Gurpreet Singh: Senior leftist Bibi Veeran calls for unity against Sikh fundamentalists
Defying old age and Alzheimer's disease, senior leftist Bibi Veeran has come to the support of moderate Sikhs in Greater Vancouver. At 83 years of age, the Coquitlam resident recently called upon moderate Sikhs and secularists to unite against fundamentalist forces in Canada.
At a public meeting organized by moderates in Surrey, she urged the gathering to get active and work together to oust the fundamentalists from the Guru Nanak Sikh temple in this year's election. The Surrey gurdwara has in the past been controlled and managed by moderates. However, as a result of infighting among them, a conservative Sikh slate won the last temple election in 2009.
At a meeting held following a truce among moderate camps, Veeran insisted that if the fundamentalist forces were not defeated, temples in Greater Vancouver will eventually end up in the hands of Sikh separatists. She was particularly upset at the continued control by Sikh separatists over the historical Sikh temple in Stockton, California.
It was established by activists in the Ghadar party, who believed in armed rebellion against the British occupation of India. The party, which was founded in 1913, was secular in character as it kept religion and politics apart.
Gradually, control of that temple fell into the hands of the supporters of Khalistan, an imaginary theocratic Sikh homeland carved out of India. Stockton temple officials have allegedly replaced pictures of Ghadar activists with images of pro-Khalistan militants.
"They have dumped the pictures of the secular martyrs and replaced them with the pictures of religious extremists," Veeran told the crowd.
She reminded the gathering that old Sikh temples in Canada were also established by secularists and need to be saved from being taken over by fundamentalist forces.
Veeran told the Georgia Straight that she has repeated her message at other social functions. She is not new to activism within the local Punjabi community, having spoken out against fanaticism, racism, and gender discrimination on countless occasions.
Married to a veteran Communist activist, Karam Singh Dhanwant, she was born in a liberal Sikh family in India. She immigrated to Canada in the early 1980s, and one of her daughters is married to an aboriginal man.
Her brother, Arjan Singh Mastana, was a senior Communist leader in Punjab until he was assassinated by pro-Khalistan militants for opposing religious extremism.
Veeran was visiting Punjab when Mastana was murdered. Nevertheless, she is proud of her Sikh heritage, too.
"I do not distinguish between the liberal version of Sikhism and Communism," she said. "For me, they are the same. The separatists who talk about religion are in fact its biggest enemies as they do not believe in true values of Sikhism, which is more about compassion and social equality."
When caste war broke out in Punjab in 2009, she resolutely condemned discrimination against Dalits (the so-called untouchables). The violence followed the murder of a Dalit saint in Vienna by upper-caste Sikh fundamentalists. Veeran categorically stated that the crisis was an outcome of the systemic abuse of Dalits.
"The false sense of superiority among the upper-caste people is the root of the problem," she said.
Since Bibi Veeran is losing her memory, it is becoming difficult to document many details she might have about her life history. But she continues to attend public meetings aimed at promoting secularism.
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.