Gurpreet Singh: Confluence of tears over oppression of Indigenous people can create wave of support for justice

Scores of people attended a Friday event in Surrey to pay respect to the deceased children by displaying candles, shoes, and toys

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      "Nanak naam chardikala, tere bhaane sarbat daa bhala.” 

      ("Lord, bless  everyone with high spirits and well-being.")

      – Guru Nanak

      That’s how the daily prayer of the Sikhs ends. Sikhism, since its foundation laid by Guru Nanak, has taught its disciples to stand up for others.

      It is not surprising, therefore, to see the community coming out in support of Indigenous peoples grieving over the finding of the remains of 215 Aboriginal children on the former site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School.

      Not only are Sikhs holding special prayers, like the one scheduled on June 13 at Guru Nanak Gurdwara, Surrey Delta, they held a vigil for the deceased children outside Surrey City Hall on Friday (June 4).

      Scores of people attended the Friday event to pay respect to the deceased children by displaying candles, shoes, and toys. As well, orange signs were displayed with numbers assigned to represent each student at the residential school whose identity had been erased. 

      The organizers were mainly those who have been holding demonstrations in B.C. in solidarity with farmers in Punjab, predominantly Sikhs, who have been camping outside New Delhi for the past six months.

      Many participants at last night's event oppose controversial farm laws passed by the right-wing Hindu nationalist government that many believe are going to harm the livelihood of rural populations. Even the falling rain on Friday evening did not deter them from remaining in their spots in the plaza outside Surrey City Hall.

      They intently listened to educator Fern Gabriel's story about Indigenous peoples and residential school survivors. Among those present were elected officials of all three levels of the government, including Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum and Coun. Jack Hundial.

      Earlier this year, Hundial introduced a motion asking for territorial acknowledgement to recognize the Indigenous land upon which Surrey sits, which was rejected by McCallum and his supporters on council. 

      Others present were MPs Sukh Dhaliwal and Peter Julian, B.C. parliamentary secretary for antiracism initiatives Rachna Singh, New Westminster councillor Chuck Puchmyar, and the first turbaned Sikh RCMP officer—Baltej Singh Dhillon.

      Among the antiracism campaigners in attendance were Imtiaz Popat, Sahib Singh Thind, and Doris Mah.  

      Antiracism educator Annie Ohana was the master of ceremonies. One of the key organizers, Dupinder Kaur Saran, also addressed the gathering. 

      Gurpreet Singh

      This took place even as Sikhs were mourning their own loss and pain caused by what the Indian state did to them in early June of 1984.

      At that time, the Indian army invaded the Golden Temple complex, their holiest shrine, to deal with a handful of militants. The ill-conceived military operation left many innocent pilgrims dead and the historical buildings inside the complex destroyed, leaving a permanent scar on the Sikh psyche.  

      The attack enraged the Sikhs all over the world and since then, they continue to remember this ugly event every year across the globe.

      The story did not end there. As a result of this incident, then Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards on October 31, 1984, following which thousands of Sikhs were slaughtered in different parts of the country, organized by political goons as the police looked away.

      In New Delhi alone, close to 3,000 Sikhs were murdered in the first week of November. Whereas the army was ordered to storm the Golden Temple Complex because of 400-plus killings in Punjab (often blamed on the Sikh militants) over the period of two to three years, Indian forces failed to come to the rescue of Sikhs who were being tormented in the national capital.

      It is therefore remarkable for Sikhs to take time out from their annual rituals of remembrance to stand up for Indigenous peoples.

      It is also true that such cross-cultural bridges are only possible in a country like Canada. If there is a place on Earth where any oppressed group of people can get a shoulder to cry, it’s here—a home to different communities with their own distinct cultures from almost all over the world.  

      Gurpreet Singh

      The month of June especially gives an opportunity to those aggrieved to come together and share their stories and pain, thus making flowery words such as diversity and pluralism even more meaningful, especially given that this is National Indigenous History Month.

      When the remains of 215 indigenous children were recently discovered, it triggered massive pain and trauma not only among First Nations, but others who could relate to the tragedy because of their own past experiences. For that, one needs to recognize a few parallels between the stories of the Sikhs and Indigenous people. 

      For Sikhs, hair is something sacred, much as it is with many Indigenous people. While Indigenous children were forced to give up their long hair and braids at the residential schools, the Sikhs, during 1984, were forced to cut their hair during the November violence.

      There are reports suggesting that the mobs actually forcibly cut the hair of many male Sikhs to humiliate them. Any discussion of brutal treatment of children at residential schools can actually be traumatic for the survivors and witnesses of the November 1984 violence. 

      Also, the residential schools were aimed at assimilating First Nations into the European ways and erase their cultural identity. The Sikhs, too, have been fighting for their own separate identity.

      Although Nanak clearly announced that he is neither a Hindu nor a Muslim, the majoritarian Hindu leadership in India continues to portray Sikhs as a part of the Hindu fold. The currently ruling right-wing Hindu nationalist BJP denies an independent identity to Sikhs.

      This partly contributed to the struggle between the Sikhs and the government of India in the first place. Another significant element of that conflict was the growing anxiety among Sikhs over the challenges their mother language faced from the increased influence of Hindi. This gives their case a similarity to the Indigenous struggle to keep their languages alive.

      It has been established that the residential schools barred Indigenous children from speaking their traditional languages. This played an important role in killing Indigenous languages in Canada, making some of those languages extinct.

      People like Balwant Sanghera of the Punjabi Language Education Association stand in solidarity with First Nations on this issue. Sanghera, who is also a part of the gurdwara in Richmond, was instrumental behind a statement made by his temple in support of the Indigenous communities grieving over the 215 indigenous children whose recently discovereed remains have saddened all of us. 

      It is important to mention here that in India, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu supremacist organization of which the BJP is its political arm, is repeating the history of residential schools. This is being done by plucking Adivasi (Indigenous) girls from the northeastern states in India and sending them to seminaries to be indoctrinated into right-wing Hindu nationalist ideology.  

      The context of Indigenous issues in Canada therefore aren't difficult to comprehend, as far as Sikhs are concerned.

      However, it is not just the Sikh-Indigenous allyship that matters. 

      These days, when we are witnessing a spike in hate attacks on the people of Asian heritage because of COVID-19, Sikhs can relate to that as well.

      Let’s not forget what happened to the Sikhs in the aftermath of the murder of Indira Gandhi. They can therefore comprehend what people of Asian origin are facing today in North America, or what the Japanese community faced in Canada following the Pearl Harbour attack in 1941. 

      Sikhs can understand the pain of being a minority under constant attack for something they cannot be held responsible for. They also endured violence in the wake of 9/11 in U.S. Both Muslims and the turbaned Sikhs taken as Muslims had to face a racist backlash for the incident blamed on Jihadis.

      Sikhs' commitment to Nanak and understanding of the universal brotherhood is one thing, but their first-hand experience of state violence and political persecution because of their minority status also makes them a natural ally of all marginalized groups fighting for equality and dignity in this part of the world.

      This is whether it’s the everyday fight of the Blacks or the Jews or even the ongoing struggle of the people of Palestine against Israeli aggression. We are not puzzled by the organizers of the June 5 vigil in commemoration of 1984 Sikh Genocide incorporating a Free Palestine slogan into their poster.

      That’s the beauty of the peoples’ struggles in Canada, which has become a rich confluence of tears that can turn into an ocean of hope for a truly just society. 

      Gurpreet Singh is cofounder of Radical Desi magazine and Indians Abroad for Pluralist India. This article is based on a talk he gave at the Squamish Rotary Club. He's the author of Why Mewa Singh Killed William Hopkinson: Revisiting the Murder of a Canadian Immigration Inspector and Fighting Hatred With Love: Voices of the Air India Victims' Families. Both were published by Chetna Parkashan. The Georgia Straight publishes opinions like this from the community to encourage constructive debate on important issues.