An Uncommon Road
By Gian Singh Sandhu. Echo Storytelling Agency, 238 pp, softcover
On this weekend when the largest Vaisakhi celebration has taken place outside of India—in Surrey, British Columbia—there's no better time to reflect on the remarkable rise of the Sikh community in Canada.
Sikhs have been at the forefront of advancing human rights in Canada for more than 100 years. They're more politically active than any other minority community.
In addition, many Sikhs are leaders in policing, forestry, agriculture, and community engagement, to name just a few areas.
The community is extremely hard working. You almost never see a Sikh panhandling for spare change on the streets of Vancouver.
In fact, they open their gurdwaras to anyone who wants to dine from the free kitchen, known as langar.
Yet Sikhs are still deeply misunderstood by many Canadians.
That's partly attributable to a series of events in India that led to the 1985 bombing of an Air India plane carrying 329 passengers and crew.
It's left an unwanted stain on the community, and particularly on those who are the most pious and feel the deepest connection to their homeland in Punjab.
That's because the Air India bombing is widely believed to have been a made-in-Canada plot organized by fundamentalist Sikhs living in the Lower Mainland.
But is it possible that things may not be as they seem with regard to this horrific act of aviation terrorism?
That's one possibility raised in an intriguing and highly readable memoir, An Uncommon Road: How Sikhs Struggled Out of the Fringes and Into the Mainstream, by Gian Singh Sandhu.
The retired businessman, Order of B.C. honouree, founding president of the World Sikh Organization of Canada, and Surrey resident cites a shocking allegation in the middle of his book by a former Canadian intelligence officer, Francois Lavigne, which appeared in the Ottawa Citizen in 2012.
"To those who would say that the possibility of Indian government officials being involved in Air India is ridiculous, I would say simply that the Service [CSIS] did possess evidence of that very thing," Lavigne declared at the time.
Sandhu readily acknowledges the likelihood that alleged mastermind Talwinder Singh Parmar "was involved in some capacity".
But the public will never know for sure if Parmar or any other members of his Babbar Khalsa terrorist group were working in tandem with Indian government officials at any level.
That's in part because CSIS destroyed 156 audiotapes of Parmar's wiretapped conversations not long after the plane went down into the Irish Sea.
Sandhu makes a persuasive argument that the Conservative government of the 1980s and early 1990s wasn't very curious to examine this issue because it was dedicated to expanding trade ties with India.
The World Sikh Organization became caught up in the Air India controversy early in its history when one of the accused bombers, Ajaib Singh Bagri (who was subsequently acquitted on all charges), spoke at one of its meetings in New York City.
Bagri, a Kamloops millworker and Babbar Khalsa activist, threatened that 50,000 Hindus would die in retaliation for a vicious pogrom of Sikhs in India in 1984.
"One of the most persistently damaging images was traceable to the Madison Square Garden meeting," Sandhu writes. "Ajaib Singh Bagri's call to violence—and cut-and-paste editing that implied the thousands of Sikh delegates in attendance rapturously cheered him on, when only a handful of the 5,000 assembled actually did—blackened the name of the WSO before the organization had even got off the ground."
At another point in the book, Sandhu describes Parmar's act as akin to "P.T. Barnum", particularly in his claim that he was a "living martyr". And Sandhu adds that Surrey-based Punjabi-language newspaper owner Tara Singh Hayer, who was murdered in 1998, "did more than anyone to promote Parmar" until they had a falling-out over a business deal.
It's far more than an Air India book
Sandhu's erudite book is not merely a resuscitation of the Air India tragedy, though it raises some eye-opening points in this regard.
At its root, An Uncommon Road is a story of immigrant success in Williams Lake, which is B.C.'s largest city between Kamloops and Prince George.
It mostly focuses on Sandhu's improbable rise from a young Sikh arriving in Canada in 1970 to becoming the head of one of B.C.'s largest forest companies, while also performing seva (service) to advance the community's interests.
Along the way, Sandhu discovered that the World Sikh Organization could become even more influential if it formed alliances with other oppressed minorities to advance their interests.
This led the WSO to support same-sex marriage even though this idea was frowned upon by some conservative-minded Sikhs, including religious authorities in India.
Sandhu points out that the Sikh faith aligns well with many aspects of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, including its opposition to discrimination.
In fact, the first guru of the faith, Guru Nanak, was hundreds of years ahead of his time with his emphasis on the equality of all people.
And An Uncommon Road highlights other areas in which Sikh gurus promoted profoundly positive messages.
"Indeed, our ninth guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, was beheaded for his unwavering commitment to the Hindu people's right to freely practise their faith," Sandhu writes.
Sandhu's life story is inspiring for readers of any religious background. It's especially heartwarming to reach the end and read about the success of his children: one daughter has a PhD in counselling psychology with her own practice; another daughter became a B.C. Supreme Court judge; and his only son earned a PhD in computer science, taught at York University, and is now involved in the Seattle tech industry.
What's truly astonishing, though, is to imagine how Sandhu was able to grow a successful company, overcome intense business challenges including a major fire, raise a family of high achievers, and still find the time to spend countless hours travelling, organizing, and lobbying on behalf of Canadian Sikhs.
This occurred even as outside forces were trying to drive wedges within the Sikh community and paint him as an extremist.
India's treatment of Sikhs comes under scrutiny
An Uncommon Road also offers penetrating insights for those interested in the history of Sikhs in India before and after the country became independent in 1947.
He writes that back in 1929, the pro-independence Congress party of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru tried to woo Sikhs with the promise of a constitution giving them "full satisfaction".
But when the constitution was finally unveiled in 1950, a section stated that Hindus "shall be construed as including a reference to persons professing the Sikh, Jain or Buddhist religion, and that the reference to Hindu religious institutions shall be construed accordingly".
"By lumping Sikhs, Buddhists, an Jains together as 'Hindus' in a document as important as the Constitution, the framers managed to disrespect three major religions and refuel longstanding Sikh fears of the subjugation of their faith and culture," Sandhu writes.
From there, Sandhu charts the path that led to the wholesale attacks on Sikhs in India in 1984 following the assassination of then prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. It's a tale full of deceit and political intrigue.
This important context has been missing from much of the Canadian mainstream media's coverage of many Sikh immigrants' ongoing frustration with what's happening in India.
For this reason alone, An Uncommon Road is worth reading—particularly by journalists who might find themselves assigned to the "Sikh beat".
But it's also recommended for those teachers, politicians, and social activists who want to better understand the motivations and spiritual beliefs of the Sikh community.