Until their arrests on Oct. 27 in connection with Canada's worst act of terrorism and mass murder, the two suspects in the bombing more than 15 years ago of Air India Flight 182 were formidable players at every level of mainstream B.C. politics. From attending a fund-raising dinner for Prime Minister Jean Chrétien to a recent fund-raising event for Surrey-Centre Canadian Alliance MP Gurmant Grewal, murder suspect and millionaire Vancouver businessman Ripudaman Singh Malik, 53, was especially valued in political back-rooms for his alleged ability to mobilize fundamentalist Sikh support and money for a range of parties and candidates. His co-accused, Ajaib Singh Bagri, 51, a millworker from the interior city of Kamloops, also wielded considerable clout. Political insiders say Bagri and others recently helped defeat a moderate Sikh candidate seeking the local provincial Liberal nomination. According to Sukhdev Singh Sandhur, a Liberal riding organizer in Merritt, B.C., Bagri delivered about 100 delegates to the meeting who, Sandhur believes, voted en masse against his moderate candidate, Dr. Gur Singh. "Bagri was playing cards with us," Sandhur says, "but didn't turn out to be on our side."
Last week, some fundamentalists - who share the accused men's goal of carving an independent Sikh state of Khalistan from India - were trying to help in Bagri and Malik's defence. The two face what will be a complex, marathon trial on charges of first-degree murder of all 329 passengers and crew aboard the jumbo jet, as well as the murders of two baggage handlers killed when a second bomb detonated on the same day, June 23, 1985, at the airport in Narita, Japan. Bagri is also charged with the attempted murder in 1988 of the late Indo-Canadian Times publisher Tara Singh Hayer, an outspoken moderate Sikh, who was assassinated 10 years later in his Surrey home. While the RCMP investigation continues, moderate Sikhs, "liberated" by the arrests, as one put it, condemned the influence they say the two men and their fundamentalist colleagues have had in the Indo-Canadian community. "People can talk freely now, without any fear," said Balwant Singh Gill, the moderate president of Surrey's huge Guru Nanak temple. "It makes a difference when somebody is such a powerful man on the streets - or when he is behind bars."
Gill has been at loggerheads with Malik before. As a moderate, he was involved in the struggle for control over the Guru Nanak temple, run, as so many Sikh temples were until the mid-1990s, by fundamentalists. Gill says that while Malik's name was whispered for years as an Air India suspect, it did not stop him from gaining respectability and clout from his political activities. "As far as political parties are concerned, there are two things - we all know that - notes and votes," he said of Malik's ability to generate funds and political support. "He did this to every political party, no matter which party came to power, he used them. Money can buy everything these days."
Malik's support cut across all levels of government - municipal, provincial and federal. Prem Singh Vinning, a B.C. businessman and federal Liberal power broker, confirmed that Malik attended at least one fund-raising dinner for Chrétien, although he said it was in Malik's capacity as president of the Khalsa Credit Union, a financial institution with some 16,000 largely Sikh members. Vinning said he is unaware of any attempt by Malik to exert influence on the federal Liberals. "The Prime Minister wouldn't know if he bumped into Mr. Malik," he said. As for Malik's ultimate affiliation? "I don't think he has a party," Vinning added.
Sukhi Sandhu, another prominent Liberal, is less sanguine about the role Malik and other Sikh fundamentalists have played in politics. "Their sole reason for getting involved in mainstream politics was for their lobby efforts for their cause." Sandhu, a Delta, B.C., real estate developer and past organization chairman of the Liberal Party of Canada in British Columbia, said fundamentalists like Malik used perceived political clout to build their stature and business connections, which "only added to their intimidation in the community." Nor were Malik's or Bagri's political activities curtailed when it became known in the Sikh community that they were under investigation by the RCMP's Air India task force. "Everybody was aware," says Sandhu. "Politicians were aware, but everyone turned a blind eye because, "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours.' They served each other's purposes. Selfish purposes. And that is wrong."
During the 1980s and much of the 1990s, fundamentalist Sikhs were in control of many of British Columbia's public Sikh temples, which, as many members of the Indo-Canadian community and RCMP investigators suspect, bankrolled political forays and the fight for Khalistan. Moderates opposed to them were often subjected to intimidation. Among them was lawyer and current B.C. Premier Ujjal Dosanjh, who was seriously injured in a 1985 attack by a man wielding an iron bar after he publicly opposed the creation of Khalistan by violent means. More recently, fundamentalists tried to thwart Dosanjh's campaign for the NDP leadership by throwing delegates to other candidates. Moderate Charan Gill was roughed up in 1986 at a temple after he condemned Sikh violence in a letter published in a local newspaper. His attempt in the early 1990s to win a provincial NDP nomination in a Surrey riding was scuttled by fundamentalist forces - in part, he says, through a whisper campaign that he was not a good Sikh. "They used a Sikh temple to do the campaign photocopying and to do the phoning for meetings and stuff," says Gill. Malik did the same, according to Gill, executive director of an immigrant support organization, drawing political ground troops from the independent orthodox Khalsa School in Surrey, which he leads through a charitable organization, as well as from fundamentalist temples. "In their philosophy, House of God and politics can't be separated," says Gill.
When moderates finally took over control of Surrey's Guru Nanak temple in 1996, president Balwant Singh Gill says they found virtually no financial records for the past 10 years, leading to unproven speculation that the institution, with its 31,000 voting members, had inadvertently financed the fight for Khalistan. The temple was rundown and heavily mortgaged - where a decade of donations went, Gill can only guess. "I can say one thing," he says. "The first year we took over this temple, in 1996, we paid out all the mortgage, $848,000 in one year. And we did some construction work. In the 10 years before, nothing had been done to the temple: no construction, no repairs, no renovation."
For many Sikhs, the arrests of Bagri and Malik, more than 15 years after the bombing, held significance beyond that long overdue step towards retribution and resolution. The charges, and the RCMP claim that more arrests are forthcoming, eased a fear that justice in Canada was something that could be bought or thwarted by power and political influence. Until then, Charan Gill was not the only Sikh asking the troubling question: "Why did this investigation go so long?"
Maclean's November 13, 2000