Gurpreet Singh: History repeats itself in surveillance of Canadian Sikhs looking for justice

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      A myth associated with the Vancouver Art Gallery is that it's haunted by Charlie the Ghost. Some people working there talk about it while others, who are fascinated by the fairy tales, find it amusing.

      Charlie the Ghost refers to controversial immigration inspector William Charles Hopkinson, who was murdered at that site in 1914 when it was used as a courthouse. His assassin, political activist Mewa Singh, was hanged for this action on January 11, 1915.

      Hopkinson had served in British India as an intelligence officer, and he was posted in Vancouver to keep an eye on immigrants from South Asia. Since his mother was a Hindu and he understood Indian languages, he was brought jere to gather information about political activists within the Indian diaspora who were conspiring to overthrow the British regime back home.

      After all, some radical activists in North America had established Ghadar Party in 1913. The party advocated for an armed rebellion against the British occupation and wanted to establish an egalitarian republic in an independent India.

      Hopkinson successfully infiltrated his agents in the local Sikh community. Among them was Bela Singh, who was on his payroll. Bela Singh not only intimidated activists, he also charged money to those who immigrated to Canada with his help.

      Hopkinson was instrumental in administering anti-immigrant laws adopted by the government to keep Canada a white man’s country. These laws also served the purpose of the British Empire, which did not want too many of  its Indian subjects migrating to the U.S. and Canada and becoming politically enlightened. Britain did not want Indians to see Europeans as equals; rather, it preferred people from South Asia to look upon whites as superior race.

      Under one of these laws, a Japanese vessel called the Komagata Maru was forced to return to India from Vancouver in July 1914 with more than 350 South Asian passengers onboard.

      Hopkinson went a step further. He provided tips to authorities about Ghadar activists returning to India and planning to start a revolt with the help of Indian soldiers working for the British army. These tips contributed to the British Indian government making arrests and suppressing a mutiny.

      These incidents led to a bloody fight In Vancouver between camps led by Bela Singh and those associated with the Ghadar movement. The feud culminated in a shooting inside the Vancouver Sikh temple by Bela Singh, which left at least two political activists dead.

      The entire establishment came to the rescue of Bela Singh, who claimed that he had to fire in self-defence. Infuriated by the sacrilege inside the temple and the deaths of his comrades, Mewa Singh assassinated Hopkinson at the courthouse while he was there to testify for Bela Singh.

      After a century, Hopkinson is now seen as Charlie the Ghost by many who may not be aware of the context of his killing and even the relevance of the story for South Asian immigrants in the contemporary world.

      However, for those who have been following the history and closely watching current events, Charlie the Ghost is not dead and lives through agents still moving in our communities, doing many of the nasty things done by Hopkinson. The script that was written with the blood of Hopkinson and Mewa Singh remains the same. Only the characters have changed.

      Mewa Singh is remembered in the Mewa Singh Room inside the Sikh temple on Ross Street.

      Immigrants continue to be harassed

      Post-British India has no dearth of people like Hopkinson and Bela Singh who continue to intimidate immigrants in Canada. They operate through consulates, gathering information on people working against their interest, including those critical of the Indian state and who are working for social justice. One of the most notorious tools of intimidation is denying a visa to a person to visit his or her country of origin.

      Though this tactic has been used since the 1980s when the Sikh militancy was at its peak, it has intensified after the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government led by Narendra Modi came to power in 2014.

      Back in the early 1980s, Sikhs were fighting for the right to self-determination in Punjab and seeking special rights for their state. When the government failed to address their grievances, the situation escalated.

      The Golden Temple Complex in Amritsar, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs, was turned into an armed fortress by extremists. In June 1984 the Indian government sent its army to storm the temple, resulting in large-scale destruction of buildings and the deaths of many innocent devotees.

      Sikhs across the world protested. The Indian consulate in Vancouver was vandalized. And on October 31, 1984, the then Indian prime minister, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards at her residence in New Delhi.

      This was followed by anti-Sikh pogroms all over India. Officials of Gandhi's so-called secularist Congress party were seen leading the mobs targeting innocent Sikhs.

      The ugly events of 1984 resulted in the bombing of Air India Flight 182 that left 329 people dead on June 23, 1985. The suitcase bomb used in the crime was checked onto a plane leaving Vancouver. The mass murder was blamed on the Sikh extremist group Babbar Khalsa whose top official, Talwinder Singh Parmar, was described as the ringleader of the conspiracy.

      In 1992 Parmar died at the hands of the Indian police when he went back to India to pursue his struggle for a separate Sikh state. His mysterious death has given rise to a conspiracy theory that he was killed in a cold-blooded murder to cover up the complicity of Indian agents in the Air India tragedy, which some believe was done to give a bad name to the Sikh militants abroad.  

      A book titled Soft Target throws light on unholy connections between the potential suspects in the Air India case and Indian agents. 

      From those days onward, many Sikhs continued to be denied Indian visas. Some say that they are being prevented from entering their home country by Indian agents for merely taking part in protests and making emotional outbursts. Non-Sikh activists who've spoken out against human-rights abuses in India have also been denied visas.

      Though the BJP government has allowed some former Sikh separatists to return, many others are still blacklisted. Several leftist activists who've been critical of Modi’s right-wing Hindu politics have also faced the challenge. Especially, those who took place in protests against Modi during his visits to U.S. and Canada for his connections to an anti-Muslim pogrom of Gujarat in 2002.

      Modi was the chief minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat when anti-Muslim violence was organized by BJP supporters to avenge the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims. More than 50 passengers died in the mishap, which the Gujurat government blamed on Muslim fundamentalists.

      Since 2014 violence against religious minorities have grown under Modi, whose supporters want to transform India into a Hindu theocracy.

      Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan was recently maligned by the chief minister of Punjab.
      Stephen Hui

      Politicians are sometimes smeared

      Another weapon widely used by Indian agents to muzzle any voice of dissent is exerting pressure on the South Asian media. The media people themselves may be denied visas and in some cases, businesses close to the Indian agents may be discouraged from advertising with critical media outlets.

      Apart from this, constant surveillance is maintained through spies in the congregations of temples. So much so that politicians who speak out against human-rights violations in India can also face the music. The most glaring example is Jagmeet Singh, who is expected to seek the leadership for federal New Democratic Party. He has been denied entry to India for raising the issue of anti-Sikh pogrom in 1984 and for opposing other forms of state violence against this minority community.

      Recently, the Indian government expressed its displeasure over the passing of a motion in the Ontario legislature describing the events of 1984 as a Sikh Genocide. Jagmeet Singh is an Ontario MPP and was among those who supported the motion.

      Indian officials also raised objections to the glorification of Sikh militants and sloganeering for a Sikh state in Sikh religious parades in Toronto and Surrey. They particularly objected to the presence of the Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at one of these events.

      If this was not enough, the first Sikh defence minister of Canada, Harjit Singh Sajjan, has come under repeated attacks from the pro India-lobby in Canada. His only fault is that his father used to be with the World Sikh Organization that once supported the demand for a sovereign Sikh state.

      This lobby not only tried to stop his nomination to run as Liberal candidate in Vancouver South, there was an attempt to malign him by a section of the Indian media, which created a hoax about a Sikh militant camp in Mission.

      Not very long ago, the Congress party chief minister of Punjab, Captain Amarinder Singh, openly accused five Canadian politicians, including Sajjan, of being sympathizers of Sikh separatists. The chief minister refused to meet Sajjan when the latter went to India.

      All these stories suggest that Charlie the Ghost is not dead and continues to meddle into the affairs of the Sikh community, much as he used to hundred years ago.

      But the good thing is that the spirit of Mewa Singh has not died either, and rocks through those grassroots-level activists who organize protests outside the Vancouver Art Gallery against racism, imperialist wars, occupations, and atrocities in India and elsewhere.

      Gurpreet Singh is the cofounder of Radical Desi magazine. He's also the author of Why Mewa Singh Killed William Hopkinson: Revisiting the Murder of a Canadian Immigration Inspector and Fighting Hatred With Love: Voices of the Air India Victims' Families. Both were published by Chetna Parkashan.