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The branding expert and activist toolkit creator shares his thoughts about Indian democracy, Khalistan, and social activism
Mo Dhaliwal has been called many things over the years – a B.C. cultural navigator, arts aficionado, bhangra lover, PuSh festival supporter, and the founder of the Skyrocket digital branding agency in Vancouver. He could add the term anti-racist media activist to the list in 2019 when he exposed how Global News B.C. had covered up a blackface joke by one of its employees.
In 2017, the University of the Fraser Valley grad coined the slogan “Love and Courage” for Jagmeet Singh as he was running for NDP leader.
But it wasn’t until this year that Dhaliwal was accused of being a “terrorist” in the Indian media – an allegation that he adamantly denies. And it arose over a couple of tweets by two of the most famous women in the world – Rihanna and Greta Thunberg – who questioned why there wasn’t more global attention on farmers’ protests in India.
It’s been a painful ordeal for Dhaliwal, who shared his experiences of repeatedly being defamed in his ancestral homeland after he delivered a short speech in January in front of the Indian consulate on Howe Street.
In an hour-long phone interview in advance of Vaisakhi, Dhaliwal talked about how he and others in the Indian diaspora are being victimized by “psychological warfare” from India’s neoliberal government and its allies. It came as a result of him publicly questioning why the country is oppressing farmers, journalists, women, minorities, Muslim refugees, and those from lower Hindu castes.
“India is exacting a lot of violence against dissenters within its own borders,” Dhaliwal said. “But that violence actually extends beyond its borders now because they’ve got these kind of cybercells set up to engage in things like doxxing – and [engaging in] the degree of trolling that happens.”
He also thinks that India mostly gets a free pass from the West, unlike China, because its government is democratically elected.
“They’ve done, I think, a far better job than China in actually, like, managing their brand for decades,” he said.
Dhaliwal came to the Indian establishment’s attention when Thunberg tweeted a link to an online “toolkit.” It was created by the Vancouver-based Poetic Justice Foundation, which he cofounded with arts and nonprofit advocate Anita Lal.
Dhaliwal described the toolkit as an “innocuous PowerPoint deck.”
It showed how to contact politicians, sign petitions, and use hashtags – including #AskIndiaWhy – to condemn state violence and demand that the Indian government listen to protesters.
“We had strategy documents,” Dhaliwal explained. “We had all sorts of stuff that was being worked on in plain sight. The encouragement to everybody working with us in the diaspora was, ‘Share this far and wide. Get this into the hands of whoever needs it.’ ”
He felt that this was the best way to reduce the likelihood of security forces in India from using more violence against farmers, who’ve already faced some attacks. And he emphasized that this is a national movement taking place in many states against three farm bills, even though it appears to the world as mostly Sikh because Sikh farmers tend to live much closer to the capital of New Delhi.
“What we were trying to do is make sure any protests happening in the diaspora in support of the farmers were really well equipped with good fact-checked messaging, good-looking assets, easy-to-replicate graphics, all that sort of stuff.”
After Thunberg disseminated the toolkit through her tweet, Indian media outlets attempted to discredit its authors. That helped shield the government at home from high-profile international criticism.
And because Dhaliwal had expressed sympathy on his Facebook page in 2020 for the idea of “Khalistan” – an imaginary Sikh independent state in northwestern India – this received wide attention in the Indian media.
Dhaliwal provided commentators with more ammunition when he delivered his speech on Republic Day in downtown Vancouver. He pointed out that the farmers’ way of life was under threat in India. And he felt it was imperative for those in attendance to open their hearts and minds to understand each other.
That’s because many of the younger people were dismissive of the Khalistan movement, not realizing that older Khalistanis in the crowd had been trying to protect that way of life for 50 years or longer.
“That video got picked up, projected, and played in India repeatedly and was referred to as hate speech,” Dhaliwal said.
This was despite him not saying anything critical of India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, his Bharatiya Janata Party, or India in the video.
“I’ve never been down to that hateful rhetoric,” Dhaliwal insisted. “I would only want to speak for the change that we want to see.”
One of those changes is a more equal justice system free of some of the caste bias that he’s noticed. To cite one example, Dhaliwal said that one of the pro-farmer activists, 23-year-old Nodeep Kaur, was detailed without a charge and physically and sexually assaulted while in custody in the northwestern state of Haryana.
Meanwhile, a 22-year-old activist in Mumbai who came from a prominent BJP-supporting family, Disha Ravi, was arrested in connection for working with “foreign actors,” i.e. the Poetic Justice Foundation. She quickly received bail.
“As unfair as her original arrest might have been, she still got justice,” Dhaliwal said. “It was almost performative justice. This judge came out with a scathing, scathing judgement that was, in many ways, exonerating Poetic Justice and myself while blasting the Delhi police for responding to nothing more than media headlines in trumping up their charges.”
The Ravi case led to an onslaught of messages from India, with “lots of password-reset attempts on our various accounts.” And when he tweeted a message of support for Punjabi actor Deep Sidhu for participating in a protest, it led to “multiple TV shows” hosting panel discussions about the meaning of his message.
“They blew 30 minutes on this, taking about the this Khalistani Mo Dhaliwal – ‘now the links to Deep Sidhu and other parties are evident’ – and just breathlessly inventing bullshit as fast as they can,” he recalled. “It was breathtaking the scale at which they operated, actually.”
It’s worth noting that Sikhs comprise only about two per cent of India’s population. Canada has the second-largest Sikh population outside of India, just behind the United Kingdom.
Dhaliwal readily joked that if you ever want to see a group of Punjabi people scatter, just say “Khalistan” in any setting. That’s because it has become such a loaded word. He believes that the media referred to the farmers’ protest as a Khalistan initiative to drive a wedge within the movement.
But Dhaliwal argued that Khalistan is not an “inherently negative term.” In fact, he suggested, the first maharajah of the Sikh Empire, Ranjit Singh, was an enlightened ruler who oversaw a “golden period” in the early 19th century.
During his 39-year reign, Muslim and Hindu centres of worship actually flourished in northwestern India.
“That’s sometimes forgotten,” Dhaliwal said. “Any land that’s operated under these ideals will have to ultimately answer to the Guru Granth Sahib.”
His comments came as Sikhs across Canada are celebrating Sikh Heritage Month in April.
The Guru Granth Sahib, the central religious text of the Sikh faith, is often referred to as the “eternal-living guru.” The founder of the faith, Guru Nanak, was actually hundreds of years ahead of his time by promoting equality in the late 15th and early 16th centuries.
“He was so universally embraced and his revolution was so universally embraced because it’s hard to argue with wanting to be in service to humanity and wanting to be in a remembrance of the oneness that all of creation – not just humans but all of creation – is a part of,” Dhaliwal said.
He described Sikhi (as it’s often called) as a “nonproselytizing religion” with a “baked-in ideology of living in a constant state of revolution and being in service to humanity.”
This is part of the reason why Dhaliwal remains open to the idea of an independent state of Khalistan, founded on these ideals. He thinks it has genuine potential to be far more progressive and open to diversity than India, which is riddled with inequality and increasing intolerance of minorities.
That’s witnessed in the so-called cow vigilantism, where Muslims, in particular, are attacked by Hindu extremists. Left-wing intellectuals such as Anand Teltumbde and G.N. Saibaba have been jailed after speaking out on behalf of the poorest people in the country.
The #AskIndiaWhy campaign goes beyond simply calling for support for protesting farmers, highlighting the clampdown on democracy in Kashmir, curtailment of media freedom, the extent of sexual assaults in New Delhi, and the criminalization of interfaith marriage, among other issues.
“They are kind of constantly projecting this soft power in this world as a place of deep and ancient spirituality and all these things, and that’s definitely a part of the India story,” Dhaliwal noted. “But the contemporary, modern story of India is far more complex than that and actually far more violent.”
The #AskIndiaWhy website declares near the top that “India is not just about spirituality, yoga, and chai.”
And from his perch in Vancouver, Dhaliwal has been able to observe how the foundation’s campaign is being exploited by Indian politicians to whip up patriotism.
“Modi, on a trip to Assam, talked about the fact that there are foreign actors that are attacking India’s chai culture,” he said. “Our jaws dropped.”
Assam is a major tea-growing state in India.
The Poetic Justice Foundation takes its inspiration from a wide variety of activists and change agents, ranging from Malcolm X to Martin Luther King, Jr. to Sufi mystics to Indian revolutionary Bhagat Singh to Indian independence leader Bhimrao Ambedkar.
Prior to becoming a centre of controversy on Indian talk shows, the Poetic Justice Foundation focused its efforts on engaging the diaspora in difficult conversations. This included discussions about how anti-Black racism is sometimes manifested in Punjabi culture and exploring the different responses to the words Dalit and Jat.
Dhaliwal said that he’s never been a vocal proponent of Khalistan, so it’s odd to him that he has been launched to the forefront of this issue in India.
“I’m in some ways appropriating the efforts of so many people who have been working on this for so many decades – and continue both through research and scholarship and in their discourse in the diaspora,” Dhaliwal noted. “Because we know that we can’t have that discourse in India because you’ll be jailed, or worse.”
The upshot is that he doubts that he’ll ever be able to visit his ancestral village in Ludhiana district again.
According to Dhaliwal, Punjabi Canadians are known for their fractious debates, sometimes leaving an impression that the community is fragmented and disjointed.
“These are narratives, unfortunately, we propagate about ourselves,” he said.
However, there’s been a stunning degree of unity in the diaspora when it came to supporting the farmers’ protests. To him, it reflected a different reality from what’s been advanced by the state.
“It’s the people that actually have a very common value system,” Dhaliwal said.
That’s because it would have been impossible to recruit so many people so quickly to join the struggle, which has been led by the elders in India.
“A flare went up and we responded with one voice and we actually have a connection to each other and this place – and believe what people believe, which is we should have rights to our land and water,” he added. “So I think that part of it has been utterly beautiful to me. The response in [the] diaspora was incredible.”
The slogans that the protesters were originally using, such as “no farmers, no food” and “we stand with farmers,” resonated with people of Punjabi ancestry because their traditions are so connected to land and agriculture.
But Dhaliwal knew that he had to expand the message beyond this singular plea to reach a wider audience. And he felt that the question #AskIndiaWhy would be far more powerful than simply demanding legislative or political changes.
“If you’ve been marginalized, oppressed or been a victim to violence there, you can take up the hashtag and ask your question,” Dhaliwal said. “That is so much better than calling for the downfall of a prime minister or vowing to tear India apart or any of these violent messages. We don’t need a violent statement. A question is enough for India to unravel itself in some ways.”
This story originally appeared in the Georgia Straight.