Sikh militancy and the Air India attack
Updated April 30, 2007
A brutal civil war in the lush, northern Indian state of Punjab is intimately linked to the Air India bombings of June 1985.
Punjab is the homeland of India's Sikh minority, about three per cent of the population of this largely Hindu country. In the late 1970s, Sikh religious revivalism flared into violence. Within a few years, fundamentalist religion and radical politics joined hands to demand the creation of Khalistan, an independent homeland for Sikhs, separate from the rest of India.
Sikhs have long been one of India's most enterprising and resourceful communities. Abroad, in Canada, Britain, the U.S. and elsewhere, they are always among the most successful migrant groups. A powerful community spirit, the tenets of an egalitarian faith and a stubborn determination to overcome discrimination motivate this remarkable group of people.
Their largely contemplative religion acquired a martial and defiant edge in the 17th century when Guru Gobind Singh urged followers to let their hair and beards grow, and to adopt the name Singh, or lion. This was intended to strengthen community ties, and it did.
Sikhs played key roles in India's independence struggle from Britain. The convulsive trauma of partition into the Muslim state of Pakistan and the Hindu-majority country of India in 1947 resulted in many Sikh deaths and dislocations from ancestral property. But within a few decades, Sikh farmers and their Hindu counterparts had turned Punjab into India's wealthiest state and the breadbasket of the country.
How that success bred a widely supported, exceedingly violent insurgency is a question that still divides historians. Some say the class politics of Punjab left key groups of small farmers out of the state's buoyant economy. Others blame Indira Gandhi, who was prime minister of India for more than 15 years, accusing her of meddling in the labyrinth of religious politics in Punjab. True believers in Khalistan cite historical grievances dating back to the early years of Indian independence.
Whatever the cause, the effect was brutal. Thousands were killed by Sikh militant groups and the Indian security forces between the early 1980s and 1993, when insurgent violence petered out. Many civilians were among the victims, either massacred by Sikh gunmen or "disappeared" by police and soldiers.
Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by Sikh members of her own bodyguard.
Temple raid provokes militants
The worst single incident of the entire uprising, the event that probably motivated the bombers of Air India 182, was the storming of Sikhdom's holiest site, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab, in June 1984. Inside the sacred precincts, innocent pilgrims mingled with heavily armed militants and the Indian army killed large numbers of both when it laid siege to the temple with tanks, artillery and infantry. The army was ordered into the Golden Temple by Prime Minister Gandhi, who was later assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards.
In Punjab and across India, Sikhs reacted with horror to the near-destruction of their religion's holiest site. Many Canadian Sikhs joined protests and wrote letters to the editor. A few went far further and plotted attacks against Indian targets — embassy officials, consulates, businesses, and as we now know, Air India.
Sikh militancy abroad had been simmering for years. It burst violently into the open after the Golden Temple attack and Gandhi's assassination five months later. In Canada, this was to lead to the Air India bomb plot. Sikh militant groups like the Canada-based Babbar Khalsa were influential, but not necessarily popular.
Former British Columbia premier Ujjal Dosanjh, then a crusading voice against militancy in his own Sikh community, says there was an immense chill, a feeling of fear, among ordinary Canadian Sikhs. Dosanjh himself suffered the militants' wrath, and he needed 80 stitches after he was beaten by an assailant with a nail-studded club in 1985.
The Air India bombing was something of a tipping point for Sikh militant support in India and around the world. Despite the muddled investigation by Canadian government agencies, other countries took an interest and contributed intelligence reporting. It took much longer for action to be taken against militant groups, and Canada didn't proscribe the Babbar Khalsa until 2003.
Most importantly, the Sikh community everywhere took steps to end militant influence and infiltration of temple committees and political organizations.
Separatism dormant in today's Punjab
India spent much of the 1980s fighting a violent war against Sikh separatism. Tens of thousands were killed, wounded or traumatized. But eventually, support for militancy dried up and leading organizations were infiltrated and defeated, not without accusations of rampant human rights violations on all sides.
Today there is little talk of Khalistan in India, British Columbia or anywhere else. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is a Sikh, as are many other senior political figures and officials in the current government of India. Punjab state is back to being prosperous and peaceful, with arguments over autonomy within India replacing separatist rhetoric.
A difficult and bloodstained period of recent history would seem to be over. But until the Air India bombings can be properly explained, and perpetrators brought to justice, Canadians won't be able to turn the page.