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January 27, 2000
Was it angst or a stab at Khalistan?
J M Shenoy
There were many sides to Ajmer Singh Malhi. At the Gurdwara Sahib that he helped co-found more than two decades ago, he was known for his steadfast commitment to Khalistan and his desire to help the poor. At the Skyline High School in Oakland, where he taught mathematics for over 20 years, he was not only known as an inspiring teacher but also as a peacemaker. He was also treasurer of the Oakland school district's faculty union, which had over 3,500 teachers.
There were times that Malhi, 48, who was killed on Sunday in the gurdwara, struggled between being a teacher and a friend to the students.
As there were several mourning held in the Bay area for Malhi, the man charged with the murder, told a reporter that Malhi had denied him an opportunity to explain to the congregation how he (Joga Singh Sandher) had come to re-embrace Sikhism after his father's death.
But the temple management committee rejects the view that Malhi was killed for personal reasons.
In claims made to Indian and mainstream publications, the committee asserted that Sandher had recently returned from India and that Malhi's killing was another effort to snuff out the Khalistan movement.
"Malhi was a peacemaker but he could not convince Sandher that the time for addressing the congregation was over," said Deep Singh. "And Sandher is a man who has returned to the gurdwara and he could not contain his passion and anger. Isn't it strange?"
Before the management claim became public, some members of the congregation were upset that there were speculations that Malhi's killing was connected with clashes between fundamentalists and moderates.
"Such speculation give a bad name to the entire community, whether one is a Sikh or a Hindu," said one devotee. "Many people are ready to blame religion for whatever the problems are."
The grief at the school was so intense, that even counselors who were to deal with fellow teachers and students could not cope with their emotions. School authorities brought in half-a-dozen grief counselors from other schools to cope with what one teacher termed "non-stop sadness."
Students told the San Jose Mercury News that Malhi did not speak about his ethnicity or his religion, but came to school every day in a different-colored turban that matched the clothes he was wearing. They said he sometimes joked by asking them to make him a turban emblazoned with the 'Fubu' clothing brand popular with some teens.
Malhi, father of two sons and a daughter, was allegedly killed by cabbie Sandher, 35, because he was not allowed to speak to the congregation. Worshippers recalled how the previous Sunday when Sandher was allowed to speak, he had sounded incoherent and unfocussed.
But, in an interview with a local newspaper, Sandher seemed coherent enough. He said after his father died of cancer in India, he had begun to change and make amends for his "mistakes". He did not specify what those mistakes were.
All that he wanted to do on Sunday was to share with the congregation his personal thoughts about coming back to his religion, said Sandher, who has two children.
"God said, 'Your real father is the holy book,' " said Sandher. "I'm changing my life. You can ask my friends; they will tell you."
He said Malhi was lying when he declared there was no time to address the congregation.
"I don't want people lying in the temple. I know he had the time," Sandher, who is assigned a public defender, told the Contra Costa Times.
Contra Costa sheriff Sergeant Jeffrey Wells said that according to investigators Sandher had said he had a "religious duty and responsibility to correct the victim's wrongdoing.
"Essentially he said he wanted to be able to speak in front of the congregation regarding the truth about the religion," Wells said. "I guess he didn't want to take no for an answer."
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