In the 1980s, as India fought its dirty war to quash Sikh separatism, it inadvertently inspired a new generation of savvy Canadian Sikh politicians.
Stepping off the plane, the first-time visitor to Toronto might be surprised at what seems like a Sikh monopoly on jobs at Pearson International Airport. Everyone, from the customs and immigration officials to the elderly “aunties” mopping the floors, are Sikhs, and all reflecting their characteristic image: proud and hard-working.
What may come as even more of a surprise is that today a Sikh is poised to become premier of the very Canadian province notorious for its once racist policies towards Canadian Asians. It may not be long before the far western province of British Columbia, the bastion of Anglo pioneerism, will be governed by Ujjal Dosanjh. As the province’s Attorney General, Dosanjh has had a high profile and is now leading the race for the leadership of the ruling New Democrat Party (NDP). Challenging him is, among others, a Sikh MP named Manmohan (Moe) Sihota.
Dosanjh’s is the classic North American immigrant success story. Arriving as a teenager in Canada barely able to speak English, he worked in the sawmills of British Columbia before moving on to a career in law and subsequently being elected to the provincial legislature. If Dosanjh manages to clinch the party leadership, and the public votes the NDP back in office in the next election scheduled for 2001, the political space for ‘visible minorities’ in Canada will once again have been widened by the Sikhs.
It would be an understatement to say that South Asians have generally been successful in North America. The late 1960s and 70s saw the arrival of educated professionals as well as skilled labourers from the Subcontinent to North America. Some migrants excelled at white-collar professions such as medicine, engineering and accounting, others carved out a niche in small and mid-size business, and a few even made inroads into the world of big business. What most people do not know is that the pioneers have always been the Sikhs.
Presently numbering over 300,000 of the roughly 700,000 South Asian migrants in Canada, Sikhs have always been Canada’s most prominent South Asians. This is particularly so in the west coast and in cities such as Vancouver and Toronto, where Indian restaurants offer largely Punjabi fare. Government posters promoting the value of “multiculturalism” invariably offer up the image of the turbaned Sikh.
For those who choose to remember, however, the road to integration with the mainstream has been long and rough. From the pioneer fruit farmers and sawmill workers out west to the taxi-drivers and professionals who arrived later in the cities, Sikhs have endured racism which had a particular edge because of their de rigueur turbans and uncut hair. Indeed, on this score the struggle has been continuous and extends to this day.
In the early 1990s, a Sikh member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) successfully challenged the Mounties in court for their refusal to allow him to wear his turban as part of his uniform. Then there was the recent ludicrous incident in which the Royal Canadian Legion (a war veterans association) barred turbaned Sikhs from entering their halls because they refused to “take off their hats”. Sikh youth in Toronto and Edmonton have successfully taken cases to the national human rights commission demanding the right to carry the ceremonial dagger, the kirpan, and recently a court ruled in favour of a Sikh boxer against the Canadian Amateur Boxing Association, which claimed that his beard could cause injury to his opponents!
Indians, of course, had been travelling to South Africa, the West Indies and Fiji as contract labourers since the 1830s. After Punjab’s relatively late annexation into British India (1849), Sikhs too were taken to work in the Caribbean. But their fiercely independent spirit meant that they were prepared to fight for their rights, something new for plantation owners used to pliant subcontinental labour. Many Sikh labourers simply escaped to Spanish Central America in search of more lucrative work. When ‘free migrants’ began leaving Indian shores to seek their fortunes towards the end of the 19th century, Sikhs were also among the first of them.
In 1897, it so happened that Sikh soldiers attending Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in London returned to India via British Columbia. They saw the opportunity in Canada’s wild west and spread the word upon their return to Punjab. Sikhs who had already reached Shanghai and Hong Kong heard about the 2.50 dollar daily-wage rates for workers in lumber yards and steel factories (compared to the going rate of 30 cents in India) and they too began to seek passage across the Pacific to the west coast of North America. The first major migration of Sikhs took place in 1903-04.
The increasing number of Sikhs and other Asian migrants (Chinese and Japanese) created a violent backlash from the white settlers on the west coast. By 1907, the Asian Expulsion League in British Columbia had lobbied successfully to disenfranchise all people arriving from India. They were referred to simply as “Hindus” (although almost all of them were Sikhs), and in spite of their being British citizens and Canada itself being a British dominion, the government of British Columbia stripped them of the right to vote, purchase Crown timber, and work in certain professions. The same year, farther down the coast in Bellingham, Washington, an “anti-Hindu” riot erupted and angry white sawmill workers fearful for their jobs chased 300 Sikhs out of town.
The Dominion Government of Canada briefly considered deporting its 2000 Indian settlers to British Honduras (now Belize). As for new arrivals, in 1908 it was mandated that all immigrants come by ‘continuous passage’ (i.e. without stopping at any port) from their country of origin. No ship could make such a voyage from India in those days. Additionally, immigrants were required to have at least two hundred dollars with them, which meant that the door for Indians was effectively shut.
In 1914, a steamship, the Komagata Maru, bringing Sikh immigrants to Canada was forced to return to India (see box overleaf) even though it had arrived by continuous passage. As they watched their Sikh brethren turned away from the shores of Canada, it was difficult for the resident population not to feel betrayed by their colonial rulers.
The idea of overthrowing the British in India soon spread through the Sikh settler communities in North America, particularly California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. Leaders of the local Gadar (Mutiny) Movement called for Sikhs to return to India to fight for their homeland. The call was heeded by the migrants, almost entirely male, and over 3000 returned to India, leaving a few hundred in the US and roughly 700 in Canada’s lumber mills and logging camps.
Shedding the stereotype
The diminished Canadian Sikh community grew slowly over the next few decades. The Sikhs eventually won the right to vote in 1947 and the slow integration into the mainstream continued. That is, until 1984, when Indira Gandhi ordered troops to storm the Golden Temple in Amritsar, which led to her own assassination and retaliatory riots against Sikhs in various parts of India. Sikhs all over the world felt betrayed in their homeland. With the Khalistan movement for an independent Sikh state in full swing in India, extremist elements began to fundraise in Canada’s gurdwaras. As in India, the militant movement now began to win over moderate Sikhs who were shocked by
the 1984 massacres of Sikhs in Delhi and elsewhere.
The next year, an Air India flight originating in Toronto blew up over the Atlantic, and suspicion fell on the Khalistani militants. Canadian security agencies began to pursue Sikh activists, while Sikh refugee claimants from India became immediately suspect. The Sikhs now confronted a new stereotype—‘terrorists’.
Canada’s Sikh community went into crisis management mode, and began working in earnest to show the Canadian public that they were not only law-abiding citizens, but model Canadians as well. Renowned Sikh lawyer, T. Sher Singh from Ontario, attributes the political successes of today’s Canadian Sikhs to this struggle to shed the stereotype.
However, divisive politics continue to plague the community. Today, a battle royal rages between pro-Khalistan fundamentalists and moderates in the gurdwaras. Recently, disagreements over religious customs, such as sitting on the ground versus using tables and chairs during langar (free kitchen) ceremonies, have escalated into fullscale violence. In 1998, Tara Singh Hayer, the editor of the moderate Indo-Canadian Times was assassinated in his Vancouver home for daring to openly criticise the fundamentalists. Even Ujjal Dosanjh, aspirant to British Columbia’s premiership, was beaten for daring to speak out against separatism [in India] during the Sikhs’ darkest hour.
For the moment, the ability of the Khalistani movement to excite the Canadian Sikh seems to be on the wane. In India, the militancy is nearly finished, and in Canada the fundamentalists seem to be losing the war. Overall, the Sikhs seem have mastered the fine balance of integrating into the mainstream, while preserving their identity and their political interests. And after years of struggle, the stories of the first Sikh pioneers are finally being told and are being included in the discourse of early settlement in Canada (a topic that had hitherto focused on white settlers only).
The new generation of Canada’s most visible minority is thus being raised not only with the characteristic work ethic, but with an unparallelled level of political engagement as well. Sikhs today boast of nine elected officials at various levels of government in Canada, including Harbance (Herb) Dhaliwal, Federal Minister for Fisheries and Oceans. For the former revenue minister, and for the Sikh community as a whole, this is no token portfolio.
And in April 1999, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien unveiled a postage stamp commemorating the 100th year anniversary of the Sikhs in Canada. From the lumberyard to the postage stamp, the Sikhs of Canada seem to have made it.
White Man’s Country
To admit Orientals in large numbers would mean, in the end, the extinction of the white people, and we always have in mind the necessity of keeping this a white man’s country.
-Sir Richard McBride
Premier of British Columbia, 1914.
Canada’s racist policies were put to the test in May 1914 over the infamous Komagata Maru Incident. Testing the law requiring ‘continuous passage’, entrepreneur Gurdit Singh chartered a Japanese steamship, the Komagata Maru, to bring 376 largely Sikh passengers via continuous passage to British Columbia.
Upon entering the Vancouver Harbour, the ship was stopped and the passengers prevented from disembarking, despite the fact that they were all British (Indian) citizens. For the next two months, the press fanned local paranoia about an invasion of ‘Hindus’ who were described as degraded, sick, hungry and a menace to women and children. The stranded passengers began to run out of supplies as they waited for Canada to decide their fate.
Under orders from the Immigration Department, the Canadian Navy eventually forced the ship to return to India. A series of grisly events followed. The officer responsible for the deportation, William Hopkinson, had used informants from the Sikh community to report on any efforts to assist the passengers. These informants were promptly assassinated by other Sikh community members. In October 1914, Hopkinson himself was murdered by one Mewa Singh. The government tried and executed Singh the following year.
Meanwhile back in India, the ignominious return of the Komagata Maru prompted the Budge Budge Riot in Calcutta as the deported passengers refused to be forcefully returned to Punjab. Twenty of them were shot dead by British soldiers.
It is estimated that over 7000, mostly Sikh, Indians migrated to the United States and Canada between 1899 and 1920. However, racist government policies ensured that the next wave of Sikhs would not arrive until the 1960s. For a Canada that today prides itself on its multiculturalism, the Komagata Maru Incident is seen as an indelible stain on its record.
WASHINGTON—Although they did not begin arriving in this country in large numbers until the late 1960s, after a change in US immigration law, Indian immigrants have emerged as one of the nation’s most dynamic ethnic communities. According to 1990 census data, Indian Americans have the highest average household income—USD 60,903—of any Asian-Pacific ethnic group, a category that includes Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans.
Indian entrepreneurial skills have had a spectacular impact in the Internet and software industries, where Indian Americans have begun to organise into groups such as the Indus Entrepreneurs and the Indian CEO High Tech Council. The latter boasts a Washington area membership of 165 Indian American chief executives whose companies employ nearly 20,000 people.
These software engineers and start-up specialists have not been shy about translating their economic success into political clout. “In politics, the power comes from money and business,” said Reggie Aggarwal, a 30-year-old lawyer and president of a Fairfax high-tech firm who helped found the Council. “A group like ours can meet with all kinds of senators and congressmen. We’re not just going to get you active people, we’re going to get you power players. Every event we’ve had is a grand slam.”
That is no idle boast. In September 1996, Indian American executives and professionals held a fund-raiser for Clinton at the Mayflower Hotel that raised a reported USD 400,000.
Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush has already benefitted from the largesse of Indian Americans such as Krishna Srinivasa, 54, who immigrated in 1969 and now runs a computer consulting business in Atlanta. “We want better Indo-US relations,” said Srinivasa, who so far has raised USD 150,000 for Bush at two campaign events and recently met with the candidate at his Austin office. “There is no reason the world’s largest democracy cannot have a working relationship with the world’s greatest democracy.”
Indian Americans’ generosity to political campaigns has been accompanied by growing support for India on Capitol Hill. The Congressional India Caucus, founded in 1993, now has 115 members. Ackerman, the group’s chairman, has travelled to India six times and employs an Indian American on his staff.
“They have helped a great many members of Congress to understand the issues, and to focus a little more attention on an area of the world that deserves more attention,” said Ackerman, who receives contributions from Indian Americans nationwide.
While groups such as the High Tech Council are focused primarily on promoting business ties between the United States and South Asia, many Indian Americans feel passionately about foreign policy matters such as the Kashmir conflict.
Rajesh Kadian, for example, is a Great Falls gastroenterologist with two daughters at the University of Virginia and a teenage son who is a wide receiver on the Langley High School football team. He is also the author of several books on Indian military strategy and a firm believer in the need to explain the Indian point of view to American policymakers.
To that end, he organised a 1995 fund-raiser that netted USD 15,500 for Sen Charles S. Robb (D-Va.). He meets occasionally with State Department officials and, in one instance, helped arrange a meeting between the Indian ambassador and a key lawmaker—whom he prefers not to name—so they could discuss the nuclear test issue.
“India has never got the respect of the United States,” Kadian complains. “But this is a responsible, important country, and it has a role to play in the world.”
India’s standing in Washington suffered a serious setback when it set off underground nuclear devices in May 1998, prompting Pakistan to respond in kind several weeks later. The blasts triggered economic sanctions against both countries, though Clinton subsequently waived some provisions for one year.
While Indian Americans were divided over the wisdom of the tests, many nonetheless felt it was their duty to defend their native land against accusations that its government had acted irresponsibly. The American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin, for example, set aside its customary emphasis on health care issues and circulated a letter explaining the “context” of India’s decision, according to a spokesman.
India also got help from Chatterjee, the head of the Indian American Forum, who parlayed his fund-raising activities on behalf of Sen Jesse Helms (R-N.C), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, into a meeting between Helms and Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh.
“We told him, ‘India needs a fair hearing,'” said Chatterjee, who attended the meeting along with Srinivasa, the Bush campaign supporter.
Such efforts have started to pay off. At least twice this year, India’s supporters in Congress blocked legislation that would have cut off its foreign aid. Similarly, when the House International Relations Committee passed a resolution blaming Pakistan for last spring’s flare-up in Kashmir, the White House welcomed the move as “a useful way of reminding the [Pakistani] prime minister and others that Congress could use its influence in ways that were not in Pakistan’s interest”. But Indian Americans do not necessarily march in lockstep with the Indian government. Congress, for example, is considering legislation that would clear the way for a resumption of military sales to both India and Pakistan. While the Indian embassy opposes the move on grounds that it would mostly benefit Pakistan, which needs spare parts for its US-made hardware, some Indian Americans favour lifting the ban to help promote business and strategic ties with India.
“We have to look at what is good for the United States,” said a prominent Indian American businessman who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We are not agents of the Indian government.”