Read Terry Milewski's Blog: "In the shadow of the Golden Temple"

November 18, 2009

The spectacular temple gleams in the sunlight glancing off the water, where bearded pilgrims bathe. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, surrounded by a sweating delegation of MPs and businessmen in suits, walks around the shrine. All are barefoot and wearing headscarves in accordance with temple rules. And every step is weighed down with the ghastly history of Sikh extremism in Canada.

Nobody mentions that today, Nov. 18, is the 11th anniversary of Tara Singh Hayer's assassination in Surrey, B.C. The Sikh publisher had planned to testify to what he knew about the Air India bombing.

And nobody mentions the trail of blood that led to that murder.

Of course, Sikhs are the largest group among Canada's one million Indo-Canadians - and they loom large in some swing ridings in B.C. and Ontario. So it's natural that Harper would follow in Jean Chrétien's footsteps and pay his respects at the Golden Temple.

Still, the history hung in the air. Is it possible to shrug off the ghosts of the many thousands who died as Sikh separatists fought for an independent state?

It was here at the Golden Temple, in 1984, that violence by the separatists went from bad to worse. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sent the army in to root out the militants. Death and destruction scarred the temple. Outraged Sikhs - notably in Canada - swore to take revenge and, in October of that year, Indira Gandhi was gunned down by her Sikh bodyguards. In Vancouver, Sikh militants handed out sweets and danced in the streets.

Not for long. In New Delhi, Hindu mobs ran wild, slaughtering Sikhs in their beds. Then, in Burnaby, B.C., a Sikh priest - Talwinder Singh Parmar - assembled a team and, in Duncan, on Vancouver Island, a mechanic named Inderjit Singh Reyat bought dynamite, timers and batteries. In June of 1985, Air India Flight 182 exploded off the coast of Ireland, killing 329 people - Sikhs among them.

Is that history ancient? Is it irrelevant today? Hardly. Most Sikhs want no part of the separatist movement, saying the extremists hijacked and disgraced their religion. Yet the supreme council of the Sikh religion, which runs the Golden Temple and hosted Stephen Harper's visit, considers Indira Gandhi's assassins to be "martyrs."

Photographs of these and other "martyrs" - ranked as terrorists by the Indian and Canadian governments - still adorn Sikh temples in both countries. And only two years ago, MPs of all parties beamed at a Surrey Vaisakhi parade celebrating Parmar, the architect of the Air India slaughter, as a martyred hero.

Imagine how the victims' families felt about that. None of this history is ancient to them.

So the history of the Golden Temple casts a long shadow. Perhaps, on the anniversary of Tara Singh Hayer's murder, that's worth remembering while we snap pictures of the gorgeous shrine.

Read more about Shiva Keshavan, "The Fastest Indian on Ice"

By Jennifer Leask, Producer, CBC Vancouver

November 17, 2009

We caught up with Shiva Keshavan, a 28-year old luger from India, in Whistler where he was training. He and the rest of the luge circuit competitors are trying to get a handle on the track for 2010 - it’s the fastest one in the world, where a luge can reach 160km/hour.

There’s no question that’s fast - but when you take into consideration Keshavan built his sled himself using mostly second-hand parts, and he’s been using it for nine years, the stress fractures along the sides and the duct tape covering them raise the stakes.

So when we got a call while we were waiting to interview him in Whistler, telling us Keshavan had crashed on a practice run, his sled was broken, and he was hurt, we rushed to his place to see him.

There he was, standing with a big smile on his face, assuring us that his friends just weren’t used to seeing him crash, but admitting that though his sled was broken, he wasn’t badly hurt. Later, a VANOC official told us it was a quite a bad crash, and though they tried to give him medical attention at the site, Keshavan was more worried about his sled than himself.

There are a limited number of days of open training for International lugers on the Whistler track, and because the fixes took longer than usual, Keshavan was forced to miss two of them.

Luckily for Keshavan, he doesn’t seem to mind when the odds are stacked against him. He comes from a country where there’s little money for winter sports, so he makes do. A friend from Italy serves as his cook and technician, and a friend from grade school in India has become a media relations manager of sorts while he’s in B.C.

When Austrian Olympic luger Günther Lemmerer showed up in Manali, Himachal Pradesh to recruit new lugers - he sent Keshavan down the steep Himalayan mountain roads on a luge on wheels. Keshavan was hooked, and he still trains there. It wasn’t long before he was at the 1998 Nagano Games as the only athlete on the Indian Winter Olympic Team, and the youngest Olympic luge competitor ever.

The more time we spent with him, the more it became clear he embodies what the Olympics are supposed to be about: the joy of sport, goodwill, and national pride.

There’s no question he is incredibly determined and loves the luge: until recently he hasn’t had any funding from the Indian government, but he’s has managed to compete at three Winter Games because his parents have gone without and he works as a mountain guide every summer.

He’s also made it this far because of the good will of others - when his sled broke on a training run, another team’s technician fixed it for him. His coach in Turin worked for him for free. The Italian team offered him a spot (Keshavan’s mother is Italian), but Keshavan chose to represent the country where he was born.

After 12 years on the circuit, he’s got a few sponsors now: the Limca Book of Records, which dubbed him "The Fastest Indian on Ice". Limca is paying for a new sled, which should be ready in time for the Games in Whistler, and Keshavan said that could shave up to a half-second off his time. Swiss International Air Lines sponsors him as well: they foot the bill for him to fly to international competitions so he can get used to the pressure, and the field.

Come Games time, for his fourth Olympics, Keshavan’s hoping all of the stars will align, and maybe he’ll have a leg up over many of the other competitors: between the German’s with their sleds made by Porsche, and the Canadians with their Own the Podium program, the 300,000 South Asians in B.C. (according to the 2006 census) might just turn up and cheer him on, and give him the edge he needs.