Why Sikh issue will be 'high' on Modi's talks with Theresa May during UK visit

India's ties with the Sikh diaspora are set to sink further and strain its relations with UK, Canada and Australia over 1984.

 |  7-minute read |   07-04-2018
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A British Sikh Report (BSR) launched in the UK Parliament five years ago found 95 per cent of the members of the tiny minority were proud of being born or living in Britain.

"It is great to see a proactive approach being taken by the British Sikh community to highlight their concerns, wants and needs in such a comprehensive way,'' the BBC quoted Paul Uppal, then a Conservative MP for Wolverhampton South West, as saying.

"The British Sikh community has made and continues to make a huge contribution to our nation," noted Labour leader Ed Miliband in his assessment of the BSR.

Sikhs in the UK

The Sikh diaspora makes up a fraction - 430,000 - of the UK's total population of around 66 million.

Punjab's Maharaja Duleep Singh, who was exiled in 1849 after the Anglo-Sikh wars, was the first recorded Sikh settler in Britain.

Almost a hundred years later, a number of Sikhs from Punjab moved to the UK for industrial employment. Some years later, they were joined by the community counterparts from East Africa. Another set of migration took place in the 1980s-1990s during the unrest in Punjab.

mo-may-body_040718062450.jpgImage: @MEAIndia/Twitter File photo

UK-India ties

The United Kingdom is the fourth-largest inward investor in India, after Mauritius, Singapore and Japan, with a cumulative equity investment of $24.37 billion between April 2000 and December 2016, according to a brief on foreign relations posted on the MEA's website. This, the brief says, accounts for around seven percent of all foreign direct investment into India.

At the same time, India continues to be the third-largest investor in the UK and emerged as the second-largest international job creator in the UK.

Defence, education and science and technology are other pillars of the bilateral relationship.

Why UK Sikhs top bilateral agenda?

Yet, hawks in New Delhi establishment rolled a story out in none other than a leading business daily that "Sikh extremism" in the UK will "figure high" on prime minister Narendra Modi's agenda when he meets his British counterpart Theresa May in London later this month.

The story was couched in a characteristic jargon that makes no distinction between extremism, radicalisation and terrorism on the one hand and activism on the other. It was meant to be that way.

Words were thrown like popcorn on purpose. "India is likely to seek strong action over reported growth in Sikh extremism in the United Kingdom, just as in Canada and Australia," the news report declared. 

Action? What action? And for what?

In 2015, PM Modi shared a dossier with the then UK prime minister, David Cameron, alleging "Sikh radicalisation" in Britain.

For domestic media back home, every complaint that our country now increasingly tends to make to other nations about communities and people makes up a banner headline over other news.

Sikh activism is not radicalism: Leeds

For the British though, it wasn't fun. The Leeds university took up the matter as a research subject. Its findings flew straight into the face of the so-called dossier.

"This research highlights that Sikhs have no conflict with Britain or the West. There is much unresolved trauma in the Sikh community around the events of 1984 which continues to drive many Sikhs to activism," the Leeds research, released November last year, found. "However, in terms of incidents and issues, the most frequently reported incidents of violence involving Sikhs in Britain have taken place against other Sikhs."

In line with the BSR report of 2013, the study found much Sikh activism in Britain contributed positively to the integration agenda, particularly in the form of humanitarian relief. The research underscored Sikh role during natural disasters, "such as floods in Somerset and Hebden Bridge, and incidents such as the Grenfell Tower fire, where members of the public required support".

Unlike the popcorn usage prevalent in India, the survey report made a clear distinction between activism and radicalisation. And it traced the root of the British Sikh activism to the devastating events of 1984, starting from Operation Blue Star to the massacre of thousands of Sikhs in the streets of New Delhi and other major cities of India for at least half-a-week after the assassination of then PM Indira Gandhi.

1984 justice struggle has moved overseas

Thirty four years on, no perpetrator of the gory killings of 1984 has been punished by the Indian state. Evidence was destroyed purposely during the first of the series of investigations.

Thirty-four years means a generation-and-a-half. Punjab and the Sikhs of India have since moved on.

When you drive into the Sikh majority state, from Chandigarh right up to Amritsar, there's absolutely no unease in the air. No separatism in popular psyche, no major Hindu-Sikh tensions, let alone terrorism.

Drive deeper into towns and villages of Punjab and you'll find many houses in rows padlocked. Whosoever has the resources and the means is moving out to either Canada, the United States, Europe or to Australia and New Zealand. This is a purely economic migration.

The events of 1984 are not a part of regular public discourse in Punjab. But that doesn't mean it didn't happen. In a bigger culture where effigies of a mythological demon king, Ravan, are burnt every year, you cannot expect an entire community to forget mass murders and public lynchings of its members in 34 years.

It's just that the theatre of struggle for justice has moved. It has moved from Punjab and Delhi to the developed world. It has moved to where Sikhs now share power - Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand.

Their small size and difficult history aside, the community has established itself as a powerbroker in the international community. The Sikhs in those countries have risen through the ranks - from farm labourers, lorry drivers to mayors, police chiefs, lawmakers and ministers.

And with that phenomenal rise, they took up 1984 vociferously to international forums. Just last year, the Ontario legislature in Canada passed a motion calling the 1984 anti-Sikh violence a "genocide", a politically-charged term.

Exactly a month before The Economic Times reported the Sikh subject topping Modi's agenda with the UK prime minister, Britain promised to discuss with him the alleged persecution of Christians and the Sikhs in India during his April visit. This, after British MPs raised the demand that the matter be taken up with Modi on a priority.

"My frequent jousting partner, the honorable member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), alluded to a consular case that we continue to work closely on," a news report quoted British foreign-office minister for Asia Mark Field as saying.

"He made some profound points about prime minister Modi and about Christian and Sikh minorities in India. We will do our best to raise some of those in an appropriate manner at the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in mid-April to ensure that Parliament’s voice is properly heard.”

Counter-complaints won't gloss over 1984 

The bloodshed of 1984 in an India governed by the Congress party is now seen as the seed of right-wing and aggressive majoritarianism that's gaining a firm foothold in the country under the BJP rule.

Local party politics is fading out of the bigger picture. The questions instead are being raised internationally about the Indian state and its commitment to its secular Constitution.

India's ties with the Sikh diaspora are set to sink further and strain its relations with the countries like the UK, Canada, Australia or a Trump-less US in the future if powers in New Delhi didn't settle 1984 once and for all.

Blame game is no solution.

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Harmeet Shah Singh Harmeet Shah Singh @harmeetss

The writer is Editor with India Today TV.

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