Gurpreet Singh: Remembering a forgotten hero named Canadian
As Canadian forces are engaged in war against terrorism in Afghanistan, the mainstream has forgotten a hero who died fighting against religious terrorists in India 25 years ago.
Darshan Singh Canadian was murdered on September 25, 1986 by Sikh extremists in Punjab for his consistent opposition to religious fundamentalism.
Canadian, whose real name was Darshan Singh Sangha, came to Canada in 1937 to study and for economic reasons. He spent 10 years in this country before returning to India in 1947.
While in Canada, he actively participated in trade union activities and struggles against racism and imperialism. He was also in the forefront of the campaign for the right to vote.
Indians had been disfranchised in 1907, and this right was restored in 1947 after years of work by people like Canadian.
It is for this reason that he was widely known as "Canadian" by his comrades in India.
Canadian returned to India to become a towering Communist leader in Punjab. He was elected to the Punjab legislative assembly and was highly critical of religious extremism of all shades.
He not only opposed Sikh extremists seeking a separate homeland, but also Hindu chauvinists who wanted to turn India into a Hindu nation. In addition, he was critical of ultra leftists, who advocated violence.
In the early and mid-1980s, he addressed public meetings in areas considered to be dangerous and he openly challenged the philosophy of Sikh separatists.
During those years of militancy in Punjab, terrorism had not entered the sensibilities of Americans and Canadians while the people in Punjab were enduring frequent violence. This awareness of terrorism didn't even develop among North Americans after the Air India bombings that left 331 people dead in 1985.
It took many years for the Canadian establishment to accept Air India as its own tragedy. Only after 9/11 did terrorism became a major concern for the western powers, yet Canadian has received negligible recognition from the Canadian mainstream.
In view of the upcoming 25th anniversary of his martyrdom day next year, the Indo Canadian Workers' Association (ICWA) in partnership with Radio India has released a calendar dedicated to him and 300 communists who were assassinated during the era of militancy in Punjab. His daughter Amardeep and grandson Navtej Sangha, who live in Vancouver, came for the unveiling ceremony held in Surrey on December 19. A moment of silence was also observed in the memory of Canadian.
Speakers at the event spoke in one voice against religious extremism and terrorism. The event was also attended by the Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh and the B.C. Liberal MLA Dave Hayer, both elected officials who have been repeatedly targeted by the Sikh separatists.
While Dosanjh was physically assaulted for his moderate views, Hayer's father, Tara Singh Hayer, the founding editor of Indo Canadian Times, was murdered in 1998. While Hayer died as a critic of terrorism, he once supported the Sikh militants.
His son is a staunch opponent of terrorism. Though the ICWA does not endorse the political ideas of Dosanjh and Hayer, it expressed its solidarity with the two leaders, who have been the target of threats and smear campaigns by extremist forces.
ICWA president Surinder Sangha told the gathering that it is the moral duty of leftists to challenge forces who are determined to divide the people on religious and sectarian lines. He announced that every year, the ICWA will hold public meetings on the anniversary of Canadian's martyrdom to keep alive the ongoing struggle against racism, discrimination, and extremism.
Other important dates in the history of Indo-Canadians' struggle are also clearly marked on the calendar along with brief details. Among them are the dates when the Komagata Maru ship arrived in Vancouver's harbour in 1914 and was forced to return, as well as the date when Indians were disfranchised.
In addition, birth and death anniversaries of important figures are also commemorated.
It's a shame that such an event did not attract the attention of the mainstream media, which never miss a chance to highlight conflicts created by radicals in South Asian communities. It is for this reason that average Canadians sometimes stereotype all immigrants as troublemakers.
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.