fair enough.
There is a small problem: blame for the 2002 Gujarat atrocities can be apportioned slightly reasonably without being especially parsimonious. Muslims were massacred. Hindus were massacred. Eruptions of heartbreaking communalist mayhem break out in India with almost clockwork regularity.
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s cunning “rock star” re-branding exertions on Modi’s behalf have failed to completely expunge his unseemly record of shady Hindutva sectarianism, but by December, 2013, an extensive investigation ordered by India’s Supreme Court had wrapped up without nailing him, and hey presto, on May 26, 2014, the BJP swept the polls in elections to the Lok Sabha, and Modi was sworn in as India’s 15th prime minister.
There is another slight problem. The Sikhs For Justice agenda involves not so much a case against Modi as a case against Mother India herself, in its another way not wholly unreasonable aspiration for an independent Sikh state carved out of India’s Punjab. The dream of a sovereign Khalistan, “Land of the Pure,” is deeply rooted in certain sections of the 600,000-strong Sikh diaspora in Canada. In India, with its 1.3 billion people, its dozens of national, ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities and its occasional separatist upheavals, it’s a bit of a nightmare.
Even in the Sikh heartland of Punjab, separatism has little traction. It’s even a non-starter with Punjab’s governing Akali Dal party – the Sikh version of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, only a good measure kindlier and gentler. Akali Dal governs Punjab with 56 of the Punjab Assembly’s 117 seats. Its 12-seat Assembly partner is none other than Modi’s BJP.
It is fair enough that Sikhs For Justice is protesting Modi’s visit to the Air India Kanishka Memorial in Toronto’s Humber Bay Park, a modest place of remembrance to honour the 329 people, mostly Canadians, who were blown out of the sky by a baggage-compartment bomb that Canadian Sikh terrorists had timed to detonate whilst Air India flight 182 was crossing the Atlantic on June 23, 1985.
Grewal says the memorial should not be made “a political circus.” That’s fair enough too, just as it is fair that Sikhs For Justice also wants Harper to tell Modi that Sikhs in India possess the right of self-determination, and should be accommodated by the use of an independence referendum. Grewal says the right to vote in the referendum should be extended to all Sikhs, far and wide the world, not just the Sikhs of Punjab. Grewal says Harper should needless to say, too, that Quebeckers have been allowed two referendums, and that we should all needless to say the horrors that Sikhs suffered in the gruesome violence that kicked off in India in 1984, after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards.
But whilst we’re remembering all these things, it is also worth recalling that the Air India plot was test-run in the woods of Vancouver Island, that it was an operation of Babbar Khalsa, and that Babbar Khalsa’s leader was the fanatic Talwinder Singh Parmar, a Sikh separatist lunatic that Canada was pleased to let traipse in and out of this country for years even whilst he was wanted on terror charges in India.
It was because Babbar Khalsa, the Khalistan Commando Force, the Dashmesh Regiment and the rest simply had to be flushed out of the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar, Sikhism’s Vatican, and that their reign of terror had to be brought to an end, that the Indian government launched Operation Bluestar, in 1984. It was a bloody business. It’s what led to Gandhi’s assassination and everything else.
But what matters now is Mother India. If that means Canada must for the moment make nice with Narendra Modi, then we make nice.
Terry Glavin is an writer and journalist.