Gurpreet Singh: Revisiting the Air India tragedy from a Ghadar perspective
On the centenary of the Ghadar Party—which formed in North American to fight colonialism in British-controlled India—it's time to revisit the Air India to analyze political factors that contributed to the crime.
Twenty-eight years ago today, two Air India flights were targeted by bombers, leaving 331 people dead.
The June 23, 1985, crime was blamed on Sikh separatists, who were seeking revenge for ugly political events in India in 1984.
The Indian army had stormed the Golden Temple Complex, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs, in Amritsar that year to flush out religious extremists who had brought weapons into the place of worship.
As a result of this operation, then-Indian prime minister, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards.
That led to a well-organized anti-Sikh pogrom engineered by officials in Gandhi's Congress party, which enraged Sikhs around the world.
Sikh extremists in Canada openly called for revenge, boycotting Air India flights. The prime suspect in the bombings, Talwinder Singh Parmar, said that Air India planes will fall from the skies. Parmar later died at the hands of the Indian police in 1992.
The only man convicted in the crime, Inderjit Singh Reyat, is serving time for perjury. He lied under oath and did not reveal the identity of any other suspects.
If the political leadership of India had followed principles enunciated by the Ghadar Party, which was formed in 1913, the incidents of 1984 and subsequent Air India bombings would not have happened.
The party was established by South Asian immigrants who settled on the Pacific Coast of North America and it had a very big following in Vancouver.
These immigrants had moved to this part of the world for a better livelihood. Most came as British subjects, yet the British government never came to their rescue whenever they endured racism and discrimination.
They soon realized that the root cause of their sufferings in an alien land was slavery back home. These experiences transformed them into social-justice activists who formed the Ghadar Party.
Ghadarites were true secularists and staunchly opposed religious sectarianism. They kept religion and politics apart and denounced caste-based discrimination.
When India gained independence and was partitioned on sectarian lines in 1947 to create the Muslim country of Pakistan, Ghadarites risked their lives by saving Muslims from Hindu and Sikh fanatics.
A towering Ghadar leader, Sohan Singh Bhakna, received death threats for doing this. Ironically, Sikh separatists are trying to appropriate the Ghadar movement as a Sikh movement, whereas Ghadarites did not believe in theocracy. They never committed crimes against humanity.
Although a majority of Ghadarites were Sikhs, the party also had members from other communities.
However, the popular leadership of India, including the so-called secular Congress party, indulged in religion-based politics. In fact, the dangerous cocktail of religion and politics led to the emergence of Sikh extremists.
Both the Congress and the Akali Dal, a mainstream Sikh party of Punjab tried to use this element to outdo each other, and allowed the fortification of the Golden Temple.
The Congress's brand of communalism is more secular as compared to other theocratic political groups. It played both Sikh and Hindu cards as the situations demanded to attract votes.
These experiments not only divided people but culminated into the Air India tragedy.
The lesson to be learned is to disassociate religion and politics permanently. That's as true in India as it is in Canada—and Canadian politicians should desist from indulging in this dangerous cocktail.
Gurpreet Singh is a Georgia Straight contributor, and the host of a program on Radio India. He's working on a book tentatively titled Canada's 9/11: Lessons from the Air India Bombings.