Gurpreet Singh: In solidarity with the Air India victims


It's laudable that the Indo Canadian Workers' Association's decided to hold a public meeting in solidarity with the Air India victims in Surrey on Sunday afternoon (June 26). Such a gesture has been lacking from within the Indo Canadian community in the Lower Mainland for 26 years.

The Air India bombing on June 23, 1985 that killed all 329 people aboard Flight 182 was blamed on Sikh extremists seeking revenge against the Indian government.

Though majority of the victims were of the Indian origin, the tragedy has evoked very little interest within the Indo Canadian community. Whereas Canadian authorities were blamed for all these years for ignoring the plight of the victims’ families and going slow with the investigation and prosecution of the suspects, the victims’ families did not get enough support from their compatriots, either.

While racism is believed to be an element behind such laxity on part of the Canadian officials, the gatekeepers of the Indo Canadian community should also take some blame for not standing up for the Air India families.

The most glaring example of such an indifferent attitude towards the victims’ families was the presence of less than 40 people at the Air India memorial in Stanley Park, Vancouver this past Friday. No prominent faces were present apart from the Indian Consulate General in Vancouver, Ashok Das, B.C. NDP Leader Adrian Dix ( who is married to Renee Sarojini Saklikar, who lost her aunt and uncle in the bombing), and B.C. Liberal MLA and staunch critic of terrorism Dave Hayer.

Ross Street Sikh Temple priest Harminderpal Singh came to perform last prayers for the "departed souls". His temple is governed by moderates. They started holding special prayers for the Air India victims at the temple after the ouster of fundamentalists, who controlled it when the militancy was at its peak.

It's a separate matter that the Sikh separatists have started holding prayers for the Air India victims in recent years, and some of them showed up at the Air India memorial service two years ago.

From the South Asian media side, only two journalists—one from the Omni TV and myself—were present to cover the event. Notably, Punjabi media outlets have spent fewer resources reporting the Air India investigation and trial as compared to the mainstream media.

In contrast, the Punjabi media have focused more on the campaign seeking amnesty for a Sikh militant, Devinderpal Singh Bhullar—who is facing a death sentence in India for a bombing incident that left nine people dead in 1993. His wife is a Canadian citizen and the Punjabi media covered the campaign almost throughout the week.

Apart from this, coverage of the anniversaries of the bloody events of 1984 that culminated in the Air India tragedy has always been a priority of the Punjabi media.

In June 1984, the Indian army attacked the Golden Temple complex, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs in Amritsar, India, to flush out religious extremists. This sparked angry protests in Vancouver.

Sikh militants issued a call to boycott Air India flights while some openly warned that the Air India planes would fall from the sky. In October, 1984 when the Indian prime minister, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards, thousands of innocent Sikhs were murdered by the goons, who were led by Gandhi’s Congress party leaders. Not a single Congress leader has been convicted so far, as the Sikhs continue to campaign for justice.

Certainly this is a big issue for Punjabi media, and highlighting the plight of the victims of 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom is a social responsibility of the media. But to ignore another equally important Canadian issue can be best described as a bias of the Punjabi news outlets.

Many of the stories, editorials, or commentaries on the subject in the Punjabi media revolve around conspiracy theories. A popular one is that the Air India bombing was a handiwork of the Indian intelligence that wanted to discredit the Sikh separatists in Canada.

Any suggestion about Sikh militants being involved in the crime is received with cynicism. This is despite the fact that the only person convicted in the case, Inderjit Singh Reyat, is a baptized Sikh.

This may be partly because the Air India bombing investigation has remained inconclusive and partly because of the influence of the orthodox Sikh leadership over the Punjabi media.

It is not surprising that secret government agents often penetrate militant ranks. Recently, it was reported that undercover policemen infiltrated "antiwar" and "antiglobalization" activists, who indulged in arson during G8 and G20 summits in Toronto last year.

(Arsonists cannot just blame the undercover police for all the misdeeds.)

Besides, there was no outrage in the community when the Air India memorial monument was vandalized in Toronto last summer.

It has gotten to the point where the Air India tragedy has even failed to influence the Punjabi literary circles in Vancouver. A negligible number of poems or stories have been written on the subject.

Comparatively, a number of stories and poems have been written on the ugly events of 1984. Only a few names, like Renee Sarojini Saklikar, who penned a poem, or Anita Rau Badami, the author of Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?, are worth mentioning. But their literary work on Air India is in English.

Saklikar is scheduled to read her poem at the ICWA event. In the words of ICWA Secretary, Kulwant Dhesi: "Such an event is necessary to show the government that the Indo Canadian community is seeking answers and is fully behind the victims. It is important to pressurize the Canadian government to bring the investigation to its logical end."

Whatever may be the explanation behind the indifference toward the issue, the Air India victims’ families need support from both inside and outside the Indo Canadian community. More than sympathy, the victims’ families need solidarity.

Those responsible for 329 murders must be brought to justice. If not now then when? Those in the Indo Canadian community who hold any significant information should help solve the mystery rather than helping the killers by remaining quiet.

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.

Comments (7) Add New Comment
Arshy Mann
While I agree with your points that the Air India attacks are not at the moment covered much by the Punjabi media in Vancouver, I think it should also be noted that at least one newspaper man, Tara Singh Hayer, was murdered for his criticism of the militant Khalistani movement. He is, up to this point, the only journalist to be killed in Canada for domestic reporting.
Rating: -2
I agree that Air India victims need support. But your comment about Prof. Davinderpal Bhullar are not fair. He is sentenced based on an unsubstantiated confession which was not signed by Bhullar. Police got his thumb stamp the Paper. Even one member Judge of Judges panel did not find him guilty, but still he was sentenced to death. His father & uncle who was an IAS officer in India were allegedly kidnapped/killed by police. Many of his family members were tortured. It is equally important to note that the most of the indian mainstream media ignored these facts about Bhullar's case, therefore, it was important for the Punjabi media to raise Bhullar's issue.
Rating: +5
B. Singh.
The media war between Punjabis and the Indian media has led to irresponsible and misinformation on both sides (far greater on the Indian side in my opinion, as the level of corruption in that nation can lead to completely fabricate information). However there are discussions on talk shows, articles in papers, prayers in Gurdwaras across the country (not excluding those run by fundamentalist) every year during the anniversary of this tragedy. I haven't met a single Sikh that feels that this act of terrorism was justified. In fact, I think that out of every community the Punjabis and Sikhs condemn this act with the greatest level of passion. Whether it was carried out by Indian authorities or Sikh extremists, I think that it's safe to say that the Punjabi and Sikh communities stand in solidiarity that this was a shameful and devastating act against innocence. My thoughts and prayers are with the families. As much as I hope that we truly see justice some day, in the end God will see it done.
Rating: -2
Mr. S Singh
Gurpreet Singh you seem to be bent on maligning people you call "fundamentalist" or "orthodox" at every turn. Have you bothered to research Prof. Devinderpal Singh's case at all? or is it too much to ask of a 'journalist'...
Rating: +5
Gurpreet Singh's commentaries are excellent examples of hypocrisy. He supports one of the most violent and oppressive regimes in Asia and yet wastes his time writing against anyone who is against that regime. Isn't it ironic that Gurpreet Singh pretends to be a supporter of non-violence yet his employer shot at a rival in a Gurdwara car park!
Rating: +4
Parminder Singh
Wouldn't remembering the Air India tragedy cause disharmony amongst Sikhs and Indians? This is the argument and logic used by your "comrades." The argument is used that raking up old Sikh issues causes disharmony amongst Hindus and Sikhs...why not take a stand and be consistent?

I agree, no Sikh I have ever met has justified the Air India tragedy. However, I have met plenty of Indians and "comrades" who have justified the killing of innocent Sikhs in India.
Rating: +7
@Parminder Singh: Exactly, well said. The one sided propaganda and the fact that some victims are less equal than others is just something that only these handful of people with corrupt indian patronage and backing can try to justify. They are just the foot soldiers though, employed to do the dirty work but the narrative itself comes from their indian masters in the foreign service abroad. There are some in the mainstream media involved(or should i say sponsored by them) as well.

The words "forget it" and "move on" this stirs up "communal trouble" that are used so casually with regards to the ones tormented by the indian regime disappear in a state of collective amnesia when it comes to this.

The false and dishonest labelling of opponents of the corrupt indian regime and boxing them into labels like fundamentalist/orthodox or extremists is a totally different matter.

Its funny when you read the word islamophobia used by the same "journalists" every now and then.
Rating: 0
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