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Visit by India's counterterror agency stirs up tension over Sikh separatists in Canada


The visit by members of India’s NIA underscored continuing tension between the two countries over the Liberal government’s approach to the Sikh separatist movement 

But a visit to Canada by members of India’s controversial counterterrorism agency has sparked distress within the Sikh-Canadian community, and underscored continuing tension between the two countries over the Liberal government’s approach to the Sikh separatist movement.


Sikh groups say the appearance here of top National Investigation Agency (NIA) figures is part of a campaign of intimidation against Indo-Canadians who oppose New Delhi policies.


Sikh separatists, or Khalistanis, were also at the forefront of rallies in Canada to support Indian farmers protesting new agricultural legislation there.


The Indian High Commission t outed the agency’s meetings with RCMP officers and government officials as a positive collaboration in the fight against global terrorism and other crimes.


Balpreet Singh, spokesman for the Ontario-based World Sikh Organization (WSO), was not convinced. The NIA has a long record of human rights abuses and its meetings here raise the spectre of more trouble for Sikh-Canadians at odds with the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he said.


“Opening the doors to the NIA in Canada, this is scary for Sikhs,” said Singh Monday. “Sikhs are very disturbed by this news.… It’s difficult to understand how Canada can be working with an organization like this and maintain its human rights standards.”


In fact, several media outlets in India reported that the agency was in Ottawa to lobby Canada to slap a terrorist designation on Sikhs for Justice, a group that has been peacefully organizing a non-binding “referendum” on Sikh separatism — and raising the ire of the Modi administration in the process.


The WSO wrote a lengthy letter to Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino complaining about the NIA visit, which the high commission said was at the invitation of the RCMP.


Gurpatwant Pannun, the Sikhs for Justice general counsel, said in an interview Monday that India’s objections to the group are about quashing dissent, not combating terrorism.


“Sikhs for Justice believes in ballots, not bullets,” he said. “They want to suppress our freedom of speech.”


But not all Sikh-Canadians are worried about the NIA’s presence on Canadian soil.


The two countries have been co-operating for years on terrorism, drug smuggling and other types of crime and the visit made sense, said Balraj Deol, editor of Ontario’s Khabarnama Punjabi Weekly newspaper and a critic of the Khalistani movement.


“The RCMP may have made such visits to India also or been working with its Indian counterparts in many different ways. The cooperation may not be limited to RCMP-NIA,” said Deol. “Only those who cross the red line or support those who intend to cross the red line may fear such cooperation between Canada and India.”


An RCMP spokesman said the force was unable to comment by deadline.


Indian politicians have frequently criticized the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for allegedly being too cozy with the many Sikh-Canadians who support the idea of Khalistan — a Sikh homeland carved out of India. The tension came to a head with Trudeau’s 2018 visit to India, where a convicted Sikh terrorist from Canada was among the guests at a Canadian-organized event.


World Sikh Organization spokesman Balpreet Singh: “It’s difficult to understand how Canada can be working with an organization like this and maintain its human rights standards.” Photo by Francis Vachon/Postmedia/File


Perhaps as part of an effort to convince New Delhi that it is serious about the issue, the federal government later made reference to “Sikh (Khalistani) extremism” in an annual terrorism report, raising the ire this time of the Sikh community here.


The “top-level” team from the NIA met with senior RCMP officials Nov. 4-5 to “collate evidence on several ongoing investigations into cases of terrorism and other serious crimes, in order to bring about successful prosecution of the accused in both India and Canada,” said the statement from the High Commission.


The group also met with Global Affairs Canada and Public Safety Canada officials with the aim of deepening collaboration on counter-terrorism, the mission said.


“The police and security agencies of the two countries pursue investigation, prosecution and suppression of crime, including crime related to terrorism, through cooperation and mutual assistance,” added the statement.


But Singh said the NIA has a checkered past that should have raised red flags with Canadian authorities.


Last year, for instance, Human Rights Watch charged in a report that the agency was being used to crack down on peaceful dissenters, human rights activists and journalists in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir.


Meanwhile, New Delhi has tried increasingly to intimidate Khalistanis and other critics in this country by restricting access to India, said Singh. He pointed to a report in the pro-government Hindustan Times this month that said the administration has been cancelling the “overseas citizen of India” cards of Khalistan supporters in Canada and elsewhere, restricting their ability to travel to India.


Sikhs for Justice has already been banned in India and Pannun said he has repeatedly been charged with sedition and other crimes there for his vocal support of the referendum, which is asking Sikhs around the world if they would support a separate homeland in what is now India.


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Source: Toronto Sun 

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