Vancouverites should be proud of Indo Canadian heroes who risked their lives to save innocent people in sectarian violence that broke out during the bloody partition of India and Pakistan in August 1947.
The two countries were one before partition, which resulted in a Muslim Pakistan and a Hindu-dominated India—but not a "Hindu India".
The border came with the independence of Pakistan and India from the British occupation on August 14 and 15 respectively. While Hindus and Sikhs were being targeted on the Pakistani side, Muslims were being murdered on the Indian side by religious fundamentalists.
However, this hatred failed to blind many progressive and secular revolutionaries who had organized themselves against the British occupation while being in Vancouver. Many of them returned to India to face the gallows or long imprisonment.
Those who survived not only challenged the religious extremists, but also saved refugees from the mass murderers. The majority of these men were associated with the Gadar Party that was launched in United States in 1913 and believed in an armed struggle against British omperialism. They were all Indian immigrants, who came to Canada as British subjects.
Blatant racism and discrimination against them back then had transformed these people into social-justice activists. They started believing that their lives could only change after their home country becomes free from foreign occupation.
The Gadar Party constitution was secular and emphasized keeping religion and politics apart. Although the majority of its members were Sikh, some of prominent leaders were Hindus and Muslims. This may have contributed to their motivation to staunchly oppose religious fanaticism.
A Surrey-based Punjabi historian, Sohan Singh Pooni, gives a detailed account of these revolutionaries in his book, Canade de Gadari Yodhey (The Gadar Heros of Canada). Going by the information in the book, many of these men who actually lived in Canada returned to pursue their struggle to help Muslim refugees reach Pakistan safely. They also formed peace committees to promote unity and brotherhood, and challenged religious extremism.
Among them were Sher Singh Vein Poin, Munsha Singh Dukhi, Bhagwan Singh Dosanjh, Bhag Singh Canadian, Bachint Singh, and Chainchal Singh Jandiala.
The maternal grandfather of former Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh also played a role in helping keeping Muslim refugees safe from Hindu and Sikh extremists. Moola Singh Bahowal spent final years of his life in Vancouver, and being a liberal Sikh, he worried about the growing challenge of Sikh fanaticism in Canada.
The father of an NDP MLA from Surrey, Jagrup Brar, also helped the Muslim refugees. Kaka Singh Brar's portrait is popular in the Indo Canadian community in Surrey.
At this time when we are all celebrating 125 years of Vancouver's history, the heroism of those great men who stood for true Canadian values should be recognized by the mainstream. The lesson that we as a society should also draw from their stories is to keep away from fundamentalist forces and make this world a better place to live.
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.