Celebrating Spring with Canada’s Vibrant and Inspiring Sikh Community From the Secretary's Desk

03, May 2018 | Teesta Setalvad

It was a Punjabi Desi takeover of Surrey, the Baisakhi parade on Sunday April 22 as Avenues of the Sister (neighbourhood) to Vancouver in British Columbia (BC) province of Canada ‘celebrated’ the harvest festival. Back home Baisakhi parades dot Punjab’s landscape as the traditional langar dishes out delicious food to all who walk in and by and the darshan of the Guru Granth Sahib brings the chants of Wahe Guru ka Khalsa, Wahe Guri ki Fateh to every participant’s lips.

Here, among the vales of snow capped mountains of BC, a combination of the ‘original’ mela and modern-day inclusion of nostalgia, fun, food and fashion. Bright yet elegant shades of the very latest in Phoolkari embroidery, gaudy gotas on the dupattas ensure all feeling Punjabi Sikh and the pre dominant colour is the season’s yellow-orange shades.

Sikh history, modern and medieval is the cultural matrix of this celebration. The floats with the Sikh Gurus occupy prime place, and a darshan  of the Guru Granth Sahib is integral for the worshipers who line up in the close to hundreds of thousands. But it is the banners that demand, Justice for Our Child and a Spice Radio stall inviting hand prints against racism that lend gravitas to what could otherwise be an over-crowded religious celebration back home. It is the topography of the snow capped mountains, the crisp 10-12 degree Celsius temperature, the wider streets that lend it a distinct British Columbian colour.

Vaishakhi Celebrations in Canada.

Several cities across the province celebrate Baisakhi this way, across week ends making it possible for families even to city hop for the festivities: Winnipeg and Edmunton, even as the original one in Vancouver has dwindled down with a shift of the Sikh (Punjabi) population out of the city centre to Surrey, Delta and Burnaby.

It was in 1911, that the first ever prayer hall, the Guru Sikh Gurudwara came up here, built at Abbotsford out of the timber donated by a white merchant employer. It is a quaint Frazer Valley Sikh temple.The labour was of course Sikh –from among the first 2,300 settlers. Two kilometres away is the US border and a long lit pole functioned like a lighthouse to signal to worshipers far away that it was safe to come in to worship. This is now in ruins but the hallowed spot is framed at the spot. It was the signal given from this lighting pole that told the Sikh Indian worshiper when it was safe to trek down to pray and when to stay away. Prasad here at the Abbotsford Gurudwara, where I was especially invited, is the ghee laden halwa and children from homes crave this delicacy.

Racist attacks have taken place even at this historic Gurudrawa at Abbotsford in Canada and not too long ago either. In 1998, Nirmal Singh Gill the Sikh caretaker was beaten to death by white racist skin heads. It was in 2011 that the Abbotsford Guru Sikh temple, that does not have a traditional dome and resembles a Wild West Saloon Hall, was the first non-English and non-French monument to be declared a national monument. A large grant by the Canadian government restored it to its current form.

Sikh Canadian history is fascinating. If the first prayer hall was built in 1911, three years later, in 1914, the Komagatamaru, a Japanese ship carrying 376 would be Indian migrants, docked at Vancouver harbour but was not allowed to stay. Hounded back, the Komagatamaru spot is a pilgrimage spot for all visiting Indians and we too paid our homage there.

In 1915, a Sikh man, Mewa Singh, protesting against bitter racism here in Canada, shot dead a white man on the steps of the Vancouver Courthouse. Sikhs have commemorated his actions as that of a martyr. And even in the 2018 Baisakhi celebrations there are petitions demanding that the Canadian government acknowledge him as one. It was after the first World War, that slowly, over the decades things improved. There were only 2,500 Sikhs in Canada until 1962 when the restrictive immigration policies eased. By the 1990s, the Sikhs in Canada were very much the mainstream, their presence evidenced in the legislatures located at Ottawa and Victoria (capital of British Columbia) The Punjabi language is now also taught in some Vancouver/ BC schools. In Vancouver’s sprawling Vancouver park, there is also a memorial to the Air India Kanishka Bombing Survivors, 86 of whom were children.

Food in the homes of the Sikh diaspora where I was privileged to live for over ten days is no different from home, albeit with a few subtle additions that are distinctly Canadian. The guttural call to the table ‘Chalo Roti Khayenge’ is comfortingly familiar after which dal, roti (yes hand made!) sabzi, chicken and goat meat are served. At tea time, too the snacks are variations of the same, samosas, pakoras even if, for the more sophisticated, the drink can be delicately brewed not boiled with sugar and milk. Appetisers too will be barbequed chicken wings (a variation of the Tandoori chicken) and aloo tikkis; quickly tossed Casars Salad with a Pasta salad, also often accompanies the first course, a refreshing admission to other cuisines.

Teesta Setalvad meets Jagmeet Singh at Vaishakhi Day Parade, gifts him a copy of her book.

You cannot take the desi out of the Punjabi Canadian, is the overwhelming feeling one got during the fortnight intimately spent with fellow activists drawing in dimensions of the Sikh dispora, not so clearly evident back home. We know and have registered the significant Sikh presence in the Justin Trudeau Cabinet, a distinct acknowledgement of Sikh Canadian Citizenship coming of age. The visible presence of politicians from all political parties at the Baisakhi celebrations, Conservative Liberal and the now prominent NDP (New Democratic Party), that heads a minority government in BC was another concession to desi politics: another sign of how cultural and religious festivities are wooed in true desi Indian style by men and women in seats of Canadian government. Ravish Kumar is a hero here and concern for the human rights situation back home real even if sporadic. Demonstrations against rights abuses in India dot the  landscape of British Columbia cities where the Sikh diaspora live.

One thing remains tangible however: for the Canadian Sikh landscape, the deep ruptures caused to the community by actions of the Congress in government in 1984 –Operation Blue Star and the ghastly anti-Sikh pogrom following Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi’s assassination, fester long and deep and have not healed. After decades, the support for the ‘Sikh state of Khalistan’ that used to once echo here –despite murmurs of a presence even within the Baisakhi parade — have dwindled to a sort of token nostalgia. Conulkhaana is the quaint Sikh term used to discuss affairs at the Indian Consulate that remain critical for that critical piece of paper for access to the homeland: the Visa.

Engagement in the current politics back home in India and the Punjab is persistent even though many Sikh families have not visited their country of origin more than once or twice in 30 or 40 years. There are others who go back more often, though. For wedding shopping for the proverbial lehengas and salwar suits however India is seen as a much better option. A wedding lehenga outfit can cost the Sikh bride as much as 4,000 Canadian dollars and spending 20,000 dollars on four to six wedding outfits is not unusual!

What was most special for me however was the sounds and words and phrases of the Punjabi language. Pride in the spoken and read Punjabi language resonates and during my several visits to TV and radio stations for interviews, it was not unusual to find a young man in his thirties reading poems by radical poet, Paash.

Paash was a by-product of the radical communist movement also known as naxalite movement of late 1960s that united the oppressed communities and the working class in India. He has been in the forefront of many people’s struggles and captured the literary landscape of Punjab due to his fiery poetry which had a strong mass appeal because of its rebellious content.

Born on September 9, 1950 as Avtar Sandhu, Paash chose his pen name after Paasha the hero of The Mother, a famous novel by Maxim Gorky. He challenged not only the Indian state through his poems, but also wrote against both the Hindu and Sikh fundamentalism. The emergence of Hindu Right and Sikh fanaticism during 1980s had vitiated the social environment of Punjab. While the Sikh extremists were seeking a separate homeland of Khalistan, an imaginary country to be carved out of India, Hindu fundamentalists terrorised Sikhs and Muslims across India in order to establish a Hindu nation.

Sensing that this would lead to another religious partition of India like in 1947 that resulted in separation of Muslim Pakistan and large scale sectarian violence, Paash had formed Anti 47 Front. He pulled no punches while condemning the reactionary forces of any stripe as a result of which the Khalistan Commando Force (KCF) that was involved in armed insurgency in Punjab assassinated him in 1988.

Sat Sree Akal,  became by favoured and normal form of greeting for a fortnight in Canada. To see the absorption of the local Punjabi community in its language made it an especial privilege for me to have the Punjabi translation of my book, Footsoldier of the Constitution (published by Leftword and translated by veteran journalist Buta Singh) released in Canada. On my visit to the BC legislature at Victoria I had the privilege of handing over copies of my book to the premier, John Horgan, Harry Bains (the minister of Labour) and other legislators. MLA Rachna Singh apart from mentioning our visit to Canada also made a strong statement on the Kathua rape and murder of a little nomad girl within the BC legislature while also bringing in the gendered violence against People of the First Nations in Canada (Canada’s indigenous people). I had several occasions to meet journalists and the redoubtable Shushma Datt of Spice Radio who interviewed Indira Gandhi and was made to suffer for it, remains a privilege.

I had been invited to Canada because of my links with moments of modern Sikh Indian history. April 13, 1919 is when the tragic shooting to death, in a cold and calculated manner of peaceful protesters at Jallianwala Bagh took place. This year, April 13 marks the onset of the 100th commemoration of the tragedy when Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims together fell to the cruel bullets of Dyer. My great grandfather, Sir Chimanlal Setalvad was one of the three members of the Hunter Commission that investigated the incident. His sharp cross examination got Dyer to trip and indict himself. Kanwaljeet ji who painstakingly restores a float every year commemorating the massacre has also initiated a petition in the United Kingdom demanding an apology from the British government for the killings.

In remembering undivided Punjab and India of close to a century ago, we together remembered India as a democracy under a rigid, proto-fascist regime. Counted the series of unfair laws passed by governments who today fear the voices of their own people. In the early 1900s the British actions in forcing conscriptions to its army (Defence of India Rules) had caused widespread unrest. Passing of the Rowlatt act had allowed further repression including the detentions of Kitchlew and Satya Pal.
It was a united multi-religous struggle against the might of the British empire. Today in India under a majoritarian regime, human rights defenders like myself are hounded (the state tried to prevent my travel to North America till the Supreme Court intervened), false cases unleashed, false charges slapped and unjust laws like the National Security laws. Sections on Sedition are being used to stifle democratic questioning, criticism and dissent. At this critical moment in India’s hstory –where the question of whether we will remain a republic based on the fundamentals of the Constitution or not –is in serious question, this trip among the Sikh diaspora, this meeting of minds and hearts was overwhelming.



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