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FIGHTING FOR THE TRUTH Add to ...

rmatas@globeandmail.com

They speak with the same overheated passion as those who rallied across Canada 25 years ago against the government of India and in support of the creation of the Sikh homeland of Khalistan.

But they are more educated, articulate and informed than their parents. Confident of their place in Canada, they engage in the fight for justice and human rights in Punjab as they would for victims in Rwanda, Palestine or Tibet. They shrug off those who see them as defending extremists, terrorists and Sikh separatists.

On the 25th anniversary of the deadly army assault on the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, the holiest shrine in their religion, a new generation of Canadian Sikhs is stepping forward to pick up the campaign to hold responsible those who directed the attack that killed hundreds, if not thousands of people.

They are backed by older voices that question why the 20th anniversary of the massacre in Beijing's Tiananmen Square this week attracted more attention than the anniversary of the bloodbath at the Golden Temple. Part of the answer may be that such events as Tiananmen and the Rwandan genocide were more in the media spotlight.

"When you look at Rwanda, the whole world knew what was happening and was shaken right to the core," Kirpa Kaur, a member of a group called B.C. Sikh Youth, said earlier this week. "So few people know about [the attacks of 1984]and they perceive it as a story brought up needlessly."

She believes human-rights violations that occurred 25 years ago continue to sting because those responsible for the actions were never punished. "As Canadians who have deeply emotional and social connections to the injustices that happened in Punjab, we would hope that the Canadian government would support us in fighting injustices, in helping us indict those who clearly have been found guilty... [by non-governmental organizations]" she said.

The government of India sent the army into the Golden Temple compound in the first week of June, 1984, after years of deadly skirmishes with militant Sikh leaders fighting for Sikh rights and Khalistan. Government officials said their goal was to dislodge terrorists who had turned the religious hall and adjacent buildings into an armed fortress.

The assault coincided with a religious pilgrimage that had drawn thousands of Sikhs to the site on June 3 to pay homage on the martyrdom day of the fifth guru, Arjan Dev. Most were trapped in the compound after Indian forces launched continuous artillery bombardments and mortar fire. Unable to flush the terrorists out, the army stepped up its attack on June 4, sending infantry into the compound.

The deadly exchange of fire with Sikhs armed with machine guns, rifles and pistols ended on June 6. A government white paper says 493 people, including religious leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, were killed. Non-governmental groups say as many as 10,000 people, mostly innocent pilgrims, were killed and priceless historic artifacts, including religious books and historical documents in the library, were destroyed. Bodies were cremated without notifying relatives and without autopsies. No official records of cremations were kept. Many Sikhs perceived the attacks as calculated assaults on their faith, culture and identity.

The events fuelled the secessionist insurgency. Radical fringe groups championing the Khalistani cause found themselves suddenly in the mainstream. In Canada, less than a week after the assault, thousands of angry people marched in protest in Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver, vowing to avenge the attack on the Golden Temple. Effigies of Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi were stabbed and burned. Some carried placards with slogans such as "Death to butcher Indira" and "Indira Gandhi dead old meat." An Indian flag was set on fire on the steps of the Manitoba Legislature.

Ms. Gandhi was assassinated four months later. In June, 1985, Sikh radicals had explosives checked onto two flights from Vancouver. The explosions on opposite sides of the world caused 331 deaths.

This year in Canada, events are considerably quieter. The World Sikh Organization held a dinner in Ottawa on Thursday for parliamentarians, community leaders and members of the Sikh community. Public forums are being held throughout June in several cities on how the events of June, 1984, shaped the Sikh community.

In downtown Vancouver, a group of Canadian-born, religious youth are holding a vigil today. Earlier this week, members of the organizing group spoke to The Globe and Mail about the changes within their community since 1984. Following Sikh tradition, the women in the group wished to be identified by the family name Kaur and most of the men identified themselves only as Singh.

Some said they believe many of their generation are unaware of what happened in 1984. "The only reason my history-12 class knew anything about it was because my teacher asked me about it," said Paneet Singh, who was born six years after the assault on the temple. His Grade 12 history textbook had only two paragraphs on the events and his teachers did not elaborate. "It is not as though it is going to be on a final exam," he said.

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