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Analysis

Sikh Groups Say Globe and Mail Reporting on 2021 Kabul Evacuation is Missing Context and Promotes Racist Tropes

Here’s what Canadian organizations closely involved with the evacuation of Afghan Sikhs and Hindus say happened in 2021

A recent Globe and Mail article suggests that then-Minister of Defence Harjit Sajjan instructed special forces to specifically rescue Afghan Sikhs during the fall of Kabul.

The ensuing rhetoric from right-wing media and social media personalities has been outrage and racism — with many insinuating Sajjan acted unilaterally in order to aid the religious community he belongs to.

Canada Proud (Twitter)

Two Canadian organizations that were intimately involved with efforts to help Afghan Sikhs and Hindus, dating back nearly a decade, say that what the stories fail to capture is the history and context in which aid was delivered to this population, which the Canadian government had itself deemed vulnerable.

Tarjinder Bhullar, director of the Manmeet Singh Bhullar Foundation, says her brother Manmeet started working on efforts to bring this population out of Afghanistan nearly a decade ago in 2015.

Bhullar says there had been a lot of legwork prior to the fall of Kabul and the eventual assistance provided to Afghan Sikhs and Hindus— context that was not provided in the article.

“In no way was it quick and dirty like, ‘hey, Afghanistan is falling and now this gives us an opportunity to reach out to another Sikh and say let’s just prioritize this,’” Bhullar told PressProgress.

“There’s so many elements that are missing from the reality of (the Globe and Mail’s story). There’s actual public documentation from the government of Canada, which is far larger than one minister in one Department.”

Bhullar said the MSBF had been working with the Canadian government since she got involved in 2016 after her brother Manmeet’s passing and the government of Canada also worked on public policy surrounding pathways to private sponsorship. Manmeet Bhullar was a prominent Progressive Conservative politician in Alberta prior to his passing.

In March 2020, Afghan Sikhs made a direct plea to the Canadian government following a violent attack on a Gurdwara in Kabul that killed 25 Sikhs.

On July 29, 2020, 25 members of parliament across party lines, including former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, signed on to a letter to then Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino calling for a special program for Afghan Sikhs and Hindus to be brought to safety in Canada.

Letter to Marco Mendicino

“In August of 2021, the government of Canada publicly did say that Sikhs and Hindus are religious minorities in Afghanistan and they were an identified population that was to be helped by the government of Canada along with women, journalists, other religious minorities and 2SLGBTQIA+ individuals, but knowing full well that this was always after Canadians themselves,” Bhullar said.

“Those are very easily available facts that have been completely removed from the narrative in the story that we’re seeing.”

Bhullar adds that the stories gloss over the fact that Minister Sajjan is a Canadian and so are many of the organizations that had been advocating for vulnerable Afghan Sikhs and Hindus.

“It’s a narrative that helps many people that have a singular focus in terms of making sure that (the Sikh) community is labeled a certain way and I think it’s so detrimental. It’s not a conversation we would be having, I think, if the Minister at the time wasn’t of the same faith.”

Bhullar says the MSBF did advocacy work across party lines, well before the federal Liberals ever formed government.

“It’s not a partisan issue. It was so clear (at the time) that the priority was going to be Canadians and as it should be,” Bhullar said.

Despite the article’s claims, Bhullar says refugees were told that they were responsible for making their own way to the airport and it was always understood they were not going to be prioritized ahead of Canadian citizens.

“What I conveyed to these Sikhs and Hindus and what was clear from the start is that these individuals had to make their own way towards the airport. It was never going to be a rescue mission.”

Several days after the MSBF released a statement criticizing the Globe’s first story, the Globe published a follow-up story highlighting election donations made to Sajjan’s riding association by MSBF board members during the 2021 election.

While the Globe raises the possibility of a conflict-of-interest, the Office of the Conflict of Interest Commissioner is quoted explicitly rejecting that insinuation by noting election donations are exempt from the Conflict of Interest Act.

Bhullar says insinuations that a $510 donation somehow influenced the Minister to attempt a rescue of Afghan Sikhs are false.

“As individuals, we continue to support candidates of various political parties and levels of government,” Bhullar told PressProgress. “The donations coincide with a federal election and are not specific to the events of August 2021.”

Jatinder Singh, the National Director of Khalsa Aid Canada was also involved with helping other Canadian organizations, including the World Sikh Organization Canada, to help convey the urgent need for humanitarian aid for these marginalized groups in 2021 to the Canadian government.

Singh says the concept of a “Sikh vote bank” is an often used racist trope in Canadian politics.

“It’s these tropes that always get used against the Sikhs and it just feels like a smear campaign,” Singh told PressProgress.

“When they start talking about this ‘Sikh vote bank’ and did that drive this desire to get these Afghan Sikhs out—if the ‘Sikh vote bank’ is so powerful then why have we spent a decade trying to get Afghan Sikhs and Hindus to Canada and not really been as successful as we wanted it to be? We would have got them out years ago if we had this ‘Sikh vote bank.’”

Singh questions how the Globe and Mail used anonymous sources in the story and says its misunderstanding of the broader context of the operation surrounding Afghan Sikhs and Hindus is now fuelling right-wing hatred towards a minority community.

“The journalists are more interested in the scoop. I mean, who are these anonymous special forces officers? This smear campaign is about Sajjan but it’s also taken away from the plight of Afghan Sikhs and Hindus.”

Singh says that when journalists rely on anonymous military sources, it is also important to consider the history of racism and questionable affiliations within the Canadian military.

“We’ve had issues in the past with racism within the military and we also know there are a number of these special forces members who were a part of the freedom convoy.”

“This kind of journalism is fodder for the right-wing, the extreme right-wing and for the racists. We’ve already seen so many right wing people online just coming after Sajjan in the most despicable ways,” Singh said.

Singh also called out the Globe’s hypocrisy and selective outrage directed toward Minister Sajjan given his faith.

“When the war broke out between Russia and Ukraine, within a month the Canadian government had a special program for Ukrainians,” Singh said. “Hundreds and thousands of them came out but I don’t recall anyone saying, ‘how many resources within the immigration department were directed towards the special program, what impact did that have on other refugees who were trying to get to the country?’”

“Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland is of Ukrainian background and within a month of the war there is a special program that allows hundreds of thousands to come into the country. Why is no one questioning how much influence she had on this?”

Even at the present moment, Singh says organizations are raising funds to bring more Afghan Sikhs and Hindus to Canada, but are still waiting for the applications to be processed by the federal government.

“Even now I’m concerned that because of this smear campaign, how much political will will there be to get these Afghans into Canada now?” Singh added.

“Canada has always prided itself in being a safe haven for refugees. But now with this kind of very strong anti-immigrant sentiment that’s coming across in this country, I think that is very un-Canadian and it is something as Canadians, that we should be very worried about.”

 

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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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