Unease grows in Punjab as Canada-India tensions deepen | CBC News

Unease grows in Punjab as Canada-India tensions deepen | CBC News


The anxiety is palpable on the streets of Punjab, India’s only state with a majority Sikh population, following Canada’s allegations linking Indian government agents to the killing of Canadian citizen and pro-Khalistan activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar on Canadian soil.

Many in Sikh-majority state wary of fallout from allegations surrounding Canadian citizen’s death

Salimah Shivji · CBC News


Rising Canada-India tensions worry some in Punjab

CBC’s Salimah Shivji reports from India’s Sikh-majority Punjab state, where some locals are feeling the fallout from Canada’s bombshell allegations over the government of India’s involvement in the death of Hardeep Singh Nijjar.

Steps from the old quarter of Amritsar, the holiest city for the Sikh community, 62-year- old Ashok Kumar tended his newspaper stand, with the dailies perched precariously on the seat of a scooter, and sighed. The headlines are dominated by the news — in English and Punjabi — of the bitter diplomatic fight between India and Canada, and Kumar doesn’t like it.

“This shouldn’t be happening,” said Kumar, especially with what he called “baseless speculation” from Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau.

The newspaper vendor told CBC News that everyone in his corner of Punjab is paying close attention to the growing rancour between the two countries, following the bombshell statement from Trudeau that Canada is pursuing “credible allegations” that link Indian government agents to the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian citizen, on Canadian soil.

Nijjar was campaigning for an independent Sikh state called Khalistan. New Delhi considered him a terrorist.

India has angrily rejected Canada’s allegations, calling them “absurd” and politically motivated.

A man looks through some newspapers piled on the seat of a scooter.

Newspaper vendor Ashok Kumar tends to his stand in Amritsar on Saturday. Kumar has had a busy week, with many people in India’s northern Punjab state anxious to keep up with the diplomatic twists and turns of the deepening tensions between India and Canada. (Salimah Shivji/CBC News)

The anxiety is palpable on the streets of Punjab, the only Indian state with a majority Sikh population, with most people, like Kumar, concerned that regular Punjabis will feel the brunt of the worsening ties between the two once-friendly countries.

Kumar, in an interview with CBC News in Punjabi, talked of “a lot of rumours swirling around,” and fear that Canada might follow India’s lead, after the latter suspended visa services for Canadian citizens wanting to visit India. Canadian authorities have given no indication that they intend to stop granting visas to Indian citizens due to the tensions with India.

But mostly, the newspaper seller is worried about the renewed spotlight on the secessionist Khalistan movement, which has some traction in diaspora communities but garners little support in India. India considers the movement violent and a threat to the country’s territorial sovereignty.

“Sikhs in Punjab don’t demand Khalistan. They want peace and prosperity,” Kumar said. “That’s why they go to Canada to improve their earnings.”

Signs including some advertising international studies are shown on a street.

Tens of thousands of Indian students, many of them from Punjab, apply for visas to study in Canada every year, searching for a better life and more opportunities. (Salimah Shivji/CBC News)

Visa processing suspension causes worry 

Ramandeep Kaur, 20, admitted she isn’t someone who usually follows geopolitical news, but this week has changed that. She was also feeling anxious as she left work at a private ESL school on a Saturday afternoon.

“Students feel really disappointed with [what’s happening],” said Kaur, who grew up in one of Punjab’s largest cities, Patiala, dreaming of becoming a nurse in Canada. “I applied for a visa and I don’t know what will happen in the future with this issue. 

“I’m worried about it because I invested a lot of money on this [dream],” she added.

A woman stands on a street.

Ramandeep Kaur, 20, has wanted to study in Canada for years, and is now concerned the worsening India-Canada ties could jeopardize her dream. (Salimah Shivji/CBC News)

Canada is a top destination for tens of thousands of Indian international students each year, many of whom come from Punjab.

For both Sarabjit Kesar, 52, and her close friend Kamaldeep Ghumman, 53, the past week has been “tense and filled with pressure,” they said, following India’s announcement it would temporarily stop issuing visas to Canadian citizens.

Both mothers have adult children living and working in Canada. The weekend was filled with stress, as Kesar packed a suitcase for her flight to Toronto the following day — her first trip to Canada to visit her sons marred by her persistent worry about whether her trip would be disrupted by any future retaliatory measures in the diplomatic standoff.

“Our thoughts are filled with fear over what will happen in the future,” Ghumman said.

“What types of measures will the government take?” she wondered, if the feud escalates.

Kesar added that everyone in their circle of friends was worried.

“The tension is so high and everyone feels depressed, like me,” she said.

Two women pose for a photo while seated in chairs.

Kamaldeep Ghumman, left, and her friend Sarabjit Kesar, have spent an anxious week dissecting the news of the growing diplomatic rift between the countries. ‘The tension is so high’ across Punjab, especially among parents with children studying in Canada, Kesar said. (Salimah Shivji/CBC News)

For others, it’s not so much a personal worry but a more generalized concern about what Trudeau’s allegations linking New Delhi to an extrajudicial killing of a Khalistani activist mean for the Sikh community in India, after months of the Indian government claiming that the separatist movement was having a resurgence in the northern Indian state.

Harveer Singh, 30, called it a “political stunt” by the Canadian government.

“It’s disheartening,” Singh, 30, told CBC News outside Amritsar’s Golden Temple, the Sikh religion’s holiest spot, which was stormed by Indian army officers in 1984 in a bid to quell Sikh militancy. Thousands of people were killed.

Singh said Canada’s accusations were an attempt to gain votes that had put a razor-sharp focus on a “particular agenda of Khalistan and the separation from India,” and feared it could have consequences.

“Some people who don’t have any kind of knowledge, they will just start hating us,” he said. “They portray a picture of Sikhs that all Sikhs are Khalistanis [and] this is really sad.” 


Salimah Shivji is CBC’s South Asia correspondent, based in Mumbai. She has covered everything from natural disasters and conflicts, climate change to corruption across Canada and the world in her nearly two decades with the CBC.


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