Gurpreet Singh: Indian government visa for acquitted Air India suspect raises too many questions

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      A Greater Vancouver Sikh millionaire who was acquitted of the worst terrorist attack in Canadian history is currently visiting the country of his birth.

      Ripudaman Singh Malik was charged in connection with the Air India bombing that left 329 people dead on June 23, 1985.

      The suitcase bomb used in the crime originated from Vancouver, causing an explosion on Air India Flight 182 above the Irish Sea. The crime was blamed on Sikh separatists based in B.C.

      Malik was accused of being a financier of those who masterminded the bombing to avenge the repression of Sikhs in India. However, he was acquitted in 2005 for want of evidence.

      Even though the B.C. Supreme Court Justice Ian Bruce Josephson declared that his acquittal “was not a declaration of innocence” while rejecting his claim for compensation for losses incurred by him on his legal defence, the Indian government gave him the visa.

      Notably, the Indian government has been denying visas to those associated with the Sikh separatist movement for years, citing security threats. The Indian government has also maintained a blacklist of Sikh activists and others who have been criticizing its poor human rights record. Among them are those who want to create a Sikh homeland of Khalistan.

      A large section of the Sikh community in Canada is surprised by the olive branch extended to Malik by the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government, under which attacks on religious minorities have grown.

      This might have to do with the fact that the BJP has a strong alliance with Akali Dal, a moderate Sikh political party that claims to represent the interests of the Sikh community. The BJP is obviously trying to please that constituency.

      Another reason could be to dilute the BJP's image of being anti-minority worldwide by winning the confidence of the politically influential Sikh diaspora. After all, the roots of Sikh separatist movement go back to early 1980s when Akali Dal was in a direct confrontation with the then Congress government.

      The Congress party refused to meet its demands for political and religious autonomy and instead employed repressive measures to curb its struggle.

      Malik comes from an affluent Sikh family in Punjab. He turned extremely religious in the era that the Congress government ordered a military attack on the Golden Temple Complex, the holiest Sikh shrine, in Amritsar, Punjab.

      This occurred in June 1984 to deal with a handful of militants. The invasion left many innocent pilgrims dead and destroyed historical buildings inside the complex. The military action alienated Sikhs from the mainstream—and Malik was no exception.

      The ill-conceived army operation led to the assassination of then prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards on October 31, 1984.

      This high-profile murder was followed by anti-Sikh massacre engineered by the Congress with the help of police and supporters of the BJP.

      The ugly events of 1984 culminated in the Air India tragedy the following year.

      There are Sikh activists who believe that the bombing was a well thought out conspiracy to defame their movement for Khalistan and might have even been planned and executed by Indian agents involved in the plot.

      Soft Target: India's Intelligence Service and Its Role in the Air India Distaster, a book that probed deeply into this conspiracy theory, even suggested that Malik had borrowed money from the credit line of State Bank of India. This was in spite of the fact that Sikhs had decided to boycott Air India and the State Bank of India back then in protest against the happenings of 1984.

      Malik has already clarified that he does not support Khalistan. His visit to India gives further credence to this point.

      Zuhair Kashmeri and Brian McAndrew's book examined the actions of Indian intelligence agents in Canada.

      Significantly, his visit to India coincides with the banning of Sikhs for Justice by the Indian government. That group has been fighting for the right to self-determination and has been asking for a referendum in Punjab in 2020 on Khalistan.

      Even through the group is not involved in violence and is seeking independence through the ballot, it was recently banned by the Indian state.

      One does not need to be a rocket scientist to understand that it’s a shrewd move by India to contain and isolate die-hard Khalistan supporters by allowing visits from spent forces, such as Malik, who has business interests in India.

      This has understandably evoked sharp criticism from Sikhs for Justice. How can they be branded as terrorists for only raising a demand for referendum when Hindu extremists within India continue to terrorize minorities with impunity and call for an exclusionist Hindu state?

      Adding insult to their injury, the Indian government has rolled out a red carpet for Malik. It remains to be seen how this will be viewed by families of the Air India bombing victims.

      Some of them are close friends of Indian diplomats, who show up at annual memorials for Air India victims. And yet the Indian government gave Malik a chance to visit India.

      These are the same diplomats who make a big fuss about Sikh temples that glorify Talwinder Singh Parmar, the slain Khalistani militant leader and an alleged mastermind of the bombing. That reveals the two-faced character of Indian diplomacy.

      Parmar mysteriously died in Indian police custody in 1992. This came after he slipped away from Canadian authorities and went back to India to pursue his fight for Khalistan.

      Even though Parmar was never convicted, Indian diplomats have been going after Canadian politicians who visit temples that embrace his ideology.

      At a Vaisakhi parade in Surrey, Sikhs for Justice have demonstrated their support for a referendum on Khalistan.

      Another possibility of allowing Malik to visit India could be to create a wedge between Sikhs and Muslims in the light of the current situation in Kashmir.

      On August 5, the Indian government scrapped special status for the only Muslim-majority state and turned the whole disputed region into an open-air jail. The Indian government claims that this step was necessary to curb separatist violence in Kashmir, where people have been struggling for the right to self-determination.

      Sikh activists, particularly supporters of Khalistan, have come out in large numbers to show their solidarity with Kashmiri Muslims at protests in Canada and the U.S.

      Even otherwise, the clemency to Malik seems hollow and meaningless as there are still a significant number of Khalistanis and other political activists on the watch list of Indian diplomats.

      The intimidation of such people by officials of the world’s so-called largest democracy has been frequently documented.

      On one hand, Indian diplomats and their allies continue to brand critics of the BJP government as antinational to muzzle their voices, while on the other, controversial individuals like Malik appear to have been welcomed.

      This is not to suggest that Malik has no right to travel to India after having been acquitted.

      But how is the government India going to defend itself for not showing any tolerance for people concerned over attempts to turn their country of origin into a Hindu theocracy?

      I was not even allowed to speak at a public event by an Indian diplomat on Canadian soil just because I questioned India's right-wing government.

      What could be more hurtful than someone like me being branded as anti-India by diplomats even though I have been critical of those involved in the Air India tragedy? So much so, they have gone to the extent of slighting my wife, who is an elected official, and my employer from events sponsored by them to silence me.

      The Indian government not only owes answers to the victims' families, but also to Sikhs and concerned Canadians of Indian origin, like myself.

      Gurpreet Singh is cofounder of Radical Desi magazine and Indians Abroad for Pluralist India.

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