I still remember a Sikh activist walking into the Radio India studio where I worked during 2005 to warn me that I should stop criticizing former Air India bombing suspects after they had been acquitted.
One of those former suspects was Vancouver millionaire Ripudaman Singh Malik, who was shot to death in Surrey on July 14, and another was Ajaib Singh Bagri, the former Kamloops-based leader of the now banned Sikh extremist group Babbar Khalsa.
The two men were let go by the courts in March of that year due to a lack of evidence.
They had been accused of being involved in the conspiracy behind bombs being placed on two Air India jets that led to 331 deaths on June 23, 1985. The crimes were blamed on Babbar Khalsa, which was alleged to be seeking revenge for repression of Sikhs by the Indian government in 1984.
Malik faced accusations of financing those behind the plot.
Their acquittals prompted celebrations within a section of the Sikh community that felt vindicated. There were widespread feelings that the aviation terrorism was all done to tarnish the image of Sikhs globally and discredit the movement for a separate Sikh homeland of Khalistan
Malik, in particular, had a huge following as he was instrumental behind the establishment of the Khalsa school and Khalsa Credit Union—two institutions that gave Sikhs a sense of empowerment through education and financial sustainability. Among this following, it seemed that nobody wanted to listen to anything against him.
The messenger wanted me to stop being critical or else I might be physically assaulted. The matter was reported to the police although nobody was ever charged.
In 2012, the courts dismissed Malik’s plea for reimbursement for his legal bills, saying his “not guilty verdict” wasn’t a pronouncement of his innocence. The pro-Malik Punjabi-language media in the region almost killed the story. And a huge number of people in the community still continue to believe that he was wrongfully charged.
Following his murder, many, including his family, have tried to gloss over these hard facts. That is understandable as this is a difficult time for them.
But there's a problem with the narrative being built around the circumstances around his murder. Not only is it too premature, but it is also aimed at politicizing the entire episode and polarizing the community.
Let’s face it: of late Malik had turned into a supporter of the right-wing Hindu nationalist prime minister of India, Narendra Modi. Under his rule, attacks have grown against religious minorities, especially Muslims, and political dissidents.
Modi's government not only gave Malik a visa to travel back to his home country in 2019, but his family was given access to the head of the India’s spy agency, the Research and Intelligence Wing. That only gave credence to conspiracy theories behind the Air India bombings.
Later, Malik wrote an open letter to Modi praising him for building bridges with the Sikh community.
Local activities ignited controversy
If that were not enough, Malik was trying to get the rights to publish Sikh scriptures in Greater Vancouver, which outraged many religious groups, including supporters of Khalistan. Due to their pressure, Giani Harpreet Singh, the head of the Akal Takht, the highest temporal seat of the Sikhs recently cancelled his proposed visit to Canada, which would have included a stop at Malik’s Khalsa school in Surrey.
According to sources, Malik was currently planning, with his supporters, to bring a team against the pro-Khalistan management of Surrey-Delta Gurdwara in the upcoming temple election. In that scenario, he was likely to get support from the moderate pro-India faction of the Sikh community.
As a result, his apologists within the Sikh community and those who support Modi are now trying to blame Sikh radicals for his killing—so much so that right-wing Hindu trolls on social media are also cheering his death, saying he deserved it due to his alleged involvement in the terrorism against Air India. This conveniently overlooks his cozy relations with the Modi government in New Delhi.
This is despite the fact that not only Malik, but others like him—such as the one who came to warn me—had shifted their loyalties in the recent years.
After all, the repression of Sikhs happened under a different regime and they saw Modi as an ally from their narrow perspective, whereas die-hard Khalistanis would never compromise with the Indian establishment irrespective of who is in power.
Undoubtedly, Malik had his own contradictions, like we all have. He had both a good and a bad side in his personal life. I had a chance to meet his aunt and his college mates in his hometown of Firozpur in Punjab where I was posted as a staff reporter with the Tribune when he was arrested in Canada in 2000.
From what they told me, he wasn’t a very religious man before the ugly events of 1984 and was a changed person after that, like any ordinary Sikh. Though he was conscious of his Sikh identity and was angered by jokes about Sikhs he only became deeply involved in community affairs after 1984.
I also had an opportunity to interact with him on several occasions following his acquittal and found him to be social and receptive, unlike Bagri, who bluntly refused to talk to me.
The last time I spoke to Malik was after Giani Harpreet Singh had cancelled his visit. Malik sounded very disturbed because of the backlash from Khalistanis, but never gave an impression of being under any threat from anyone.
In fact, on another occasion when I pointedly asked him how he could defend himself for having donated money to Babbar Khalsa if he was not involved in the Air India bombing, he said that it wasn’t a banned organization back then.
Common sense demands that we let police investigators look into all the possible angles behind his murder rather than making assumptions based on our own perceptions.
Let no one take advantage of this high-profile killing and make a false hero out of someone so controversial. We just need to wait and watch who benefits out of this.
In a situation like this, it is rather easy to label Sikhs as radicals who had developed an animosity toward him. But how many times have other well-known pro-Modi supporters been targeted in Canada ever since the BJP leader became prime minister in 2014? Modi was welcomed in Vancouver in 2015 by number of Hindu and Sikh leaders, but no untoward incident happened against them except for demonstrations?
By repeatedly bringing up his letter to Modi in the media and ignoring other possibilities, it's a reasonable assumption that certain forces are trying to instigate more hate against a group of people.