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Air India Tragedy Smeared All Sikh-Canadians


The Toronto Star, Mar. 18, 2005

Photo: T. Sher Singh

For 20 years my immediate community unfairly bore the cross of innuendo

During the two decades between the horrendous crime and tragedy of the downing of Air-India Flight 182 in 1985 and this week's verdict on the trial of the two accused of the outrage, my beard has gone from jet black to snow white.

Part of it, of course, is due to age, in my case, 55.

Some of the silver undoubtedly stems from the vagaries of the practice of law which, coincidentally, began for me in 1985.

A good portion of it also relates to the tragedy, from watching helplessly from the sidelines as several close friends have struggled with the loss of dear ones - a son and daughter, a spouse, a sister.

And some of the salt, inevitably replacing the pepper, is from watching my immediate community - almost 500,000 Sikh-Canadians - unfairly bear the cross of innuendo and broad brush-strokes.

All because the background and context of the tragedy lies in India, in accusations of dire human rights violations by the Indian government against its Sikh minority and the Khalistani separatist movement spawned as a result.

Yesterday's front-page headlines in one Toronto newspaper unabashedly refer to two 'Sikh' militants who were found 'Not guilty.'

Sikh? True, their religion is Sikh. But this moniker is shared by me and my daughter, 500,000 Sikh-Canadians, and 25 million others around the world, only a handful of whom condone or support either the crime or the criminals, whoever they may be.

But, why not 'Khalistani,' instead of Sikh, which would make it relevant and accurate?

I have never seen - and thank God for it - Nazis referred to as 'Christian' terrorists. We have Palestinian suicide-bombers and we have Israeli raids. I.R.A. militants. But, why Sikh militants?

My daughter was 6 years old in June, 1985.

I was and am a single parent and my primary challenge ever since has been to prevent, or at least lessen, the collateral damage caused by the carelessness of the media.

I remember a Sikh-Canadian friend bringing over a newspaper one day to show me how his 12-year-old had come home one evening, spotted the headlines on an Air-India story, pored over the article and, taking a black marker, slashed a huge X across the page, and inscribed 'Lies! Lies! Lies!' across the page. My friend found the page crumpled and thrown in the wastebasket.

I remember meeting with a number of C.S.I.S. and R.C.M.P. operatives in 1987 to assist them in understanding the basics about Indian and Punjabi politics and their spillover into Canada.

My advice was being sought, free, because neither institution had any Sikh or Indian or Punjabi or South Asian personnel on their staff who were equipped to assist them in the Air-India matter. Imagine, this with respect to a Canadian community a million strong and a century old.

Their question was: 'Why does every Sikh household in this country sport the Khalistani flag? See: Here's the separatist symbol!'

I looked at the sample one of them had pulled from a briefcase. It was the saffron triangle flown outside every gurdwara (Sikh church) in the world, and the icon (the Khanda) displayed in homes, on necklaces, and T-shirts, on bumper-stickers . . . just like the Christian Cross and the Jewish Star of David.

I explained. Their jaws dropped collectively, as if I had just clarified quantum physics.

They cited huge numbers of separatists in this country and provided the evidence: Tens of thousands of them, maybe even hundreds of thousands, refrained from clipping their beards or doffing their turbans. Are they potential terrorists, they asked?

They were genuinely puzzled when I told them that these were the basic requirements for those who have taken on the full discipline of the Sikh spiritual path, and had nothing to do with any political stance. And I added that I was one of them, pointing to my turban and untrimmed beard. I never heard from them again.

But I have heard of erased tapes, of bunglings, of missed opportunities, and ah yes, of broad public references to 'Sikh terrorists.'

It helped me decide on the route I would take with my daughter. I chose to encourage her to watch and hear and read the news with me, and to discuss its contents.

As a result, I believe, she has learned to discern right from wrong in a way clearer than most people I know.

As she grew up, I noted she had begun to nurture a deep sense of justice and fairness, and sport the ability to quickly cut through onion layers of obfuscation. We often talked about what we saw going on around the Air-India situation.

We quickly learned that there was a pattern emerging in the way the R.C.M.P. and C.S.I.S. were handling the case and anything else even vaguely related to it.

It has been long forgotten, but there were two trials, one in Hamilton, the other in Montreal, several years ago. Both purportedly related to the Khalistani movement.

Terrorists were being tried, we were forewarned. Swat teams visibly stood coiled around the 'specially barricaded' facilities.

'Terrorists! Terrorists!' echoed every preparatory press conference. It was high drama, neatly orchestrated to meet every news deadline.

Well, both matters were finally heard, one by one, in separate cities.

The judge found that the bases of the charges were fraudulent: false affidavits, sworn by 'investigative' personnel, were the mainstay.

There was no other real evidence. The charges were dismissed. In each case.

A similar case took place in New York State. Same scenario, swat teams and all. On the eve of the trial, it was discovered that the prosecutor had been penning threatening letters to the judge and signing them with the names of the accused.

The charges were dropped and the prosecutor taken away, reportedly for psychiatric treatment.

My daughter and I learned the following: If the prosecution protests loudly and repeatedly that $100 million has been spent on the case, that there are 10 truckloads of evidence, there are 100 witnesses, that there were 300 victims - and never, ever claims that there are X number of solid witnesses, and X number of damaging documents, and oodles, no some, no, even one piece of impeccable evidence connecting the accused with the crimes, then you know there isn't a case.

Not just a weak case. Simply, no case. And then, when you hear the word 'terrorists' bandied about freely and with full-throated ease, you know it is a smokescreen to hide the absence of substance.

Were we surprised by the verdict?

Yes, we were. We are always surprised - pleasantly - at how our judicial system ultimately rises to the occasion, and does what it is supposed to do, albeit belatedly.

Now, just wait and see how loudly and how often the authorities use the word 'terrorists' henceforth.

Here's my grey-haired conclusion:

There is good news and there is bad news. The good news: Ours is the best justice system in the world. The bad news: Ours is the best justice system in the world!

We do need an inquiry. It is a must. The truth behind why it took 20 years to get to this unsatisfactory juncture has to be outed.

And, we simply can't let the real criminals go free.

One more thing. My daughter grew up to choose journalism as a career: The pursuit of truth . . .