Sikh politics in Canada: Symbols and suits (2007)

Every year, Canada's Sikh community enjoys colourful spring parades to mark Vaisakhi Day — the anniversary of the Sikh religion. But a disturbing brand of extremist politics has surfaced at some of these parades. (This story originally appeared on CBC.ca on June 28, 2007.)

Sikh extremism enters mainstream Canadian politics

Young men wear International Sikh Youth Federation T-shirts at a Vaisakhi Parade, April 7, 2007, in Surrey, B.C. The ISYF is banned as a terrorist organization by the governments of Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and India. (CBC)

Note: This story originally appeared on CBCnews.ca on June 28, 2007.

Every year, Canada's Sikh community enjoys colourful spring parades to mark Vaisakhi Day — the anniversary of the Sikh religion. But a disturbing brand of extremist politics has surfaced at some of these parades.

The insignia of illegal organizations were on display this year at the parade in Surrey, B.C., and floats featured "martyr" pictures of Sikhs who the Canadian government considers guilty of terrorist crimes.

These shaheeds, or martyrs, are said by their supporters to be heroes of the armed struggle by Sikh extremists to carve out an independent nation called Khalistan in the Indian state of Punjab.

It was Khalistan separatists who blew up Air India Flight 182 on June 23, 1985. The bombing killed 329 passengers and crew, most of them Canadians. A second bomb killed two baggage handlers who were moving luggage to another Air India flight at Narita Airport in Tokyo.

Bomb-maker Inderjit Singh Reyat of Duncan, B.C., was convicted in both bombings. But the bomb plot leader, Talwinder Singh Parmar, fled the country in 1988 and was killed by the Indian police in 1992.

Talwinder Parmar was the founder of the Babbar Khalsa, which is officially listed as a terrorist organization in the European Union, Canada, India, and the United States. Canadian courts have established that that Parmar was the mastermind of the Air India bombing. That makes him the worst mass murderer in Canadian history. Even so, Parmar was portrayed as a shaheed on two of the parade floats in Surrey this year.

Two leading Sikh politicians refused to attend the Surrey parade, saying it amounted to a glorification of terrorism. But many other politicians did attend — Conservative, Liberal and NDP. None of them condemned the Parmar pictures.

This silence shocked the Indian government and moderate Sikhs across Canada. They raised questions such as:

  • How does a separatist movement from halfway around the world still flourish in Canada, after taking hundreds of Canadian lives?
  • How can a mass murderer be honoured as a hero, without political leaders making any complaint?

On April 7, 2007, B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell, Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts and various federal and provincial politicians attended the Vaisakhi Day parade in Surrey, run by the Dashmesh Darbar temple.

The temple committee, with Khalistan logos on their jackets, took the stage alongside the politicians. Among them was Satinderpal Singh Gill, a former senior leader of the International Sikh Youth Federation. Since 2003, the ISYF, like the Babbar Khalsa, has been officially listed in Canada as an illegal terrorist organization.

Also attending the parade were two early supporters of the Babbar Khalsa: its co-founder, Ajaib Singh Bagri, and Ripudaman Singh Malik. Both were close associates of Talwinder Parmar and both were acquitted at the Air India bombing trial.

Parmar and the Air India bombing

The Dashmesh Darbar temple committee approved both of the floats bearing pictures of Talwinder Parmar. Parmar played a central role in the 1985 Air India bombing, although Sikh militants often claim otherwise.

  • At the trial of Malik and Bagri, Mr. Justice Ian Bruce Josephson of the B.C. Supreme Court concluded:

"These hundreds of men, women and children were entirely innocent victims of a diabolical act of terrorism unparalleled until recently in aviation history and finding its roots in fanaticism at its basest and most inhumane level.… Now deceased, Talwinder Singh Parmar is generally acknowledged by both Crown and defence to have been the leader in the conspiracy to commit these crimes."

  • Three weeks before the bombing of Flight 182, Parmar was tailed by two CSIS officers to Vancouver Island, where he met Reyat for a test bombing.
  • Reyat was convicted twice — first for the Narita bomb and then for the Air India bomb. The two trials established that he assembled the bomb components and that he did so at the request of Talwinder Parmar.
  • Prior to the bombing, Parmar publicly urged attacks on Indian targets and said he would take the responsibility for such attacks on his shoulders. He was seen preaching that "Indian planes will fall from the sky" and urging his followers to "kill 50,000 Hindus."
  • CSIS wiretaps showed Parmar plotting to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi, who had succeeded his mother, Indira Gandhi, as India's prime minister. The wiretaps also suggest that Parmar kept in close touch with other suspects in the Air India conspiracy, including Reyat, and that he ordered the booking of the plane tickets.

Even so, Parmar is revered as a martyr by Sikh extremists in Canada. Dashmesh Darbar temple president Sudager Singh Sandhu told CBC News "it's not proved he's terrorist. I can say you're a terrorist. You can say me a terrorist. It's easy to terrorist everybody.

"I love him. He's a great man. Because he never guilty," Sandhu added.

A spokesman for the temple, Manmohan Singh, insisted that Parmar is a martyr. "Talwinder Parmar is a martyr of the Sikh nation," he said.

When it was suggested that Parmar led the organization that carried out the bombing, Singh replied: "He claimed to be the leader, he said it, but that doesn't mean he's proven it. I can say anything, I can do that, that doesn't mean I am doing that."

What did the politicians say?

After the April 7, 2007, Vaisakhi parade in Surrey, B.C., Conservative MP Jim Abbott, who represented Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the parade, told CBC News he was "flabbergasted" to hear of these displays at the parade. Asked if he would have gone if he had known of them beforehand, Abbott replied, "no." The CBC reported that — but, four days later, Abbott reversed his position in an e-mail, saying "I will vigorously defend this event along with thousands of Canadians of Sikh faith who won't tolerate such a linkage."

However, Abbott's revised position was not adopted by the government. Asked if the Prime Minister endorsed Abbott's statement, Secretary of State for Multiculturalism Jason Kenney later said that the Conservatives probably would not have attended if they had known in advance of the extremism on display, and would be more careful in future.

Conservative MP Nina Grewal, who also attended the parade, declined to be interviewed.

Liberal MP Sukh Dhaliwal was asked if he found the displays at the parade problematic. He did not. "I don't know why we're making a fuss about Surrey," he told the CBC.

NDP MP Penny Priddy said she was "disappointed" to hear what had happened but that "I don't regret going" to an event celebrating Sikh culture.

On similar grounds, Premier Campbell declined to criticize the parade and said he would continue to attend such events. However, a spokesman said a few days later that Cambpell was "upset" by the parade.

Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh, however, stayed away from the parade and decried the silence of his fellow politicians.

"Politicians sometimes believe that if they speak out against violence and hatred, somehow they are going to anger the entire community," he said.

"They are being afraid to speak out, and they choose consciously to not speak out," he added. "I have not heard any denunciation from any of the politicians from any of the political parties that went to that parade that found out that you had the glorification of Parmar and others who were killers. And nothing was said. And they were given the opportunity to say something."

Dave Hayer, a Liberal member of the B.C. legislative assembly, also skipped the parade. Although he's a Sikh politician from Surrey, he saw what was coming and stayed away.

Family history may have something to do with that. In 1988, Hayer's father Tara Singh Hayer, who had written editorials criticizing Parmar and Bagri, denounced the Air India bombing in his newspaper — and was shot. He spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair and became a police witness in the Air India case against Ajaib Singh Bagri. But he never testified. In 1998, he was shot again — this time, fatally.

"It is different to celebrate your culture versus celebrating the terrorist," said Dave Hayer.

"If you celebrate them, it is wrong. And they told me, my constituents, they said, look, is it tomorrow they're gonna be celebrating the people who are killing our soldiers in Afghanistan? Because of freedom and the Charter of Rights? Are they gonna be carrying pictures of the people who are killing our soldiers in Afghanistan?"

Families of the Air India victims began complaining about politicians' association with Sikh extremists long before the 2007 Surrey Vaisakhi parade. In October 2006, Perviz Madon, whose husband, Sam, died in the Air India bombing, testified at John Major's judicial inquiry into the tragedy.

"We need to stop our politicians from attending those kind of events," she said. "I'm sorry, I know it's about your votes, but that's dirty business. You don't want to be associated with a group that is linked to terrorism. You don't want those kind of votes.… Canada is becoming a haven for criminals. It's a beautiful country. It's a great country, you know. We're just losing it, we're losing the grip on it. Something has to change."

So Hayer stayed away from the parade.

"A terrorist is a terrorist, and we should have no place for terrorism or people who support terrorism in Canada, period," he said. "If there are people who are terrorists and they are promoted as heroes, maybe it's the politicians' responsibility to say, listen, maybe we should think twice, should we participate, ethically and morally, in the parade."

Tarek Fatah, an immigrant from Punjab who is an outspoken critic of extremism in Canadian politics, said politicians are not fussy about where they get their votes.

"These guys have figured out Canadian politics," he said. "It takes one guy with an exotic-looking dress, a big beard or a huge headdress to say, 'Mr. member of Parliament, we will work to defeat you, or we will deliver you 10,000 votes.'

Canadian politicians do not realize that the struggle for Khalistan was extremely violent and that it has no support in India, Fatah said.

"Why would somebody come to this country and want unity of Canada but the breakup of India? Does any politician have the guts to ask these Khalistanis, 'What is it that you are looking for that you didn't find in the bloodbath of 1947, when India was first divided?'"