Tensions in the Punjab region of India appear to have spilled over into British Columbia, where a journalist says he was assaulted at a protest on Sunday.
Mobile internet and text messaging has been suspended in the Punjab since Saturday, and there are reports of mass arrests as the Indian government conducts a widespread operation targeting youth Sikh activist Bhai Amritpal Singh, leading to large counter-protests.
Singh and other youth activists have been raising concerns about the drug crisis in Punjab, water issues and the rights of the state. Singh also supports the Khalistan movement for an independent Sikh homeland.
Sameer Kaushal, a journalist and news director with AM600 Sher E Punjab Radio, said he was in Surrey Sunday for an event at the Taj Park Convention Centre welcoming the high commissioner of India’s first visit to the west coast.
The event was ultimately cancelled for security reasons.
When he arrived, he found a large protest, and said demonstrators would not allow him to access the event.
When he identified himself as a journalist and asked the protesters if he could interview their organizers about their concerns, things quickly went sour, he told Global News on Monday.
“They tried to instigate the whole crowd. Approximately 50 to 60 youngsters, they came around me, they made a circle, they had covered their faces with clothes, and they were just pushing me and threatening me and abusing me in my mother tongue,” he said.
“By the time the RCMP cops they saw me and they just took me out from the crowd and said, ‘You have to leave this place for your own safety as we cannot give you the security over here.'”
Kaushal said tense situations are an occupational hazard for journalists, but the incident left him rattled and disappointed.
He said everyone has the right to disagree and to protest, but that violence is never the answer.
“I am disturbed with the way those youngsters, youth, unidentified people … were dealing with the issue. They are I think globally shaming our community,” he said.
“The best solution is to sit at the table and to talk.”
Surrey RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Vanessa Munn confirmed police were investigating alleged assault involving a different male victim at the protest and said Mounties were seeking witnesses and video.
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“There is an assault investigation into the assault of one person who was in the crowd and did appear to be swarmed and assaulted by multiple people,” she said.
“Officers were on scene and did witness the assault take place and were able to enter the crowd, intervene and help escort the victim out of the situation. He was then placed in the back of a police car for his own personal safety.”
Munn said the victim was transported out of the area and treated by paramedics for non-life threatening injuries.
No arrests were made at the scene but the investigation remains active and eventual charges are possible, she added.
Amid the mobile internet blackout in the Punjab, many South Asian British Columbians say they’re anxious for family still in India as tensions mount.
Hardeep Singh Sahota told Global News on Sunday that his mother is in the state of Punjab and due to return at the end of the month, and that the family is worried.
“We are confused. If my mom is going to be able to make it back or if she is going to get stuck because a few of the flights are cancelled,” he said.
“It’s not even about my family. It’s about every person who lives in Punjab.”
On Monday, Punjab remained on high alert as police resumed their search for Singh, whom they accuse of inciting communal tensions.
“There’s mass protests that are erupting across Punjab,” said Moninder Singh, spokesperson for the B.C. Gurdwaras Council.
“People are very upset. Amritpal Singh is a very popular individual, a young man who is actually giving his life over to pushing for Punjabi and Sikh youth to be in a better place.”
The Khalistan movement is banned in India, where officials see it and affiliated groups as a national security threat. But the movement has evolved in recent decades and retains support in the state, as well as beyond, in countries like Canada and the United Kingdom which are home to a sizable Sikh diaspora.
At least 112 of Singh’s supporters have been arrested amid protests according to the Press Trust of India, but Balpreet Singh Boparai, legal counsel for World Sikh Organization of Canada, said there are unofficial reports as many as 1,500 people have been detained.
“They’re being charged under something called the National Security Act, which is a colonial law allowing one year of detention without charges,” he said.
“This is absolutely shocking, India, which purports to be a democracy, is going all out on this.”
Boparai called the government’s accusations against Singh “ridiculous,” and said India’s the arrests and internet blackout over allegations against a single activist were “draconian” and showed that Sikh people are not treated as equals in the country.
He said the government’s actions must be viewed in the context of bloody anti-Sikh riots in India in 1984 after the Indian army attacked Sikhism’s holiest shrine, the Golden Temple, in an anti-separatist crackdown.
“When you have these sorts of blackouts you have some very scary things that happen,” he said.
“A similar blackout took place in 1984, and under that blackout there was a genocide of Sikhs that took place. So you are seeing a lot of trauma, a lot of fear.”
Boparai’s group is calling on the Canadian government to pressure India to restore democratic norms and civil liberties.
British Columbia is not the only region outside of India to feel ripples from the Punjab crisis.
Windows at the India’s High Commission in London, U.K., and at the Consulate General of India in San Francisco have both been smashed during separate demonstrations by Sikh protesters, according to local police.
— with files from the Associated Press