On a clear, crisp, beautiful day this June in Vancouver, a group of Sikh men stood behind a series of folding tables in Pigeon Park and distributed samosas and bottled water among the homeless and poor of the Downtown East Side. The intention behind serving the needy is seva or selfless community service that is integral not just to Sikhism but many other faiths.

One of the seva servers explained their event occurs annually in early June to commemorate the anniversary of the Indian government’s attacks on armed Sikh separatists in the Golden Temple. The juxtapositions of the event were jarring. A vertical banner with a portrait of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the slain militant leader of the Sikh separatist movement, was positioned alongside a three-story tall totem pole.

The site may have been chosen because of the Survivors’ Pole which was carved by Haida and Coast Salish artist Skundaal, also known as Bernie Williams, and created by a collaboration between Downtown East Side First Nations residents, LGBTQ activists and Japanese, Chinese and South Asian survivors of racism and injustice. These are survivors in the Canadian context. Yet the seva in the park references the Indian context.

An even stronger version of this troubling juxtaposition between South Asian Sikh and Indigenous struggles is visible in Canadian artist Nep Sidhu’s first solo exhibition, Medicine for a Nightmare (They called, we responded). His show, curated by Cheyanne Turions, was first on view in early 2019 at the Mercer Union Gallery in Toronto. It was subsequently shown in Vancouver at Simon Fraser University’s Audain Gallery. Sidhu has also spoken about the show as “expressing the experience of” seva. Yet, while the intent of the Pigeon Park seva is clear, Sidhu’s seva as expressed in this show is not.

An annual Vancouver event commemorates Operation Blue Star on the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Credit: Ali Kazimi/The Conversation

In Sidhu’s exhibit, two tapestries – his 2018 Axes in Polyrhythm and his 2019 Medicine for a Nightmare – are displayed side by side, suggesting equal and parallel histories of Sikhs and indigenous peoples of Canada. Sidhu draws a false equivalency between very different struggles: the fight for an ethnoreligious, theocratic state in South Asia and the ongoing struggle of the indigenous peoples in Canada who are grappling with the legacies and ongoing processes of colonialism.

Installation view of Nep Sidhu’s tapestries in ‘Medicine for a Nightmare (they called, we responded)’ at Mercer Union, Toronto, 2019. Credit: Toni Hafkenscheid/The Conversation

These histories are disjunctive and unrelated.

The Canadian art world, unaware of the context, has largely embraced Sidhu uncritically.But, I have met a number of artists in my community who have questions about the politics of the show’s ideas. They felt they could not openly critique it. They had some fear of backlash.

The Khalistan movement

On October 31, 1984, then prime minister Indira Gandhi, was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards. The attack was in retaliation to the Indian army’s operation on Amritsar’s Golden Temple in June that same year. At that time, militants fighting for a Sikh homeland called Khalistan had barricaded themselves in the Golden Temple.

Operation Blue Star led by the Indian military broke the barricade and killed fundamentalist preacher and militant leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his supporters. Innocent pilgrims were also killed in the attack. Most egregiously for many Sikhs, the inner sanctum, the Akal Takht was severely damaged and the irreplaceable reference library was burned.

The assassination of Gandhi led to a state-abetted pogrom against Sikhs in Delhi as well as other Indian cities. Brutal counter-insurgency operations against Sikh separatists by Indian security forces occurred between 1984 and 1995.

All through the 1980s, Sikh supporters in the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada had been sending financial support for the Khalistan movement. However, by the early 1990s, the movement had lost support because of the brutal tactics used by the Indian police to target young Sikh men as well as the violence of fundamentalist separatists who massacred innocent Hindus and Sikhs. Many with ties to the movement, or even just with teenage sons who might be targeted, left India.

The conflict took an estimated 20,000 lives. There are deep grievances held by Sikhs and their allies about the injustices suffered from the encouragement of or at the very least, the complicit agreement of the state. Justice has not been served to the Sikh survivors.

In North America, sympathisers with the Khalistan movement have recently been presenting this historical conflict as a non-violent call for Sikh sovereignty.

But history can be rewritten only to a point. A distinction must be made between the victimhood of the survivors of the 1984 pogroms and the manufactured victimhood of Sikhs as a whole as claimed by Khalistanis.

History rewritten

Queer Sikh-Canadian writer Rachna Raj Kaur wrote an insightful critique of Sidhu’s exhibition in NOW Magazine, in which she posed a series of questions about peace and violence. She asked, “Is Sidhu subverting the Khalistan movement or revering it?” Kaur noted “there is no support for the Khalistan movement in Punjab” but “it is prevalent in Canada and so we must pay attention when it shows itself”.

In the Mercer Union Gallery’s brochure for Medicine for a Nightmare (They called, we responded), there were obvious cringe-worthy factual errors, but most disturbing were the ways in which history was rewritten. The fundamentalists who shot and bombed innocents and openly assassinated fellow Sikhs were now being reconstructed as peaceful activists.

Words like militants, extremists, separatists and Khalistan were absent. Instead, the language used included “activist movement,” “Sikh self-determination” and “resistance fighters.” Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was described as a “community leader,” as well as “activist and religious leader”.

In Pigeon Park, the four young Sikh men with fashionable haircuts who handed out soft drinks wore slogan T-shirts. One read “The Future is Sovereign.” Another shirt read, “The Republic of Khalistan.” The text wrapped around a graphic image of an AK-47, the weapon of choice of Khalistani militants during the insurgency.

The controversy

Nep Sidhu made overtly political art and yet it seems that he choose not to claim his political position. Unlike India, where there is suppression of a Khalistani narrative, there is none in Canada.

After much criticism, the show’s brochure on the Mercer Union website was replaced with a bibliography of resources about 1984. An accompanying note by the curator acknowledged that her framing of the show in the brochure simplifies the breadth of violence that unfolded in India in 1984. She wrote, “My language needs to be reconsidered ... and resist summarising relationships to these histories in ways that rendered invisible those with differing lived [and inherited] experiences.” However, Turions did not acknowledge the factual errors she made in her essay.

Subsequently, in the Vancouver iteration of the show, a truncated curatorial statement was on the wall. A handout was distributed which consists of the original bibliography which has has been expanded to include books, mainly on Sikhism. The curator’s preamble and annotations were missing. A small library to the side had all the texts readily available. But what was the audience supposed to do with this? Are we expected to read it all and write our own contextual essay?

To deal with the controversy that had emerged in Toronto, Sidhu and Turions hosted a closed-door event in Vancouver. In this way, the curator and artist can perhaps claim the community has been engaged.

But the conversation has been controlled, and the silence has grown.

My questions for Nep Sidhu are: How do you respond to those Khalistani activists who do not want a critical response within the Sikh community? How do you allay the fears of your fellow artists of South Asian descent who feel silenced or those like Kaur who pray the conversation started by your show “omits violence and ends in peace”? Do you criticise the violence perpetrated in the name of Khalistan?

Have Nep Sidhu’s creative collaborators, Tlingit/Aleut artist Nicholas Galanin and African American artist Maikoiyo Alley Barnes been given an overview of the political terrain they have been led into? The next time I am in Vancouver, I will go back to The Survivors Pole in Pigeon Park to marvel at what truly collaborative, deeply political, grassroots public art can achieve without the scaffolding of art-speak to hide its intent.

Ali Kazimi is a professor of Cinema & Media Arts at the York University, Canada.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.