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

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      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.




      Jun 5, 2011 at 12:34pm

      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.


      Jun 5, 2011 at 7:22pm

      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.


      Jun 5, 2011 at 8:20pm

      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


      Jun 5, 2011 at 9:44pm

      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?


      Jun 5, 2011 at 11:28pm

      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


      Jun 6, 2011 at 5:28am

      @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...


      Jun 6, 2011 at 8:06am

      @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.


      Jun 6, 2011 at 9:33am

      @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.

      Singh S

      Jun 6, 2011 at 8:17pm

      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.