This weekend, the Sikh community across Canada and elsewhere is observing the 29th anniversary of Operation Bluestar. This was the name of the controversial attack by Indian troops against the Golden Temple in Amritsar.
However, secular and leftist activists who died opposing religious fanaticism and terrorism in Punjab remain forgotten.
The Indian army stormed the holiest shrine of the Sikhs in the first week of June 1984 to flush out militants who had brought arms into the place of worship. Operation Bluestar left many dead and parts of the temple complex destroyed, causing great resentment among even moderate Sikhs.
There were angry protests in Vancouver. And in India, this sacrilegious act culminated in the assassination of the prime minister, Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.
This, in turn, was followed by an anti-Sikh pogrom across India and later, the Air India bombings that left 331 people dead.
Critics argue that this was all a result of the cocktail of religion and politics within both the ruling Congress party of India and the Akali Dal, a regional party of Punjab struggling to achieve benefits for the state.
Some believe the operation was calculated to teach Sikhs a lesson and to garner votes from the Hindu majority. Others blame the Akali Dal for letting militants fortify the Golden Temple with weaponry.
A memorial for the militants who died fighting he army during Operation Bluestar has been established inside the Golden Temple complex. Now, Hindu fanatics plan a parallel memorial for slain army soldiers. The fiery debate over these memorials overlooks the real secular heroes who've died fighting against this war on terror—back when this terminology had not even entered western consciousness.
A decade-long armed struggle in the name of Khalistan—an imaginary Sikh homeland—left over 25,000 people dead, most before the terrorist attacks of 9/11 shook the world.
Among those killed for opposing religious extremism were over 300 Communist activists, including prominent progressive poets like Paash and Jaimal Singh Padha. Their 25th anniversary of martyrdom falls this year.
Most of them became soft targets for militants for opposing religious fundamentalism and social codes imposed by separatists on the media and civilians. Some of these secularists were at the leadership level, while others were much more vulnerable grassroot level supporters.
Whereas a few took up arms to fight militants, others died without any police protection. Ironically, relatives of some of these "Communist martyrs'' have made their homes in capitalist countries like Canada and U.S. to earn better livelihoods.
Paash's widow Rajwinder Kaur has recalled that as soon as there was news of Comrade Jaimal Singh Padha’s murder, Paash knew that he might be next to fall to the terrorists' bullets.
Twenty-five years after her husband was murdered, Kaur lives in California. She maintains that Paash anticipated his death. After all, both Paash and Padha had invited this by challenging religious fanaticism and terrorism when the movement for the theocratic country of Khalistan was at its peak.
Padha was a leader of the Kirti Kisan Union, a Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) front. He was assassinated on March 17, 1988, by the Khalistan Commando Force.
Paash's premonition turned out to be true when he was murdered along with his friend Hans Raj by the same group almost a week later. It came on the martyrdom day of revolutionaries Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev Thapar, and Shivaram Hari Rajguru, who were hanged by the British Empire on March 23, 1931.
An internationally acclaimed radical poet, Paash had gained popularity as the Naxalite movement grew among India's most dispossessed rural residents. He evoked angry reaction from Sikh militants for writing a provocative essay against religious communalism.
After it was published by the California-based Anti 47 Front—a group of activists who opposed repetition of 1947-like India-Pakistan partition on religious lines—Paash was one of the most sought-after targets when pro-Khalistan militants were systematically killing Communists during the insurgency in the border state of Punjab. It began in the early 1980s and continued until early 1990s.
Paash was murdered while visiting his native village of Talwandi Salem. By that time, he had immigrated to the U.S. due to economic hardship back home.
Sitting at his California home, Sohan Singh Sandhu, the ailing father of Paash, talked about the essay. He thinks it provoked the Khalistan Commando Force to assassinate his son.
A close reading of the essay suggests that Paash was not only condemning the ideology of the Sikh homeland, but also the communal politics of Congress and Hindu right-wing groups, such as the Shiv Sena. Interestingly, Paash quoted from Sikh scriptures to denounce the militants' philosophy. He understood Sikhism as a modern and liberal religion, which has no room for sectarianism.
Paash also penned a poem condemning killings of innocent Sikhs during the 1984 attacks on Sikhs following the assassination of Gandhi. It is pertinent to mention that back then, the Communist government in West Bengal protected Sikhs during violence engineered by Gandhi’s Congress party across India. Yet Khalistani militants accused Paash and other Communists of working against their interest.
Armed with all the old news clippings, Sandhu told the Straight that he has no doubt in his mind that it was a political murder. "My son understood Sikhism better than his killers," he said.
Meanwhile, Padha's brother-in-law, Surrey resident Sukhdev Kandola, feels the same.
"Those who killed people like Padha or Paash were the enemies of the Sikh faith," he told the Straight.
Kandola remembered Padha as a grassroots level worker who stood for the rights of the oppressed people and poor. Like Paash, Padha had also tried to challenge extremist ideology by promoting liberal brand of Sikhism through his songs. He and his comrades used the slogan: "Na Hindu Raaj, Na Khalistan, Raaj Karega Mazdoor Kissan!" ("Neither Hindu state, nor Khalistan, only the working class shall rule.")
Whereas, Paash and Padha were ultra-leftists, even moderate Communist activists and leaders weren’t spared. Among them was Darshan Singh Canadian.
Although his real name was Darshan Singh Sangha, he came to be known as Comrade Canadian for having spent 10 years in Canada from 1937 to 1947. He was in the forefront of the labour movement within the South Asian community in Canada, and had returned to India after it gained independence.
There he joined the Communist Party of India and was first elected as CPI MLA from Garhshankar, Punjab, in 1972. In 1985, he was murdered for his opposition to Khalistan.
Much like others, he too tried to challenge the philosophy of Khalistan through his writings and by quoting from Sikh scriptures. His most provocative essay, "Are Terrorists Gursikhs?’’, attracted threats and intimidation. But he continued to attend public meetings in troubled areas.
His daughter Amardeep, who lives in Vancouver, remembers how he remained steadfast in his fight against militancy.
"He was aware of potential threats to his life, but he did not compromise on his principles," she told the Straight. "So much so he did not take police protection. I am proud to be his daughter.’’
Canadian was visiting her when Indira Gandhi was assassinated. "He was quite concerned about developments in Punjab.," she added.
Canadian’s granddaughter, Navjot Dosanjh, who also lives near Vancouver, said that her grandfather often brought her fruits when she was a small child. "Witnesses noticed fruits scattered all over the place where he was shot to death," she stated. "Apparently, he was bringing them for me when the terrorists murdered him mercilessly."
Indo Canadian Workers’ Association (ICWA) president Surinder Sangha, whose group issued a calendar dedicated to 25th martyrdom day of Canadian, says that Communists have a moral responsibility to stand up against subversive forces bent upon dividing people on communal lines. Although Sangha’s organization is affiliated with the Communist Party of India (Marxist), it buried all political and ideological differences to recognize the sacrifice of Canadian.
"I salute all the Communist activists who died fighting for the sake of unity and integrity of India," Sangha said.
He has a CPI (M) booklet that carries small biographies of over 20 Marxists who were gunned down by Sikh extremists. It was also published in Lokta, a secular Vancouver-based news magazine, when Sikh militants were virtually controlling other Punjabi-language media in Canada.
Threats and physical violence against moderates were very common then.
"These brave comrades not only saved Hindus in Punjab, but also the Sikhs from Hindu extremists outside Punjab," Sangha declared. "Their mission needs to be continued as fundamentalism has not fully ended in Canada."
ICWA organizer Kulwant Dhesi, who formerly worked with the CPI (M)–affiliated Student Federation of India (SFI),continues to spearhead campaigns against fundamentalists controlling local gurdwaras (Sikh temples). He remembers how militants killed a few of his comrades in the SFI.
A picture of Sarwan Cheema, a towering Marxist leader of Punjab who was assassinated, greets visitors in the living room of his house in Surrey.
“The fight has to go on as the imperial forces that supported anti-India separatists in Punjab back then are still active in Canada, and continue to help pro Khalistan groups who enjoy control over many gurdwaras," he said.
Dhesi remembered how Khalistanis used to actively raise funds for their movement in Punjab from Canada and the U.S.
Another former CPI MLA to be assassinated during that period was Arjan Singh Mastana. His sister, Veeran, lives near Vancouver and is struggling with Alzheimer's disease. She vaguely remembered that he was murdered in 1985 and was a better Sikh than the Khalistanis, who have misinterpreted the Sikh faith for ulterior motives.
"By doing that, they have captured local gurdwaras both in the U.S. and Canada," she said.
Veeran has fought against fundamentalists during gurdwara elections.
Jugraj Dhaliwal, a Surrey resident, mentioned that his father, Randhir Singh, was a CPI cardholder from Faridkot. He was murdered merely exercising his democratic right to protest in 1984.
"He took his supporters to a rally that was organized by the party to oppose terrorist violence and that became a cause of his death," Dhaliwal recalled. "With just one stroke they (extremists) took away the life of a man who was a tireless social-justice activist."
Dr. Sadhu Singh, a leftist Punjabi scholar with strong affiliations with the CPI, was forced to leave Punjab in 1991. A resident of Surrey, he received threatening letters for not sporting a turban and long hair and for also speaking out against Khalistan.
"Threats started coming in after I spoke at a seminar held against communalism," he said.
Singh applied for a refugee status in Canada in 1992 on account of threats to his life from the militants. He knew both Paash and Canadian personally, and also lost another leftist friend, Ravinder Ravi, to a terrorist attack.
"Ravi was an active CPI supporter. He was murdered despite being soft-spoken. Ironically he used to advise me not to speak bluntly against religious fanatics, yet it was he who got killed’’.
Toronto-based progressive Punjabi writer and former Naxalite Waryam Singh Sandhu has authored famous short stories on the situation in Punjab. He also remembered an attempt to murder him.
Sandhu understands the philosophy of Sikhism and is highly opposed to the idea of a Sikh homeland. His opponents complained to militants that he had indulged in blasphemy and, as a result, some militants tried to attack his house near Amritsar but failed in their mission. He came to know about it much later.
Years later, some pro-Khalistan militants became introspective and regretted their strategy of targeting Communists. Although ideological conflict between the left and communal forces continues, the Khalistan Commando Force leader, Labh Singh, wrote in his diary that the policy of murdering Communists—particularly the Naxalites who were fighting against state repression—was not wise.
A portion of the diary was published by Indo Canadian Times in 1995. It stated that even though people like Paash and Padha were opposed to the separatist ideology, the Khalistan leadership should have shown some tolerance for the political criticism instead of murdering opponents. That's because this isolated the pro-Khalistan movement from the masses.
However, this regret is too late and too little for Winkle, Paash’s daughter, who was only six when her father was murdered. With a choked voice she asked: "What did they achieve by killing him? We cannot forget the struggle through which my mother and I had to pass after his murder.’’
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.