Have we really seen the end of Sikh extremism in Canada?

In the aftermath of what many are saying was a disastrous Prime Ministerial trip to India – official snubs, ridiculous wardrobe choices – the one issue that is still on the minds of Canadians is why our government – and our leader – elected to invite a convicted terrorist to dinner.  Jaspal Atwan was convicted of the attempted murder of a visiting Indian cabinet minister in 1986, acquitted of the beating of a former Liberal BC Premier, used to be a member of the International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF) – a listed terrorist entity on the Public Safety Web sitealthough he denies it, and yet was still deemed appropriate to sit down with and break bread.  Surprisingly (not!), the Indians were none too pleased with Canada’s very unorthodox ideas on table guests. The government’s scramble to explain why this cock-up occurred – including a theory that Indian agents seeking to undermine bilateral relations were behind it – is entertaining if not convincing.

A bigger question remains: do we need to still worry about Sikh extremism?  Clearly the Indian government thinks so, although, in light of the obvious support of elements within the Modi government for Hindu extremists (attacks on Muslims and others are rampant), one could question their take on the issue.  In Canada we have not had significant Sikh extremist action since the mid 1980s (30 years ago!) and it would be easy to conclude that, just like old soldiers who never die but fade away, Sikh extremism is a scourge of the past and we can move on.

That certainly seems to be the opinion of Arshy Mann on the CBC site.  He argues that the threat is ‘defunct’.  Is it?  Aside from the fact that it is a reasonable question to ask how a writer who, according to the CBC bio writes for Xtra, where he focuses on LGBT issues, became an expert on terrorism, his opinion belies a fundamental lack of understanding of terrorism and threat.

Terrorism is both complex and simple.  The complexities lie in how anyone chooses to embrace terrorism – the so-called radicalisation process.  The simplicity can be found in the underlying raison d’être for terrorism.  When you pass over the myriad differences in the thousands of terrorist groups you find a few basic ingredients:

a) terrorist groups hold grievances about a political situation, and

b) they believe that the use of violence is the only way to remedy that grievance.

While it is true that certain terrorist groups may come to the negotiating table eventually (the IRA, the ANC, ?ETA?), many do not (Islamist extremists are a great example of those who follow ideologue Abdallah Azzam’s maxim ‘no negotiations, no conferences, no dialogue: jihad add the rifle alone’).  One could argue that there are still Sikh extremists whose eternal goal of an independent homeland – Khalistan – is a pipe dream that the Indian government will never agree to and thus must be gained at the point of a gun (or a bomb or something else).  Furthermore, even if the first generation of Sikh extremists in Canada – the ones behind the 1985 Air India terrorist attack that killed 329 people – are old and grey (recall that my career in intelligence began at the same time as the escalation in Sikh terrorism and I too am old and grey), that does not mean that there is not a younger generation frustrated at the lack of progress.  This does not imply that we will see mass campaigns of violence or anything approaching the tragedy of Air India flight 182 – after all, there has been no significant Quebec independence violence since the days of the FLQ – but we have to acknowledge that the original grievances that underpinned the rise of Sikh terrorism in the first place are still there.  Unresolved grievances could lead some to take up the cause again and resort to violence to achieve their goals.

So for Mr. Mann to dismiss the possibility that we in Canada will again see the rise of Sikh terrorism is foolhardy.  He may be correct in his statement that the vast majority of the world’s Sikhs abhor violence and prefer to settle matters via a referendum.  That in itself is not news: terrorism has always been the tool of the few, not the many.  In the end it only takes a handful to execute mass casualty attacks.  We would be smart to keep that in mind.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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