Gurpreet Singh: Remembering the bloody side of Vaisakhi

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Whereas the Vaisakhi festival is marked with prayers and celebrations in the Lower Mainland every year, Indo-Canadians often overlook a bloody side of the carnival that changed the course of Indian history.

Around this time of year, the harvest festival of Vaisakhi is the focus of parades, which are mainly organized by Sikh temples in Vancouver and Surrey. These events coincide with the anniversary of the birth of the Khalsa, a force of devout and armed Sikhs created by the tenth master of the Sikh faith, Guru Gobind Singh.

But a gory historical aspect also needs to be remembered.

It was during Vaisakhi in 1919 when British troops opened fire on supporters of the passive-resistance movement. They had assembled at the Jallianwala Bagh (garden) in Amritsar to oppose the arrests of national leaders seeking the independence of India.

According to the official figures, close to 400 people died as a result of the shootings.

The incident that came to be known as Bloody Vaisakhi influenced revolutionaries, who fought against the British occupation of India.

Rabindranath Tagore, a prominent Bengali scholar and poet, renounced his British knighthood.

Many years later in London, Udham Singh, a Sikh rebel, assassinated Michael O’Dwyer, who was British lieutenant-governor of Punjab at the time of the massacre.

The assassin described himself as Mohammad Singh Azad, an unusual alias that symbolized secularism. The massacre of innocent Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs united nearly all Indians, irrespective of their castes, cultures, and ideologies.

The incident jolted the Sikh peasantry in particular. Back then, Sikhs were considered to be the backbone of the British army, and Punjab remained a garrison state. So much so that the pro-British Sikh clergy was unmoved by the bloodshed.

Arur Singh, a custodian of the Akal Takht, highest temporal seat of the Sikhs, actually honoured Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, who led the firing squad.

It is pertinent to mention that Singh was the grandfather of Simranjeet Singh Mann, a prominent Sikh separatist leader in India.

When Queen Elizabeth visited Amritsar in 1997, leftists campaigned for a formal apology, whereas the Sikh leadership did not insist on one. She went to the Jallianwala Bagh, laid a wreath at the memorial, signed the visitor book, and returned without making any apology.

I remember how I once caught Mann off-guard when he was complaining at a news conference that Sikhs who made many sacrifices for the independence of India were being treated as second-class citizens in the country. I shot him a question about whether his grandfather did the right thing by honouring Dyer.

Mann became thoughtful for a moment and then said, "What he did was wrong."

Both moderate and fundamentalist groups within the Lower Mainland Sikh community continue to ignore the incident, which sent a message about the importance of unity and secularism.

Supporters of Khalistan, a theocratic Sikh homeland, wish to separate from India. They organize the Vaisakhi parade in Surrey and cannot to be expected to hold a memorial service for the victims of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

However, the so-called pro-India and secular moderates, who organized the Vaisakhi parade in Vancouver, have also overlooked this part of history.

This year, only two progressive groups—the Indo-Canadian Workers’ Association and the Fraser Valley Peace Council—came forward to hold a candlelight vigil in memory of the victims of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre at Surrey’s Holland Park.

Despite rain showers, people of both Indian and Pakistani origin gathered there on Friday evening.

After all, the two nations were one before independence and the religious division of India in 1947. Many Muslim families who migrated to Pakistan lost relatives in the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. It was a common tragedy before the partition of the country.

Ironically, the creation of Pakistan divided communities that were together when British troops fired indiscriminately at the Jallianwala Bagh gathering.

A moment of silence was held in the memory of the victims. A prominent satirist and political activist from Punjab, Bhagwant Mann, was the guest speaker. He insisted that the struggle for true independence must go on as the poor in India have no access to basic requirements.

He differentiated between the poor and the rich in India in this way: "While India is for the rich, Bharat (Hindi name of India) is still poor."

Others who spoke on the occasion also insisted that secular forces should join hands, make it an annual event, and hold such memorials on a grand scale. Some of them demanded a formal apology from the British government. Politicians from both the Liberal party and the NDP also showed up.

The Jallianwala Bagh massacre carries a message not only for Indians, but for everyone who is opposed to imperialist wars and illegal occupations. Apart from unity and harmony, people can to learn the lesson of social justice from the sacrifices made at the Vaisakhi of 1919.

Gurpreet Singh is 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.

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