Gurpreet Singh: Tara Singh Hayer’s story not so simple

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      This Saturday (November 18) marks the eighth anniversary of the murder of Canadian journalist Tara Singh Hayer outside his Surrey home. He is often lauded as a hero of press freedom for criticizing religious fundamentalists, but a close look at some of his writings suggests Hayer was a man of contradictions.

      As former Supreme Court of Canada justice John Major moves forward with his public inquiry into the 1985 Air India bombing, it’s worth reviewing Hayer’s writings in light of claims by his son, Liberal MLA Dave Hayer, that his father was the 332nd victim of the terrorist attack.

      Hayer, founding editor and publisher of the Indo-Canadian Times, is believed to be the first Canadian journalist to be silenced by murder. Even though he appears to have been a victim of extremist violence, Hayer’s older articles and editorials reveal that he was also, at times, an ambivalent Sikh militant himself.

      It appears that he sometimes had a soft spot for Sikh separatists, publishing pictures of gun-toting extremists on the front page of his newspaper. In some editorials, he made passionate appeals on behalf of Khalistan, an imaginary Sikh nation in Punjab, and glorified Sikh extremists as martyrs.

      Hayer also wrote a laudatory book about Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a controversial Sikh preacher who died in a 1984 gunfight with the Indian army. In the book Mahan Shakshiat Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale (Saint Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale: A Great Personality), Hayer quoted Bhindranwale on the cover saying, “I make bombs—every baptized Sikh is a bomb.”

      For some of his opponents, Bhindranwale was the Sikh equivalent of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, delivering fiery speeches and encouraging young men to carry guns. Bhindranwale also used to make derogatory remarks against Hindus, and he fortified the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar, Punjab. In 1984, then–Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi authorized Operation Bluestar to clear out extremists from the temple, which is the Sikh equivalent of the Vatican. The military operation heavily damaged temple property and killed many innocent pilgrims, alienating Sikhs around the world.

      Angry Sikhs protested in Vancouver. Canadian prosecutors later claimed that the Air India bombing was a reaction to the attack on the Golden Temple.

      Hayer agreed to testify if the Crown brought charges against those involved in the plot, which resulted in the deaths of 329 passengers and crew aboard Air India Flight 182 as well as two baggage handlers in a separate blast at the Narita Airport in Japan. Interestingly, Hayer had earlier supported Talwinder Singh Parmar, the suspected mastermind behind the attacks. Hayer used to glorify him in his newspaper, but later the two men had a falling- out. Parmar died mysteriously at the hands of Indian police in 1992.

      In 1988, Hayer was crippled and left wheelchair-bound following an attempt on his life. The second attack, 10 years later, was fatal. Prior to his death, Hayer claimed that he had overheard Ajaib Singh Bagri, an Air India bombing suspect, discussing his involvement in the plot with publisher Tarsem Singh Purewal in London. Purewal was also murdered.

      Crown charged Bagri in connection with the first attempt on Hayer’s life, but the case was dropped.

      Hayer’s son, Dave, MLA for Surrey-Tynehead, told the Straight that Parmar and many others were not militants in the early days. “They were like ordinary people, just like everybody else,” he said. “They got into the struggle and became more fanatic to the point where they went out of control to kill innocent human beings. When he [Tara Singh Hayer] saw that these guys have gone to the point of killing innocent people, he started condemning them.”

      Dave Hayer said that the root of the problem was the attack on the Golden Temple. He added that his father had stood for the rights of Punjabi Sikhs but never supported killing innocent people.

      In 1995, Tara Singh Hayer was appointed to the Order of British Columbia, and in 1999, the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression renamed its Press Freedom Award after him. Although Dave Hayer said he is honoured that his father got such recognition, not everyone is so impressed.

      Gurcharan Singh Rampuri, a progressive Indian writer, criticized the fanaticism of the Indo-Canadian Times during the mid-1980s. Hayer wrote contemptuously about Rampuri until the latter filed a defamation suit against him. In October 1984, Rampuri was also assaulted by Sikh fundamentalists.

      Rampuri recently recalled for the Straight how Hayer mocked the attack and used abusive language against him in the Indo-Canadian Times. “Although I and my fellow writers had condemned the first attack on his life, he took pleasure in a violent attack on me,” Rampuri claimed.

      In 1996, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Duncan Shaw awarded more than $150,000 to the Hayer family for defamation by the Chardi Kala newspaper.

      However, in his written decision, Shaw noted that Hayer had also published falsehoods that damaged the reputations of his opponents. For example, Shaw wrote, Hayer claimed that one of his critics raped women in Punjab in 1947, lost his house to the bank in 1984, got divorced because he could not feed his wife, and smoked, which baptized Sikhs should not do. “These assertions I find on the evidence were untrue,” Shaw wrote.