Uncertainty ‘Is Killing Us’: Sikhs in India Are in Limbo Amid Canada Dispute

Kulwant Singh, 45, shut his eyes tight and offered a prayer at the Sikh temple. Clutching a box of sweets and a shiny blue-and-white toy airplane, Mr. Singh and his teenage daughter, Navpreet Kaur, bowed outside the place of worship, Talhan Sahib in the North Indian state of Punjab.

For Mr. Singh and many others, a diplomatic crisis has caused a personal one, too. Though he has a valid visa and plane ticket, his plans to leave next week for Canada have been abruptly put on hold because of a feud between India and Canada over a Sikh’s killing on Canadian soil, which India’s government is accused of orchestrating.

Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh from Punjab who championed the creation of a separate state for Sikhs, was shot dead in June by hooded assailants. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government considered him a terrorist, and he was on a wanted list, but Indian officials deny accusations made last week by the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, which have caused a firestorm.

One result: The Indian government has temporarily put on hold visas to citizens of Canada, which has a large Indian diaspora. Both countries also expelled diplomats in a tit-for-tat response, and trade talks are frozen.

Kulwant Singh and his teenage daughter, Navpreet Kaur, outside the Sikh temple Talhan Sahib in the northern Indian state of Punjab on Saturday.Credit…Atul Loke for The New York Times

Now Mr. Singh is simply afraid to go, suspecting that flights might be canceled in coming weeks, leaving him helpless in Canada.

“It hurts, this cold war, and there is an uncertainty now which is killing us,” Mr. Singh, a farmer who had hoped to explore business opportunities with extended family in Canada, said dejectedly. “We are seeing a lot of statements being thrown around. Each of their sentences, each word of our leaders, is affecting the lives of each one of us. Whatever they say or do has a direct effect on us.”

Set amid lush green paddy fields and surrounded by imposing billboards advertising migration services, the temple draws thousands of visa aspirants every year who seek a little divine intervention in reaching places that offer more opportunities for success. Shops lined up on one side of the temple sell mini Boeing 747s and A380s, among other paraphernalia that might bolster their prayers.

Known as India’s breadbasket, Punjab is a majority-Sikh state where the average income is about $2,080 a year. It has a special relationship with Canada and a special place in the hearts of Sikhs like Mr. Singh.

Billboards outside the Sikh temple in Punjab advertising immigration services. Canada draws many Sikhs because of its economic opportunity and Sikh population, the largest outside India.Credit…Atul Loke for The New York Times

Sikhs have been migrating to Canada for more than a century, but the numbers surged in the 1970s.A secessionist armed struggle began, seeking an independent state for Sikhs in India called Khalistan, and prompting a repressive response. The Sikh community grew in places like British Columbia, and its members acquired positions of power and responsibility. Many of Punjab’s wealthy families own chains of gas stations in Canada, and it is hard to find a family that does not have a relative there.

According to Canada’s 2021 census, Sikhs accounted for 2.1 percent of the population, making the country home to the largest Sikh population outside India.

The share of Canada’s Sikh population has more than doubled in 20 years, according to that census, as a large number have migrated from India in search of higher education and jobs. Forty percent of the international students in Canada come from India, according to the Canadian Bureau for International Education, a nonprofit group.

A gurdwara in Jalandhar.Credit…Atul Loke for The New York Times

Jalandhar, which lies in the most agriculturally fertile part of Punjab, has become a popular base for many of the state’s thousands of migration consultancies. Concrete buildings housing their offices and English-language training centers are peppered with signs bearing Canadian flags that jostle for space with those of Australia, Britain, New Zealand and the United States. It is difficult to imagine more depictions of red and white maple leaves even in Toronto.

Career counselors say most young Punjabis dream of seeking an education and better lives in Canada.

Bharti Rajput, a counselor at Skybird International, which provides migration services, said Punjabis, especially Sikhs, had bonds with Canada like that of a “mother and child.”

“It is like their motherland,” she said. Not only does migrating offer a sense of status, but most have friends and relatives in Canada, making it especially alluring.

Bharti Rajput, who works at Skybird International, which provides migration services, says Punjabis have especially close ties to Canada.Credit…Atul Loke for The New York Times

Pointing at posters of young men and women who had made it through the visa process to countries including Canada, Ms. Rajput said, “The young would be happier working at a McDonald’s there than at a corporate in India.”

Gurbhej Singh, 22, stood outside another migration business on Saturday with friends. Recently he had traveled to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, about 50 miles from Jalandhar, to pray for a visa.

“I have been traveling over 12 miles from my village by bus every day to attend the classes here,” he said, “but Mr. Modi has spoilt my future.”

Gurbhej Singh, center, with friends on Saturday. He has been studying and praying for a visa to go abroad.Credit…Atul Loke for The New York Times

Mr. Singh, whose family has taken out a loan for his education, said Mr. Modi’s handling of the dispute with Canada showed he did not care about the Sikhs, given that his party has never been strong on its own in the state.

“His government has asked the Canadian diplomatic mission to be reduced. It is uncertain to me how long or when visas will come through now,” Mr. Singh lamented.

An hour’s drive away, in the village of Bhadas, which is surrounded by sugar cane and paddy fields, people expressed similar concerns.

“My sons call me twice a day, worried what will happen between the two countries,” said Gurmeet Singh, a retired teacher, as he leaned forward on his motorcycle. His 27- and 26-year-old engineer sons have been living in Canada for a few years, and one has even gained citizenship.

Money from locals who have gone abroad for work — nonresident Indians, or N.R.I.s — has transformed the village, with its imposing houses, neat tiled alleys, sewerage system and beautified bus stop. On the highway to Bhadas, an outlet for Barista, a coffee chain, jostles for space with a Chicago Pizza restaurant, and S.U.V.s zoom past. Marble Sikh temples and billboards for emigration companies stand tall in the bustling markets.

Houses in the village of Bhadas, India. A number of people there expressed concerns about what the diplomatic dispute meant for them and their families.Credit…Atul Loke for The New York Times

Some in the village have sold off their lands to finance sending their children abroad, many to Canada, said Nishan Singh Baliyania, who helps his wife, a female village head of Bhadas, with its day-to-day affairs.

Mr. Singh, whose sons are in Canada, said: “We expect Mr. Modi to behave like the family elder who would solve a household problem with sensitivity and maturity. Because of the deep people-to-people interaction between the two countries, all we want is peace.”

Those sentiments were echoed by Punjab state’s minister for nonresident Indians, Kuldeep Singh Dhaliwal, who belongs to a party in opposition to Mr. Modi’s.

“One Punjab resides here, in India; one Punjab resides in Vancouver and Toronto, in Canada,” Mr. Dhaliwal said in a telephone interview. “We are worried about our people.”

Back at the Sikh temple in Jalandhar, where people’s many offerings of toy planes prompted officials to ban the practice recently to maintain what they said was the temple’s “sanctity and decorum,” Ms. Kaur, in jeans and a striped shirt, picked up the ones she and her father had bought to take home.

“All I want to do is go to Canada and study hard, like my sister” in graduate school, she said with quiet determination. “It’s the most important thing for me to do.”

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