smeared all Sikh-Canadians
For 20 years my immediate
community unfairly bore the cross
of innuendo, by T. Sher Singh
During the two decades between the horrendous
crime and tragedy of the downing of Air-India Flight 182
in 1985 and this week's verdict on the trial of the two
accused of the outrage, my beard has gone from jet black
to snow white.
Part of it, of course, is due to age, in my
Some of the silver undoubtedly stems from
the vagaries of the practice of law which, coincidentally,
began for me in 1985.
A good portion of it also relates to the tragedy,
from watching helplessly from the sidelines as several close
friends have struggled with the loss of dear ones
a son and daughter, a spouse, a sister.
And some of the salt, inevitably replacing
the pepper, is from watching my immediate community
almost 500,000 Sikh-Canadians unfairly bear the cross
of innuendo and broad brush-strokes.
All because the background and context of
the tragedy lies in India, in accusations of dire human
rights violations by the Indian government against its Sikh
minority and the Khalistani separatist movement spawned
as a result.
Yesterday's front-page headlines in one Toronto
newspaper unabashedly refer to two "Sikh" militants
who were found "Not guilty."
Sikh? True, their religion is Sikh. But this
moniker is shared by me and my daughter, 500,000 Sikh-Canadians,
and 25 million others around the world, only a handful of
whom condone or support either the crime or the criminals,
whoever they may be.
But, why not "Khalistani," instead
of Sikh, which would make it relevant and accurate?
I have never seen and thank God for
it Nazis referred to as "Christian" terrorists.
We have Palestinian suicide-bombers and we have Israeli
raids. IRA militants. But, why Sikh militants?
My daughter was 6 years old in June, 1985.
I was and am a single parent and my primary
challenge ever since has been to prevent, or at least lessen,
the collateral damage caused by the carelessness of the
I remember a Sikh-Canadian friend bringing
over a newspaper one day to show me how his 12-year-old
had come home one evening, spotted the headlines on an Air-India
story, pored over the article and, taking a black marker,
slashed a huge X across the page, and inscribed "Lies!
Lies! Lies!" across the page. My friend found the page
crumpled and thrown in the wastebasket.
I remember meeting with a number of CSIS and
RCMP operatives in 1987 to assist them in understanding
the basics about Indian and Punjabi politics and their spillover
My advice was being sought, free, because
neither institution had any Sikh or Indian or Punjabi or
South Asian personnel on their staff who were equipped to
assist them in the Air-India matter. Imagine, this with
respect to a Canadian community a million strong and a century
Their question was: "Why does every Sikh
household in this country sport the Khalistani flag? See:
Here's the separatist symbol! "
I looked at the sample one of them had pulled
from a briefcase. It was the saffron triangle flown outside
every gurdwara (Sikh church) in the world, and the icon
(the Khanda) displayed in homes, on necklaces, and T-shirts,
on bumper-stickers ... just like the Christian Cross and
the Jewish Star of David.
I explained. Their jaws dropped collectively,
as if I had just clarified quantum physics.
They cited huge numbers of separatists in
this country and provided the evidence: Tens of thousands
of them, maybe even hundreds of thousands, refrained from
clipping their beards or doffing their turbans. Are they
potential terrorists, they asked?
They were genuinely puzzled when I told them
that these were the basic requirements for those who have
taken on the full discipline of the Sikh spiritual path,
and had nothing to do with any political stance. And I added
that I was one of them, pointing to my turban and untrimmed
beard. I never heard from them again.
But I have heard of erased tapes, of bunglings,
of missed opportunities, and ah yes, of broad public references
to "Sikh terrorists."
It helped me decide on the route I would take
with my daughter. I chose to encourage her to watch and
hear and read the news with me, and to discuss its contents.
As a result, I believe, she has learned to
discern right from wrong in a way clearer than most people
As she grew up, I noted she had begun to nurture
a deep sense of justice and fairness, and sport the ability
to quickly cut through onion layers of obfuscation. We often
talked about what we saw going on around the Air-India situation.
We quickly learned that there was a pattern
emerging in the way the RCMP and CSIS were handling the
case and anything else even vaguely related to it.
It has been long forgotten, but there were
two trials, one in Hamilton, the other in Montreal, several
years ago. Both purportedly related to the Khalistani movement.
Terrorists were being tried, we were forewarned.
Swat teams visibly stood coiled around the "specially
"Terrorists! Terrorists!" echoed
every preparatory press conference. It was high drama, neatly
orchestrated to meet every news deadline.
Well, both matters were finally heard, one
by one, in separate cities.
The judge found that the bases of the charges
were fraudulent: false affidavits, sworn by "investigative"
personnel, were the mainstay.
There was no other real evidence. The charges
were dismissed. In each case.
A similar case took place in New York State.
Same scenario, swat teams and all. On the eve of the trial,
it was discovered that the prosecutor had been penning threatening
letters to the judge and signing them with the names of
The charges were dropped and the prosecutor
taken away, reportedly for psychiatric treatment.
My daughter and I learned the following: If
the prosecution protests loudly and repeatedly that $100
million has been spent on the case, that there are 10 truckloads
of evidence, there are 100 witnesses, that there were 300
victims and never, ever claims that there are X number
of solid witnesses, and X number of damaging documents,
and oodles, no some, no, even one piece of impeccable evidence
connecting the accused with the crimes, then you know there
isn't a case.
Not just a weak case. Simply, no case. And
then, when you hear the word "terrorists" bandied
about freely and with full-throated ease, you know it is
a smokescreen to hide the absence of substance.
Were we surprised by the verdict?
Yes, we were. We are always surprised
pleasantly at how our judicial system ultimately
rises to the occasion, and does what it is supposed to do,
Now, just wait and see how loudly and how
often the authorities use the word "terrorists"
Here's my grey-haired conclusion:
There is good news and there is bad news.
The good news: Ours is the best justice system in the world.
The bad news: Ours is the best justice system in the world!
We do need an inquiry. It is a must. The truth
behind why it took 20 years to get to this unsatisfactory
juncture has to be outed.
And, we simply can't let the real criminals
One more thing. My daughter grew up to choose
journalism as a career: The pursuit of truth ...
T. Sher Singh is a Guelph lawyer who is a Member of the
Order of Canada.