Vancouver, June 18: Deputy Prime Minister .K. Advani’s just-concluded visit to the US may speed up a healing process, ending one of the longest schisms among the Indian community in North America which led to the terrorist bombing of an Air-India plane 18 years ago.
On the penultimate day of his stay in the US, Advani met a group of 10 prominent Sikhs from the Canadian province of British Columbia and several leaders of the Sikh community in the US.
The meeting came at the initiative of B.K. Agnihotri, India’s ambassador at large for non-resident Indians (NRIs) and persons of Indian origin (PIOs).
It was not listed among the deputy Prime Minister’s engagements but was attended by K.P. Singh, the director of the Intelligence Bureau, and Union home secretary . Gopalaswamy.
Indian intelligence officials said the Sangh parivar and the Sikh community in North America have been working together in recent months to bring Khalistani elements back into India’s mainstream after a gap of nearly two decades following Operation Bluestar in the Golden Temple in Amritsar. As a result, moderate Sikhs have regained control of several gurdwaras in British Columbia, which were managed by Khalistanis and were funding extremists in Punjab.
Indian intelligence sources said the events of September 11, 2001 in New York and Washington and the ongoing trial here of terrorists who plotted the Air-India bombing in 1985 had created an atmosphere that made a rapprochement between Sikhs and the rest of the Indian community in North America possible.
In the US, too, many Sikh organisations have recently reverted to moderate control but one of the biggest gurdwaras in the country, in Silver Spring, on the outskirts of Washington, remains in pro-Khalistani hands.
No Indian ambassador to the US has visited a gurdwara since Operation Bluestar, but recently other Indian diplomats have begun attending events at Sikh cultural organisations.
Lalit Mansingh, India’s ambassador to the US, last year hosted a function at his residence to mark the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, an event that is expected to be repeated annually.
In Canada, the country’s intelligence officials feel confident that the threat to Indian interests, which used to be “severe”, has significantly come down in recent months.
Advani told community leaders who met him that Sikhs have been the sartaj or crown of the Indian nation and will continue to be so. Canadian and American Sikhs told Advani that they were looking forward to “positive” relations with India and wanted him to facilitate this.
They sought a review of the “blacklist” of suspected Khalistani terrorists in North America so that Sikhs on this continent could freely travel to India.
Among their other demands was a pardon for D.S. Bhullar, who has been sentenced to death on terrorism charges and lodged in New Delhi’s Tihar jail, an increase in the number of Sikhs in the Indian Army, pardon for army deserters after Operation Bluestar and release of all Sikhs in detention in Indian jails under counter-terrorism laws.
Agnihotri, who attended the meeting, said Advani gave no commitment on the demands, but gave the delegation a full hearing. He described the meeting as “emotional”, with delegate after delegate expressing the need for better relations between Sikhs and other communities in India.
Indian intelligence officials said hate crimes against Sikhs in the US was a factor that had turned extremists in the community to India seeking protection and assurances of support from New Delhi.