Hundreds gather in Vancouver to protest crackdown in India's Sikh-majority state
B.C. residents with ties to India's Punjab region gathered in downtown Vancouver Saturday to wave flags, chant and listen to speeches calling out the India government over its so-called crackdown to arrest a prominent voice in the separatist movement.
The hunt for Sikh preacher Amritpal Singh comes a month after he led a violent storming of a police station, according to international media reports. It's resulted in arrests, restrictions on gatherings, and a blackout of media and mobile internet connections affecting more than an estimated 20 million people.
"We're here to show our dissent, our displeasure against the Indian state for this suspension of civil liberties and violation of human rights," said Moninder Singh, a spokesperson for the British Columbia Gurdwaras Council from the rally on Saturday.
Organizers of the protest said Amritpal Singh, leader of social reform group Waris Punjab De, was working on tackling drug use and drug deaths in the state, and the storming of the police station was in response to Sikhs being unfairly detained and treated there.
Punjab police allege that Amritpal Singh had set up a militia and was stockpiling weapons and other military equipment.
The Vancouver protest took place at the Consulate General of India on Howe Street in downtown Vancouver with crowds gathering for hours beginning at 1 p.m. PT.
Watch | Sikhs rally in downtown Vancouver over India's Punjab crackdown:
Punjab is India's only Sikh-majority state, with around 30 million people residing in the region, which is about two per cent of the country's entire population.
There is a history of Sikhs advocating for the establishment of an independent Sikh homeland called Khalistan. In Hindu-majority India, many say they face discrimination and oppression.
Indian authorities deny those allegations.
Now though, the Government of Punjab says the crackdown and internet blockages are needed to ensure public safety and prevent the incitement of violence.
Many people, including federal politicians in Canada have criticized the measures as being heavy-handed and a violation of human rights as some people in the Punjab struggle to communicate and access information.
Nearly 25 per cent of the world's Sikhs live outside of India, including more than 750,000 in Canada, meaning events in Punjab are being watched closely far beyond the state's borders.
"It's really disturbing and sad to watch from out here," said Harnoor Kaur, 24, who was born in Vancouver but still has family in the state of Punjab.
"We're here to show solidarity and support and most importantly as individuals that do have the ability to protest peacefully and the ability to speak our opinion living in a truer democracy here in Canada," she said from the protest on Saturday.
"We feel it's our responsibility to exercise our voice and also just to send India a message that the world is watching and this is something we stand strongly against."
Those at Vancouver's protest want Canada's government to speak out over the crackdown. They say more protests are planned for this coming week.
"Canadian Sikhs will not standby and watch our people suffer in India," said a press release about Saturday's protest in Vancouver.
On Thursday in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Missisauga-Malton Liberal MP Iqwinder Gaheer asked Minister of Foreign Affairs Mélanie Joly for an update on how her ministry was observing the situation in Punjab.
"We are aware of the evolving situation in Punjab, and we are following it very closely," she said.
"We look forward to a return to a more stable situation. Canadians can always count on the Government of Canada to make sure that we will continue to address the concerns of many members of the community."