What turned the community against the militants was the negative publicity the bomb gave them. Anguished by what they call trial by the media, and alienated by the internecine fights breaking out among different groups of militants, they turned to the moderates who were keen to bolster the sagging image of their people in the adopted country.
No wonder Vancouver's Punjabi population hopes they will get the long-awaited reprieve with the triple arrests. "People have been waiting impatiently for years," says Balwant Singh Gill, president of the Guru Nanak Sikh temple in Surrey, a huge suburb in the Greater Vancouver region and home to the majority of the city's Sikhs. "This is a very happy day for the Sikhs. This is a joyful moment, everyone is relieved. Now there will be peace," he says about the arrests of Malik and Bagri.
Gill feels militancy still exists in Canada because of its lenient laws and the complete freedom of expression and speech.Highly critical of the militants, he says those fighting for Khalistan should go back to India and launch their crusade there. "But they won't because the goal now is to collect money from the people here in the name of the movement."
But the family of Tara Singh Hayer, the publisher of the Indo-Canadian Times who was gunned down in 1998, is rejoicing. Says his son Dave: "Most people are very happy about these arrests. They want the truth to come out in court. So far people have been too scared to come forward." Tara Singh's assassination was aimed at silencing the pacifists who had become increasing vocal in their criticism of radical Sikh politics. But, contrary to their expectations, the opposite happened. Explains Dave: "My father tried to encourage the community to speak out. He was not afraid of anybody. After his assassination, many said that they had had enough. From the number of people who attended his funeral, it was clear that he had the community's support."
This was a welcome change from the days when most in the community were too scared to publicly endorse moderate politics, fearing reprisals from the militants. Kim Bolan, for one, still cannot forget the long years when she was living under constant threat. She recalls: "I've had police protection so many times." Signs of corruption among the militant leadership and the crushing of terrorism in Punjab, she feels, decisively weaned the community away from radical politics.
The Khalistan movement, many realise, has been kept alive only because of the power and money it provides to a clutch of Sikh leaders. In many ways, it would seem, the triple arrests mark the death of an ideology—at least its displaced variant in British Columbia.