It took 15 long years for the Canadian police to identify the masterminds behind the bombing of Air India's Kanishka in 1985. But when they swooped down on Ripudaman Singh Malik, Ajaib Singh Bagri and Hardial Singh Johal (released after a few hours) last week, the arrests promptly revived bitter memories of Sikh militancy among the 200,000-strong community of Canada's British Columbia province.
Years after Sikh militancy was stamped out in Punjab, British Columbia continues to be home to a few hundred separatists seething in anger at Operation Bluestar of 1984 and vowing to carve out an independent state of Khalistan in India. Although there is perceptible tension in the community over the triple arrests, gurudwara politics has definitely lost its steam in the 50-odd Sikh temples dotting the province.
Yet, Sikh militants haven't disappeared, nor have they forgotten their cause. Even today at a handful of gurudwaras in Vancouver, posters of men brandishing AK-47s are a reminder that militancy survives, albeit on a much smaller scale. Vancouver Sun reporter Kim Bolan, who has followed Indo-Canadian affairs since the 1980s, feels the triple arrests could see the core group among the militants attempting to regroup. "They may elicit support again by manipulating the community to believe the arrests are a sign of the repression of the community," she warns. It was the same sentiment which had persuaded many Sikhs here to endorse the politics of terror. Indeed, in the aftermath of the storming of Amritsar's Golden Temple, the Sikh community here was very bitter and hundreds clogged up the streets vowing vengeance. But their movement gradually lost both its edge and credibility, more because of the charges of financial bungling—and the disenchanted community switched to supporting moderate politics.
The group espousing radical politics has also been riven by factionalism. Observers feel that infighting among Sikh militants helped the police, belatedly, gather vital information which was not forthcoming during the 15-year probe. Witnesses who had earlier refused to testify or provide testimonies now stepped forward to help the investigators.
But, earlier, the militant Sikhs had the tacit support of the community at large. It now turns out that the Canadian police had hints of impending terrorist attacks then and many in the Sikh community here had even stopped travelling by Air India in the years following Operation Bluestar. In fact, those arrested have for years been the ‘acknowledged' suspects even within the community.
What turned the community against the militants was the negative publicity the bomb gave them. Anguished by what they call trial by the media, and alienated by the internecine fights breaking out among different groups of militants, they turned to the moderates who were keen to bolster the sagging image of their people in the adopted country.
No wonder Vancouver's Punjabi population hopes they will get the long-awaited reprieve with the triple arrests. "People have been waiting impatiently for years," says Balwant Singh Gill, president of the Guru Nanak Sikh temple in Surrey, a huge suburb in the Greater Vancouver region and home to the majority of the city's Sikhs. "This is a very happy day for the Sikhs. This is a joyful moment, everyone is relieved. Now there will be peace," he says about the arrests of Malik and Bagri.
Gill feels militancy still exists in Canada because of its lenient laws and the complete freedom of expression and speech.Highly critical of the militants, he says those fighting for Khalistan should go back to India and launch their crusade there. "But they won't because the goal now is to collect money from the people here in the name of the movement."
But the family of Tara Singh Hayer, the publisher of the Indo-Canadian Times who was gunned down in 1998, is rejoicing. Says his son Dave: "Most people are very happy about these arrests. They want the truth to come out in court. So far people have been too scared to come forward." Tara Singh's assassination was aimed at silencing the pacifists who had become increasing vocal in their criticism of radical Sikh politics. But, contrary to their expectations, the opposite happened. Explains Dave: "My father tried to encourage the community to speak out. He was not afraid of anybody. After his assassination, many said that they had had enough. From the number of people who attended his funeral, it was clear that he had the community's support."
This was a welcome change from the days when most in the community were too scared to publicly endorse moderate politics, fearing reprisals from the militants. Kim Bolan, for one, still cannot forget the long years when she was living under constant threat. She recalls: "I've had police protection so many times." Signs of corruption among the militant leadership and the crushing of terrorism in Punjab, she feels, decisively weaned the community away from radical politics.
The Khalistan movement, many realise, has been kept alive only because of the power and money it provides to a clutch of Sikh leaders. In many ways, it would seem, the triple arrests mark the death of an ideology—at least its displaced variant in British Columbia.
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