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Vancouver Sikh Parade Dodges Separatist Symbolism


The Vancouver Sun, Apr. 22, 2003

Members of a youth group called Sikh Vision are angry that their float was denied a spot in a weekend parade because of last-minute concerns about the content of its display. Tens of thousands of Indo-Canadians took to the streets over the weekend in massive processions in Vancouver and Surrey to celebrate the holiest day on the Sikh religious calendar - Vaisakhi. While both parades went smoothly, there was a dispute in Surrey over the entry of a float featuring separatist slogans and photographs.

A member of the group, Jamail Singh Johal, told The Vancouver Sun Sunday that he and the other members were disappointed at the turn of events, especially after getting permission to put the float in the parade. 'We worked on that float every day for two weeks and spent $4,000 on the materials,' said Johal, who came from Kamloops for the parade. Johal said the dispute arose because his float featured photographs of slain 'martyrs' - Sikh separatist leaders killed in the armed conflict in India. But many of the same photos are hanging inside the Dasmesh Darbar temple which organized the parade, Johal said. 'They didn't want to be affiliated with the people who died fighting for Khalistan,' Johal said. 'But there was a Khalistan flag at the start of the procession. They are not fooling anyone.'

The Dasmesh temple was founded by former leaders of the separatist International Sikh Youth Federation [I.S.Y.F.]. Some of those in Sikh Vision are children of former leaders of the separatist Babbar Khalsa. Both groups have been declared terrorist organizations in several countries, including the U.S. and England. Parade chairman Bahadar Singh Sandhu said the controversy was just a misunderstanding. He said Surrey R.C.M.P. issued instructions not to let the float go into the parade claiming it had Babbar Khalsa's banner on it. 'We were only following the instructions of the police,' Sandhu said. 'It is a misunderstanding between the police and Sikh Vision.' Sandhu said the float makers were eventually told they could participate, but at that point they refused.

Johal said Sikh Vision is a youth group and not formally linked to either the I.S.Y.F. or the Babbar Khalsa. He said he suspects Dasmesh Darbar leaders are playing politics because they are attempting to get charitable tax status from the federal government. 'We felt very disappointed about what happened,' he said. Sandhu said the issue had nothing to do with a tax number. Surrey R.C.M.P. did not return phone calls Sunday. Because of the controversy a float made by Surrey's Khalsa School, founded by Air India bombing suspect Ripudaman Singh Malik, also pulled out of the parade in solidarity with Sikh Vision.

Vaisakhi marks the day 304 years ago when the last Sikh guru, Gobind Singh, baptized a special order of soldier-saints to fight oppression. It also marks the spring harvest.

Jarnail Singh Bhandal, president of Vancouver's Ross Street temple, which organized the other parades, estimated near-record crowds Saturday. For the first time ever, the Canadian Armed Forces had a float, he said, which was designed to recruit Indo-Canadians into the military. 'Everything was so peaceful. It went extremely well,' Bhandal said. Premier Gordon Campbell and members of his cabinet, like Dr. Gulzar Singh Cheema, attended both parades, while only Liberal M.L.A. Dave Hayer addressed the Vancouver crowd. Hayer condemned terrorism and remembered its victims. Hayer's father, Tara Singh Hayer, a prominent newspaper publisher, was assassinated four years ago in a still-unsolved shooting after widely condemning the violence of militant Sikh separatist groups like the Babbar Khalsa and the International Sikh Youth Federation. 'We should be praying for the victims of the Air India bombing,' Hayer said. 'As Canadians, we have an obligation to condemn terrorism.'