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Mr. Trudeau: Don’t be so quick to brag about Sikhs in your cabinet

Ramesh Thakur, a professor at the Australian National University, is a Canadian national who was the foundation director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo.

Earlier this month, fielding questions from students at American University in Washington, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau boasted he had more Sikhs in cabinet than India's Narendra Modi. Mr. Trudeau needs to be a bit careful and curb some of his irrational exuberance. The statistic warrants concern more than boastfulness in domestic Canadian politics and could also damage bilateral India-Canada relations on a sensitive issue, with little upside to it.

Mr. Trudeau is correct on the facts. Mr. Modi's cabinet includes two Sikhs: Maneka Gandhi, Minister for Women and Child Development, and Harsimrat Kaur Badal, the Minister of Food Processing. The Trudeau cabinet includes four Sikhs: Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi, Small Business Minister Bardish Chagger and Innovation Minister Navdeep Singh Bains.

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Canada has cause to be proud of its multicultural identity with a deserved reputation for warmly welcoming immigrants, including Syrian refugees most recently, as a manifestation of the national generosity of spirit. Sikhs make up less than 1.5 per cent of Canada's population, while Indo-Canadians comprise just under 4 per cent. That is, Sikhs comprise roughly one-third of Indo-Canadians and are heavily concentrated in British Columbia.

Thus the Sikhs in the Trudeau cabinet are out of proportion to their numbers in both the Indo-Canadian and the Canadian community at large. There are more than twice as many Muslims, for example, as Sikhs in Canada. Just so I am not misunderstood: The Australian government does not have a single Indo-Australian. If only one was to be appointed, I would have no quarrel with that person being Sikh, Muslim, Christian, Hindu or atheist. But where several are appointed, any imbalance will be noticed.

The demographic imbalance carries a domestic political risk. The more numerous, disaffected non-Sikh Indo-Canadians are open to recruitment by the Conservatives. But the bigger risk is stepping on the minefield of the extremely sensitive domestic Indian politics and damaging bilateral relations with this key country being courted by many other countries.

India is an exemplar par excellence of power sharing and political accommodation in a multi-ethnic, multireligious society. In a country where 80 per cent of the people are Hindus, at one point the heads of government, state and army were a Sikh, Muslim and Sikh respectively; and the real power behind the throne was an Italian-born Catholic widow. Diversity and pluralism have no better champion. At the official White House banquet hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama for India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh – a Sikh – on Nov, 24, 2009, a glittering new dimension of Indian soft power was in evidence with the presence of many Indian and Indian-American women from the political, business, literary, cultural and educational worlds.

Sikhs make up under 2 per cent of India's population, so two Sikhs in Mr. Modi's cabinet is a better reflection of India's diversity than four in Mr. Trudeau's is of Canada's demographic makeup. In fact the Congress Party, not Mr. Modi, needs a reckoning on Sikhs. After Indira Gandhi's assassination by Sikh bodyguards in 1984, 3,000 Sikhs were slaughtered in a pogrom often orchestrated by senior Congress leaders, including more than 2,000 killed in the nation's capital. One of the extraordinary features of modern Indian history is how Mr. Modi was demonized internationally for his alleged role in the anti-Muslim riots of 2002 in Gujarat but the Congress Party escaped global odium for its role in the worse atrocities of 1984. It is hard to see how there can be closure for the victims' families until such time as there is criminal accountability for those events.

Moreover, any mention of Sikhs in the context of Indo-Canadian relations inevitably rakes up ugly memories from three decades ago, when Canada seemed to be home to a large number of separatist Sikh extremists.

On June 23, 1985, Air India flight 182 was blown up over the Irish Sea en route from Montreal to Delhi via London, killing all 329 people on board. Most were Canadian citizens of Indian ancestry. This was the first bombing of a 747 jumbo jet, the deadliest plane bombing, the deadliest attack involving an aircraft until 9/11 in New York and remains the biggest mass murder in Canadian history. The perpetrators are believed to have been Sikh terrorists, although the subsequent trials were less than satisfactory.

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All in all, what may have been a lighthearted quip by Mr. Trudeau is fraught with hidden dangers and best avoided in future.

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