Read Mittar e-Paper
Thirty seconds before his Punjabi radio show ended, Gurvinder Dhaliwal asked organizers of the Sikh New Year's parade in Surrey, B.C., the standard wrap-up question: “Any message for the people?” Many know the now-infamous answer: “All are welcome except for Ujjal Dosanjh and Dave Hayer. And if they show up, they are responsible for their own safety.” Both Dosanjh, a Liberal MP, and Hayer, a member of the British Columbia legislature, are Sikhs and vocal critics of separatist extremism.

That remark and subsequent threats on Facebook sparked a heated debate among Canada's 300,000 Sikhs, nearly half of whom live in Ontario. Dosanjh's warning that extremism among a tiny minority of Sikh separatists is on the rise in Canada only fanned the flames. Bitter arguments have broken out on radio shows, online and in ethnic newspapers.

This all comes mere weeks before the 25th anniversary of the June 23, 1985, Air India bombing — Canada's worst mass murder — and on the heels of meetings between Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Singh has expressed concern about growing support by Canadian Sikhs for militants in India.

Most Sikhs worldwide long ago abandoned the notion of Khalistan, a separate Sikh state. But community leaders here acknowledge evidence that separatism is festering in Canada, believed to have the largest Sikh diaspora in the world. Some fear that extremist views offering a distorted view of what happened in Punjab years ago are influencing second-generation Sikh immigrants.

No one wants to talk openly about these suspicions, said Baldev Mutta, executive director of Punjabi Community Health Services in Brampton. But he has counselled worried parents, like those of an 18-year-old Brampton girl who seemed a changed person after she attended a religious retreat near Cambridge last summer.

“She told her parents that they were bad Sikhs because they didn't keep their hair and didn't pray every day,” said Mutta. “Within a couple of months, the girl moved out. They haven't seen her since.”

Yudhvir Jaswal, host of the Mississauga radio show South Asian Pulse and editor of Mid-Week News Weekly, said impressionable youth are being led astray. “The movement is dead ... long dead in India,” said Jaswal, who left India nine years ago. “But some people, a very tiny minority, have kept it alive here and divided the community.”

Others defend the diaspora's right to peacefully campaign for a separate homeland.

“What's extremist about advocating for the self-determination of Sikhs in India?” asked Pardeep Nagra, manager of employment equity with the Toronto District School Board. Nagra says he frequently has discussions about a Sikh separate state with young people and hasn't seen any examples of “so-called religious fanaticism.”

“I've had some phenomenal debates on (Khalistan),” said Nagra, who last travelled to India more than 25 years ago. “It's so enriching, so engaging.” Some call it the Kingdom of Sikhs.

The idea of creating Khalistan, an independent Sikh homeland in India's Punjab region, has its roots in the early 20th century, but gained momentum in the 1970s and 1980s. Growing discontent with an uncaring and corrupt federal government fanned the flames of Sikh nationalism and fundamentalism in Punjab.

In the early '80s, hundreds of youth took up arms in retaliation over perceived discrimination, led by the charismatic Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. With his followers, he occupied the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

In June 1984, the Indian army stormed the temple in a clash that killed Bhindranwale and hundreds of others, including ordinary devotees caught in the crossfire. The assassination of Indian president Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards that October caused a violent backlash, in which mobs systematically burned Sikh homes and businesses and killed thousands.

Between the late '70s and early '90s, thousands of Sikhs, many involved in the push for a homeland, immigrated to the U.S., England and Canada.

In India, the movement for a separate state largely evaporated in the early 1990s after it lost support of a majority of Sikhs, who were tired of the senseless violence.

But some Sikh temples here continue to display framed photos of Sikh extremists, including Talwinder Singh Parmar — accused of being the mastermind behind the bombing of Air India Flight 182, in which 329 people were killed.

At some prayer halls, saffron banners are hung proclaiming ‘Khalistan is Our Homeland.' Sikh prayers are held on birthdays of so-called “martyrs.” It is not unusual for members of a diaspora to be frozen in the past, said Myer Siemiatycki, a professor in immigration settlement studies at Ryerson University.

The diaspora often has left the homeland, in part, driven out by a sense of political unhappiness with the status quo,” he said. Though politics change in the homeland, those who flee can harbour guilt feelings about leaving and “develop a more extreme hardline political outlook.”

Siemiatycki said he can also see Canadian-born Sikh youths, particularly those struggling with a sense of identity, embracing Sikh nationalism.

Ranjodh Singh, a 19-year-old University of Toronto student who attended last weekend's Sikh New Year's parade, spoke to the Star about his own pride in his heritage. “My parents' generation may have given up on Khalistan but mine hasn't. Sikhs all over the world want it, including those in India. We'll campaign for it always ... peacefully, of course.”

The room is stacked with papers and books: on shelves, on the couch, on the floor. Uday Singh, his grey beard flowing to his chest, sits in the centre on a large white cushion and remarks: “We will not rest until we get our land.” At 87, Singh is probably Khalistan's oldest supporter in Canada.

A former math professor at Laurentian University in Sudbury, he wrote the book Waning and Waxing of the Khalistan Movement, which he believes cost him his Indian passport.

For years, he has run a weekend school in Rexdale, near the Sikh temple, where he teaches young people Punjabi, and Sikh history and culture. Singh, who says Sikhs have “never ebbed so low as we do now under the cursed Hindu rule” in India, won't say what exactly he teaches. “That's between my students and me.” Though he says he and his wife survive on a meagre pension, he admits to having sent money to Inderjit Singh Reyat, the only person convicted in the Air India bombing. Singh calls him “our Nelson Mandela. He is not guilty of sins that he is in jail for.”

Other alleged Sikh militants killed in India whose photos are on temple walls are “our heroes ... If they killed some people, it's excusable. I would kiss the earth below where the photos are hung,” says Singh, who lives in Caledon. Singh, who immigrated in 1961, hasn't been back to India in 30 years, but says Sikhs are still repressed there. That is why the “movement of Khalistan is still alive. We won't rest till we get it.”

It is people like Singh who are keeping the hope of Khalistan alive in Canada, said Gurdev Mann, president of the North York Sikh temple.

“They are misleading youngsters and giving them wrong information. It scares me — what they teach at these places,” said Mann. Giving wall space to photos of alleged martyrs and celebrating their birthdays also creates fissures in the community, he added. “These are divisive activities.”

Harvans Jandali, president of the Ontario Sikh and Gurdwara Council, which administers at least a dozen temples in the Toronto area, argued the photos have been hanging on temple walls since 1984 and have no impact on people who come to worship. “But whenever someone has tried to remove them, there has always been a bitter fight. I like to avoid (fights).”

Photos of alleged militants at Sikh temples is a non-issue, agreed Guelph's T. Sher Singh, co-founder of Spinning Wheel, a Sikh-related film festival. “I have no interest in Khalistan and I don't support it all. I've said it publicly that these people are all a bunch of idiots ... but I will fight till the end for the right of people to be stupid as long as they don't break the law.”

Dosanjh was savagely beaten in 1985 for speaking out against Sikh extremism by a suspected member of the International Sikh Youth Federation, a banned terrorist group. In an interview with the Star, he reiterated how the “young and second generation of my community are being trained in hate and violence. They are fed hate, lies and fanaticism ... myths of history, not real history, and if you do that 15,000 miles away and you have no contact with reality, you will continue to perpetuate these myths.”

Dosanjh, who has been branded a “rat” and “scumbag traitor” on Web postings, said the case of the Toronto 18 and Muslim extremism should be a warning to Canadians who think talk of Sikh nationalism is insignificant.

“If we continue like this, there will be demand for a Khalistan in this country,” he said.

Meanwhile in Surrey, Dhaliwal, who hosts his own program on Sher-E-Punjab radio station, still can't believe the whole brouhaha was triggered by his show. “I never thought it would get so big,” he said.

“I was shocked by the (parade) organizer's answer, but in my mind there was no threat, ever. This has been blown out of proportion.”

Leave a Reply.