OTTAWA — A cross-section of Canadian MPs are calling out an Indian government crackdown in the state of Punjab, and those criticizing internet restrictions are receiving threatening responses online.
For at least three days, authorities in Punjab have restricted communications and the size of gatherings as authorities search for Sikh separatist leader Amritpal Singh. The manhunt comes a month after he led a violent storming of a police station, according to international media reports.
“As Canadian members of Parliament, we’re trying to ensure that there is some safety for Canadians who are visiting there,” Conservative deputy leader Tim Uppal said in an interview Monday.
“We raised this as a concern. And the response was quite harsh — a number of threats in there as well, and by people who have a very large following.”
The Edmonton MP was among a handful of parliamentarians, across party lines, who have voiced their concerns online this week — even as millions of people in Punjab were reportedly denied access to the internet.
His colleague, Conservative MP Jasraj Singh Hallan, who is the party’s high-profile finance critic, said he was “closely following the situation.”
The Trudeau cabinet has opted against commenting on the situation, with the office of Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly deferring to Global Affairs Canada
“We are monitoring the situation closely and remain in contact with Canada’s High Commission in Delhi and India’s High Commission in Ottawa,” wrote departmental spokeswoman Marilyne Guèvremont.
Yet at least two Liberal MPs from Toronto-area ridings with large Sikh populations have publicly expressed worry.
“I am receiving calls from my residents and am deeply concerned,” Sonia Sidhu said on Twitter earlier this week. “I hope the situation is resolved soon (and) Canadians travelling to the region are able to connect with their families and friends in Canada.”
Greater Toronto Area MP Iqwinder Gaheer also said constituents had reached out with concern. “Civil rights and liberties should be maintained in a democracy,” Gaheer tweeted, in a message shared by another Liberal MP, Gary Anandasangaree.
For his part, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh is urging Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to get on the phone with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi “to express concern regarding the suspension of civil liberties and the safety of Canadians abroad,” he wrote on Twitter.
India denied Singh a visitor visa a decade ago, in what many saw as a response to his advocacy for Sikhs. He wrote on Twitter that the communications restrictions echo a dark past in India.
“These draconian measures are unsettling for many given their historical use to execute extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances during the 1984 Sikh Genocide,” Singh wrote.
He was referring to riots that Canada has not officially recognized as a genocide, in which roughly 3,000 Sikhs were killed following the assassination of former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi by her two Sikh bodyguards.
The World Sikh Organization noted that many of the MPs who are raising concerns have faced abuse online from accounts that identify themselves as supporters of Modi.
One such account called on people to “teach (Gaheer) a lesson” while another suggested people “drag the likes of (Jagmeet Singh) to India and teach them a bit about Indian laws.”
The Indian High Commission in Ottawa did not respond to a request for comment.
For decades, India has been critical of Canadian governments of various stripes in response to the activities of Sikh separatists who want an independent country called Khalistan.
Ottawa has insisted that the idea isn’t part of Canada’s foreign policy and that free speech allows Canadians to advocate for various causes.
Meanwhile, the NDP has been pushing the Liberals to denounce India’s treatment of minorities, a year after Human Rights Watch called out Modi’s government for a “serious regression in human rights and constitutional protections.”
The New Democrats on Tuesday also cited India as a source of possible foreign interference in Canada, alongside China and Russia.
The Trudeau government announced its intention to form deeper ties with India last November as part of its Indo-Pacific strategy, and ministers are likely to visit India through this year as it hosts the G20 presidency.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 21, 2023.
Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press