Concerns About Language & Framing in Article on Hardeep Singh Nijjar

The WSO has written to Globe & Mail Reporters Nancy Macdonlad and Greg Mercer about their story “The Nijjar Enigma” published on June 22, 2024.  The story contains harmful stereotypes and mischaracterizations about Sikhs.  #AskCanadianSikhs

Good Afternoon,

We have had the opportunity to read your story “The Nijjar Enigma” published today in the Globe & Mail about Bhai Hardeep Singh Nijjar. While we have some disagreements with how the story has been framed, our primary concern is the language used to describe Sikhs, which we feel is unfair, misleading, and imposes harmful stereotypical tropes on the Sikh community.

  1.  Mischaracterization of Gurdwara Nankana Sahib

The article states: "The Globe geolocated the photo of the pair to a holy site outside of Lahore known as a place of pilgrimage for politically motivated Sikhs."

From what we can determine, the site is Gurdwara Bal Lila in Sri Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith. This gurdwara marks the spot where Guru Nanak played with his companions during his childhood. Describing this as a place of pilgrimage for "politically motivated Sikhs" is both inaccurate and misleading. Sikhs have been visiting Nankana Sahib for pilgrimage since the founding of the faith, with thousands of Sikhs visiting annually from around the world. The term "politically motivated" is misplaced and misleading in this context and could give rise to a misconception that Sikhs that visit gurdwaras in Pakistan are motivated by reasons other than their faith.

  1.  “Orthodox” vs. “Moderate” Sikhs

A passage in your piece reads: "The two sources told The Globe that, in all, five orthodox Sikh men in their 20s and 30s, led by Mr. Nijjar, undertook weapons and GPS training, learned to communicate securely and did target practice at three sites in the Lower Mainland."

There is no native term in the Sikh faith such as "moderate" or "orthodox." What criteria were used to define these five Sikhs as "orthodox"? Your use of the term seems to equate “orthodox” Sikh with what you’ve framed as potentially extremist activity and stigmatizes Sikhs who wear the articles of faith as radical or dangerous militants. 

Similarly, the article states: "As Mr. Nijjar was settling in Surrey in the early 2000s, the influence of orthodox, pro-Khalistan Sikhs was waning, paralleling the downfall of militancy in Punjab. Initially, Mr. Nijjar attended Dasmesh Darbar, a more orthodox gurdwara."

Once again, how is Sikh orthodoxy being defined? Your use of the term equates it with militancy and violence. 

Mr. Gurpatwant Pannun, head of Sikhs for Justice and one of the most visible advocates for Khalistan today, does not keep uncut hair or wear a turban. Would he then be considered a 'moderate'? The article does not describe him as such.  

Your piece suggests that support for Khalistan is limited to “orthodox” Sikhs.  This is in fact untrue. Khalistan has widespread support within the Sikh community, among both practicing and non-practicing Sikhs- your story lacks this context and is, as such, misleading. 

Later in the piece, you mention: "Some moderate Sikhs bristle at the suggestion that Mr. Nijjar or Mr. Pannun and their group of separatists speak for them.”

Both Ujjal Dosanjh and Gurpatwant Pannun do not wear the Sikh articles of faith. What makes Mr. Dosanjh 'moderate' compared to Mr. Pannun? The use of the term “moderate” implies a more reasonable or acceptable position, contrasted with the unreasonable extremism of supporters of Khalistan or “orthodox” Sikhs who wear the articles of faith. Support for Khalistan is not about moderates vs. orthodox. The terms 'moderate' and 'orthodox' to describe Sikhs are artificial and create a false, oversimplified and damaging dichotomy that has led to significant stereotyping and real-life consequences for Sikhs in Canada.

  1. Misrepresentation of the Khalsa

The article's description of the Khalsa simply as "an order of baptized Sikhs"  is misleading and minimizes its significance. The Khalsa, revealed by Guru Gobind Singh, represents the culmination of 250 years of the Sikh faith's growth.  The Khalsa is not simply “an order of baptized Sikhs” but the final form of the Sikh faith. Your story’s use of the term Khalsa has the potential of being misunderstood as a militant or violent sect of Sikhs, which it certainly is not.  

  1. Lack of Context for 2018 Public Safety Report

Finally, your description of the addition and removal of "Sikh (Khalistan) Extremism" from Public Safety Canada’s 2018 Public Report on the Terrorism Threat to Canada lacks context. The 2018 report included “Sikh (Khalistani) extremism” for the first time, following Prime Minister Trudeau's trip to India, despite no reported incidents of violence or terrorism associated with the Sikh community in Canada. The inclusion appeared to be prompted by foreign interference by the Government of India which consistently conflates Sikh advocacy for Khalistan with extremism.  Canadian Sikhs were united in calling for the term to be removed and, after several months of advocacy, Public Safety Canada agreed to the community’s request. In a statement issued on April 7, 2019, then-Minister Goodale acknowledged that “the language used to describe some threats unintentionally maligned certain communities...and is not in line with the values of the Government of Canada”.

Sikhs are a highly visible minority in Canada and have faced negative stereotyping and discrimination for decades. The narrative of "Sikh extremism" has been an ongoing project of the Government of India, and your article, unfortunately, reinforces discriminatory language that has historically harmed Sikhs and marginalized their identity. We would encourage you to avoid the use of oversimplified categorization. The use of the terms “orthodox” and “moderate” create a distorted “good guy vs. bad guy” narrative that is harmful. Support for Khalistan is not an orthodox vs. moderate issue and categorizing it as such is misleading and dangerous. Our community remembers the 80s and 90s when the image of a practicing Sikh man wearing the articles of faith was conflated with extremism and violence. This had real life impacts on Sikhs across Canada.  

I hope you will consider these points and strive for more accurate and fair representations of the Sikh community in future reporting. We would be open to discussing the above with you in greater length or answering any questions you may have.

Balpreet Singh

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  • Balpreet Singh
    published this page in Blog 2024-06-22 15:14:30 -0400