"if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen
the side of the oppressor." - Desmond Tutu.

Internalized Racism and the tragedy of International Sikh Students in Canada Featured


Prabhsharanbir Singh



In the world, where everyone with a conscience is fighting against the deportations of migrants and refugees, the Sikh representatives in Canada are threatening international Sikh students from Punjab with deportations because of some alleged minor violations of law. International students from Punjab are one of the most vulnerable groups in Canada. Most of them come from low-income families. Their parents often sell their property or take loans to send their children to study abroad. “Well-settled” Canadian Punjabis routinely exploit them. Female students often face sexual harassment by those who are living here for a longer time.


International students are alleged to engage in petty fights with each other and with permanent residents or citizens of Canada. In a recent incident, some international students were involved in an altercation with a businessman, who is probably a permanent resident or a citizen of Canada. After South Asian media in Canada sensationalized the incident, a young woman has come forward with another version of the story that the media preferred to ignore. According to her, the businessman involved harassed her by trying to take advantage of her vulnerable circumstances. As evidence, she presented screenshots of text messages by him asking her to meet him in private. Apparently, he was preying on a young female he thought to be all alone in a foreign land. However, he had to face the retaliation he did not expect after some male classmates of the female victim of harassment thrashed him. Although it would have been better if the students had reported the incident to the local police, the media has disproportionately blown the incident to vilify all international students.


In response to the incident, some local community leaders organized a town hall meeting in Brampton, Ontario. During the town hall meeting, Stephen Blom, the police superintendent of 22 Division was pointedly asked if he saw some difference between the nature of violence among the domestic and the international students. He replied, “I know that the incidents that were reported some have involved international students. We also know some have involved domestic students and youth that may even be in the workforce. So it is very difficult to target one group. I think it is a general problem.”


 In spite of the police officer’s explicit admission that it is wrong to target one group and the issue of violence is a general problem, the community leaders decided to allow their biases to determine the future government policies against the Sikh students. Four Sikh Members of Parliament: Raj Grewal, Ruby Sahota, Sonia Sidhu, and Kamal Khera have issued a joint statement threatening international students with deportation if they engage in any illegal activities in Canada. Their letter notes: “We understand that the perception in the community is that international students are the main instigators of these incidents. We have asked the Peel Regional Police to investigate and update us on their findings. It is important to note that, if anyone in Canada with temporary immigration status, including international students, is charged under the criminal code and convicted, they will be subject to deportation.” Why did these MPs take such a drastic step to address a minor fight when all they have is just community perception? Why did they threaten all Punjabi international students because of actions of some of them? Why wasn't the appropriate legal or judicial action enough in case of the international students? There are no numbers to back up the claim that such scuffles are happening on a daily basis. It is safe to assume that they did so to appease the community members who also happen to be registered voters in their respective constituencies. It is quite appalling that three women MPs have come forward in support of someone accused of sexual harassment. 


The larger question, however, is: why are so many Canadian Punjabis see international Punjabi students as a threat while the incidents of violence are neither too serious nor do they take place on a regular basis? On the other hand, some Canadian born Punjabis and non-Punjabis have been engaging in a gang war for a few decades, which had taken many lives on the streets of Surrey, Abbotsford, and Brampton. In 2015, there were 22 shootings and one homicide during a six-week period in the city of Surrey alone. The community leaders do not see the Canadian-born Punjabi young men as the problem. In this case, they always held the police, the politicians, and the community organizations accountable, which I do not disagree with; no doubt, the government has a responsibility to keep the youth on the right track. If the elected representatives and the community leaders who support the former on their position regarding the gang-related violence, then why such a disproportionate retaliation against the new migrants who are the hard-working taxpayers?


A closer look at the broader context would be helpful to make sense of the disproportionate reprisal on the part of the MPs. The incident is part of a large phenomenon; the self-racism rampant in the South Asian community in Canada, which is particularly noticeable in the section known as the moderate Sikhs. The moderates are known for their uncritical adaptation of the mainstream culture, who have developed a new racial hierarchy based on the arrival date or the place of birth of a person. People who migrated to Canada a few decades earlier and are financially well-settled as compared to the new immigrants often ridicule the latter and generally address them with slurs such as freshie, fob, and dipper etc. International students are the latest victims of this hate campaign. 


The issue, however, is neither new nor unique to the Sikhs. Frantz Fanon once said, "The colonized will believe the worst about themselves." What we are witnessing in Canada is a variation of this truth. These Canadian South Asians, too inarticulate to fight mainstream racism, are scapegoating international students to feel good about themselves. They are deflecting the racism they face in Canada onto the international Punjabi students. Internalized racism is quite prevalent among all racialized groups. But such scapegoating of the further marginalized group within the larger racialized group is not that common. It is a very shortsighted and counterproductive way to cope with the racism they experience. By scapegoating international students, they are betraying their complicity with the dominant racial order. They have not only accepted their inferiority but are also perpetuating it.


Most international students who come to Canada from Punjab are in their twenties. They were born during the 1990s, just after Punjab went through a very crucial period in its modern history; a few cycles of genocide that had left the community deeply shattered. During the early nineties, two phenomena intimately connected with each other: the fall of the Sikh struggle for freedom and the neoliberal globalization, initiated new transformations in Punjab. One was not possible without the other. A closer look at the larger context would provide pertinent insights into the developments during the early nineties.


The project of Sikhi as envisioned by the ten Guru Sahiban and eternally enshrined in the Guru Granth Sahib is the creation of a new subjectivity, a new model of being human. The Sikh subjectivity submits only to the will of Akal Purakh. It is Nirbhau and Nirvair. Khalsa is the spiritual and corporeal epitome of this subjectivity. This subjectivity, in bowing only before Akal Purakh, naturally challenges all worldly authority. It realizes itself through Sarbat Da Bhala, Akal Purakh di Prema-Bhagti, and unalienated labor.


Neoliberalism aims to engender the exact opposite of the Sikh subjectivity. Neoliberalism teaches humans to be selfish, to be averse to the very idea of social justice and devoid of any spiritual connection with the divine. It turns people into the moneymaking machines. Alienating labor sucks every trace of humanity out of us. Neoliberalism puts us into the service of capitalism and imperialism and builds a world based on the idea of the racial hegemony of some over the others; an ideology that cannot coexist with authentic Sikh praxis.


When the brutal violence of the Indian regime was suppressing the Sikhs, it was not only physical violence the Sikhs had to bear; the real tragedy was supplanting the Sikh subjectivity with the neoliberal one. Within a span of a few years, Punjab was turned into a strange mix of tortured bodies and souls of the Sikhs and the heavily drugged dancing bodies of the Punjabis. The exclusionary ethnicity of Punjabiat, a fabricated notion, displaced the egalitarianism of Sikhi. Constructed during the colonial period, Punjabiat leads to ethnic chauvinism. It is no accident that the discourse of ethnic Punjabiat was accompanied by vulgar music that promoted misogyny, drugs, and senseless violence.


International students coming to Canada from Punjab are going through a dual tragedy. First, the brutality and propaganda of the Indian regime violently disunited them from their indigenous sources of inspiration. The music they listen to while growing up violently moulds them into the neoliberal consumers, the embodiments of an unlimited success signified by the consumer products. To some extent, they cannot escape internalizing the neoliberal logic of selfishness and staying aloof to the existential concerns both the planet earth and its inhabitants face. Despite all of these inescapable subjectivity formation processes, however, the youth could not dismiss the connection they had with their roots. New communication technologies played a crucial role in providing them with the access to information about their traditions and the recent Sikh struggle for sovereignty. Websites such as the www.NeverForget84.com, run by Bhai Jagtar Singh Jaggi who is currently incarcerated in Punjab on fabricated charges, played a significant role in reconnecting the youth with their roots via the traumatic events of the 1980s.


Secondly, after they step on a foreign soil, Canada in this case, attempts at alienation come from several expected and unexpected quarters. They get dehumanizing looks and insulting remarks at every turn from the Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike. Instead of developing some support system, the Sikhs in Canada, including those who claim to fight for the Sikh sovereignty, have failed the newcomers on the student visas. Not a single Sikh Gurdwara has offered any support system or scholarships to the Sikh students from Punjab. Because the immense self-hate that has consumed the community members controlling the management committees occasionally spills over and starts stigmatizing an already vulnerable subsection of their own community. Instead of threatening them with deportations, we need to welcome them with open arms and hearts as our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters. We need to start the scholarships for bright students, set up job placement centers at Gurdwaras for them and help them in every way we can. Based on my experience as a teacher with some of these students, I can assure everyone concerned that our affective steps can cure every flaw and weakness they have. Don’t we remember that nothing good comes from hate, whether it is directed towards oneself or the other? Self-hate, just like the hate for the other, dehumanizes the hater first. In welcoming and embracing international students, Canadian Sikhs would be doing a great favor to themselves as well.


Prabhsharanbir Singh is Doctoral Candidate for Interdisciplinary Studies Graduate Program at University of British Columbia. Follow him on twitter @prabhsharanbir. 

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Last modified on Thursday, 28 June 2018 22:41
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