A community built by change: the many movements of the Punjabi diaspora

Even with our backs against the wall, we find a way to move forward

Angad Deol

From the first people who roamed Punjab, to those marching for their future today, ours is a community built on adaptation — not complacency.

The plight of the Punjabis passed down from generation to generation is something we take pride in no matter whose soil we may stand on. Even with our backs against the wall, we find a way to move forward.

Our place in Canada

Some of the first Punjabis to arrive in Canada came over in the early twentieth century, with the promise of Western riches and a fresh start at life being the main sell.

The cultural shift from the exotic lands of North India to the cold and harsh winters of British Columbia was a sacrifice many Punjabis felt was necessary to provide a better life not only for themselves, but for their children, who they hoped would help the Punjabi community progress forward in a new land. However, mounting fears of job loss and racial biases led to the 1908 ban on immigration from India to Canada.

Of course, it would be easy for the story to end here. But Punjabi activists fought for their right to enter Canada, no matter how much red tape the government put in their way. The Panama Maru case of November 1913 was a groundbreaking success, allowing 38 Punjabi men to enter Canada despite the immigration ban.

Yet, this victory led to the tragic 1914 Komagata Maru incident, in which a ship with mostly landowning Punjabi immigrants sailed to Canada in order to emulate the success of the Panama Maru situation. Further, since Canada had amended the regulation loopholes that had allowed the Punjabi men from the Panama Maru case to enter Canada, after a months-long legal battle, the passengers on Komagata Maru were sent back home.

When they arrived at Budge Budge, an Indian port near Kolkata, World War I was underway, and British officials were suspicious about Indian loyalties. In this intensified atmosphere, when the British Indian police and soldiers did not allow the Komagata Maru passengers to leave, a conflict broke out and 20 passengers were slain.

Despite the tragic events that unfolded, a major takeaway from this event that I grew up hearing was that no matter how many times the immigration officials sabotaged the attempts of the passengers, they held their ground until their voices were heard.

As time passed, more and more Punjabis immigrated from North India to North America following the events of 1914. And now, in the legislatures that once attempted to shun us from this land, we have elected officials, most notably Jagmeet Singh, the first long-term racialized leader of a federal political party in Canada.

1947 and 1984

The 1947 partition of India and Pakistan — which led to a drastic overnight shift of where we called home — is an event that left scars which remain to this day.

Following the conclusion of British occupation in 1947, the land that Britain colonized as British India was divided into Pakistan, comprising the north-eastern and north-western parts of the country that were Muslim-majority, and India, the Hindu-majority territory that was the rest of the country.

Punjab was an Indian state right on the border of West Pakistan and India. Its location was a recipe for sectarian violence, as Hindus and Sikhs — a majority Punjabi community — migrated toward India, and Muslims crossed to Pakistan. The subsequent conflicts resulted in the horrific murders of women, children, and men on all sides.

This overnight change left the Punjabi community in fear and flux. A state once home to a diverse array of Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims coexisting in harmony was left in shambles due to poor management of a delicate separation.

My father made sure to educate me on this catastrophe from a young age, ensuring that I understood that the way Punjabis rallied together after the partition and kept moving forward made us who we are. Even in the face of bloodshed and the destruction of ancestral property and families, we found a way to recover and keep pressing on — scars and all.

It was 37 years later when the next major tragedy struck. In June 1984, then prime minister of India Indira Gandhi launched an attack on the most holy site in the Sikh religion: Punjab’s Golden Temple. The goal of this “Operation Blue Star” was to capture Sikh leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.

Although the Indian Government claims the military raid led to 400 deaths, unofficial tallies reach the thousands. Following the assassination of Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, close to three thousand innocent Sikhs were slaughtered in brutal ways as retaliation.

Of course, Punjabis did not take this lying down. Instead, they took to the streets to demand justice. It’s in our culture to be heard; our loud music is a representation of our willingness to fight loudly for what is just.

A New York Times article details the actions of thousands of Sikhs taking to the streets across India to protest the wild injustice that occurred in Operation Blue Star. To this day, little justice has been served for the countless victims of murder, rape, and arson in the attack on Punjabi and Sikh culture.

In all honesty, I’m only scraping the surface of these tragedies, partly because of how hard it is emotionally to see how poorly my people have been treated by countries I call my homeland.

However, it’s also important to shed light on these issues because you can’t create change without recognizing the mistakes of the past. It’s the wounds of these events that have helped drum up support for the ongoing farmers’ protests and the very farmers protesting across India today, the majority of whom are Punjabis.

The ongoing struggle: farmers’ protests

In September, the Indian Government passed three new laws aimed at deregulating the agricultural industry, sparking the farmers’ protests. The most devastating change of this legislation is the loss of a minimum set price at which the government would purchase crops from farmers, instead offering farmers the ability to sell to private businesses directly.

This change to the long-standing law has the potential to devastate small farms that are already suffering due to the climate crisis and financial stress coming from industry changes.

In claiming that these laws will “unshackle farmers,” the Indian Government is attempting to instead chain them to a new master: corporate powers that will abuse their labour until they’re forced to give up the land they’ve cultivated for generations. And as history has proven again and again, Punjabis are responding in the way they know best: by letting their voices be heard. They are protesting to repeal the new laws, not only back home in Punjab, but around the world.

Imagine that: in a country like Canada where we were once banned due to racial prejudice, we are now able to stand up and express our views on events happening in India. As I’m typing this, Punjabi farmers are still fighting these new laws. Despite the agitations, sabotage, and violent attacks against the peaceful protestors — including the imprisonment of journalists and the seizure of internet and water access — we continue to rally until justice is served. Farmers even have Rihanna talking about them — Rihanna!

I once felt alienated from my culture. I’ve written about this for The Varsity in the past, but now, I’m proud to call myself a Punjabi, and I hope my words in this piece are more than just a history lesson. I hope that whoever reads this also realizes the importance of standing up for change because the status quo only hurts those on the margins. When you see the impacts of colonialism, racism, and the continual oppression of the working class, silence can’t be an option. It isn’t for me, and it isn’t for my community.

To be Punjabi is to continually speak up for those in peril. It’s the religious duty of all Punjabis, no matter which faith you believe in, to give back to others when possible. As a Sikh, the value of Seva — or the selfless service of volunteering energy at the gurdwara, in my community and at home — was instilled in me from a young age, and to this day, I proudly support progressive movements globally.

Flux is not only in my DNA, but in the experience of those from my background who walked the Earth before me. Through all the losses we faced, the losses both in the court of law or of life, we continue to strive for change so that the generations that come next can occupy a safe space to fight for these same values.