In the shadow of the Golden Temple
History follows Stephen Harper around the Sikh holy shrine
AMRITSAR, India — 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.