A Window of Opportunity: A Cri de Coeur on the State Visit of India's Prime Minister Modi to Canada

My father used to say with great pride, for quite some time after we moved to Canada and made it our home, that no one was more or better representative of the best of India than Sikhs.

Specifically, he loved to boast that no one was, or could be, more Indian than a Sikh. Not even if he was not born on the subcontinent or had never stepped foot on it. Being an Indian was part of every Sikh's DNA.

It was an honour, he would argue, that no other in India could claim, listing a string of reasons to prove his point.

Then came 1984. First June. Then, November.

Everything changed. Not only in my father but deep in the heart of most amongst the 30 million Sikhs around the world. No matter what situation or predicament they were in, regardless of whether they could voice their opinions or had to hide them thenceforth for one reason or the other, a disconnect had occurred.

Alas, it continues.

I believe it is not something India's new, one-year-old government and prime minister can shrug off easily just because it was seeded under the Congress Party's watch, or because India's Sikhs are but one minority, and that too at a mere 2% of the population.

Because it is integrally intertwined with a general malaise.

Sikhs in Canada have an advantage over those either living in India or emotionally attached to the 'motherland' because they live in a society which, despite its fair share of warts and all, is the most free in the world. They are able to look at events around the globe with relatively unjaundiced eyes and voice their opinions free of the tangles of patriotism, jingoism or other pressures.

This irks the powers in India to no end. It explains why every visiting Indian minister feels it obligatory to blindly paint Sikh-Canadians as militants, extremists and terrorists, almost as a ritual, during their visit. It's like the smoke-screen used before an ambush.

The visitors also find it necessary to get the Canadian prime minister of the day to parrot their words. He invariably obliges. Even while knowing full well that it is not true.

Why wouldn't he? Because the words are meaningless. Everyone -- the public, the politicians, the bureaucrats -- all shrug it off with the same indifference one shows to the fawning of the sari-seller in the bazaars of Karol Bagh who lays out a feast of fish tikkas and kebabs to impress you how much he has your interest at heart. Mr Harper, desperately drooling for trade opportunities, will say anything, particularly these days when he is in pre-election mode and his poll numbers are getting increasingly precarious by the day. It'll mean nothing.

I know that it is difficult for Indians to understand the true mindset that we live in, in the free West, or why it is important for visiting politicians to first observe and listen and learn, without falling into the trap of grasping for short-term gains. If you don't hear what we have to say or how we feel, whether it is right or wrong in your minds, or manage to drown our voices in the din of your visit, it serves you ill, not us.

A year ago, Mr Modi was handed a window of opportunity. I worry that it can so easily be squandered in a hail of inanities.

I recall how, a few years ago, when I personally launched a court challenge against the then Canadian prime minister (Brian Mulroney), alleging serious constitutional illegalities on his part, public opinion polls showed that the nation was almost unanimously behind me. Not long thereafter, I was cornered by the local Consul General of India at a party in Toronto; he was aware of my much-headlined court challenge, and that Mulroney's party was decimated out of existence (with no contribution on my part, I'm sure) in the elections that followed.

But all he wanted to know, seeing that I was a turbaned and bearded Sikh, and unaligned with any political agenda or party, was: "Sardar Sahib, didn't you feel afraid? That some harm may come to you? That someone may come after you?"

"Duh!" is all I could muster. Couldn't he see, I mused loudly, that it was a democracy we lived in and all I was doing was exercising my rights as a citizen? In a country where the idea was given more than mere lip service!

He was from the Indian Foreign Service -- a cadre I knew to have the reputation of having the best and the brightest. It therefore puzzled me that he was surprised and thought I had been unusually courageous and possibly foolhardy, and had nevertheless expressed awe at my actions.

Years later, I still get the same reaction from Indians, and not others, who remember those days.

It explains to me why, when Sikh-Canadians agitate against what they see as human rights violations in India, it is deemed imperative for Indian politicians and authorities to try and silence them by painting them as extremists. It is a mind-set that Mr Modi has inherited from his predecessors.

As I've already said, it is symptomatic of a larger malaise which eats into anything and everything that India does to progress. Each step forward is countered by a staggering two steps backwards, it seems. I recall the promise of how the 20th century belonged to India as I grew up there during my formative years, and I'm sadly aware how that opportunity was lost.

Now, once again, it appears that the 21st century is out there for India's taking. It's a much coveted second chance which rarely comes to either individuals or nations in such a short span.

However, 15 years of this new century have already been frittered away.

Mr Modi has an unique window of opportunity to change things and put India on track. Never before in India's seven-decade long history has a leader and a party been given such a total carte blanche to change the landscape.

Despite all that you hear within India, here's what the world outside currently sees and hears and knows and remembers about India: Devyani Khobragade, gang-rapes, burnt Christian churches, murdered nuns and priests, abject poverty and slums, no toilets, pre-election massacres, rampant pollution, police 'encounters', corrupt politicians, religious riots, Air India cockpit fights, ultra-rich magnates, pre-historic Vedic inventions ...

Mr Modi has a window of opportunity to change the narrative.

It's not going to be easy. But it's an opportunity that only two other prime ministers have had in the past: Jawaharlal Nehru, who rose to the occasion and made some headway. And Manmohan Singh, who squandered it.

For Mr Modi, it's a call to carpe diem: to become the Man who turned this into India's Century ... or do an innings or two and be relegated as a hiccup of history.

Distilled of rhetoric and obfuscations from both sides, here's how the Sikhs of Canada see the present and visualize the future -- and, I believe, Sikhs everywhere share this in their heart of hearts:

They recognize that Punjab being a crucial and critical border state, India weighed two different options: first, to weaken it and turn it into a virtual no-man's land, ostensibly to make it more defendable; second, to nurture or even enhance its historical strengths as a perennial buffer against invading forces.

Sadly, India chose the easy but disastrous route -- a la Barbara Tuchman's theory of "The March of Folly" -- of bringing the state to its knees. So that it became malleable and easy to manipulate as a front-line territory.

We see it akin to shooting yourself in the foot. Remember, it has always been the Sword Arm of India! One doesn't cut off one's own arm as a measure of defence!

Wouldn't the second option make more sense? Strengthen it! Surely a strong border state makes a better bulwark than a weak one. Try it. You'll be surprised at the result.

When respected and given freedom, Sikhs have always risen to the occasion. Over and over again, they have shown -- around the world -- that they are nation-builders, loyal and patriotic to a fault. Moreover, they have the inbuilt trait of never settling for less.

I fear India has lost sight of these realities or sees things only through jaundiced eyes. In its frenzied desperation to bury Sikhs in a sea of obfuscations -- as Punjabis, Indo-Canadians, South Asians, NRIs, militants, extremists, terrorists, or even the constitutional misnomer of a 'sect' of Hinduism -- it needs to understand and accept the fact that Sikhs in Canada see themselves as Sikh-Canadians. No less, no more.

Accept it. Build on it. Use it to your advantage. Not react in knee-jerk fashion, but strategically. The 'Sikh Question' is a microcosm of both your larger problems ... and your overall solutions.

Address it and it'll help you make this century yours.

Mr Modi, you have a small window of opportunity. Going by a similar trajectory that two other powers -- first Japan, and then China -- experienced in recent decades and successfully elevated themselves into world-powers, I see you having no more than 5 to 10 years to seize the day. To make India whole again. And to make it more than a mere rich power -- a true world power.

And, guess what: those critical years have fallen within Mr Modi's watch.

It's a window of opportunity.

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