Gurpreet Singh: Examining the Quebec Charter of Values and secularism from a Ghadar perspective
The Quebec government’s controversial move to secularize public institutions by banning religious symbols has once again stirred a debate over the real understanding of secularism.
Though a true secular society can never allow religion to take over public institutions or impose any kind of theocratic rule, the Quebec government’s move appears to be more like an assault on religious rights and individual freedom.
That the proposed Charter of Values is selective is also problematic and brings the claim of secularizing public bodies under question. In particular, it raises credibility issues when it would let Christians wear crosses of reasonable size and let the Catholic cross hang in the provincial legislature. The proposal is therefore flawed and can be best described as an exclusionist act that contradicts inclusiveness, the very purpose of secularism.
For a better understanding of secularism, the history of the Ghadar movement may offer some answers. As Ghadar centenary is being celebrated around the world, the Quebec government needs to look into this glorious history of these progressive South Asian activists who were way ahead of their time.
The Ghadar Party was formed in Astoria, Oregon, by Indian immigrants on the Pacific Coast of North America. It had a very big following in Vancouver.
These immigrants came to Canada and the U.S. for better livelihoods. Because India was under British occupation, many of them came as British subjects to Canada, which was also under the monarchy. However, systematic racism and discriminatory policies, especially in Canada, disillusioned them about the myths of the fairness of the British Empire.
People of South Asian descent never received any support from the Empire whenever there was a racial violence against them in Canada or the U.S. They soon realized that the root cause of their suffering was slavery back home.
As a result they established the Ghadar Party that fought both against social injustices abroad and against the British rule in India. Many Ghadarites returned to India to organize rebellions, only to face the gallows and long imprisonments.
Even though a majority of the Ghadar activists were Sikhs, the party was secular in character and had followers from other communities as well. The Ghadarites resolved to keep religion and their political activism apart. Religion was considered as one's individual matter and atheists and believers enjoyed equal treatment.
Caste-based discrimination too had no place in the party. This was despite the fact that the leaders of the Ghadar Party were from the dominant caste groups. The party activists vehemently denounced caste-based oppression against the so-called untouchables, both through their poetry and actions.
The Ghadar narrative challenged superstitions and ritualism and also invoked the socialist values of the Sikh religion. The Sikh religion denounces casteism. The Sikh scriptures include hymns of the Hindu and Muslim saints, including those who were denounced as untouchables by the orthodox Hindus.
In addition, heroic acts of Hindu gods and goddesses also find mention in the Ghadar poetry. These verses provoked Hindus and Muslims to bury their differences to fight against the foreign rule, and incited them to raise voice against assault on their religious rights by the British government.
When the British government demolished a wall of a historic Sikh temple in Delhi to make a corridor, Ghadar activists directed an emotional appeal to the Sikhs to join them. Likewise, they lured the support of those who were part of the Pan Islamic movement launched in support of the Ottoman Empire, which came under attack from the western powers.
While in Indian jails, Sikh Ghadar activists resisted attempts to remove their turbans and force them to wear caps. A devout Sikh does not cut hair and therefore needs a turban to cover the topknot, something the Quebec government has failed to recognize. The Hindu Ghadar activists showed their solidarity to the Sikh prisoners and participated in a hunger strike held by their comrades.
Similarly, the Ghadar Party leader, Sohan Singh Bhakna, a Sikh himself but secular to the core, did not fall into a trap laid by the British police to encourage him to become an approver upon arrest. The police played a Sikh card and tried to make him believe that he and other plain-hearted Sikhs were misguided by Hindu ideologues to join a militant movement.
Bhakna also went on a hunger strike against the practice of forcing the "untouchable" prisoners to sit separately from the rest during mealtimes.
In 1947 when India gained its independence, it was also divided on religious lines, resulting in the creation of a Muslim Pakistan. Bhakna and others like him saved Muslims from the tyranny of the Hindu and Sikh fanatics during religious violence. Death threats did not stop him from helping Muslims.
These instances are sufficient to understand what it means to be secular. Ghadar activists were clearly opposed to religious sectarianism and prejudices, yet they were conscious of religious freedom of the people around them.
The secularism is therefore not about banning religious symbols but to let everyone practice one's faith freely. It’s more about providing equal opportunities to everyone without being prejudiced against one group or the other, and promoting humanity and universal brotherhood.
If the Quebec government’s move is a result of the anxiety due to growing cultural enclaves, it should keep in mind that the immigrants have always tried to be a part of the mainstream. Due to lack of opportunities, they are forced to live in such enclaves. If the government is really keen to include them in the mainstream, then it should look into the real reasons—such as racism or discrimination at workplaces—behind the mushrooming of enclaves and ghettos instead of bringing a blanket ban on religious symbols.
The Ghadar activists actually wanted to be a part of the Canadian mainstream. All they were seeking redress from racism and equal civil rights, such as the right to vote and bring their families to Canada. Instead, racial discrimination in this country forced them to become social-justice activists and created a hostile environment that contributed to an attempted rebellion in India.
Bhakna wrote many years ago that white supremacists attacked even those Sikhs who did not sport long hair and wore hats during racial violence in U.S. Obviously these men wanted to be a part of the wider community. Bhakna himself cut his hair for a brief period, but later started growing his hair again.
All this is not to suggest that Canadian society should let religious divisions grow in this country in the name of diversity or multiculturalism. This whole idea needs to be revisited. There has to be a stop somewhere.
Participation of authorities in religious festivals or any kind of patronage of religious places or schools at public expense should just stop. That trend is more harmful for a secular society than allowing individuals to wear religious symbols. Religious schools are breeding grounds for fundamentalism and should not be encouraged by the state. The idea of politicians taking support from religious groups to win elections is also bad, as it legitimizes groups promoting sectarianism.
India, known as the world’s largest democracy, has repeatedly abused the word secularism by appeasing all religious groups by giving places of worship tax rebates and allowing too many public holidays on religious occasions. Indian politicians, including those from the "secularist" Congress Party, have been shamelessly involved in inciting religious violence to attract votes. All this goes on alongside the appropriation of the Ghadar history by political groups of India.
Only a true secularism—which is more tolerant, open and fair—needs to be restored instead of promoting a customized secularism suited for short-term political needs. The latter would only result in contempt toward such a meaningful and healthy concept.