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Stuck in bed that morning, I turned on the television to keep myself occupied. The lead story on the BCTV noon news showed a group of angry Sikhs attacking the Indian tricolour-raising ceremony at the home of the Consul General of India in West Vancouver. A police helicopter could be seen circling above as the Indian flag was pulled down and set on fire; unruly demonstrators battled with police on the ground.
Prior to June 1984, some of us had written off the few members of the Babbar Khalsa in Canada as relatively harmless clowns and nincompoops. How tragically wrong we were. In the wake of the armed assault on the Harimandir Complex, the angry Sikh diaspora provided unlimited recruits for the likes of the Babbar Khalsa and dozens of other violent outfits that mushroomed overnight.
Freedom of expression for those who disagreed with the extremists was already under threat. In what had metamorphosed into a religious crusade by Bhindranwale to maintain the “purity and honour” of Sikhism, some elements of the diaspora mistakenly saw parallels between the Dharam Yudh of 1984 and the 1914 call of the Gadhar movement for Indians living in North America to return home to free India from the yoke of British rule. The intention of the 1914 movement was to establish a secular, free and united India. The Gadhar movement had never been about one religion.
By burning the Indian tricolour in Canada, the 1984 demonstrators were only hurting the Sikhs’ standing in India. Scores of Sikhs had struggled and died alongside other Indians to defeat the mighty British Empire. For Indians, the tricolour had a kind of sanctity; it symbolized the love of country, a love second to none. These demonstrators were distorting our position in the minds of other Canadians; they were also undermining the place the Sikhs occupied in free India. The Khalistanis were stifling free speech and wrongly claiming that the majority of Sikhs abroad supported the dismemberment of India.
I began to rethink my plan not to attend the Independence Day ceremonies. Normally, I rarely went to these events. The cocktailcircuit types populated them in large numbers, not out of support for India or the idea of India, but simply because they were something to do, and there was always good scotch. But I knew many of these same types would stay away from that evening’s reception, not wanting to be seen at the residence where that morning Khalistani demonstrators had burned the tricolour. I, on the other hand, decided on principle to go. The anger of ordinary Sikhs over the assault on the Harimandir complex was understandable, but none of the temples here, nor the many militant outfits that had cropped up overnight, sought to channel that anger into constructive work for peace in Punjab. No one seemed worried about the families of the men and women who’d been killed on both sides in the Harimandir complex. Instead, there was hatred and senseless range. Many angry men would have agreed with Ontario journalist T. Sher Singh when he said of the assault on the Harimandir Complex, “If I had an atomic bomb, I would like to drop it on Delhi.”
Rami and I, along with my walking stick, strode into the residence of the Consul General in full view of the placard-carrying demonstrators. There was a heavy police presence there, too. The mood of the smaller-than-usual crowd inside was sombre but determined: determined to ensure that we remained sensitive to the feelings of the Sikhs, but also determined to ensure that no one be allowed to permanently scar the close relationships among all the people of the Indian diaspora, particularly between Sikhs and Hindus at that moment. Violent demonstrations and hate speech as natural responses to religious injury were medieval; they had no place in a modern democratic state.
Above all, I did not want the desecraters of the Harimandir or the torchers of the tricolour to speak for me. The voices calling for the dismemberment of India did not represent me. If I remained silent, I would never be able to look myself in the mirror again. I was a human rights activist. I had fought for the rights of domestic, janitorial and farm workers. I had twice attempted to be elected to the legislature of B.C. How could I represent people if I did not have the courage to speak up for peace in the face of violence and intimidation? I remembered Mahatma Gandhi’s dictum: An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind. Silence was no longer an option.
I talked to many friends at the reception and shared my angst with some. Rami and I also bumped into Nancy Knickerbocker, who had taught ESL with Rami and was now a journalist with the Vancouver Sun. Nancy wondered aloud if anyone would dare to speak out against the hate and violence the demonstrators represented. I asked for her card. As we rode home, Rami asked if I was thinking of saying something publicly. I have never been able to hide much from her.
I returned to work on August 20. By then, I had written a background statement about why I felt the need to speak out now. I had prepared a summary of it that I could hand to the press if I decided to go public, and a longer version I could read at the press conference I was now mulling over.
I had already decided that silence was not an option. I had no hesitation or second thoughts. But I wanted to be sure I was ready for the brutal assaults that I knew would follow—on my integrity, my reputation, and perhaps even my person. More importantly, I wanted to shield my sons from the negative fallout of my actions by changing the school they attended. Their current school, J.W. Sexsmith Elementary, had lots of Indian children, and some of them might take hurtful attitudes to school that would affect my sons.
I called a press conference at my law office on Victoria Drive for the early afternoon of August 23. Three reporters showed up: a journalist from Radio station CKNW whose name I can’t recall, Nancy Knickerbocker from the Vancouver Sun, and Gillian Findlay of CBC TV. My position was simple. All Sikhs had been hurt as a result of the politics in Punjab, the actions and omissions of Bhindranwale, and the government of India bringing us to the tragic spectacle of Operation Blue Star. I had had time to talk to many Sikhs, I told the reporters. Many of them wanted to speak out but remained silent out of fear. I did not blame them. I had personally witnessed the anger of the separatists and their reckless antics. What had transpired at the consular residence on the morning of Indian Independence Day worried me deeply as a Canadian and as an Indian, I said. The Indian community had come a long way during its ninety years in Canada, and the separatists threatened to take us back into the dark ages. I wanted other Canadians to know that the vast majority of the Sikhs were peaceful. That, despite their silence, most did not support the violence or the demand for Khalistan. Above all, on behalf of the silent majority of Sikhs, I wanted to reclaim the right to free expression. I no longer wanted the reign of intimidation by separatists to go unchallenged. With my comments, I wanted to shout from the rooftops: I fear not a soul. My soul has no fear.
On June 12, I had written a letter to Mrs. Gandhi, reminding her that during our meeting in January 1984, “I indicated to you that Indians living abroad would like to see a just, reasonable and peaceful political solution to the issues of Punjab. I am deeply saddened and hurt that that was not to be. It disturbed me that the government sought a solution with guns and ignored the fact that a bullet shot into the Temple is as desecrating as one shot from inside the Temple.” I also wrote: “However presented, the demands of the Akalis were not unreasonable. India requires a serious reassessment of central and state powers. Undoubtedly your delay and inability to address and resolve these grievances has been the main escalating factor in the situation that culminated in this assault at the Golden Temple—hurting directly the sensitivity and dignity of my community . . . Many of us feel orphaned by our Motherland itself.” I further expressed the hope that one day the wounds and divisions could be healed.
I wasn’t sure I would receive a reply; I had been frank, and I could easily have been ignored. But Mrs. Gandhi did reply. This is what she wrote, in a letter dated June 30 1984:
Dear Mr. Dosanjh,
I have received your letter of 12 June. You seem to have written with inadequate knowledge and understanding of the facts and issues involved.
Few Decisions in my long political career were sadder than the one to ask our troops to clear the terrorist hideout which was misusing the refuge of the Golden Temple. But it was a duty I owed to the nation and to the Sikh community itself.
To understand this you have to answer some elementary queries. Why did these people, in the first place, accumulate arms? They wanted to use them against some persons, surely? And why did they choose to take refuge in the most sacred Golden temple and other gurudwaras? Was it not in the belief that they could not then be got at, and if they were, then they could exploit the religious feelings of millions of pious and law-abiding Sikhs? Was it tolerable that they should be allowed to organise the murders of Sikhs and Hindus from within these sacred precincts? What were the duly constituted management committees of the Temples doing even when Government repeatedly drew their attention to these armed activities? The rule of the Golden temple that all weapons, umbrellas and sticks be left outside was broken.
If the miscreants had not gathered such a vast arsenal, which included sophisticated weapons of foreign origin, and if they had not indulged in terror and crime, there would have been no question of entering the Temple. Crime does not become less heinous if committed from within a temple, mosque or gurudwara. In fact it becomes more reprehensible. Ordinary citizens in Punjab, Sikhs and Hindus, were feeling insecure and afraid.
You have said the demands of the Akali Dal were not unreasonable. We were carrying out negotiations with them—which indicates a willingness to reach an agreement. But the Akali Dal was evidently terrorised by the ultras not to come to such an agreement. That is why they spurned our equally reasonable proposals. The terrorists certainly wanted no settlement.
I can understand your grief and the hurt sentiments of many. But this should not cloud the dangers to the unity and integrity of our country, which would be harmful to all communities, including the Sikhs.
My letter and her reply were extensively reported in the newspapers in India and abroad at the time.
Following my press conference, a deluge of threats came in: telephone calls, messages left on our home answering machine, notes delivered to my law office or pushed through our mail slot at home. The oldest Sikh organization in Canada, the Khalsa Diwan Society, then controlled by Khalistanis, issued a press release branding me a “heretic.” The Vancouver Sun, however, received a few calls commending my remarks and the Sun’s responsible coverage, and I got dozens of calls myself from all across Canada supporting my views and my right to express them.
The war of words kicked off by my press conference would continue into the late eighties. I did not seek to silence the separatists. They were entitled to their views, and they had the right to express them.
But I made it clear I would not brook any interference with my right to express my views, and I would not let go unchallenged the Khalistani claim that most Sikhs supported their cause and their violence. I knew that was not the case.
Promod Puri wrote me a letter telling me he could no longer publish my weekly column in the Link. He was frightened of those who now controlled the narrative of the Sikhs. He made a flimsy excuse for his capitulation to intimidation, arguing that I expected my column to receive more prominence than he was prepared to give it. During all the years of turmoil, I lost only one client from my law office, and that was Promod’s company, which published his paper. From then on, he became my critic. Years later, one woman in the community shared with me her view that in our culture, any ethical compromises made to protect one’s livelihood or family are forgivable sins. I disagreed, but if it is true, this is one more explanation for the deep-rooted and ubiquitous corruption in India.
In mid-September, Harjit Atwal, who was later charged but subsequently acquitted in the attempted assassination of the visiting Punjabi minister Malkiat Singh Sidhu near Campbell River, asked to bring some friends to meet with me. I spoke to Rami about it, and we decided to invite Joyce Whitman to be present, so that no one could distort the discussion if it were to be reported publicly.
Five or six men showed up at our home at the appointed time. I recognized most of them from the melee at the Indian Consul’s home on Independence Day. A man named Amar Sandhu did most of the talking. He argued that I was wrong to oppose Khalistan and also said I should not be speaking to the mainstream English media; I should confine my views to the Punjabi media. If I did that, he said, my opponents would not be as concerned or as angry.
I was taken aback by their suggestion. I was a Canadian, I said, and no community was an island unto itself. What a few hotheads were doing in Canada under the pretext of legitimate anger at the government of India was a Canadian issue, even if the government of the day and most Canadians did not yet see it that way. Canadian politicians were not yet concerned that some brown guys were fighting each other in the streets of Vancouver over something that had happened fifteen thousand miles away in Amritsar, a word most of them could not pronounce. And yet I believed it was their concern.
Harjit Atwal and his friends wanted to neuter my views. In the Indian community of the time, it was easy to suffocate the voices within. The voices from outside were harder to silence through threats of violence. I told them their biggest supporter and mouthpiece, Tara Hayer, would not last a single day if he wrote in English what he so routinely did with impunity in Punjabi.
Community activist Charan Gill had publicly denounced both the harebrained idea of Khalistan and Bhindranwale’s tactics. When he was inundated with threats, he issued a retraction to get the angry men to go away. The only man left standing publicly against the violence among my friends in the Indian community was Darshan Gill, who published and edited Canada Darpan—“darpan” meaning mirror—a Punjabi weekly that promoted secularism, amity among faiths, non-violence, and the integrity of India. His paper was the sole progressive voice in the Punjabi media. Darshan published Canada Darpan from 1982 to 1990, during the most difficult years. Even when his home was firebombed, he unwaveringly stood his ground. Lokta, an irregular publication put out by friends of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in the East Indian Workers Association, made its presence felt, too. Sadly, neither publication was enough to counter the poison spewed by Tara Hayer’s Indo-Canadian Times.
Another courageous voice of the time belonged to my friend Gurcharan Rampuri, a renowned Punjabi poet. At the beginning of October 1984, he wrote a piece in Punjabi in Canada Darpan analyzing how Bhindranwale, an articulate populist perhaps mesmerized by his own rhetoric, unwittingly created the conditions that led to Operation Blue Star. Tara Hayer, already angry at Rampuri for truthfully describing Tara in an interview with a Punjabi daily as a staunch supporter of Sikh separatist militancy and violence in Canada, fanned the flames against him by distorted reporting on Gurcharan’s piece. A few days later, on his way to work, Rampuri was ambushed in downtown Vancouver by unknown Sikh assailants. He escaped with minor but painful injuries. Tara Hayer gleefully reported on the attack, suggesting what had happened to Rampuri was not severe enough. Progressive Sikhs and others, however, organized a meeting to condemn the dastardly attack against Rampuri. Wearing the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as a placard, I was one of the speakers at the meeting.
The attack on Rampuri came just days before the next bombshell: the assassination of Indira Gandhi at the hands of her own bodyguards. I learned of the news late in the evening of October 31, 1984 in a telephone call from Sohan Pooni. I was concerned immediately about what her killers might not have anticipated: violent reactions from Indians to the killing of the prime minister. The Sikh bodyguards had served Mrs. Gandhi loyally for some time. After Operation Blue Star, her senior staff had replaced the bodyguards out of an abundance of caution, but Mrs. Gandhi had ordered them reinstated.
Her murder was not completely unexpected for those who knew of the “tradition” of revenge against “desecrators” of the holy Harimandir. In her letter to me, she had maintained that her actions were taken to protect the sanctity of Harimandir and the national interest of India. After Operation Blue Star, she had visited the Harimandir, because she recognized the anger among Sikhs and felt it important to make a gesture of atonement and reconciliation. But the flames of revenge consuming her assassins had finally engulfed her.
That night I went to bed worried to death about the fallout on the ground in India. We were woken at midnight by the noise of drums and slogans in the Punjabi Market a block and a half away. To my horror, I learned the next day that the demonstrators had been celebrating the killing of Indira Gandhi. The Himalaya Restaurant, owned by Kewal Pabla, had opened its doors to allow laddoos, Indian sweets, to be distributed. In television footage of the night’s chaos, I spotted one of my own close relatives celebrating the death of the prime minister of the country he had left behind. In times of crisis, we are often touched, even if not directly overcome, by insanity.
The killing of Indira Gandhi made sense only to those swirling in the vortex of revenge. In the feudal culture of large parts of India, revenge was the only currency that “honour” accepted. A whole community should not have paid for the vengeful attack on the prime minister, but that is exactly what happened. Thousands of Sikhs were massacred in cities across India. The Congress government failed to protect its citizens; in fact, there is abundant evidence that the complete inaction on the part of the police and military for several days was deliberate. In some instances, the police, instead of protecting people, turned complicit marauders and killers themselves. Suddenly thrust into leadership, Rajiv Gandhi added fuel to the fires of hate and violence against Sikhs by declaring, “When a big tree falls it is only natural that the earth trembles.” In the moment of that utterance, Rajiv dwarfed himself.
It was lust for power that begat the Dharm Yudh Morcha, the Bhindranwale phenomenon, and Operation Blue Star. All of that led to Indira’s death and the massacre of Sikhs that followed—thousands of people who had had no role in any of this. The corrupt elements of the regime did not lift a finger for several days to stop the massacre. Earlier, Indira allowed the crisis at the Harimandir to get out of hand. She may have been the iron lady of India, but she proved less than farsighted in the way she handled the intransigent Bhindranwale, a dangerous creation of her own Machiavellian underlings. Her lasting legacy in most Sikh minds would be that she attacked the Harimandir complex and damaged the Akal Takhat. There could be no moral equivalence between Bhindrawale’s actions and that of the government of India. Bhindranwale was responsible for making the Harimandir a base of his often violent campaign. But he was a small, non-state actor not accountable to anyone. The defence of India as a united, secular country warranted a more nuanced and sophisticated response.
I had criticized the Indira regime for the way it had mishandled Bhindranwale, and publicly condemned both the killing of Indira and the massacre of the Sikhs. To highlight our disgust at the violence in India, a group of us organized a candlelight vigil on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery to mourn the victims. As some friends gathered at our home and readied to leave for the vigil, San Minhas, a dear friend, called and asked us to wait at home for him. When he arrived, he told us he had heard rumours that someone was planning to make an attempt on my life that evening. I was concerned but not deterred.
There were about a hundred people assembled on the art gallery steps. They were brave to be there in the face of intimidation and threats. But when we held a moment of silence in memory of all the victims of violence, Manmohan Singh and his associates from the Sikh Students’ Federation disrupted it by singing a Sikh religious hymn. That was their way of saying they were not sorry for Indira’s assassination, and how dare we mourn her death along with all the others. As we concluded the event, the Federation men tried to walk toward me, but they were prevented by friends of mine who encircled them.
All of my statements, with the exception of my Punjabi columns in Canada Darpan, were made to the mainstream media. Most separatists at the time were not well versed in English, and they were easily misled by the erroneous reporting of my comments and positions in the Punjabi media. Tara Hayer was the master of misquotation and distortion. He derided me as “Ujjal Gandhi” in an attempt to tag me with Indira and Rajiv Gandhi’s name. I accepted the name Gandhi as a badge of honour, since I stood for the non-violence espoused by the other, more important Gandhi, my idol the Mahatma. But for Tara and other separatists, I became Enemy Number One. For some weeks, his paper wasted as much ink on denouncing me as a “traitor” as he lavished on praising the “living martyr” and eventual Air India terrorist Talwinder Parmar and others of his ilk.
By now, there were several outfits drumming up separatist fervour among Sikhs in the world, including the Babbar Khalsa of Talwinder Parmar, the International Sikh Youth Federation, the Sikh Students’ Federation, and the World Sikh Organization (WSO). The WSO had been founded at a gathering of several hundred Sikhs from the U.S. and Canada held at Madison Square Garden in New York City in the immediate aftermath of Operation Blue Star. There Ajaib Singh Bagri, in a fiery and vengeful speech, said, “I give you my most solemn assurance, until we kill fifty thousand Hindus, we will not rest!”
Jaswant Singh Bhullar, a retired Indian army major-general who had moved to the U.S., became secretary-general of the WSO. Bhullar attended a meeting at the Khalsa Diwan Society temple in Abbotsford in the fall of 1984. The television news showed him being saluted by many young Sikhs in army fatigues on the grounds of the temple. Clearly, the message was that Sikhs abroad were being trained to carry out sabotage back in India. I spoke out against such outrageous militarizing of peace-loving Canadians. I also criticized the federal government for allowing the likes of Bhullar into Canada. The government of Canada did not give a hoot about our community, I charged. Around the same time, there were news stories about angry separatists taking combat training in the Lower Mainland of B.C. in preparation for inciting violence in India or starting a guerrilla campaign for the dismemberment of India, with the hope of separating Punjab from the country to establish Khalistan.
The torrent of threats against my life and the lives of my family members continued unabated. I continued to insist on my right to free speech, my right to live harmoniously with others in peace, and my commitment to secular values.
One late evening, Bhaji and my brother-in-law Harpartap Sahi came to our home. My family and I needed to leave for the night, they said, because someone had passed on information about a “credible threat” of an attempt to be made on my life. I agreed to leave under duress; if I had stayed, I would have been up arguing with them all night, because they refused to leave unless I did. Rami and I bundled up our sleeping young sons and sought refuge at a relative’s home, leaving our own home uninhabited. I remained awake all night, thinking about the twists and turns life was taking.
On another occasion, half a dozen relatives crowded into my law office, including Papa, Bhaji, Masarji Dhillon, Harpartap’s father and several in-laws of Bhaji’s. Those present were worried about my safety, and they attempted to persuade me to keep quiet in the future. No one could have any doubts about my views by now; there was no need to say anything more, they argued. Bhaji’s brother-in-law Harchand Grewal, an old Communist Party of India (Marxist) supporter, compared the prevailing winds in the community to a potent storm that could uproot big trees. Perhaps in reaction to Harchand’s attempt to use fear as a silencer to protect me from harm, I told them only trees with deep roots could survive a storm of that magnitude. I refused to live in fear of my own voice.