Sikh Editor Murdered

The sheer cowardice of the act was chilling. Someone, it appears, waited in the dusk that comes early this time of year for Tara Singh Hayer, the editor of North America’s largest Punjabi-language newspaper, to return to his home in Surrey, B.C., at the end of the workday on Nov. 18.

Sikh Editor Murdered

The sheer cowardice of the act was chilling. Someone, it appears, waited in the dusk that comes early this time of year for Tara Singh Hayer, the editor of North America's largest Punjabi-language newspaper, to return to his home in Surrey, B.C., at the end of the workday on Nov. 18. As Hayer, who had been paralyzed in a shooting attack in 1988, struggled to move himself from the driver's seat of his car to his wheelchair, the assailant fired at the crippled man's head, killing him instantly. The deed galvanized British Columbia's Sikh community, which has been dogged by violence for a decade and a half. Hayer's family denounced the killers, in the words of daughter-in-law Isabelle Hayer, "not only for killing an honorable Canadian, a journalist, father and grandfather, but also for branding the Indo-Canadian community as violent terrorists."

While RCMP homicide investigators at least publicly kept their minds open, the nearly universal judgment among British Columbia's 150,000 Sikhs was that Hayer had died for his politics - and for freedom of speech. The 62-year-old publisher and editor was widely respected in the prosperous and increasingly influential Sikh community. But he was an outspoken critic of extreme fundamentalists within the 500-year-old faith who endorse violence in the pursuit of religious and political goals - mainly the creation of an independent state of Khalistan in what is now India's Punjab. But despite both Hayer's editorials in the Indo-Canadian Times, and the increasingly Establishment look of the Sikh mainstream in British Columbia - a population that includes three provincial and one federal cabinet minister - blood continues to stain relations between Sikh moderates and extremists. Hayer's slaying brought outrage from B.C. Premier Glen Clark and personal pain to Attorney General Ujjal Dosanjh - a fellow Sikh and friend of Hayer. But the merciless killing may yet have an impact that Hayer's editorials could not, in the view of some Sikhs, if it serves finally to exhaust the community's patience with the excesses of its extremists.

Hayer himself had been a symbol of the pain inflicted on the Sikh community by sectarian violence since being paralyzed in an attack by a religious zealot in August, 1988. His newspaper's offices have been the target of a bombing attempt. Similar violence has struck many others in the divided community, including Dosanjh, who was attacked with an iron bar in 1985 for criticizing the violent pursuit of an independent Khalistan. And police are still trying to solve the bombing that same year of an Air India jet after it took off from Canada bound for Bombay: 329 people died in that mass murder.

Last year, a brawl on temple grounds in Surrey between moderates and extreme fundamentalists - who disagreed on whether tables and chairs should be used for the faith's communal dinners - resulted in four stabbings. In March this year, the former president of a second temple had the windows of his home shot out. At a third temple, in Abbotsford in August, 50 people waded into a rumble between factions divided over whether shoes should be worn inside the building. Passions intensified in recent weeks, as rival slates of candidates representing moderate and conservative factions campaigned for executive offices in elections at temples in Abbotsford and Vancouver. The votes carry the key to substantial revenues, as well as control of large temple complexes.

In the wake of Hayer's killing, some Sikh moderates said his death was not entirely unexpected. "There have been rumors of hit men in town for weeks," said former temple president Bikar Singh Dhillon, who was attacked himself in 1991. Last July, rumors also circulated about a hit list of seven or eight moderates earmarked for death, when an annual religious parade was cancelled over police concerns about violence. Fundamentalists in the temple elections speculated that Hayer's murder might have been a calculated provocation: "For all we know, it was one of the so-called moderates," suggested Surdev Singh Jatana, a conservative election worker. The most remarkable scenario was advanced by an Ontario-based commentator on Sikh affairs, T. Sher Singh. In interviews, he accused Indian intelligence agencies of funnelling money through that country's consulate in Vancouver to a group of militants, in a bid to discredit the Sikh community in Canada. India's consul general in Vancouver, Atish Sinha, dismissed the idea: "I can say categorically, there is no truth in that kind of allegation."

Hayer's family says there is no mystery, however, about the roots of the violence or the responsibility for their father's death. "It's the same people who were involved in the chair issue," asserted Hayer's son David, who rushed a special edition of the Indo-Canadian Times into print the night of his father's death. "It's the same people who were involved in Air India," he added. "The key people hiding in the back are the same."

Moderate Sikh leaders insist the police know the identities of people they suspect of sponsoring the violence. But investigators reply that, until now, witnesses have been slow to come forward with useful evidence. "I'm told that in India, you just don't talk to the police," laments Surrey RCMP Const. Grant Learned. "As a result, you don't get people coming forward."

Isabelle Hayer believes her father-in-law's death may be the catalyst police need: "People who would not speak out before are coming forward and talking. That is quite a significant step."

The impact of Hayer's death may become clearer this week, after a temple in Abbotsford counts the ballots in a court-ordered executive election. Another election is set for a Vancouver temple in December. A better testimony to his lifelong fight for freedom of speech will come, however, when those who know the identity of Hayer's killer break their silence.

Maclean's November 30, 1998