Canada’s Harjit Sajjan Describes Anti-Sikh Bias He’s Faced

In the aftermath of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s assertion that “agents” of the Indian government were involved in the shooting death of a Sikh leader in British Columbia, my colleagues Norimitsu Onishi and Vjosa Isai looked into growing tensions within the Indian diaspora in Canada, ones that reflect divisions in India that have been fueled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalism.

“Mr. Modi’s Hindu-first policies and increasing intolerance of scrutiny have spilled over into Indian communities worldwide, intensifying historical divisions among Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and different castes,” they write. “They have played out in city councils, school boards, cultural celebrations and academic circles.”

[Read: Modi’s Hindu Nationalism Stokes Tension in Indian Diaspora]

(In a further expansion of the tensions between the two nations, it appears that India plans to expel most of Canada’s diplomatic representatives from the country.)

The tensions are all too familiar to Harjit Sajjan, a Sikh who is Canada’s minister of emergency preparedness and the former defense minister who, before entering politics, was a Vancouver Police detective and a military intelligence officer who served in Bosnia and Afghanistan. Harassment, rumor mongering and threats — sometimes requiring police intervention — from Canadian Hindu nationalists were a part of his life long before Mr. Modi took power, he told me.

“I’ve gotten so used to it, now it’s like: ‘Oh, OK, here we go again,’” he told me. “It bewilders me why this is taking place. The only thing that I can think of is that there are some ulterior motives by some other organizations.”

Mr. Sajjan, the son of the former chief constable of the Punjab Police who arrived in Canada with his family at the age of 5, said that anti-Sikh threats were part of his childhood in British Columbia.

“From my perspective, as somebody who grew up in the community, there’s always fear and there are different levels of fear: from physical harm to somebody is trying to discredit you,” he said. “I’ve seen that almost on a daily basis.”

Mr. Sajjan said that he had “lost count” of the number of times the police had warned him of threats to himself or his family and that they had frequently been given special protection. He was primarily concerned about the safety of his family and his staff, he said.

“In the last number of years, it’s ramped up a lot more,” he said, adding that some of the threats were unrelated to India’s religious divides and came from criminals he had arrested during his 11 years on the gangs unit of the Vancouver police force.

When Mr. Sajjan was first elected in 2015 and became defense minister, he was one of four Sikhs in Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet. Politicians in India cast all of them as supporters of Sikh separatism and radicals promoting violence. In 2017, Amarinder Singh, the former chief minister of Punjab, refused to meet Mr. Sajjan on that basis, though the two men did join Mr. Trudeau in a meeting the following year.

Whenever people claim that he is connected with radical Sikhs seeking to establish a separate nation in the Punjab, Mr. Sajjan said he points to the security clearances he went through to join the police and the military and to work with American troops in Afghanistan as proof that that there is no such a link. But almost always, he said, it is fruitless.

“What do you have to do to prove who you are?” he asked.

During his time as a police officer, Mr. Sajjan said, he regularly saw how anti-Sikh and anti-Muslim rhetoric and misinformation divided the Indian community in Vancouver. Indians who comment publicly on politics, he said, particularly related to human rights, in their home country are often “labeled” as radicals by Hindus, making many reluctant to speak.

“When I got into politics I wanted to represent my community properly, and I want to make sure that people feel safe,” he said. “We want to make sure that, in our democracy, we can protect the freedom of speech.”

A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.

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