Assessing the Relationship of Sikh-Canadians with Canada and India

Assessing the Relationship of Sikh-Canadians with Canada and India
Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press via AP
Assessing the Relationship of Sikh-Canadians with Canada and India
Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press via AP
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Editor’s Note:  This article is the result of a partnership between Divergent Options and a course on nationalism at the George Washington University.


Nikita Khurana is an undergraduate student at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. She is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and minoring in International Affairs.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


Title:  Assessing the Relationship of Sikh-Canadians with Canada and India

Date Originally Written:  October 19, 2019.

Date Originally Published:  December 9, 2019.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author of this piece identifies as a first-generation Indian-American. This article is written in the point of view of Sikhs living in Canada that have a strong religious identity.

Summary:  Canada is home to nearly half a million Sikhs, thus becoming one of the largest Sikh diaspora populations in the world. While most diaspora populations have difficulty settling into their new home countries, political tensions with the Indian state was a driving force in Sikh-Canadian integration. Even though Sikh-Canadians faced discrimination from white Canadians, the Khalistan movement (a Sikh separatist movement) helped create a strong Sikh community within Canada.

Text:  Canada is home to one of the largest Sikh diaspora communities in the world. As of 2011, Sikhs accounted for 1.4% of the Canadian population with over 400,000 residents[1]. Legal immigration from the Indian province of Punjab is the root cause for the prominence of the Sikh religion in Canada. Sikh immigration into Canada can be separated into two waves: the early twentieth century and the 1960s. Due to political differences in their homeland, Sikhs in Canada have been able to integrate into Canadian society and even gain political power, despite the initial unwelcoming actions of white Canadians.

South Asia has been home to numerous religious movements including the creation of Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism. In the late fifteenth century, Guru Nanak established the Sikh religion. Sikhism is a prominent ideology with over 27 million followers, thus making it the fifth largest religion in the world. Followers of Skihism believe that there is a total of ten gurus, including Guru Nanak, and upon the death of the final spiritual leader, the essence of the eternal Guru transferred itself into the sacred Sikh scripture[2].

From their initial migration to Canada, Sikhs were met with profound racial discrimination[3]. This discrimination took the international stage in April of 1914 when the Komagata Maru, a Japanese steamship ship carrying Sikh passengers, was refused entry into Canada[4]. Nonetheless, Sikhs established strong religious institutions through gurudwaras or Sikh temples. South Asian immigration was completely halted until 1920, when wives and children of Sikh-Canadians were finally allowed to enter the country.

In contrast to the American society depicted as a ‘melting pot,’ Canada is seen as a ‘mixed salad’ of cultural differences today, where all faiths, ethnicities, and traditions are accommodated instead of assimilated. However, throughout the twentieth century, white Canadians were resistant to non-white immigrants. From the 1920s to the 1960s, Sikhs in Canada experienced a religious revision. Instead of maintaining traditional practices, children of immigrants adopted Sahajdhari practices. Being a Sahajdhari meant that men were able to break from practices that prevented them from cutting their hair and adopting Canadian dress codes[5].

The second wave of immigration coincided with the birth of the Sikh separatist movement in India. Even though Sikhs and Hindus lived peacefully amongst each other for centuries, tensions arose in the late 1960s when the Sikh population in Punjab gained economic prosperity following the Green Revolution in India. With growing wealth and a flourishing agricultural industry, Punjabi society slowly became increasingly more detached from mainstream Indian culture. In an effort to relieve political stress, Indian Prime Minister Indra Gandhi attempted to transfer the city of Chandigarh to the Punjab province. However, with no success, this olive branch was never fully executed, further strengthening distrust of the Prime Minister amongst the Sikh population. By the 1980s, the Sikh Khalistan movement was in full force.

The Khalistan movement is a separatist movement that calls for an autonomous Sikh nation-state. As scholar Stephen Van Evera suggests that nationalist movements are inherently violent, the Khalistan movement quickly turned violent against the Indian state[6]. In 1984, the Indian army staged a siege of the Golden Temple, a sacred Sikh shrine, in an effort to take down Sikh extremists. After the altercation, more than 1,000 people died, and the temple was nearly destroyed. This results of the siege ignited support from the Sikh diaspora in Canada, both financially and socially. Sikhs in Canada began to fund the separatist movement in India, which resulted in the deterioration of the relationship between Canadian Sikhs and their Indian homeland[7]. Additionally, the sudden violence of the Khalistan movement caused a mass migration of Sikhs to western countries, most prominently in Canada.

The growing Sikh population in Canada has recently become a concern to India. Within the last year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has become wary of Canada and their foreign policies. Indian officials worry that western governments have become sympathetic to the Sikh separatists and will act in their interests when considering foreign policy[8]. In 2017, the Canadian Parliament declared the siege on the Golden Temple in Punjab a genocide committed by the Indian state against the Sikh religious minority. This genocide declaration has further strained the relationship between Sikh-Canadians and the Indian State. Being a stateless nation, the Sikh population in Canada has essentially become a political organization where they have gained the agency to influence politics in Canada[9]. Thus, the Canadian government has been an active participant in accommodating Sikh-Canadians and Sikh immigrants. On March 2, 2006, the Canadian Supreme court notably struck down a ban on allowing Sikh students to carry a kirpan, ceremonial dagger, in school[10].

Pop culture is another important indicator of the relationship between white Canadians and Sikhs. Within the past century, major pop culture figures of Sikh roots have gained popularity among all Canadians. Most famously, Lilly Singh, also known as iiSuperwomanii, was the highest paid female on the video hosting website YouTube in 2016. She is a vocal Sikh who was born and brought up in the Ontario province of Canada[11].

Sikh immigrants were not initially welcomed with open arms into Canada. Due to racial discrimination by white Canadians, South Asians had a slow assimilation into Canadian society. However, political tensions with the Indian state weakened the connection Sikh immigrants had with their homeland. Hence, integration and assimilation into a new national identity was possible. Sikhs in Canada have risen to political power with nearly twenty Sikh Members of Parliament. While Sikh-Canadians’ connection to India may have been weakened, Sikh identity in Canada was strengthened due to support for the Khalistan movement and Sikh nation, instead of the actual Indian state.


This article appeared originally at Divergent Options.

Endnotes:

[1] “History.” Canadian Sikh Heritage. Accessed August 11, 2019. http://canadiansikhheritage.ca/history/.

[2] McLeod, William Hewat. “Sikhism.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., June 21, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Sikhism

[3] “Sikhism in Canada.” Sikhism in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia. Accessed August 9, 2019. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/sikhism.

[4] “History.” Canadian Sikh Heritage. Accessed August 11, 2019. http://canadiansikhheritage.ca/history/.

[5] “Who Is a ‘Sehajdhari’?: India News – Times of India.” The Times of India. Accessed August 11, 2019. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Who-is-a-sehajdhari/articleshow/9830416.cms.

[6] Evera, Stephen Van. “Hypotheses on Nationalism and War.” International Security18, no. 4 (1994): 5. https://doi.org/10.2307/2539176.

[7] “Sinews of the Nation: Constructing Irish and Zionist Bonds in the United States” 51, no. 03 (2013). https://doi.org/10.5860/choice.51-1737.

[8] Sunny Hundal @sunny_hundal. “India’s Indifference to the Sikh Diaspora Is Damaging Western Foreign Policy towards the Country.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, February 25, 2018. https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/india-sikh-justin-trudeau-separatism-canada-foreign-policy-a8223641.html.

[9] Harris Mylonas & Nadav G. Shelef (2014) Which Land Is Our Land? Domestic Politics and Change in the Territorial Claims of Stateless Nationalist Movements,Security Studies, 23:4, 754-786, DOI: 10.1080/09636412.2014.964996

[10] CBC News, “Ban on Sikh kirpan overturned by Supreme Court,” March 2, 2006. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ban-on-sikh-kirpan-overturned-by-supreme-court-1.618238.

[11] Maya Oppenheim @mayaoppenheim. “The Highest-Paid Female YouTuber, and the Astonishing Amount She Earns.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, March 6, 2017. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/lilly-singh-youtube-highest-paid-richest-forbes-list-2016-a7458441.html.



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