Veteran broadcaster Shushma Datt isn’t reticent when it comes to discussing racism within the South Asian community.
In a phone interview with the Straight in advance of International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on Sunday (March 21), the CEO of Spice Radio pointed out that India still has a caste system.
She also noted that India has a class system grafted onto it by British colonizers.
In addition, there were many massacres in South Asia in the 20th century—and not only at the hands of colonial oppressors in Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar in 1919.
During partition in 1947, when Britain divided its former colony into two countries, India and Pakistan, it has been estimated that between 200,000 to two million people were killed. This occurred as Muslims fled India and Hindus and Sikhs escaped Pakistan.
Datt was born a year before that horrific outbreak of communal violence. She recalled that when she was a child growing up in Nairobi, her uncle married a woman who had been abducted and abused during that period.
This woman often expressed how much she detested Muslims.
“There would be so much hatred in her voice,” Datt recalled. “And yet, in our family we never talked about hatred toward another religious group.”
Even though the Datts were Brahmins—the highest caste in Hinduism—the family regularly discussed religious teachings from Islam, Christianity, and Sikhism.
“Our parents were very particular about talking about equality and talking about religious freedom,” Datt said.
This continued after the family moved to India in the midst of unrest in Kenya and later to England.
Her open-minded attitude to other faiths has remained with Datt since she immigrated to Vancouver in the early 1970s.
Upon her arrival, she described the city as a “beautiful place”, but she could not find a job at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation or other radio stations because she had three things against her: she was a woman; she was “coloured”; and she had a thick English accent.
This was despite her experience as a broadcaster at the BBC, where she had interviewed rising rock stars such as Mick Jagger, Jimi Hendrix, and members of The Who.
She found a job at CJVB in Vancouver, making peanuts coproducing Indian programs.
By 1979, Datt was producing TV shows for the local multicultural channel as a single mother, something she continued doing for 40 years. She started her first radio station in 1987.
In 2015, on the birth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr., Datt launched Spice Radio’s annual Hands Against Racism campaign.
It coincides with and was inspired by Holi, the Hindu festival of colours, where people gather together to share laughter and repair broken relationships.
People visit the station or attend an annual party in nonpandemic years, place their hand in a rich palette of paint colours, and leave a hand imprint on a long sheet of white paper, along with a message.
“For me, starting Hands Against Racism was to look deeply into my own soul,” Datt said. “Are we racist? If I can become nonracist and talk about it openly, maybe my friends will become nonracist. And so slowly and gradually, we will move forward and eliminate as much racism as we can in our own lives. That was the idea behind it.”
Spice Radio’s Hands Against Racism has won awards from the B.C. government and the B.C. Association of Broadcasters. It has also attracted the attention of everyone from Premier John Horgan to members of the federal and provincial cabinets to entertainers and human-rights activists.
“I think I was very impressed by the teachings of Martin Luther King,” Datt said.
She added that she also remains an admirer of former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi, who was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984 in retaliation for ordering the Indian Army to attack the Golden Temple in Amritsar five months earlier.
Following her death, mobs who were spurred on by Gandhi's party went on rampages attacking and murdering thousands of Sikhs.
Gandhi was widely loathed by Sikhs for dispatching troops to the Golden Temple to flush out armed militants, but Datt insisted that the former prime minister held the community in very high regard.
"In my interview with her, she talks with so much passion about the Sikh community," Datt said. "She says 'they're very hard working people.'...She made mistakes, but overall, she wasn't a bad person."
Datt added that because Gandhi married outside of her faith, she was barred from going to a Hindu temple even though her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, was India's first prime minister.
Over Datt's illustrious career, she's interviewed top Bollywood stars, some of the world's greatest humanitarians, and received the Order of British Columbia. Along the way, she's stood up to death threats following Gandhi's assassination and managed to keep her business afloat through tough economic times.
On her 75th birthday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sent a letter of congratulations and Premier Horgan phoned to express his best wishes.
It's been an incredible journey for Datt, spanning four continents.
"Well, I started my life running," the veteran broadcaster revealed in a message to friends and family after her birthday. "I was only 10 months old when I started walking and by the time I was two years old, we had already been to India."