The trials of the Sikh community

June 9 1986

The trials of the Sikh community

June 9 1986

The trials of the Sikh community

The drama unfolded in courtrooms on both sides of the country. In Montreal on Saturday, police ringed the prisoners box as five members of the Sikh community were arraigned on explosive-possession charges amid reports of an aborted plan to blow up an Air-India jumbo jet. In Campbell River, B.C., four Sikhs were charged with attempting to murder a visiting Indian politician. Granting bail to the four men on Friday,

arm and chest. Said Taylor: “Sidhu feigned unconsciousness when he was hit and fell upon his wife’s lap. His wife called out: ‘You’ve killed him. You’ve killed him.’ ” The attackers then sped away in a rented car. Sidhu was rushed to hospital in Campbell River and later transferred to Vancouver. He was in serious condition with a bullet lodged in his spine.

The Montreal-area Sikhs were arrested in an RCMP sweep early on Fri-

This week is a period that Sikhs refer to as “genocide week,” the second anniversary of the storming by Indian soldiers of their holiest shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar. It is also almost a year since the June 23 crash of an Air-India jet carrying 329 passengers and crew from Toronto and Montreal to New Delhi. The aircraft disappeared into the Atlantic, 90 miles off the west coast of Ireland, killing everyone on board. Most authorities

Provincial Court Judge Anthony Sarich described the attack on Punjab Planning Minister Malkiad Singh Sidhu as both “cowardly and terrifying.”

The court appearance of the Montreal-area Sikhs took place under tight security.

Handcuffed and wearing casual clothes they were identified as Gurcharan Singh Banwait,

Moninder Singh Anand,

Kashmir Singh Dhillon,

Singh Santokh Khela and Chattar Singh Saini. The Campbell River case involved charges that the Sikhs, all Canadian citizens, had forced a car carrying Sidhu and three others on a back road near Gold River to stop. Prosecutor James Taylor said that the assailants had then smashed the back windows of the car and shot Sidhu in the

day. Later, the United News of India reported that the RCMP and the FBI had previously received information about a plan to blow up Air-India Flight 112, leaving New York for New Delhi on Saturday night. Crown prosecutor Pierre Garon said that it appeared the case “has to do with a plane.” He declined to elaborate, and the men charged did not enter a plea to the charges of conspiracy to possess or fabricate explosives and conspiracy to possess or fabricate explosives with intent to injure. Meanwhile, guards searched spectators and reporters with metal detectors as they entered the courtroom as part of an unusually tight security arrangement. As they left the court, the Sikhs raised their handcuffed arms and shouted in the Punjabi dialect: “God bless everyone.”

have concluded that a bomb explosion caused the tragedy. Vancouver police say they have established links between Sikh extremists and the attack.

The Vancouver-area Sikhs charged with attempted murder were: Armajit Singh Dhindsa, 25; Jasbir Singh Atwal, 26; Jaspal Singh Atwal, 31, and Sukhdial Singh Gill, 27. At a bail hearing the four men, shoeless and dressed in casual clothes, sat silently. A trial date will be set on June 18.

There is little doubt about the reason many Sikhs in Canada and elsewhere have become radicalized. The moderate Punjab government has angered extremists by co-operating with Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and by refusing to endorse their demands for the creation of a separate Sikh state, which they call Khalistan, in the Punjab. Last month the state government authorized another police raid against extremists lodged in the Golden Temple. In protest, several ministers resigned from the Punjabi

cabinet, leaving a vacancy for Sidhu. His appointment immediately made him the target of Sikh extremists. Said Jagdish Sharma, India’s consul general in Vancouver: “What they have not been able to achieve through the ballot box now they are trying to achieve with bullets.” There was little about Sidhu’s Canadian visit to presage the violent climax. For most of his stay, he and his wife lived quietly with relatives in Ladner, near Vancouver. The trip had been planned primarily for the May 18 wedding of their nephew, Peter Gill, in New Westminster. Then on May 23, they accompanied the groom’s parents to their home in Tahsis, an isolated mill town of 1,100.

In the aftermath of the ambush, Justice Minister John Crosbie said the government had been completely unaware of the minister’s presence in the country. Later, External Affairs Minister Joe Clark said that Sidhu had made no formal request for protection and that he had applied for his visa to enter Canada before becoming a member of the Punjab cabinet.

Sidhu may have first drawn attention to himself when he arrived in New Westminster for the wedding at a Sikh temple. Last year the temple’s administration was taken over by militants, including International Sikh Youth Federation members, who forced out congregants who opposed them. But because the wedding took place on a Sunday, the guests mingled with regular worshippers, among them at least one of Sidhu’s alleged assailants: Jaspai Atwal, vice-president of the temple. The ISYF’s Manmohan Singh said Sidhu’s visit was a deliberate provocation designed to stir up militants.

Militant Sikhs have caused increasing problems in the past several years. The province’s Sikh temples have been wracked by violent power struggles. Police and agents of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service have also sought evidence linking local extremists with the Air-India crash last June and the almost simultaneous explosion of a bomb at Tokyo’s Narita airport, which killed two baggage handlers.

Police in both British Columbia and Montreal clamped a tight secrecy lid on the latest arrests and charges. They had apparently concluded that to penetrate the most extreme of the Sikh networks they will have to work beyond the public gaze. The challenge to succeed in that task is an urgent one. Last week’s events left little doubt that the terror now engulfing India’s fertile Punjab had established roots on Canada’s West Coast.

-JOHN BARBER with JANE O’HARA in Campbell River and BRUCE WALLACE and DAN BURKE in Montreal