The Punjab Tango in Canada. A Conversation with Ujjal Dosanjh

Tracing the roots of the problem, and sharing some mistakes by one and all, where the issue has snowballed into, and highlighting the present times, hear Canadian Lawyer and Politician and former Health Minister, former MP and 33rd Premier of British Columbia interviewed by Kim Lalli, senior partner at Wedlake Bell, law firm in UK. At the Khushwant Singh Lit Fest in Kasauli.

You went from a dusty Indian village that we’re all sort of familiar with to lead the government of the third largest province in Canada. Now that’s incredible because even now, if I look at the UK, yes, we have Rishi Sunak, but certainly if you look 23 years ago, we would not have had many politicians of Indian origin. And I assume the same went for Canada. In terms of politicians, were there many at that time?

Well, there was one MLA that was elected in 1988, I believe, or 1986. He was the first brown  MLA to be elected in the country. And he was the first provincial cabinet minister too in ‘91, I got elected in ‘91 to the provincial legislature. I failed in ’79, in ‘83. And then I didn’t run for the next two elections because I was fighting the Khalistani’s from 1984 onwards and too tired to run in elections and make a living at the same time. And then I finally ran in ‘91 and against my own wishes, because I was making good money as a lawyer and politicians don’t make any money in that country.

I used to pay more in taxes as a lawyer than I made as an MLA when I got elected in ‘91. And one of my sons still is angry at that because he thinks we would’ve been richer had I just stayed as a lawyer.

A lot of the things that you had to fight against was your own community. You weren’t always backed by them when it came to elections. You had issues with the Pro-Khalistani’s. You were attacked by a fellow Sikh leaving you with 84 stitches and near dead. How did you overcome those? Were you ploughed on doing the right thing and they came around?

Well, I think maybe it needs a bit of an explanation, otherwise people will think, why are you talking about that. After the Golden Temple operation Blue Star, you have to understand that Khalistan in Canada existed before 1984. Many of the people who aren’t Punjabis, particularly people abroad, don’t understand that Khalistan existed in terms of an issue from the moment Jagjit Singh Chohan issued a declaration in the United States of America paying hundreds of thousands of dollars and declaring the state of Khalistan independence. And from then on, you had the ISI and that time the CIA funding these organizations long before June of 1984. I was one of the only few lawyers in town, and they were my clients in civil matters. Many of them. They were running around with Khalistani currency, titles of President of Khalistan or Prime Minister of Khalistan, those kinds of things.

So, when 1984 happened, there was a fertile ground for this hatred to set in, and we all were shocked. I, in fact, had come to India in December of 1983. The Council General in Vancouver knew that I was coming and bumped into me at one place and said, look, because in Canada, there was a lot of hatred in the Punjabi newspapers. In Punjabi radios in December of 1983 and before. So this Council General, I still remember his name is BK Mitra, just took me aside and said, sir, you should go and see Mrs. Gandhi. And I said, why would she see me? I’m just a lawyer. I am nobody. He said, no, you should go see Mrs. Gandhi. And impress upon her the fact that we need a solution to Punjabi issues because it’s having an impact in our lives abroad, not only in Punjab.

So, he set up a meeting for me. My wife and I travelled in December of ‘85, and we were here December, January. And then during that time, I met accidentally, I had a long argument with Bindrawale for about an hour on top of the Langar building. I met with Mr. Longawal for about two hours, had a deep discussion with him about what was going on. I wanted to do that because if I was going to meet Mrs. Gandhi, I wanted to know what was happening on the ground. And then I met Mrs. Gandhi, my wife was with me, and the first 5 or 10 minutes we talked about our fathers and grandfathers being in jails and being freedom fighters. And then we got onto the job of what was happening in Punjab. And my understanding at that time, look, one of the things I should say, I don’t have a dog in the race in terms of Indian politics.

I don’t support A, B, C, or D. I love India. It’s my motherland. And that’s why I come back. But I have no political connections or concerns in terms of interest myself. So, when we were having that discussion, she says to me, she says, I’ve had many meetings. She confirmed much of what Sant Longowal had told me about the meetings, but she said that I’m trying to negotiate a settlement, but I’m worried that every time you have a settlement with the Akalis, there’s usually another group that springs up and says, we don’t accept that. So there has to be a sense of finality at some point to these issues. And as a lawyer and as an activist, I could empathize with that. Those were the kind of last words she said to me before we left.

And then June ‘84 happens, and there was a large demonstration, 25,000 people demonstrated in the city of Vancouver against Operation Blue Star. We said nothing. We were quiet because everybody was hurt. We didn’t understand what was going on, thousands of miles away. So, we thought let them let out some gas and pressure. Then in August of ‘84, I used to be invited to all these cocktail parties at the Indian Consulate’s home in the mornings flag ceremony, in the evening cocktail reception. I never usually went because I was a busy lawyer raising three kids, doing other things. But that morning at the flag ceremony, some of the Khalistani extremists jumped the fence and had a running battle with the RCMP, burnt the flat, burnt the tricolour and had a skirmish. And you had RCMP helicopter overhead and the RCMP wrestling these guys down.

The Golden Temple is very sacred to many of us. But to me, and I wrote that at that time, to me, the tricolour was as sacred. Although I’m a Canadian citizen, but my ‘nana’ spent eight years in British jails fighting for the independence of the country. His ‘chacha’ came from Canada as part of the other party to fight for the independence of India and was hanged by the British.

So, I come from a very different background, a very secular background, and I was concerned. I was concerned on several counts. One, it had taken us a long time in Canada to get equality. Right to vote had been taken away from us in 1907. We got it back in 1947. We couldn’t practice professions until 1953, like lawyers, doctors, and engineers. And we had achieved a certain modicum of equality during those years. And I was worried that with all the violence and the threats that were happening in Vancouver and in other parts of Canada that we were actually hurting our own image as a community in Canada.

I had run twice and lost two elections by then. I was an activist, I was well known. So, I thought, I talked to my wife, talked to my children. Actually, they were very young. I felt that somebody needed to say something. Everybody was in a state of fear. Silence had gripped the entire community except the Khalistanis. Except the extremists. They were ruling the roost essentially. So, I decided that I would speak up, and I took me a week or so to figure out, I called a press conference. It was widely reported in the national media, and I basically made a couple of points.

One that it is important for us as Indo-Canadian and as Sikhs, to make sure that we do no violence in Canada and promote no violence against India. That if we do so, we are in danger of losing our own respect and equality in this country. Number two, that people have a right to ask for Khalistan. I have no issue with that. That’s a freedom. Even the Supreme Court of India says, Canada says you have the freedom of expression to demand anything you want, but I said, violence is not acceptable. If you want be violent and you want to really demand Khalistan, we disagree with you. The third thing I said was that if you really want Khalistan, please go back to India and fight there for Khalistan.

And so I received a barrage of threats, and from then on to about ‘89, ‘90, I was one of the two or three people in the entire country, perhaps in the entire western world at that time, who was speaking against these people and they targeted me and eventually and got me with an iron bar, getting out of my law office. I always say if it had been the 90s or the current situation, I probably would’ve been long dead because there are lots of guns available now. In those days, there weren’t that many guns available to people. So that’s sort of the essence of the struggle that I went through.

But do you think it’s difficult for Western governments with the focus on freedom of speech? I understand with violence, but non-violent demonstrations, I think the Indian government gets upset sometimes that we are having these, but there is freedom of speech, so they can’t have one rule for one set of people and one for another.

Well, two things. I think you have to sort of distinguish the two things. Freedom of expression, yes; violence and extremism, no. Number three, Western governments have been somewhat hypocritical. And I’ve said that publicly. I mean, you see what’s happening with Hamas vis-a-vis Israel and the Western governments, including our own Trudeau, has been very forthright in condemning the glorification of violence on the Canadian streets by Hamas supporters. He’s very clear. He condemned it immediately, but he has never condemned the violence and the glorification of violence by the Khalistani extremists both on the streets, outside the temples and inside the temples. So, I’ve said this to Canadian politicians, many of the Canadian politicians have no backbone. I’m sorry to say I’ve said that publicly. And that’s not to say anything personal against anybody. They know what extremists do on the streets and inside the temples and in what they preach is wrong, but they can’t bring themselves to say, okay, folks, we understand it’s your right to ask for Khalistan.

But, we, as a democracy, as the government of Canada, as the leaders of Canada, do not support the dismemberment of a friendly democracy. No matter how faulty that democracy may be. It is still a democracy. It is still a democratic country. But no Canadian politicians has had the gut courage.

So, I know Indian politicians are rather touchy. I’m an Indian through and through; Indian culture is very jingoistic because ‘wah-wah’, we’ve done that strike and this strike and we’ve done this, and we don’t sort of think calmly about these issues and what the implications, long-term implications are, such issues. And so, all these things get lost. But the things the Indian government needs to say to Canada is first, if you have the evidence against people like Nijjar or anybody else, present it in a formal request for extradition, several people pursuant to the extradition treaty have been already returned to India to face prosecutions. They should formally present the cases to the Canadian government. Number two, not be so touchy if the Canadian government says it is their right to ask for Khalistan, we can’t do anything. They can’t do anything.

But they should say to Trudeau and to the US and to Britain that you should condemn the dismemberment of a friendly country. Why aren’t you doing that? You consider us friendly. Please condemn the movement that is trying to dismember your friendly country.

Can you tell me, is the next generation feeling as strongly about these things or is it a certain, the first generation who went over to Canada, to the UK, are the youngsters as excited by it all?

I wish I was a social scientist, although I did some sociology courses in my BA, but that’s a very difficult question. First of all, if you ask, all Canadian Sikhs, the Khalistanis should stand up and be counted. I did that with them in 1984-95, they used to say, vast majority of the Sikhs want Khalistan. So I said to them, show me. I said, take ‘guru-granth sahib’ out of a temple. Hold a rally in a public place and say only Khalistanis should attend. They fell for it. They held a rally in Vancouver on the first anniversary of June 84. It was June 85. No more than 200 people showed up, and then they thought that they had done something wrong. The following year they went to another area, it is a big complex. They think they had 250 people. So, if you ask people to stand up for Khalistani, they would not, because most people aren’t Khalistanis. If I’m a Khalistani, I have two friends. I take them to the demonstration. People cover their faces when they’re demonstrating. So, 95% or more of the Sikhs in Canada and across the world are not Khalistanis. So, when you stop issuing visas to us, sitting abroad, you are actually creating problems for your friends that love your country.

From the audience

You said that the Canadian government condemns people who try to divide India out there?

No, it doesn’t condemn. They don’t condemn. No, that’s what I’ve asked them to do. I said you should as a friendly country, say freedom of expression, yes, but we don’t support what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to dismember a friendly country. They haven’t done that. And there’s no law that stops them from even talking about dismembering a friendly country. That’s freedom of speech. Violence and hate are prosecutable, but not freedom of speech.

Audience: Now I don’t know how far it is correct. Day before yesterday, Pannu says, now we will invade and put an attack similar to Hamas. So at least this is illegal. Canadian government should book him.

If he had said that on Canadian soil, police should investigate that and book him for hate speech. If he’s done that on the American soil, because he is an American, I think Canadian police should have perhaps reasonable grounds to investigate him for the statement that he made that all Hindus should be expelled from Canada. Now that is hate speech. And that is prosecutable.

Audience: I was not born in 1984. This time, for the first time in my life, in the international press, the Sikh issues, this Khalistan movement have been discussed for all good or bad reasons. So what you think that if there is a political problem back in India or in Punjab, you met Mrs. Gandhi as well. If the things would have been come to any sort of finality, this type of diplomatic embarrassment or at distasteful would have been avoided.

But if you are talking about the current spat, there are no angels in this spat. I think Prime Minister Trudeau had other options to deal with this issue. He could have dealt with it by allowing the press to talk about it and say, we are aware of it, we’re dealing with or get the foreign minister to say something rather than elevating it to the level of a somber statement in Parliament. And he may have had some political compulsions. But in your country here, there are political compulsions. So, you have your own problems in this country. Canada has its own problems.

Audience: So, the only question I have left is that with the situation that’s happening right now, personally, I may be wrong, but I feel like it’s very political there as well. He wants his vote, he wants his bank, everything. But my question is, do you think that the Prime Minister making a statement like that in Canada has the potential of backfiring in India for the people in India?

Well, it’s already backfired and he shouldn’t have done it that way. Many political leaders and thought leaders in Canada say that he perhaps has damaged himself as an interlocutor vis-a-vis India. It should have been raised. Look, if India has done it, gone across international borders and killed somebody that is legally by international law, wrong, but it doesn’t make it right just because the US does it or somebody else does it. But there were other options in the way they dealt with it, they could have dealt with it better.

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