A Canadian minority in turmoil

Ann Finlayson July 8 1985

A Canadian minority in turmoil

Ann Finlayson July 8 1985

Sikh memorial service in Vancouver temple: haunted by troubles left behind

The tragedy sent shock waves around the world, but nowhere was the grief more deeply felt than among Canadians of Indian heritage. At least 279 of Air-India Flight 182’s 329 passengers and crew were Canadians, and many others were Indian citizens returning home after visits with relatives. As the victims’ families and friends received confirmation of the disaster, Indo-Canadians across the country joined together in mourning. Religious leaders arranged memorial services, neighbors comforted stunned relatives, and shopkeepers closed their doors to honor the dead. But as speculation grew that a terrorist bomb had downed the Boeing 747, grief was often combined with anger and suspicion. Said Sadrudin Nanji, a Moslem grocer in Toronto’s Gerrard Street Indian community: “This act cannot help bring about change. Whoever has done this, why don’t they go and fight the Indian government? One hundred per cent of the people on that plane were innocent.” 

Suspicion: The anger intensified after a Sikh extremist group claimed responsibility for destroying the plane. Spokesmen for Canada’s diverse IndoCanadian cultural groups said that the tragedy could have serious repercussions for Indian communities around the globe. If the claims are substantiated, the disaster could force the Indian government to intensify action against Sikh militants in the Punjab, undermining the position of Sikh moderates. In Canada, Vancouver’s Mohinder Grewal, president of the British Columia chapter of the National Association of Canadians of Origins in India, feared that the tragedy would unfairly cast suspicion on British Columbia’s entire Indo-Canadian population, at about 80,000 the largest in Canada. Sikh leaders last week insisted there was no solid evidence to connect any group with the AirIndia disaster. Said Gurcharan Singh, past president of the Ottawa-based Federation of Sikh Societies of Canada: “In the first place, no one has the right to say that it was a bomb. Secondly, there are other minorities being persecuted in India. Why are we getting the blame?” 

Protesting outside the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar: a polarized political climate

Although proclamations of unity and a mood of shared grief marked the many public observances, there were signs that the tragedy had already reopened painful wounds. In Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square, shouted insults interrupted the serenity of one memorial service—conducted jointly by Moslem, Sikh, Hindu and Christian leaders —after a Hindu priest denounced “terrorists who threaten to divide Mother India.” A day later a bomb threat delayed the start of services at the city’s Hindu Voice of the Vedas Vishnu Temple. And Sikh leaders in several communities reported receiving threatening telephone calls.

Haunted: Some 200,000 Canadians trace their roots to the Indian subcontinent. For many of them, the troubles they hoped to leave behind continue to haunt their new lives in Canada. Others, however, have found Canada a fruitful staging ground for political protest and activism. For decades Canada’s Indian immigrants enjoyed the benefits of a society that valued their skills, rewarded their industry—and respected their varied cultural backgrounds. Often highly educated and ambitious for themselves and their children, they settled in cities and towns across the country, moving quickly into professional and white-collar jobs. Montreal’s Concordia University alone lost two professors and three students on Flight 182.

Between 1971 and 1981 the nation’s Indo-Pakistani population skyrocketed to 121,445 from 52,100. The newcomers retained their traditional ties to India—and many of them nurtured passionate political feelings as well. For many Sikh immigrants those feelings were rooted in the long-standing grievances of India’s Sikh population against the Indian government.

Although they make up only two per cent of India’s 730-million population, Sikh contributions to modern India have far outweighed their numbers. Under enterprising Sikh farmers, the Punjab region where most Sikhs live has become India’s breadbasket and its greatest economic success story. But disputes over language rights and Sikh fears that the Indian government was directing development funds to poorer areas led to demands for greater political autonomy and, in the past two decades, spawned a separatist movement. Initially committed to nonviolence, the movement became more militant under the leadership of radical cleric Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Its goal: the creation of an independent Sikh nation to be called Khalistan.

Bhindranwale: commitment

Many of Canada’s recent Sikh immigrants brought with them a deep commitment to Khalistan. Their militancy created profound and sometimes violent divisions in Canadian Sikh communities. In 1982 the continuing dispute led to tragedy when a gunman opened fire, killing a Toronto lawyer and one Sikh and crippling another in the courtroom of an Ontario Supreme Court judge. Later that year three Sikhs and an undercover police officer were shot and wounded in front of Toronto’s Indian Consulate in a clash between Sikh factions.

In India, on June 5, 1984, the late prime minister Indira Gandhi ordered the army to storm Sikhdom’s holiest shrine, the Golden Temple in the Punjabi city of Amritsar, where 2,000 heavily armed Sikh guerrillas had taken refuge. Unofficial reports placed the number of dead at more than 1,200, including Bhindranwale himself.

Sacrilege: For Sikhs the world over, the assault on the Golden Temple was an act of sacrilege. The raid stunned Canadian Sikhs and sparked demonstrations across the country. But Gandhi’s assassination at the hands of her two Sikh bodyguards five months later shattered the mood of solidarity. Most Sikhs condemned the act as the work of fanatics; still, the bloody anti-Sikh riots that broke out across India after the assassination refuelled the anger of many. Despite recent efforts by Rajiv Gandhi, who succeeded his mother as prime minister, to begin a political dialogue with moderate Sikhs, a wave of terrorist bombings has claimed nearly 100 lives.

Even in Canada a small number of Sikhs have turned to extremism. Officials believe that Vancouver harbors chapters of the Sikh Students Federation 10th Regiment—one of the groups that claimed responsibility for the AirIndia crash—and the shadowy Babar Khalsa organization. A Sikh publication in Britain has reported that Sikh militants had established a military training camp in British Columbia. The RCMP is investigating the report.

Rumors of growing activity by Sikh extremists gained credence three months ago when an alleged Babar Khalsa member was arrested at Vancouver airport with parts of an Israelimade Uzi submachine-gun in his possession. On the same day, authorities at London’s Heathrow Airport found the missing parts of the gun in the baggage of another Canadian Sikh. Both men were later released. Sikh leaders in Vancouver say that the local head of the Babar Khalsa group (the name means brave Sikh),Talwinder Singh Parmar, was wanted by the Indian government on charges of killing a policeman.

Allegations: In Ottawa, Solicitor General Elmer MacKay last week dismissed the suggestions that Canada was a haven for Sikh terrorists. “I am aware of lots of reports making various allegations,” he said. “I certainly think they are not true.” Sikh spokesmen were at pains to condemn extremists and emphasize that they formed only a tiny percentage of the community. “Mr. Mulroney tells us not to bring our political baggage with us,” said Gurcharan Singh, “but we don’t. It is imposed upon us. I sympathize with them because of what the Indian government did to the Golden Temple. But this is not the way we want to avenge it.”

-with Ajoy Bose in New Delhi,  Gregory Fjetland in Vancouver, , Ann Walmsley in Toronto, Hilary Mackenzie in Ottawa and Bruce Wallace in Montreal