Gurdwaras, Kabaddi & Politics

(The Tribune, August 7,1993)

"The Sikhs have more problems than others. But to my mind, they are an active, enthusiastic and hardworking people. They are an integral part of the Canadian community."

Out of 1,50,000 Indians living in Metro Toronto, 80,000 are Sikhs", informed my host as we sat sipping coffee in the revolving restaurant atop the highest tower in the world, the Sean Tower.

"What are the main activities of Sikhs in Canada?" I asked.

"The Sikh community in Canada is quite active socially and politically. We have also tried to preserve our cultural heritage, in the past two years, we have built three new gurdwaras at a cost of $ 10 million.  In all, now there are nine gurdwaras in Toronto where every evening a large number of people gather," Mr. Singh enthusiastically told me. Coffee over, in the lift fast descending the tower, Mr. Singh offered to take me to a newly-built gurdwara near his home in Brumpton. I accepted the invitation. Speeding along the marble-smooth highways that characterise the whole of North America, I pondered in my heart how lucky I was to have received the warm hospitality of my home in distant Canada.

The Sikhs first came to Canada some 100 years ago through West Coast in Vancouver. Most of them were army men. However, like most other Indians, they migrated in large numbers in1972 in search of jobs and better living conditions.

At present, almost one-sixth of the total Canadian population, they have spread to all nooks and corners of the country though they still tend to cluster in and around the two big cosmo­politan centres - Toronto and Vancouver.

Economically a flourishing community, there are many out­standing professionals among them in all fields - doctors, engineers, professors, traders and business men

Real estate, restaurants, export-import houses, transport business, taxis and trucks even sari-sales are their traditional strongholds.

Politically, too, they are Quite active. There are two Sikh MLAs in Canada for the second term in oiffice. Mr Gulzar Singh Cheema, a Sikh from Gurdaspur, living in Canada since 1.987, has won from British Columbia and Moe Sahota, a lawyer from Vancouver, has bagged the Winnipeg seat in Manitoba.

The Sikhs have a good clout in the Labour Party, a member of whose 63-member executive is a Sikh. My host, Inderjeet Singh Bal, I learn, is the first Asian co-chairman of the Standing Committee on Multi-culture of the Liberal Party of Canada. 

"Gurdwaras are the centres of community life," says Inderjeet as our car comes to a halt in front of a new gurdwara in Brumpton. Sure enough, there is its golden dome, bathed in the dusk light, shining brightly.

The first thing that I noticed on getting down the car was the basket ball net supporting a large number of energetic players, both men and women, totally lost in the game. We moved inside the holy precincts and were greeted by everyone.

There was community kitchen next to the prayer hall and we partook the Guru's langar. After the delicious meal, we were ushered in a room where children were learning to chant the holy verses. Some were playing the tabla while others were trying their hand on the harmonium. Most of them were wearing the traditional dresses and the girls instinctively covered their heads with chunnis as they saw us approaching.

Gurdwaras in Canada are indeed centres of all social, educational, political and even economic activities. Regular gurmat classes are held at all gurdwaras and there are competitions in Gurbani recitation, symposiums on books and competitions in indoor and outdoor games. Classes in the Punjabi language are held after 6 pm.

Almost every Sikh is aware of the dictum: "If you want to kill a community, kill its language."  Therefore, the Punjabi language is receiving a great boost in Canada. On week-ends there are even three-hour-long government-aided classes and many other heritage and language programmes.

Many Punjabi weeklies are brought out. The prominent among them being Chardi kala, Sanjh Savera and Pardesi Punjab. Punjabi cultural programmes are frequently held in which top artists from Punjab are invited.

Meeting a large number of Sikhs, their families and friends, is a privilege. Immediately, you become one of the family and are treated on a par with the other members. Everyone is eager to talk to you, to learn about Punjab and to tell you more about Canada and also to show you around.

However, each of them is deeply perturbed, in fact gravely concerned about the recent happenings in Punjab. Many even harbour the feeling that the Sikhs are not treated well in India.

As lasting solutions to the Pun­jab problem, they suggest that all violence should stop im­mediately and the state should take the initiative first. Fake encounters should end, Delhi riot victims should be rehabilitated and the guilty should be brought to book. Those in police custody without any cases against them should be released. The government should invite the Sikh leaders in Punjab for talks.

The political activities of the community have not gone un­noticed by the government of Canada. There have been many a discussion in the legislative bodies but the Sikhs have been successful to a great extent in campaigning for their cause.

A Liberal Party MP, Mr Carman McClelland, who I met in Toronto, told me: 'The Sikhs have more problems than others. But to my mind, they are an active, enthusiastic and hardworking people. They are an integral part of the Canadian community."

Whatever may be the political there is no doubt that the Sikhs in Canada are fast gaining a place of pride in all spheres of life. The first turbaned Sikh, an Amritdhari, Mr Gopal Singh Sidhu, was allowed to join the Canadian police a year ago, recently, the first Canadian Kabbadi Cup was held in the Varsity Stadium at Toronto with teams participating from many developing countries and India. A few Canadian MPs have also visited some gurdwaras.

Interacting with the Sikh com­munity in Canada as a visitor from Punjab is indeed a great pleasure but one desparately wishes to see them fully emerge from the political turmoil facing them both at home and abroad.

 İAnil Sarwal