This week as Sikhs gather around the world, including Canada, to commemorate those who died in the 1984 violence in India, it’s worth considering Cathy Ostlere’s young-adult novel Karma.
Although many short stories and a few novels have been written on the subject in English and other languages, this is perhaps the first time that a Canadian author not of South Asian descent has focused on an issue that remains highly sensitive within the Sikh community.
Karma is the story of Maya, a half-Sikh girl born to a Hindu mother and a Sikh father. Published by Penguin earlier this year, Karma takes readers to India in the early 1980s when a political crisis was brewing involving the Sikh minority.
The Golden Temple complex in Amritsar, the holiest place for Sikhs, was fortified by religious extremists. This led then-Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi to order the army to attack the the shrine.
The ensuing bloodshed during the first week of June 1984—and the sacrilege to what is the Sikh equivalent Vatican—sparked angry protests in Canada.
In October 1984, Gandhi was shot dead by her Sikh bodyguards, who were seeking revenge for the assault on their faith.
Following her assassination, thousands of Sikhs were killed in mass murders organized by Gandhi’s Congress party across India. These ugly political developments not only created a sense of alienation among Sikhs, but culminated in the Air India bombings in June 1985, killing 331 people.
The worst aviation terrorist attack up until that time was blamed on Sikh separatists.
Ostlere was travelling in Nepal when Gandhi was murdered. She wished to go to Amritsar to visit Golden Temple, but Punjab was out of bounds for foreigners back then because of terrorism.
Though she never had an opportunity to speak to the victims of violence and kept her feelings bottled up for years, she sensed a connection with the victims of 1984. In particular, she feels a bond with those whose close relatives went missing during these incidents. Her brother went missing while sailing, and was never found. She earlier wrote Lost about him.
Karma has not only highlighted an issue that calls for international attention, but also has a very secular message. The story ends with a positive note of human bonding, despite widespread hatred and violence.
Maya is a Canadian-born teenager whose Sikh father, Amar Singh, and mother, Leela, migrated from India. Their marriage was controversial as they belonged to different religious backgrounds.
Their families relented after opposing their relationship in the beginning. The cultural conflict however remains as Amar tries to bring up Maya according to his religious values. Maya and her father wind up in trouble when they go to India to immerse the ashes of Leela, who dies in 1984.
The anti-Sikh pogrom begins, and Maya is separated from her father in New Delhi. She is forced to run away from the national capital of India to Rajasthan, where a Hindu family gives her refuge. Sandeep, a member of the family, falls in love with Maya and helps in finding her father. However, Amar, who gets carried away by his bitter experiences, does not approve of the relationship. The dialogue between the father and daughter diminish Amar’s hatred, and both leave for Canada on a positive note.
Some Hindu characters in Karma speak passionately for Sikhs, who were targeted by the Congress goons. The novel also bring up other issues, including racism against people of colour in Canada, caste-based discrimination in India, and the pitiable situation of women within male-dominated Indian society.
Both Maya and her mother suffer as women at different times. Maya therefore becomes a double victim while being in India during the disturbances. She is looked upon with suspicion for being in an alien land by an orthodox society that often brands widows as “unwanted women”. The destitute may be seen as “witches”, who are sometimes murdered. Despite such challenges, Maya survives with the help of Sandeep and his family.
Ostlere, who covers many issues in Karma, surprisingly does not write about the Air India bombings, which remain a Canadian tragedy. They cannot be separated from the events of 1984.
An Air India-like episode finds only a brief mention in a dream sequence in the story, against the backdrop of the anti-Sikh violence.
Religious extremists have no right to punish innocent people for the barbaric acts of any state. Though 27 years have passed, victims of the anti-Sikh pogrom are still seeking justice.
Not a single top Congress leader involved in the 1984 violence has been convicted. On the other hand, Sikh assassins of Gandhi were hanged.
When the Indian state decided to end Sikh extremism, it sent its army to the Golden Temple complex. But the army was never called in when Sikhs were targeted by the goons in the Congress-ruled states of India following the murder of Gandhi.
This reflects on the fairness of the political system of the Indian secular democracy, which is ironically led by a turbaned Sikh prime minister. By choosing to write on such an emotional issue, Ostlere has become an ally for those seeking fairness in the justice system.
Gurpreet Singh is a Georgia Straight contributor, and the host of a program on Radio India. He's working on a book tentatively titled Canada's 9/11: Lessons from the Air India Bombings.