A triumph for extremism

Print edition : December 05, 1998

Tara Singh Hayer, the editor of a popular Punjabi journal and a powerful spokesman of Canada's moderate Sikhs, has been shot dead.

THE single shot that rang out at 5.46 p.m. on November 18 in a residence in Surrey in the province of British Columbia sent shock waves through the Indo-Canadian community. A courageous voice that was the rallying point of the moderates among Canada's Sikhs had been stilled. Sixty-two-year-old Tara Singh Hayer, publisher-editor of North America's largest-selling Punjabi newspaper Indo-Canadian Times was shot dead by an unknown killer or killers in his garage as he alighted from his car and was shifting to his wheelchair.

Tara Singh Hayer was paralysed waist downwards following a shooting incident a decade ago. On August 28, 1988, a 17-year-old Sikh youth entered Hayer's office in Vancouver and fired three shots at him at close range. Although confined to a wheelchair since then, Hayer never gave up his fight for the principles he stood for and continued to publish his newspaper without pulling punches. He became almost an icon for sane and sensible voices within the Sikh community in Canada. To the fundamentalists, Hayer was a hated name. In the end, they were able to still his voice only by eliminating him physically.

HAYER was born in Paddi Jagir in Punjab on November 15, 1936. After graduation he joined the Army, which he served for five years. Later he obtained an M.A. degree and took up teaching. He left for Britain in 1968. From there he and his wife Baldev Kaur moved to Canada in 1970. After trying his hand at various jobs, including teaching and driving trucks, Hayer founded Indo-Canadian Times in 1978. The past two decades saw the weekly newspaper emerge as the most influential opinion-maker within the Sikh community in Canada.

In the early and mid-1980s, Hayer was affected by the 'nationalist fervour' of Sikhs. The aftermath of Operation Bluestar at the Golden Temple in Amritsar made an indignant Hayer a Khalistan supporter. But his mental make-up and liberal mindset did not allow him to remain a Khalistan supporter for long. He was revolted by the violence and mayhem associated with the movement. He returned to the path of moderation. The 1985 explosion on an Air-India plane drew fearless criticism from Hayer. Thereafter, Hayer remained estranged from the Sikh extremists and their supporters in Canada.

Hayer, however, did not flinch. He continued with his crusading journalism amidst a vocal opposition. Although he was a moderate in his views, his writing style, particularly while criticising the fundamentalists and political fanatics, was very strong, even provocative. Hayer had realised that his message would get across to the community only if the mode of expression was dynamic, vibrant and passionate. In that sense he knew how to communicate with his readers and win them over. He also had the indefatigable zeal of one who felt enlightened on an issue.

Hayer's journalistic campaign was two pronged. On the one hand he opposed the violent campaign for Khalistan. He felt that it would prove detrimental to the overall well-being of Sikhs everywhere. He was also against Canadian Sikhs getting embroiled in a futile and debilitating political campaign. Secondly, Hayer resisted the imposition of fundamentalism and obscurantism. He was a liberal who believed that instead of adhering to impractical rituals and norms, it is the essence of Sikhism that should be practised, that too in a practical way.

This brand of journalism certainly did not go down well with the extremists and fundamentalists. Hayer was vilified in most newspapers and over radio stations and shows run by these sections. Receiving pamphlets and anonymous letters, and abusive phone calls which sometimes conveyed death threats, became part of his daily life. In 1986, a bomb was planted outside his office. In 1988, he was shot at. Hayer, although handicapped physically, continued his work with zeal and conviction.

With Sikh separatism running out of steam and peace returning to Punjab, moderates in Canada soon asserted themselves. Although the extremist and fundamentalist groups among overseas Sikhs continued to be volatile and vituperative, the moderates began to gain the upper hand in a slow but steady manner. Hayer and his newspaper played a crucial and constructive role in this remoulding of Sikh opinion. Ultimately, the moderate sections became strong enough to gain administrative control through democratic elections of most gurdwaras in North America, including those in Vancouver and in its suburbs. Hayer was once again a virtual kingmaker in the case of many of the new gurdwara managements.

Ever since the Khalistan movement began, control of gurdwaras has been pivotal to its growth. There was a clear nexus between the religious fundamentalists and the political extremists. The gurdwaras were important for two reasons. They were the hub of Sikh socio-cultural life in a foreign land. Also, the gurdwaras had ample financial resources as Sikhs are a prosperous minority in Canada. For these two reasons, the control of gurdwaras was of paramount importance. There are reasonable grounds to believe that this gurdwara factor had a role to play in the past tragedy of Punjab.

Members of the family of Tara Singh Hayer during a press meet in Surrey, British Columbia, on November 19 in the wake of the murder.-MIKE BLAKE/ REUTERS

The resurgence of the moderates naturally irritated the extremists. The latter launched a rearguard action, which had the overtones of an intra-religious dispute. Superficially it was an argument over seating arrangements. But the deeper implication was a deliberate attempt to undermine the newly elected temple administrations.

SIKH migration to Canada started from the last quarter of the 19th century. British Columbia has seen five generations of Sikhs. The first gurdwara came up in 1890. Unlike in other places the Sikhs in British Columbia had established a practice of partaking the langar (community meal) from tables while being seated on benches and in chairs instead of sitting on the floor, which is the traditional way. Some Sikhs however continued the traditional practice and both practices were followed without any hindrance. But now the extremists began raising this issue in order to bring disrepute to the gurdwara managements.

The issue became contentious soon with the extremist and moderate factions taking up positions. However, there was a silent, third group of Sikhs, who formed the majority and who could not be labelled in such simplistic terms. Many of them felt alienated. The problem however grew and there were several incidents of violence. Except in a few instances, the majority of victims were from the moderate faction. The police had to interfere on many occasions and the image of the Sikh community became tarnished.

The issue had its impact in Punjab. On April 20, 1998, Ranjit Singh, Jathedar of the Akal Takht, intervened by issuing a hukamnama declaring langar partaken of while being seated on benches and chairs as apostasy (Frontline, September 25, 1998). This decree strengthened the hands of the fundamentalists, but it had its critics too. Hayer was in the forefront of those who criticised Ranjit Singh's edict. Hayer and some others were ordered to appear before the Akhal Takht but they refused to do so. On July 25, Ranjit Singh declared the dissenters apostates and excommunicated them.

All Sikhs were barred from business, social or marital contact with the excommunicated persons. This meant that even purchasing a copy of Hayer's Indo-Canadian Times was a religious offence. But the newspaper remained popular and retained its primacy among Sikh readers.

However, Hayer himself became the target of a renewed vilification campaign. Death threats proliferated. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) received information that Hayer topped a hit list of seven persons. Rumours began circulating that a squad of assassins had come from Punjab to kill Hayer and others. Hayer, however, continued his crusade fearlessly until the very end, in the finest tradition of Sikhs.

THERE are a number of theories on the circumstances of Hayer's murder. One view is that his continued defiance despite his excommunication may have angered some religious fanatic. Secondly, there is suspicion that he was eliminated at this juncture because of the coming elections to the management councils of gurdwaras: Hayer would have been a strong campaigner for the moderates. The killing may also be a signal to the moderates. Another view is that Hayer was an important witness against a prominent Sikh allegedly involved in the Air-India crash of 1985.

The Canadian police are not disregarding any angle. A national toll-free hotline has been established in English and Punjabi for callers who can provide information on the murder. An international toll-free line too is to be set up soon, primarily for callers from India. The Canadian authorities suspect that there is a Punjab angle to the murder. They have begun to liaise with their counterparts in the Indian police as well as the special task force set up by the RCMP to probe Sikh-related terrorism in Canada.

One question that puzzles the investigators concerns the method of killing. Hayer drove a car specially equipped for handicapped persons. The task of relocating from the car to the wheelchair takes five to eight minutes. The person who fired the shot that killed Hayer had been waiting in the garage. After Hayer's arrival the killer could have shot him instantly. Instead of doing that the person waited for more than five minutes, until Hayer was about to clamber into the wheelchair. Why?

The more important need, however, is to assess the impact of the killing on the Sikh community. Will Hayer's friends who fought valiantly against authoritarianism and orthodoxy get unnerved now and throw in the towel? Will special protection be afforded to the others whose names are on the reported hit list? In this context, there is widespread resentment against the police's failure to protect Hayer despite receipt of prior information. There is also the question of whether the community at large will get demoralised and regress to the past.

Will Indo-Canadian Times fold up or continue? Hayer's son Suchdev has vowed that it will continue to be published. He even brought out a special edition on the killing. A daughter-in-law, Isabel, condemned those behind the killing as "worthless cowards". The Hayer spirit and courage will no doubt remain.

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