Randhir Singh said the Indian police officers kicked him in the face, knocking out two teeth, and beat him with wooden sticks while they held him at the station for three days.
Singh, 70, said they also grabbed him by the legs to stretch him as if to pull him apart.
“They almost tore me apart … they stretched from both sides,” he said, speaking in Punjabi, during an interview with CBC News.
“They beat me so much that I was unconscious most of the time.”
He said police only released him on the third day in May 2015 because his wife sought the help of the gurdwara leadership in Nijampur, the Punjab village where they lived.
Singh and his wife, Rajvinder Kaur, 67, now live in Montreal. They are able to stay in Canada under a temporary resident permit issued in August by the federal immigration minister, narrowly averting deportation back to India.
They are among a steadily rising number of Indian nationals seeking refugee protection in Canada since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took power in 2014, according to federal data reviewed by CBC News.
The torture still haunts Singh. He suffers from severe, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to medical records filed in Federal Court.
“He is one of the most traumatized people that I’ve seen in the last 10 years or so,” said Montreal human rights lawyer Stewart Istvanffy, who represented the couple with their refugee claim.
Influx of Indian refugees
So far this year, Canada has accepted 1,344 refugee claims from India, making it the third-largest source country for refugees. It’s behind Iran, with 2,730 accepted claims, and Turkey with 1,993, according to Immigration Refugee Board (IRB) data.
Canada accepted 3,469 refugee claims from India in 2022, the highest total in at least the last 20 years, according to the federal data.
There were fewer than 20 accepted claims in 2014. The IRB doesn’t provide exact numbers under 20.
The rate of accepted claims from India has also risen steadily in the last decade.
That rate — accepted claims over rejected claims — rose from under 20 per cent in 2014 to nearly 50 per cent in 2022, according to Sean Rehaag, director of the Refugee Law Lab, an online data and document portal.
“What that’s saying is that Canada is recognizing that there is persecution and human rights violations in India,” said Rehaag, an associate professor at Osgoode Law School and director of York University’s Centre for Refugee Studies, which hosts the lab.
“That combination — an increase in the number of people making claims and an increase in the recognition rates — tells me that the human rights situation in India has worsened during this period.”
In 2019, the same year Modi won re-election, the number of successful refugee claims exceeded 300 for the first time in over a decade, the data shows. After a small drop during COVID-19-afflicted 2020, successful claims surpassed 1,000 in 2021.
“Correlation is not causation, but in this you certainly have the causation,” said Raj Sharma, an immigration lawyer with the Calgary firm Stewart Sharma Harsanyi.
Sharma said religious minorities like Sikhs, Muslims and Christians are also facing increased discrimination.
“Something that we didn’t quite see in the past, but we’re seeing more now, is the increase in terms of religious intolerance,” he said, adding the Modi government “espouses a far more muscular view and aggressive view of the Hindu majority.”
Some experts say the numbers are fuelled by unscrupulous immigration-brokers, who sell fake documents and concocted stories to well-off Indian nationals seeking greener pastures in North America.
“People who are actually refugees, people who actually suffer because of clashes between two ethnic communities, they don’t get passports, they don’t have money to come abroad,” said Shinder Purewal, a political science professor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, B.C.
“It’s these smart people who are spending a lot of money to buy all kinds of documents and they are the ones who are able to travel.”
Modi’s government reacted with fury to Canada’s claim earlier this month that intelligence showed India’s hand in the June killing of Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Surrey, B.C.
The Indian government suspended visa processing in Canada — effectively barring Canadians from visiting India — and issued a travel advisory warning Indian nationals could face “political condoned hate crimes and criminal violence in Canada.”
‘Problems in the world’
This is not the first time a wave of refugees — particularly Sikh — from India have sought protection in Canada.
The turbulent and bloody conflicts between Indian state authorities and Sikh separatists during the early to mid-1980s unleashed a surge of refugees to Canada, said Sharma.
“That led to the first exodus,” he said.
That exodus also led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling in 1985 that laid the foundation for the Immigration and Refugee Board. The case involved six Sikh plaintiffs and a woman from Guyana, said Toronto lawyer Barbara Jackman, who represented intervenors in the case.
“When there’s problems in the world, we see it in Canada, we start seeing the movement of people coming and claiming protection,” said Jackman.
The high court ruled that the Charter applied to asylum seekers who had a right to a fair hearing.
From a good life to harassment
Singh and Kaur had a good life in India. Singh was the caretaker of the village gurdwara and Kaur was a sarpanch, or elected leader of the village.
The events that drove them from the country began one night in May 2015 when two Sikh men, who said their truck had broken down, asked to sleep at the gurdwara.
Local police arrived at the gurdwara during the night but the two men fled and Singh was detained.
Police told him the men were militants, Singh said in an affidavit filed on June 29 in Federal Court.
“Police interrogated me intensively.… My religious symbols were disrespected and removed. My beard was pulled. I was abused, humiliated and beaten.… Police were forcing me to confess my links with the militants. I denied all allegations.”
Singh said police continued to hound him, accusing him of sheltering militants on other occasions.
Within five months, Singh and Kaur had come to Canada.
Their son, Sikander Singh, still lives in the state of Punjab. His home was twice raided this year by federal police agents who claimed his parents were involved with Khalistan militants, he said in a Federal Court affidavit supporting his parents’ refugee claim.
“The [National Investigation Agency] has made the accusation that my parents are doing money laundering and of being involved in a conspiracy against India, which is completely untrue,” he stated in the affidavit
For Singh and Kaur, life in Canada comes with its own struggles.
“Sometimes [Kaur] goes to the library or somewhere else, I’m alone and I stay in depression without talking to anyone,” said Singh.
Singh attempted suicide this summer after their refugee claim hit a dead-end and they faced deportation. Death here is better than death there, he said.
“They would’ve killed me,” said Singh. “They kill a lot of people there.”
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