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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.

Their parents' generation was hesitant to talk about 1984 after the Air India bombing. Those who spoke up were tagged as extremists or terrorists. Many remained silent and over the years became apathetic, the members of B.C. Sikh Youth said.

However, the youth are indifferent to the charge of promoting Khalistan. They say the accusation is a myth intended to divert attention from the injustices. "Our main concern at these events is strictly human rights," said Jagjit Singh, the main spokesman for the youth group. Kirpa Kaur, a recent graduate in psychology and social equity, said some of the youth may be supporters of Khalistan. "But these events are about fighting injustice and [the secessionist movement is]absolutely irrelevant to what we are doing."

Prabhroop Kaur, 21, has been going to annual vigils for events in 1984 "ever since I can remember," she said. Her parents instilled in her a strong commitment to justice. "They sat me down and told me what happened. We were supposed to fight injustice everywhere.... We grew up with that. We see clearly injustice and we have to do something about it."

Gurdit Singh, 25, a college student in human-resource management, identified "an education gap" between his parents and himself. His father was a farmer in Punjab and his mother was a high-school teacher. "They talk about it, but they had more raw emotions, more anger built up inside them. They did not know how to proceed, what to do next."

Some parents accepted what the Indian government told them. Paneet Singh said his mother left India in 1986 believing that Sikhs brought the assault upon themselves, as the government of India says. His mother told him the extremists had to be flushed out of the temple and the government had to restore order.

But the younger generation has more tools than their parents to find out what went on in 1984. "The ease with which we can go and find records, find third-party accounts, is exponentially bigger than what our parents would have been able to do, if they had the knowledge base and skills to do it," said Perpinder Singh Patrola, a 31-year-old lawyer. "We have resources that did not exist 15, 20 years ago. We may feel emotions, but we can move beyond raw emotion and look at actual facts and figures, and present it - without reducing it to something that is purely emotional."

Research has shown that stories they were told about their history were often not true, Kirpa Kaur said. "We have to do a lot of work ourselves to figure out the true story."

Shining a global spotlight on what actually happened is a step toward having justice done, she added. "Living in a country as Canada, which claims to support so many human rights-type initiatives, we say it is time to support us in fighting against injustice."

*****

Q&A

What happened?

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sent the Indian army into the Golden Temple in Amritsar in the first week of June, 1984, to flush out militant Sikh leaders who were using the religious compound as their headquarters in a campaign of violence against their critics, the police and state institutions.

Why did the government send in troops at that time?

The Indian government moved to restore law and order after a lengthy string of killings, arsons and lootings that it said threatened the stability of the state. Violence had claimed the lives of 410 people and injured more than 1,180 in the two years before the attack, according to a white paper on the Punjab agitation dated July 10, 1984. More than 775 violent incidents were recorded in the five months prior to the attack.

Who were the religious

militants?

The political leadership in Punjab province had a lengthy list of grievances with the central government built up over several years, ranging from disputes over surplus water rights to concerns over issues related to the Sikh religion. Sectarian violence erupted in 1978, with fundamentalist Sikhs embracing secession as the most effective way to protect their religion. The troubles escalated in 1981, following several killings, the hijacking of an Indian plane by Sikh extremists, and rallies by the All India Sikh Students Federation calling for the creation of Khalistan. After the head of the student group was arrested in July, 1982, fundamentalist leaders moved into the Golden Temple complex and turned it into a fortified encampment.

Were only religious militants killed in the assault?

The military assault coincided with a religious pilgrimage that had drawn thousands of Sikhs to the site. The militants were in dormitories on the compound as well as in the religious halls. Hundreds if not thousands of pilgrims were caught in the crossfire. Shekhar Gupta, a correspondent with India Today, wrote in a report published Aug 15, 1984: "As the army got sniped at from a number of rooms in the parikrama [a walkway around the pool that surrounded the temple]and the sarais [dormitories ] the troops just threw grenades into the rooms. 'People were dying on both sides,' recalls an officer, adding, 'and there was no time to find out who was inside a room.' Some of the pilgrims also died of thirst. Many died of the fires which broke out."

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