June 23, 2020, marked the 35th anniversary of the Air India bombings that left 331 people dead.
It was the worst incident in the history of aviation terror before 9/11 and happened as the plane was en route from Montreal to London and then Delhi. The plane disintegrated in the air on its way to London, coinciding with bombings at Narita International Airport that were later linked.
The event was allegedly conducted by a Sikh separatist group, Babbar Khalsa, to avenge the repression of Sikhs in India. Those involved with the Air India attack were tracked to a British Columbia chapter of Babbar Khalsa, which has since been banned and designated as an “international terrorist organization” by the government of Canada.
A year before the crime, the Indian government had ordered a military attack on the Golden Temple Complex, the holiest Sikh shrine, in Amritsar to address a handful of militants who had stockpiled arms inside the place of worship. This ill-conceived operation left many innocent pilgrims dead and historical buildings heavily destroyed.
Anger over this attack culminated in the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, after which thousands of Sikhs were murdered across the country by well-organized mobs in connivance with police and administrators in the first week of November 1984. The Air India bombings occurred one year later.
To date, there has been only one conviction in the Air India case.
Two suspects, including Greater Vancouver Sikh millionaire Ripudaman Singh Malik, were acquitted for lack of evidence in 2005. The suspected mastermind and Babbar Khalsa leader Talwinder Singh Parmar was killed by the Indian police in 1992 under mysterious circumstances.
New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh, the first Sikh and first person in a turban to lead a federal party, has been dragged into the eye of storm since he ran for the party leadership, mainly because of his faith.
In 2013 Singh, an active justice advocate for the 1984 Sikh genocide victims, was denied a visa by the Indian state. In addition, a pro-India lobbyist group in Canada has tried to discourage people of Indian origin from signing up party members to support his federal campaign.
The most vicious attack came when he was forced to give his thoughts on Sikh temples that glorify Parmar as the martyr of Sikh cause. Since he was receiving support from some of these temples during the leadership campaign, a perception was built that he supports Parmar and a brand of radical politics aimed at creating a separate Sikh nation in India through armed insurgency. If that was not enough, some right-wing Hindu nationalist media outlets in India reported unfounded stories of him patronizing Sikh terror groups in Canada.
This is despite the fact that Singh has repeatedly condemned the Air India tragedy. This year, when he posted a statement in remembrance of the victims on Twitter, right-wing trolls began attacking him once again. Some of them went to the extent of branding him as a Sikh separatist and apologist of people like Parmar.
These online attacks were met by silence from his party colleagues, even from those of Indian-origin who could have easily defended him by countering such sweeping comments that reflect the ongoing profiling of Sikh men for the actions of a few of their compatriots in the Air India bombings.
B.C.’s health minister, Adrian Dix, who is married to a woman of Indian-heritage who lost her aunt and uncle in the incident and is at the forefront of annual memorial services where Indian diplomats are present, did not react to the attacks directed at the national leader of his party.
Contrast this to what happened a couple of weeks ago in the House of Commons when Singh was kicked out for calling Bloc Quebecois MP Alain Therrien racist when he denied the motion to recognize systemic racism within the police force and the call for a review of the RCMP’s budget and use of force. Many of his party colleagues in B.C. spoke out in solidarity. But they remained indifferent to the attacks coming largely from those owing allegiance to the ruling right-wing Hindu-nationalist prime minister of India, Narendra Modi.
Modi has a huge following in swing ridings and wields a lot of influence in Canada through Indian diplomats. Such selectivity is therefore not hard to understand. Standing up with Singh will be seen as an act of defiance against India.
In the 2019 federal election, a Modi supporter in Surrey openly called Singh “mentally retarded.” This too was conveniently ignored by the New Democratic Indo-Canadian MLAs in Surrey.
Coming back to the opponents of Singh, they have no moral right to question him on these matters considering recent developments.
The Indian government gave a visa to Malik only last year. Until now, India saw Malik as a financier of the Air India conspirators. If he can get a visa to visit India, how does it matter if temples glorify Parmar - who wasn’t convicted and was killed by the Indian police without getting a fair trial? If Singh’s proximity to such a temple is problematic, then why do these trolls not go after the Modi government for allowing Malik to visit their country? Why must only Singh be made accountable for visiting temples that believe in Parmar’s ideology?
Lastly, if Singh’s statement for Air India victims is “hypocritical” or “tokenistic” because of his closeness to the groups that revere Parmar, why are questions not raised to Modi, who visited Air India memorial in Ontario during his 2015 Canada tour? Modi was responsible for anti-Muslim pogroms in 2002 when he was chief minister of Gujarat, and he was denied a visa to the U.S. until he was elected as prime minister in 2014. Wasn’t what happened in Gujarat under his control terrorism?
Interestingly, Modi, who claims to be a follower of Mahatma Gandhi, has tremendous respect for a controversial Hindu extremist leader V.D. Savarkar, who was involved in the assassination plot. Gandhi was murdered in 1948 by Nathuram Godse, who had the blessings of Savarkar, who was acquitted by the court but indicted by a commission of inquiry.
Isn’t that a more glaring contradiction?
Also, it was Modi who brought Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, a highly debatable female Hindu ascetic in politics, in the 2019 general election. Thakur was charged for the bombing in 2008. The incident had left close to 10 people dead and many injured. The conspiracy was aimed at the Muslim community in Malegaon. Even though the trial isn’t over yet, Thakur got elected and sits in the Indian parliament as Modi’s party colleague. She had embarrassed Modi by describing Godse as a hero.
Instead of venting out on Singh, the so-called Indian patriots should ask their masters in New Delhi to put their house in order before pointing fingers at everyone else.