Gurpreet Singh: Ujjal Dosanjh was a misunderstood politician in the South Asian community
When Elections Canada declared Conservative candidate Wai Young winner in the Vancouver South riding on the night of May 2, there was a big applause among Indo-Canadians gathered in Surrey.
They cheered the defeat of their compatriot, Ujjal Dosanjh, the Liberal MP and a former premier of the British Columbia.
The venue was the victory party of Sukh Dhaliwal, another Indo-Canadian Liberal MP, who represented Newton-North Delta. Their joy was short-lived as Dhaliwal also lost his riding to the NDP candidate that night.
In fact, all five Liberal MPs of Punjabi descent in the last parliament lost either because of the NDP’s orange crush or the surge in Conservative popularity.
But the loss of Dosanjh, who made history by becoming the first Indo-Canadian premier of B.C. in 2000, delighted them the most.
It was not surprising to see that kind of hypocritical reaction from many Punjabi Liberal supporters, who were disheartened by the defeat of the Liberals everywhere, but not in Vancouver South.
In particular, supporters of Khalistan, an imaginary separate Sikh homeland, were pleased with the results in that riding.
After all, they were annoyed with Dosanjh's continued attacks on extremism and violence. In 1985, he survived a physical assault for criticizing religious extremism within the Sikh community.
Being a true secularist and progressive politician, he has consistently opposed theocracy since then.
Dosanjh's maternal grandfather, Moola Singh Bahowal, was a towering Sikh leader, who participated in the struggle for freedom in India. Even though Dosanh's grandfather was in the forefront of the campaign to rid Sikh temples of corrupt priests, Dosanjh himself was frequently dubbed as "anti Sikh’".
Close to the May 2 federal election, a smear campaign was launched against him. His detractors did not want to miss an opportunity, as he had won against Young by a margin of only 20 votes in the previous election.
Yet, Dosanjh did not think of giving up even once, and stuck to his ground until the final day of campaigning, despite the impending failure.
The changing political landscape of the country finally brought an end to the political career of Dosanjh, who now wishes to spend more of his time with his grandchildren.
This was not the first time that Dosanjh was ridiculed as the "most hated" by fundamentalist Sikhs during an election campaign. Ever since he waded into Canadian politics, he has been a target of fierce criticism by fundamentalist groups.
Prior to the first time he was elected as an NDP MLA in 1991, he faced a challenge from Khalistanis during the nomination process. There were also attempts to stop him from becoming a minister in the provincial cabinet.
The NDP, which Dosanjh left after losing the 2001 provincial election, was told by the Khalistanis that it would lose the support of the Sikh community if it continued to associate itself with a person like him.
In 2010, Dosanjh received death threats and a criminal-defamation lawsuit was filed against him in India by a Sikh youth, who accused him of defaming the Sikh community.
The anger of Khalistanis toward Dosanjh is understandable. Any fundamentalist group will never appreciate liberal and secular views.
But Dosanjh also annoyed many leftists and progressive thinkers in the Indo-Canadian community. It is for this reason that some moderates were also reluctant to help him in the recent election.
Because he was, at times, an opportunistic politician, his secular critics felt that he was a political turncoat.
He began his political career as a communist activist and later joined the NDP, whom die-hard leftists consider to be a group of social democrats. From the NDP, he switched loyalties to become a federal Liberal.
This was a major shift for a person who previously described himself "a leftist''. He deserted the NDP after it was wiped out of power in the 2001 B.C. election—when the party needed him the most.
His critics also alleged that he took advantage of his position as attorney general to become NDP leader and premier by ousting Glen Clark, who found himself embroiled in a casino scandal.
And after becoming premier, he went to the Dashmesh Darbar Sikh temple in Surrey, whose management openly supports Khalistan.
This did not impress an important moderate Sikh leader, Balwant Singh Gill, who had helped him during the NDP leadership race. Gill felt deceived by Dosanjh, whom he felt took his support for granted and was trying to make new allies.
Some moderates have even cynically suggested that he has tried to whip up anti-Khalistan sentiments for political gain.
Obviously, Dosanjh isn’t an angel. He made compromises on many occasions and may have done many outrageous things, such as endorsing the use of the Taser as attorney general and then criticizing it several years later.
He agitated First Nations activists with his handling of the Gustafsen Lake standoff in 1995. It has also been said that he did not criticize mass murders of Sikhs and Muslims in India, in 1984 and 2002 respectively, as vehemently as he condemned crimes committed by Khalistani terrorists.
Others feel that he was a self-centered politician who ignored the interests of the Indo-Canadian community.
However, he was consistent in his criticism against religious fundamentalism within the Sikh community in Canada. If he deserves to be knocked for any shortcomings, he should also get his dues for speaking up against religious intolerance and hatred.
In addition, Dosanjh supported same-sex marriage, which remains a taboo within the Indo-Canadian community.
If he did so with an urge to attract mainstream support, those Indo-Canadian politicians who tried to polarize Sikh votes in the name of religion should also take some blame for promoting divisive politics.
And if the "progressive" critics feel that Dosanjh’s criticism of Khalistan was opportunistic, then they should break the silence and challenge the fanaticism themselves or simply stop whining.
He was the lone moderate Sikh voice in Parliament, but moderates in his riding did not support him unanimously. While some also voted Conservative, others supported the NDP.
Dosanjh can be best described as a sly politician. But he cannot be dubbed as anti-Sikh, as the Khalistanis claim. They do not represent the entire Sikh community. After all, Dosanjh also opposed the Quebec National Assembly's decision to ban the kirpan, a ceremonial sword worn by baptized Sikhs.
One can disagree with Dosanjh's politics, but his qualifications and experience made him an outstanding Indo-Canadian politician. He was attorney general, premier, and was later appointed as federal health minister by then-Liberal prime minister Paul Martin. Historians may be harsh on him, but they won't be able to ignore the important role he played in Canadian politics.
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.