by Jonathan Kay
The last week has done much to educate me in the ethnic politics of South Asia. After writing this blog spot criticizing those Canadian Sikh activists who expressed support for convicted terrorist Balwant Singh Rajoana, I received an avalanche of hate mail. Many of the messages repeated the same words, and clearly were part of an organized mass-mailing campaign against me and CBC reporter Terry Milewski (who also has reported on Rajoana’s supporters) — similar to the Tamil mass-mailing campaigns that targeted me when I wrote negatively about the Tamil Tigers.
Still, two of my critics’ themes jumped out at me.
The first theme was that Rajoana is not really a terrorist — even though he has admitted to masterminding the 1995 bomb plot that killed the Chief Minister of Punjab, and 17 innocent bystanders. Instead, the Sikhs who emailed me insisted, he was a warrior, fighting back against the persecution of Sikhs by India and its local allies (including the Punjab Chief Minister, Beant Singh. who himself was Sikh). Many militant Sikh activists compared Rajoana to Nelson Mandela. Another common claim was that Beant Singh was a sort of South Asian Nazi. “If a Jew killed Hitler, would he be a terrorist?” one activist Tweeted to me.
I was shocked by how similar these messages were to the ones I received from radical Muslim activists who complain when National Post writers denounce Palestinian suicide bombings. The thesis is exactly the same: Don’t call so-and-so a terrorist — he’s a “martyr.”
A related theme among my critics was that, by calling Rajoana a “terrorist,” I am somehow attacking all Sikhs. This plainly isn’t true. Yet I lost count of all the messages I got accusing me of being “divisive” and “racist.” I had to keep reminding myself that most Canadian Sikhs don’t lionize suicide bombers — it’s only the radicals, the same ones who still make excuses for the Air India bombing.
It is important to concede that, during the crackdown against the Punjab insurgency of the 1980s, many innocent Sikhs were indeed killed — including during the military’s bloody raid on the Golden Temple of Amritsar (which had become a military base for the Sikhs’ most radical cadres). Some of the Indian police and soldiers involved in the counterinsurgency engaged in slaughter and rape. After Sikh bodyguards killed Indira Gandhi, armed mobs killed innocent Sikhs in pogroms.
All of this is true — even if Sikh activists are careful never to mention why the Indian counterinsurgency was necessary in the first place: Sikh gangs took control of much of the Punjab, and terrorized their fellow Sikhs. From Afghanistan to the Middle East to the Punjab, all counterinsurgency campaigns are bloody. This one was no different.
What I found especially disturbing was the manner in which many of my Sikh correspondents demonized India’s Hindu majority, accusing them of all sorts of horrific crimes. Many correspondents threw the words “holocaust” and “genocide” around casually. Some spoke of Indian Hindus the way Arab defenders of suicide terrorism speak of Jews.
What makes this accusation absurd (as well as hateful) is that it completely ignores the economic and political prosperity that Sikhs have achieved in recent decades. The Punjab is one of the most vibrant parts of India, and Sikhs are well-represented throughout India’s elites. This helps explain why Sikh separatism is a dead letter in India. It is primarily in immigrant communities such as Canada, many of whose leaders are still stuck in a time warp from the time of their arrival, that militant Sikh politics are still in fashion.
The propaganda campaign against Hindus gets relatively scant attention in Western journalistic circles, despite the many articles we pump out about Muslim anti-Semitism and (more recently) anti-Christian violence in Egypt, Iraq and Syria. Presumably this is because we take it for granted that Hindus are well-protected, since they comprise a majority in India, one of the world’s rising powers.
But not all Hindus live in India. In neighboring Muslim-majority Bangladesh, Jamaat-e-Islami militants recently have been attacking Hindu temples, and looting Hindu-owned homes and shops in the southeastern part of the country. The campaign has nothing to do with Hindu predations against Muslims (as in Pakistan, the ethnic cleansing than began in the 1940s drove the vast majority of Hindus out of Bangladesh), but rather is a spillover from opposition to a tribunal that is prosecuting crimes committed by Islamists during the 1971 war. Like Jews and Westerners, Hindus make convenient targets for local demagogues.
In Pakistan, as I’ve written before, paranoia about the Hindu faith is rife. And many madrassas teach students to despise Hindus as much as any other “infidel.” Such attitudes have taken center stage in a bizarre legal-religious case that has unfolded in recent weeks in Pakistan’s Sindh province — one of the few areas of South Asia where Muslims and Hindus generally do get along. On Feb. 24, men took a 19-year-old Hindu woman named Rinkel Kumari from her home in a small village named Mirpur Mathelo. A few hours later, an Imam called the woman’s family to inform them that Kumari had converted to Islam. A few hours after that, she was married to a Muslim man. She had been renamed “Faryal Bibi.”
The woman herself has claimed that her conversion was voluntary. But during the whole process, the woman has been surrounded by well-armed Muslim minions of a local politician renowned for such gaudy stunts.
In any event, Pakistan’s 3-million remaining Hindus have grounds for suspicion. “In many Sindhi towns, wealthy Hindu traders have been targeted by kidnappers,” the New York Times reports. “Conversions, which are freighted with notions of collective honor, can present a jarring social fault line. Officials with the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan have spoken of up to 20 forced conversions a month — and Hindu families fleeing for India — but they admit that the research is thin.”
The good news is that, in Kumari’s case, some powerful people have begun speaking out in favour of Hindu rights, including legislator Azra Fazal Pechuho, the sister of Pakistan’s president, who on March 15 gave a speech in Parliament calling on fellow lawmakers to protect the many Hindu women who are being forcibly confined in Muslim madrassas, and forced to marry Muslim men.
Good on her for standing up against targeted Hindus. Here in the West, where we always are on guard for hatred against Jews, Christians, Muslims and Sikhs, we should do the same.