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Khalistan Alive In Sikh-Canadian Hearts and Minds

A December 29, 2000 report in The Vancouver Sun by Kim Bolan described Balkar Singh Heir as "one of the leaders of the newly formed United Defence Council, which held a dinner Tuesday that raised tens of thousands of dollars for the legal expenses of Air India suspects Ripudaman Singh Malik of Vancouver and Ajaib Singh Bagri of Kamloops."

The Globe and Mail, Mississauga, Ontario, Mar. 17, 2005

The burning passion for revenge against the Indian government, allegedly the motive for the 1985 Air-India terrorist attack, has cooled over the years.

However, the dream of an independent Sikh state called Khalistan that accompanied the cries for revenge lives on.

'We love Khalistan,' proudly proclaims the message on the wall at the front of a prayer room in the Ontario Khalsa Darbar, a Sikh temple in Mississauga. The temple attracts about 15,000 people each week, up to 80,000 on religious holidays.

'Sikh Homeland Khalistan,' echoes a sign hanging prominently on the walls of another prayer room in the temple.

'It may take a generation or more, but we still support Khalistan,' Amanpreet Singh Bal, an activist in the Ontario Sikh community, said in an interview at the temple as dozens of people listened to religious chanting on a Saturday evening.

Temple president Jasjit Singh Bhullar said no one advocates violence to achieve Khalistan or to avenge past injustices.

'No one liked what happened in 1985,' he said, referring to the Air-India disaster. 'It was not very good for the community. It was very sad for the families of those who died.'

Cries for revenge were made after thousands of Sikhs who came to pray at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Sikhism's most sacred shrine, were killed by Indian government troops in June, 1984, during gunfights with insurgents. Thousands more were killed in anti-Sikh riots in Delhi in November, 1984, after prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated.

Many people at that time said the killings should not have happened, Mr. Bhullar said. But the twin bombings in the Air-India attack, which left 331 people dead, achieved nothing, he added. 'I don't think you accomplish anything by killing someone.'

The Sikh community in Canada is very different now, he continued; those who remember the massacres of 1984 commemorate that event by donating blood. Several Sikh communities hold donor drives for the Canadian Blood Service each November.

The 'drive to save lives,' in its sixth year across North America, reflects a dramatic reversal in attitudes in the Sikh community, he said.

Twenty years ago, some Sikhs in Canada advocated violence to avenge the deaths of those killed in India during military attacks against insurgents fighting for a separate Sikh state.

Mr. Bal said public reaction to the Air-India disaster made the community in Canada realize that it had to be more aggressive in letting Canadians know who they are, and after the attack, many in the Sikh community felt they had been branded as terrorists by the Indian government.

Mr. Bal and Mr. Bhullar list several 'products of 1984,' including the election of several Sikhs to the House of Commons and provincial legislatures, the acceptance of turbans in the R.C.M.P. and the recognition of religious symbols in mainstream culture.

Balkar Singh [Heir], a spokesman for a group called the Sikh Liberation Organization, said he continues to work for the independence of Khalistan.

The Ontario resident, who immigrated to Canada in 1972, was picked up during a visit to India in 1987, held in jail under the country's anti-terrorist laws and tortured. He told Canadian officials at the time that among other things, he was repeatedly asked by police what he knew about the Air-India disaster. He was also questioned by the R.C.M.P. while in the Indian jail.

He was released without being charged and returned to Canada in October, 1988, after a year in detention.

Mr. Singh condemns the use of violence to achieve independence, but he remains convinced that Sikhs need their own state. 'It may not happen today or in 10 years or 50 years. But it will happen.'