Canada's Sikh community confronts extremist intimidation

When Ujjal Dosanjh left his law office for his parked car here in February 1985, an unknown assailant attacked him with an iron rod. But the beating did not accomplish its purpose - ending Mr. Dosanjh's criticism of Sikh extremists engaged in violence.

A wave of Sikh violence in Canada that peaked in 1985 and 1986 has damaged the reputation of the estimated 70,000-strong Sikh community in British Columbia, Dosanjh said in an interview here.

``It took 100 years for us to get into the mainstream of society,'' he adds. ``These guys are trying to take us back to the middle ages.''

The first adventurous immigrants from India's Punjab State arrived here about the turn of the century. The turbans and beards worn by many men made them a highly visible minority, but not a feared group.

That has changed somewhat since the Indian Army's bloody 1984 attack on the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India. In the assault, the soldiers killed Sikh extremist leader Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who sought to establish Khalistan, an independent Sikh homeland in Punjab.

This invasion of the Sikhs' holiest shrine roused the passions of many Sikhs in Canada, particularly recent immigrants. A few were moved to violence.

In the summer of 1985, a bomb blew an Air India plane, bound from Toronto to Bombay, out of the skies off the coast of Ireland. All 329 aboard died. Two baggage handlers were killed at about the same time unloading baggage from a Canadian Pacific Air jet that had just arrived from Vancouver at Tokyo's Narita airport. The police suspected the bombs were the work of Sikh terrorists.

Moreover, last year four Vancouver-area Sikhs were charged with the attempted assassination of a Punjab state minister on Vancouver Island. One of them was also charged with beating Dosanjh, but found not guilty when the judge ruled he was not clearly identified as the assailant. He was convicted of the attempted assassination and is serving a long sentence.

There has been no similar violence for a year. But the Sikhs have remained in the public eye with anti-India demonstrations, such as when Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi attended the meeting of Commonwealth heads of government here in October.

Dosanjh has no official position in the Sikh community. But he has become an unofficial spokesman for what he says is the vast majority of moderate, peaceful Sikhs in Canada.

``We people who know better have failed our community,'' he says. ``We have not raised our voices as we should have.''

In his estimate, most of British Columbia's Sikh men no longer wear a turban or the traditional beard. And, says Dosanjh, most British Columbia Sikhs don't attend their temples anymore, except for weddings or other special occasions. One reason is the takeover of most temples by keen advocates of Khalistan. In the temples, the management committees are elected by the congregation. In some instances, those opposing pro-Khalistan groups have been beaten or otherwise intimidated, says Dosanjh.

Kartar Singh Bains, of the International Council of Khalistan, admits there may have been some reason for fear in the temples in 1984 when emotions over the events in India were high. But he says no one standing for office today would be harassed.

Dosanjh, however, said he received threatening phone calls only last summer when he publicly referred to a boatload of Sikhs that had arrived illegally as ``economic immigrants.'' Under Canada's immigration laws, a genuine refugee can stay in the country; an economic immigrant without valid papers could be expelled.

Nonetheless, Dosanjh continues to speak up. The Khalistan separatists tend to be immigrants of the last decade or so, mostly from Punjabi villages, he says. Unlike most British Columbian Sikhs, who are now second or third generation citizens, the newcomers feel isolated from the rest of society, he says. Thus, they commit themselves to political quarrels in Punjab, thousands of miles away, and believe all charges of torture and murder against the Indian government, many of which are not true, says Dosanjh.

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