Tara Singh Hayer
Canadian journalist’s murder still unsolved
By Dana Lacey, Canadian Journalists for Freedom of Expression. Published: December, 2009.
On a day much like any other day in the fall of 1998, Tara Singh Hayer pulled into the garage at his home in Surrey, B.C. As he got out of his Cadillac, one man—or maybe two—slipped under the closing garage door and shot Hayer in the head. They also stabbed him once before fleeing the suburb. His wife was home and heard the shot. Hayer, the publisher of weekly Punjabi-language newspaper Indo-Canadian Times, was dead before she could reach him.
Eleven years later, RCMP investigators have yet to lay any direct charges in the first assassination of a Canadian journalist. Hayer was hardly a stranger to violence or historic firsts: Thanks to a previous attempt on his life, he was also the first Canadian journalist to be shot in this country for his work.
In August 1988, Hayer wrote an article about an alleged confession that implicated the Canadian Sikh separatist group Babbar Khalsa International (BKI) in the 1985 bombing of Air India Flight 182. A week later, a 17-year-old Sikh fired six bullets at him with a .357 Magnum in the Times’ lobby. The one that hit his spine put him in a wheelchair. His doctors said he shouldn’t have survived, but Hayer had always been stubborn.
The shooter initially told police he was helped by BKI, but later claimed it was purely personal. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison, and the investigation was closed. Hayer always suspected there was more to the story, so he kept digging. It was that same persistent search for the truth that would eventually kill him.
At the time of his death, Hayer was planning to testify as the Crown prosecution’s best witness in the trial of two BKI members. Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaid Singh Bagri were accused of masterminding the bombings of a Japanese airport and Air India Flight 182, and the murder of 331 people killed in the two bombings.
Hayer’s death made his accusations inadmissible, and in 2005, both men were acquitted. For the victims’ families, who had awaited justice for 20 years, the verdict was devastating. Others wondered if Hayer had lost his life for nothing.
The married father of two was born in 1936 in a small village in Punjab, India. Until the assassination attempt, he was a fervent supporter of the movement to create a separate Sikh homeland known as Khalistan—Punjabi for “The Land of the Pure”—which had risen in the shadow of India’s partition in 1947.
Hayer immigrated to Canada’s west coast in the 1970s and settled in Surrey, home to the world’s second-largest Sikh community. He held a few jobs (miner, teacher, truck driver, journalist) before launching Indo-Canadian Times in 1978. The community paper was among the first Sikhrun media outlets in B.C.—Hayer had to custom-order Punjabi type for the printer.
In 1984, a much-criticized Indian military operation targeting Sikh militants, dubbed Operation Blue Star, resulted in the deaths of 492 civilians. Three months later, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was killed by her Sikh bodyguards. Thousands of India’s Sikhs were murdered in retaliation. Word began to spread of a Sikh boycott on Air India, the country’s national airline.
The first attempt on Hayer’s life happened seven months after the Air India disaster: A bomb wrapped in newspaper was left at the front door of the Indo-Canadian Times; it was defused by police.
After the 1988 shooting, Hayer continued to report on and criticize the Khalistani movement, despite the agony caused by the bullet stuck inside him. His critical editorials about BKI accused Bagri of using donated money for his own political purposes. (Until 1996, BKI enjoyed charitable status and offered tax receipts for donations. In June 2003, Canada put BKI on its list of known terrorist organizations, years after India and the U.K. had done so.)
In 1997, the Vancouver Sun received a letter that threatened Hayer and Sun reporter Kim Bolan for their critical coverage of Malik, a local Sikh millionaire and Air India suspect. “You die Hayer man,” the letter read, “You die like Gandhi woman.”
The RCMP convinced Hayer and Bolan to beef up security in their homes by installing cameras and panic buttons. They were given strict warnings about unannounced visitors and late-night dog walking. Unfortunately, there were no cameras in Hayer’s garage, which had the only entrance accessible by wheelchair.
In December 2003, testimony at an unrelated murder trial claimed that two Sikh gangsters had been hired by BKI to kill Hayer for $50,000. One of those gangsters—the suspected shooter—is now missing and presumed dead.
Today, the agenda of Indo-Canadian Times remains the same. The threats haven’t stopped—the office windows were recently shot in. The editor, Hayer’s daughter, Rupinder Bains, insists the Times will continue to report on anything that affects the community. Tensions haven’t cooled at all, she says. “Not only is the [Khalistani] movement still active, it’s well-known to police, to politicians … but they close their eyes to it. A lot of people know who [killed Hayer] and who planned it, but they’ve lost faith in the system. Anyone that dares to come out and become a witness is putting their life on the line. My father is proof of this: The reason he was shot in 1988 and the reason he was shot in 1998 was because of his reporting.”
The RCMP is still following leads on what it believes are a string of related murder cases, including Hayer and the missing gangster. Its investigation is called Project Expedio, although it’s been anything but speedy in bringing Hayer’s killers to justice. “The frustrating part of any homicide case is finding people who will share information,” says RCMP Inspector Kevin Hackett, the project’s Team Commander.
He still hopes people will come forward, but understands the pressures potential informants face: “There have been an unprecedented number of homicides in the Lower Mainland in the past few years. Why would they now want to get involved in something that could put them and their family at risk?”
Hayer’s family lives with the knowledge that the people responsible for their loss are still free. “You live day by day, and hope for the day someone is charged. But you don’t forget. I’m constantly reminded of what happened to our family,” says Bains. “My mother, the poor lady, she doesn’t sleep. Day and night she wakes up thinking someone is going to shoot her in her home. There is no closure, not until someone is charged.” – DL
In 1999, CJFE renamed its Press freedom award the “Tara Singh Hayer award” in Hayer’s honour. The award is given to a Canadian journalist who, through his or her work, has made an important contribution to reinforcing and promoting the principle of freedom of the press in Canada or elsewhere.