Gurpreet Singh: Canadian author focuses on Sikh issue warranting international attention

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.

Comments (16) Add New Comment
kaur
I was just recently thinking about the fact that India now has a Sikh leader. This means that this is potentially an opportune time to address redress for past atrocities done to Sikhs by the Indian gov’t. Then, why is it that we keep getting hot-air inflammatory comments here about past issues in far-away India? It's a waste of time making these statements in Canadian media outlets or in Canada at all. If this is a passionate issue for you, please go to India and deal with it there. This is a solution oriented approach and better use of time and energy. India is riddled with problems and the constructive help of expat Indians would be beneficial during their rapid development.

Ostlere’s book seems to be about healing. I doubt that this will be of interest or appeal to radicals and extremists, many of whom latch onto a Movement like Khalistan to keep their own personal pain and past hurts raging instead of doing the difficult job of healing. Going inward to probe and dispel the fire within takes courage and strength. Inciting and inflaming others without providing solutions is easy but cowardly.

On the side, as Gurpreet mentions women's issues in this book, I want to mention that I wish more Feminists/Women's Rights Activists from more developed countries would go to India because there is such a desperate need to help women. I'm saddened by how much progress still needs to be made there in this regard.
3
2
Rating: +1
Frankette
If this novel is about healing and human bonding, then yes I do believe that it warrants international attention. This should be the focus this week for Sikhs as they gather around the world to commemorate those who died in the 1984 violence in India. Kudos to Cathy Ostlere for writing this novel.
4
2
Rating: +2
Hegde
indian justice system is a big sham. If you seek justice then only UN can provide that. india as a democratic country is a big joke that all indians are familiar with but none speak out loud because they all know if they do then they will be vanish and end up being killed by indian police
3
2
Rating: +1
kaur
So I guess justice involves blowing up an Air India plane in a peaceful foreign country with innocent people on board who had nothing to do with the problems in India. I wonder what Arundhati Roy would think about that?

I was born in India and raised as a Sikh, but I am first and foremost a Canadian and my loyalty is to this peaceful country. I don't tolerate any acts or organizations that compromise my safety or that of fellow Canadians. How does the Air India terrorist act attributed to the Sikh Separtists make them any better than the Indian gov't?
2
1
Rating: +1
Singh
If you call killing and shooting in the face children as young as two by indian security forces justice just ask yourself or any reader if they saw the killing of 25'000 innocent men women and children whose only crime was to wear a turban how could you forgive the people who are now in power in India
4
1
Rating: +3
kaur
@Singh: How do Canadians forgive the people responsible for the Air India bombing or how do the innocent families directly impacted and devastated forgive? Many have and there are numerous inspirational stories. The word 'Sikh' means to learn. Please learn from them and our own past mistakes.
--------
The radicals and extremists and their arrogant hypocrisy don’t represent all Sikhs and they are hurting our image. Many religions and groups have this element and they tarnish the image of the whole. I hope that the Georgia Straight readership understands this. I’m glad that there are courageous journalists like Gurpreet Singh to keep an eye on them and expose what is really going on...
4
2
Rating: +2
Frankette
@Singh: The violence you refer to happened 27 years ago. I doubt that those in power back then are still in power now. Indira Gandhi was shot dead by Sikh bodyguards as retribution. When does the vengeance end?

Perhaps this can also be discussed as Sikhs gather around the world on the anniversary date of the 1984 violence in Punjab.
2
3
Rating: -1
kaur
@Frankette: It’s likely that along with healing, ending vengeance is also not of appeal. I believe that one of the reasons that we’re seeing such a rise in religious radicalism and extremism around the world is because the future of religion is under threat. This is especially true for Sikhism for various reasons. Why not then find an emotional cause to rally religious bonding and cohesion? Never mind that it was 27 years ago.

Fear is the motor-force of religion which requires constant fuel to keep it going...

I was last in Punjab in 2003 and I was shocked by what I found! My Sikh cousins married into Hindu families and both sides respected and valued each other’s diversity. I found peaceful co-existence and harmony in general. This was quite surprising because I was inundated with conflicting propaganda back home at the time. I had to remind myself that I live in the epi-centre of the Sikh Separatist movement and there are other dubious intentions (like financial gain) by people like master mind Ripudamin Malik.
3
3
Rating: 0
Singh S
there has been 8 Invasions On Harmandir Sahib,Till now

from 1737 to1988.
Those that seek to destroy it should look back at its history and that of those tried to desecrate it,to see what remained of them and their empires.
3
1
Rating: +2
Sukhbir Singh
@ Kaur. You are making a leap by laying the blame for the bombing of the air india flight at the feet of Sikh 'extremists'. That act was the single biggest blow to the Sikh independence movement and by consequence the greatest single boon to the indian goverment who was hell bent on portraying the Sikhs as terrorists to the world. Whereas I know the assassination of indira gandhi was met with the sort of jubilation seen in times square after the shooting of Osama Bin Laden in the Sikh diaspora the air india bombing was met with sadness and bewilderment. If you want to know who is responsible for an act see who it stands to benefit. Who burnt the Reichstag? You atlk about healing, how can there be healing if those responsible for orchestrating the mass murder, rape and loot of Sikhs in 135 towns and cities across india still hold high office to this day? If upwards of twenty thousand Canadians were butchered in three days and it was beyond any doubt that the state had planned organised and facilitated this massacre and the politicians who were responsible were still sitting as MP's and cabinet ministers in the Candaian parliament building, do you think Canadians would be happy to move on and 'heal'? This was, not as it is cast, a story of sectarian violence. This is a story of a state suppressing legitimate claims of a minority community by portraying them as anti-national terrorists when in fact had the same demands been made(as they have) by a majority hindu state (as in the case with Gujrat) they would have passed without event.
The idea that any individual act of barbarity, although unjustifiable is
comparable to the sustained, pre-meditated assault on an entire people,
employing the whole might of a national army, police and intelligence
networks, the use of all media by government to demonise the Sikhs both
nationally and internationally, the corruption of the judiciary, the
suspension of the rule of law, the passing of draconian legislation, the
legitimisation of extra judicial execution, the negation of the democratic process,the immunity from prosecution of the
guilty. In fact the entire machinery of the indian nation state was pitted
against one of its own minority communities, India had effectively declared
a war on the Sikh's.

These actions as the action of choosing to perpetrate 'bluestar' on a
recognised day in the Sikh calendar belies the governments intentions. The
intention of GOI was to cause maximum Sikh civilian casualties. If not the
case then why June 6th? If not why hundreds of thousands of soldiers? If not why give
total immuity from prosecution to the police and army? If not why cut off all
communications, effectively turning Panjab into a open prison? If not why
expel all media, foreign and domestic? If not, why ban entry of UN or Human rights delegations to Panjab to this day?

It’s very easy to say heal and move on but in the words of Thomas Paine

"But if you say, you can still pass the violations over,
then I ask, hath your house been burnt?
Hath your property been destroyed before your face?
Are your wife and children destitute of a bed to lie on, or bread to live on?
Have you lost a parent or a child by their hands,
and yourself the ruined and wretched survivor?
If you have not, then you are not a judge of those who have.
But if you have, and can still shake hands with the murderers,
then you are unworthy of the name of husband, father, friend, or lover,
and whatever may be your rank or title in life,
you have the heart of a coward and the spirit of a sycophant."
4
1
Rating: +3
Singh
Of course the Air India incident how di I know you were going to bring that up just look at the book called SOFT TARGET that was researched and told how India was responsible of course they have now tried to cover it up by releasing disinformation THE TRUTH ALWAYS PREVAILS
5
1
Rating: +4
kaur
@Singh S: Since then, the people who are responsible for desecrating the noble Sikh religion that Guru Nanak Devji founded are people/leaders like Ripiduman Malik and the too many sheep who follow him/them. Sikhs need to question their leaders and speak up and speak out to salvage the honour of their tarnished image and stop the run-away train that has been blazing in the wrong direction since 1984. Otherwise what will remain of the future and legacy of the religion?

I believe that after a traumatic event, it’s often beneficial to put on the pause button for contemplation and introspection and I think this is a suitable pursuit for Sikhs during the anniversary days of the 1984 violence.

Emotions cloud judgment and obscure clarity. Things have been cloudy for too long with all the smokes and mirrors around. As I posted here recently, “It's time (for emotional Sikhs) to think and act with our heads instead of letting our big hearts lead us astray by dubious people with dubious intentions.”

Questioning leaders and authority figures is always important and a way of weeding the garden to make it grow.
3
2
Rating: +1
kaur
@Sukhbir Singh: I can simplify your long spiel in one sentence. "I don't believe in healing, I believe in vengeance." Your comments help to demonstrate many points that I've been trying to make. Thank you.

@Singh: If the assertion is that Malik et al are Indian gov't transplants, what have Sikhs done to quash their growth and popularity? Clearly, there are massive problems within the Sikh diaspora that need to be sorted out. As such, the thought of a Sikh Separtist Nation is a frightening proposition to say the least. Perhaps Sikhs should concentrate their time and energy on internal matters before making demands on others? I think this would be the prudent thing to do...

3
3
Rating: 0
Harbans Lal
I have not read the novel by Cathy except its review by Gurpreet Singh. She seemed to have done excellent job and deserve our gratefulness. However, when I read Gurpreet’s narrative of the main character it raised my blood pressure. He wrote, “Karma is the story of Maya, a half-Sikh girl born to a Hindu mother and a Sikh father”. I do not know if Cathy used the term of Half Sikh but I do not recall hearing this term of “half-Sikh” before.
I recall reading in Sikh history that Guru Arjan did apply this term to himself once. He described himself a half Sikh meaning that he had to go further in his daily life to claim to be a Full Sikh like his predecessor gurus. In the contrary Gurdeep seemed to imply that Cathy’s parent’s chromosomes determined her to be “half Sikh”.
Question is when chromosomes acquired the ability to determine the percentage of one’s Sikhee faith. Such a belief is not supported by any Sikh scripture including the Guru Granth Sahib, Bhai Gurdas, Rehat Maryada, or any other reliable Sikh document. One must elect to become a Sikh.
Please enlighten me if I missed something. I was born of my Sikh mother and Hindu father. I elected to be a Sikh and it is so accepted. Sikhs call me a Sikh; rarely a Hindu call me a Hindu but none ever called me Half Sikh or Half Hindu.
There are many who were born of parents of mixed faith where one parent was a Sikh. In every case the children were either Sikhs or something else because of their choosing and not because of their inherited chromosomes.
Chromosomal determinant of one’s Sikhee is not a fact and is not a supportable hypothesis scientifically. Nonetheless, any entry of such a dangerous term in our literature may cause further confusion and give rest of the world a very distorted and negative view of the Sikhs besides annoying our Guru.
Harbans Lal, Arlington/USA
3
0
Rating: +3
Surender Pruthi
We are fortunate to have sensible and balanced people like Kaur amidst us.
The comments of Sardar Sukhbir Singh cannot be negated in toto but one has to draw a line,a line of moderation,a line involving the maxim of forgive and forget.One cannot brood over the past injustices perpetually.Nor,can one
ignore the need of introspection in a fair,impartial and objective manner as to why a particular community bore the brunt of a wide-spread abonimable
violence.Did some of us perpetrate some ghastly acts too,inviting such revenge?With regards,Surender Pruthi,Sonipat(India).
2
2
Rating: 0
Add new comment
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.