03/28/2018 09:22 EDT | Updated 03/28/2018 09:23 EDT

Tamils Understand The Sikh Community's Pain. We've Been There Before

It's a bitter truth that laws are rarely respected when asserted on behalf of the "wrong" people, whether Sikh or Tamil.

Regardless of how you feel about the federal New Democratic Party, you should be concerned with the recent public attacks on the party's leader, Jagmeet Singh. The furor blatantly demonstrates the racism entrenched in our media and politics.

A staunch supporter of human rights, Singh condemned genocide and supported an ethnic community's right to self-determination, as guaranteed in international law. Unfortunately for him, the cause he acknowledged wasn't a popular one, but involved his own community, the Sikhs of India.

It's a bitter truth that laws are rarely respected when asserted on behalf of the "wrong" people. We who demanded an end to the genocide in Sri Lanka know this all too well.

The United Nations estimates that from September 2008 to May 2009, more than 70,000 Tamil people were killed by Sri Lankan armed forces. Civil Society sources estimate that more than 146,000 people are unaccounted for after the war.

Mark Blinch / Reuters
Tamil protesters demonstrate at Queens Park in Toronto on May 13, 2009, to protest the the Sri Lankan government's repression.

Civilians were bombarded indiscriminately from the ground and the sky, in violation of international law. Shells and bombs penetrated religious centres, food distribution lines and even the government's own "no fire zones." The armed forces used banned chemical weapons, such as white phosphorus, which can melt skin to the bone, and targeted civilians for extrajudicial killings.

For seven consecutive months, Tamils living in Toronto and major cities across the Western hemisphere protested on the streets to demand an end to the bloodshed through a political resolution.

We protested in the bitter cold at 360 University Ave., and slept on the streets in front of Parliament Hill. Student groups, labour unions and community organizations joined us in our calls for peace and justice. But politicians and the mainstream media ignored our appeals.

Instead of condemning the Sri Lankan armed force's use of chemical weapons against civilians, they called on us to answer for the Tamil Tigers, a resistance group that used political violence. Terrorist narratives silenced our political and humanitarian appeals as we tried to prevent genocide. It didn't matter that our children were being burned with chemicals, because we were on the "wrong" side.

The point is to discredit his legitimacy as a capable, bearded Sikh man with a turban

In the same way, the media has completely erased Sikh narratives from the discourse, with no meaningful conversation about the violence the community endured during the Sikh genocide. The "terrorist" label gets tossed out like a hand grenade, suppressing any examination of the nuanced debates about the use of political violence that are happening in communities right now.

Political violence itself varies from attacks like the Irish Republican Army's Westminster bombing in 1974, to clandestine kidnappings initiated by underground groups like the Quebec Liberation Front (FLQ) throughout the 1970s. Nevertheless, in 2018, no Quebec politician has been forced to denounce the FLQ's violence.

The media's focus on Ujjal Dosanjh, a lawyer and former politician, as a spokesperson for Sikhs is tokenistic, and obscures the diversity of opinions within the community. The media's reporting begins and ends with a focus on Singh's appearance at separatist rallies, and Dosanjh's views. Point, counterpoint, end of analysis. The media fails to go any further and describe the social and historical conditions of Sikh oppression, political resistance, and yes, even participation in armed struggle.

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But that's not the point of these attacks on Singh, are they? The point is to discredit his legitimacy as a capable, bearded Sikh man with a turban, who could become the next Prime Minister. The strategic and cynical use of the "terrorist" label demonizes an entire community. It denies them political participation by reducing them to a single voice.

It's clear that Canada's racist impulses, which in 1914 led the government to turn away a ship full of Sikh migrants and in 2010 to detain hundreds of Tamil migrants aboard the MV Sun Sea on legally shaky grounds, are still with us.

To overcome them, we must confront them. We can start by taking a critical look at what's happening to Singh.

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