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Analysis

A New Wave of Online Harassment and Misinformation Campaigns are Targeting Sikhs in Canada

Indian nationalists and the Canadian far-right are spreading hateful misinformation about Sikhs in Canada

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As Sikh Canadians continue to speak out against ongoing violations of human rights by the Indian government in the state of Punjab, many Sikhs are being targeted in coordinated harassment and misinformation campaigns.

Recently, Indian media outlets amplified unverified and baseless rumours linking a murder at a downtown Vancouver Starbucks to events in India. The rumours, which seem to have originated with anonymous Twitter accounts, falsely claimed the suspect in the stabbing was a “Sikh Khalistani radical.”

The Khalistan movement is a separatist movement that seeks to establish a sovereign state for Sikhs, who are religious minorities in India. The Indian government is currently undertaking a “mega crackdown” to help locate Amritpal Singh, a Sikh activist and separatist figure. The government has also arbitrarily detained a number of people including journalists and lawyers.

Former journalist Rena Heer, who attempted to correct misinformation targeting the Sikh community on Twitter, says coordinated misinformation campaigns are negatively impacting Sikhs in Canada.

“It’s very sustained. It’s relentless. It’s over long, long periods of time,” Heer told PressProgress. “And at some point or another, it’s going to have a harmful impact on our community, and more directly our children and our families.”

“What it does is it puts you as a small community, as a minority community, under a microscope. It casts this sort of atmosphere of mistrust around you. It opens you up to questions from people that you know around whether your community has extremists.”

Heer was responding to misinformation spread by Indian media and a anonymous Twitter accounts that exploited horrific video of 37-year-old father Paul Schmidt being stabbed to death outside of a Starbucks on Granville Street.

Unsubstantiated claims (Twitter)

Unsubstantiated claims (Twitter)

A number of articles made unsubstantiated claims that the second degree murder suspect, 32-year-old Inderdeep Singh Gosal, attended a protest outside the Indian High Commission prior to the attack.

There is no information confirming Gosal was ever at the protest, which took place on Saturday, March 25 – the stabbing attack took place a day later, on Sunday, March 26.

Vancouver Police have confirmed no details about the murder, stating only that they “do not believe the victim and suspect knew each other” and that the “circumstances that led up to the fatal stabbing remain under investigation.”

Despite this, Twitter accounts of verified Indian academics and journalists, repeated this unsubstantiated claim, later picked up by Indian media to link the murder to a “rally outside the Indian High Commission in Canada.”

Heer says that after trying to correct misinformation, she was flooded with hateful replies.

“I just kind of put it out there. I just couldn’t read the replies. And once I read it, it’s just constant repetition. The comments and replies are just very directly anti-Sikh,” said Heer.

“(People) don’t know how hard the machine works to make sure it’s targeting us wherever we live.”

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Dr. Sharanjit Kaur Sandhra, a historian and history professor, says the attempt to use Schmidt’s tragic death for political motives is part of the emboldening of the “right-wing, fascist Hindutva movement” in India and beyond.

“When I say Hindutva I also differentiate that between those who identify from the Hindu faith. Just because you are Hindu doesn’t mean you’re Hindutva,” Sandhra told PressProgress.

“There is this hate movement that’s been happening, emboldened by Modi, against minority religions in India like Christians, Sikhs, Muslims, Jains and other religious groups as well.”

Sandhra says Sikh criticism of the Indian state’s oppression of minorities challenges the established power structure in India, and therefore it is in the interest of right-wing actors to delegitimize Sikhs in Canada.

This often comes with Sikhs being associated with “extremism” or “terrorism” in mainstream media.

“The weight of what we have to carry as Sikhs on our shoulders is constantly defending our identity when our identity is anti oppressive. Everything we stand for is about fighting oppression. Yet we are having this identity of terrorists constantly placed on our shoulders,” said Sandhra.

Alongside Indian accounts, Canadian far-right accounts are also tweeting out videos about the Starbucks attack, along with other misinformation about Sikhs in Canada.

Misleading caption, out-of-context video (Twitter)

Misleading caption, out-of-context video (Twitter)

Some accounts on Twitter have also made unsubstantiated claims that the suspect used a “Kirpan,” a small sword worn by Sikhs as an article of faith in the attack.

Another video from the protest at the Indian High Commission falsely claims the protesters were calling for Gosal’s release. In reality, the protesters were protesting the suppression of civil liberties in Punjab.

False and unsubstatiated claims (Twitter)

False and unsubstatiated claims (Twitter)

However, Vancouver Police confirmed that information regarding the weapon used in the attack has not been released to the public.

“We have not discussed the motive in this case, nor have we released specific information about the weapon used,” VPD Sergeant Steve Addison told PressProgress.

Sandhra says that the Sikh community questioning the Indian government is seen as a threat to the Indian state, which is causing Hindutva nationalists to undertake coordinated attacks.

“Their focus is very specific. It’s about just smacking down any state dissent, any Indian state questioning, and so they will do that however they need to,” said Sandhra.

“It’s about any Sikh person questioning the state, questioning processes in the state, questioning the media.”

At the same time, a Canadian right-wing media outlet has also contributed to the misinformation, by highlighting concerns about “Sikh extremism,” in the reference to protests outside the Indian High Commission in Vancouver.

As a result of the misinformation, accounts with anti-immigrant and anti-Sikh sentiments have picked up the video from the protest and are using it as a way to argue for less immigration to Canada.

Anti-immigtrant accounts (Twitter)

Sandhra says people need to be more critical of the information they are receiving online and understand the coordinated efforts being made to conflate Sikhs with extremism.

“It is feeding the white supremacy machine,” Sandhra said. “Our history here in this country has constantly been fending off the association of us being terrorists.”

Heer believes that continuing to leave misinformation unchecked will only have negative consequences for Sikhs in Canada, because the same narratives of misinformation continue to pop-up time and time again.

“This is the same campaign that has lasted many, many decades, and keeps resurfacing,” Heer said. “As someone who was born here, I have to look at my kids facing the same sort of questions that I did 30 or 40 years ago.”

“It’s demoralizing and it’s distressing.”

 

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Rumneek Johal
Reporter
Rumneek Johal is PressProgress' BC Reporter. Her reporting focuses on systemic inequality, workers and communities, as well as racism and far-right extremism.

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