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.