Experiences Of Lectures

Bhagat Singh in Canada

Chaman Lal*

A series of Lectures on Bhagat Singh and his ideas of revolution were planned by Indo-Canadian Workers Association (ICWA) Brampton in March 2020. The series was to begin from Brampton and was to be taken to other cities of Canada by either branches of ICWA or like-minded other groups or organisations. Due to onset of Covid-19 in mid-March 2020, whole Canada was shut up like other parts of the world, including India, so the series was postponed but not cancelled.

ICWA has different leadership in different cities, such as radicals lead ICWA in Ontario province, whereas CPM-oriented people manage it in British Columbia State’s cities. There is East India Defence Committee, which was set up by Hardial Bains, a leader of Ghadar Communist Party, a radical Maoist party at one time and very strong in many cities which launched many anti- racist struggles. There were other Progressive Cultural and Writers’ Associations among organisers of this lecture series. There were and are many left oriented journals also published from Canada. At one Hari P Sharma’s organisation IPANA and later (SANSAD) were much known, it used to bring out bi-lingual journal in Punjabi and English. Nowadays it is extinct, but some weeklies or monthlies continued for some more years like The Asian Times edited by Prithviraj Kalia in four languages-Hindi, Punjabi, English and Urdu or Nawin Duniya in Punjabi had continued the trend. During Covid crisis both Nawin Duniya and Asian Times ceased publication. But journals like Sarokaran di Awaz or Radical Desi still continue to hold the ground! Print or online print media has given it over now to electronic media like Radio, which is most popular, TV or podcasts! Many activists of old radical organisations have passed away like Chin Banerjee. Banerjee had written obituary of Hari P Sharma at his passing away in 2010. Both Chin Bannerjee and Hari P Sharma served as Professors in Canadian Universities and had earned laurels as academicians. Hari P Sharma’s old associate in IPANA, Raj Chauhan is now Speaker of British Columbia Legislature assembly.

The pending series of lectures materialised in March 2023.

In 2023, invitations from Surrey, Edmonton, Calgary and Montreal were received even before landing up in Canada. In year 2011, while on way to San Francisco in USA to deliver lecture on Ghadar party young hero Kartar Singh Sarabha on his birthday, I had stopped at Edmonton and Surrey to deliver lectures/meetings on Bhagat Singh Dalit literature. On my return to India in January 2012 from the assignment of Visiting Professor in Hindi at The University of West Indies (UWI), St. Augustine campus in Trinidad, I had my return journey through Toronto, so a lecture on Che Guevara and Bhagat Singh was organised at Brampton by Rationalist Society. At that very time, friends in Canada, especially Amrit Dhillon, husband of Bhagat Singh niece Inderjit at Brampton had expressed desire to arrange a lecture series, though many books of mine on Bhagat Singh came out after 2011-12. Amrit Dhillon’s efforts through ICWA brought fruit in the form of lecture series in March 2023!

I touched Toronto airport at 6 am on 24th March. Bhagat Singh niece Inderjit and her husband Amrit Dhillon were there at airport to receive me. Both not in very good health and Amrit Dhillon nearing 80 years, I was feeling a bit guilty.

Amrit Dhillon and ICWA had planned some Radio and TV interviews for propagating the event of 26th March, which included my lecture for 45 minutes on revolutionary ideas of Bhagat Singh and a one-hour play based on Bhagat Singh’s last days in prison by Punjabi play wright Davinder Daman. Though for Canadian Indians/Punjabis Bhagat Singh is most popular iconic figure for their socio-politico-cultural events, their main focus is more on plays in Punjabi. As play can engage people from different age and mental level, from kids to older people. It is a kind of fulfilling their aesthetic needs also, as most of Canadian Punjabis/Indians have not got integrated with Canada’s own original citizens of white or of some mix races. Canada as a nation or country is also not of ancient times. It was founded much later than USA, became a nation and has huge lands, mostly still uninhibited. Punjabis out of Indians had started reaching in Canada in early 1900’s and the first Gurdwara which was built in 1908 at Surrey was demolished by none else than Punjabis themselves to build a housing complex. There was resistance by some Punjabis/Indians against demolition, but the greed was more powerful than religious feelings and now only a token plaque is put up indicating the place to be the first ever Gurdwara of Canada built in 1908. However, the Gurdwara built in Abbotsford in 1911, stands as historic Gurdwara with a museum and Kamagatamaru ship monuments as the ship had landed at Vancouver in July 1914. It was made to wait at the seashore only for two months with 376 passengers onboard; only very few could land with court intervention. The remaining passengers had to travel back for two months to Bajbaj Ghat near Calcutta, where British colonial police fired upon them killing 20 passengers, whose memorial is built on the spot of shooting, which was inaugurated by first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and was taken care of Chittagong revolutionary Ganesh Ghosh for long time till his death.

Though I could impress the audience of nearly full Pearson Hall with around 300 people as most of the people in audience had never heard of those things which I generally speak to Indian audience or audiences outside India, I had to wind up before I could exhaust all the ideas, which I summed up in brief. There was no time for discussion as audience was waiting for the play and some songs. A poem of Faiz Ahmad Faiz was sung with modern instruments by a Canadian Pakistani, which was appreciated.

A day before the lecture I may have appeared in 2-3 radio or TV interviews and on 26th March itself, after the lecture, I went through two-hour long interview on one local YouTube channel of Nahar Aujla. In Canada, especially among Punjabis/Indians, radio is most popular mode of information. Very few people have subscribed to any newspaper in Canada, none in houses I enjoyed hospitality.

I was to leave for Abbotsford for few lectures in Surrey and Vancouver area for ten days, so I left Toronto on flight on 28th March, while on 27th giving some more interviews or outing, it was light raining season with moderate cold weather in most of Canada during my visit from 24th March to 1st May for almost five weeks.

At Abbotsford small airport, Taraksheel Society activist couple Paramjit and her husband picked me up and came over to their beautiful house on riverside. Next day on 29th April, I had to go through interviews with Canadian electronic media on different channels, most famous being Red FM and Connect, but smaller ones like Sher-e-Punjab like channels also had their studios. I appeared in short and longer interviews at channels as well as home set up studios for YouTube channels. One well known Indian journalist from Times of India-Manimugdha Sharma is now part of Red FM as well as doing research from Fraser University of British Columbia. In Canada, one may do as many jobs in the day combining Govt and private jobs legally. Among Punjabis/Indians it is a craze to work more hours, sometimes sixteen hours or more in a single day. Even when they have weekly break of two days, they take up private jobs of property dealing or work as realtors! Most of Punjabis with Govt. or private full time regular jobs, indulge in property dealing on weekends! As some of Punjabi hosts said that all are running after earning dollars-Canadian currency is also dollar, its value slightly less than US dollar. The situation has changed a lot after my last visit in 2012, when this kind of dollar earning rat race was not there, or less visible! Even when parents or kins of Punjabi/Indians settled as citizens of Canada are invited to stay permanently with children, they are also pushed into doing jobs like cherry/blue berry picking or such kind of jobs. People in their 80’s even 90’s do work from home doing translations etc, which are well paid.

One may look at this tendency critically, but one has to admit that there is no distinction between white collar or blue-collar jobs. People go in for the jobs which fetch them more money and blue-collar jobs are paid more! So, Indians shedding their inhibition for menial or labour jobs, take up hard working jobs which pay more bucks. Academicians of repute in India, who remained Professors in colleges and Universities, when come over to Canada, they forget the nose of their old academic career and accept jobs like bus driving without any inhibition! Long drives of goods trucks earn lot of bucks, more than other blue-collar jobs, so most of Punjabi settlers had heavy vehicle driving as profession for a length of time to enable them to buy a house. Housing is well organised. So first they go for two-bedroom flats with underground basement, which is generally rented to Indian students in Canada. With that earning they work many extra hours and reach in a position to go for a three-bedroom flat. Bank loans are easily available. Flats get pledged to bank for the amount they spend on buying. There is no Indian notion of ‘my home’ they change the homes like changing the clothes, buying new ones after a couple of years. So, 2 to 3, 3 to 4, 4 to five-room house, the race continues all the time leaving no time for leisure or entertainment. Many of them have houses in 2-3 cities, even in American cities as travelling and working in American cities is as easy as inside Canada!

As I was to spend almost ten days in Vancouver area, apart from visiting some historic sites and sight-seeing I wished my friends to organise as many meetings as possible during my stay, whether small in house meetings, or public hall meetings. After staying one or two nights at Surrey I moved to Abbotsford with a young relative. I had a second visit to historic 1911 built Gurdwara, which was once the centre of Ghadarite activists, in whose langar hall I was honoured with Siropa and a medal in 2011 by then MLA and minister Raj Chauhan, who is now Speaker of British Columbia assembly, but had his long association with Hari P Sharma’s radical left organisation. Raj Chauhan and other friends belong to NDP party, strong in British Columbia, where Ujjal Dosanjh, grandson of a Ghadarite from Hoshiarpur district of Punjab was the Premier one time or Chief Minister, in Indian political sense. I had met Ujjal Dosanjh in 2011 as well and during this visit also, we joined a dinner held by a common friend. He became controversial for changing parties, while losing his seat in elections. Ujjal has now taken to writing and one part of his autobiography was released in Delhi recently by his publisher Speaking Tiger in Delhi.

During my stay in Vancouver area, I visited British Columbia provincial assembly in Victoria, where one has to ferry by ship from Vancouver. During 2011 also I had visited and wished that in some way the reference to Bhagat Singh should come on record of assembly proceedings. Last time Harry Bains, Raj Chahuan and Jagroop Brar were our hosts, and Rachna Singh was part of us as visitors. (This time Rachna Singh was minister herself, though we could not meet!) Time was so short that we could not watch the proceedings of assembly. This time however it was pleasant surprise as we were invited by a Filipino background MLA Mable Egmore, who was once part of Drivers Union, led by Kirpal Bains, who was President of Drivers Union, and Mable was her deputy in union as Vice President. She was the one who extended an invitation to be her guest and visit Assembly premises and watch proceedings of the assembly. She received five of us warmly at Assembly gate and took us around the complex, where at one place pictures of all early Premiers were displayed including one of Ujjal Dosanjh. While in huge assembly library I could not gift any book, as I was left with none, but did present brochure of Bhagat Singh archives and Resource centre to be displayed. As we also met Niki Sharma the law minister in the assembly complex, I wished to present Bhagat Singh’s writings in Hindi to her, but she expressed her inability to read Hindi, though her parental background is from Jalandhar area of Punjab. We were introduced to Assembly speaker, who happened to be Raj Chauhan, a Hari P Sharma follower once, I presented the copy of Understanding Bhagat Singh to him and he invited us to watch the proceedings in afternoon session, when he will be chairing. In the meantime, Mable has managed to treat us as special visitors to be introduced to the members of assembly. I was first to be introduced by Jinny Sims, former MP and Minister to the house as Researcher on Bhagat Singh, the greatest icon of freedom struggle of India. Later Mable introduced the other four members of our group, especially mentioning Kirpal Bains to be her mentor in trade union! We got the copy of recording after some time. Not to be forgotten was the sumptuous lunch in assembly canteen, where minister Jagroop Brar met and MLA Jinny Sims joined for a while, expressing her concern about Khalistani and Amrik Singh’s neo-Bhindrawalian activities. Jinny Sims’s father was a communist activist in Punjab. We returned after that session and Mable Igmore came out to see us off. Mable once again referred to Bhagat Singh in assembly in context of a race done in his name. In Canada races are part and parcel of social life. Mable is part of queer movement of Canada and it does not affect her electoral prospects as she had already won her seat for four times in a row

During my stay in Vancouver area, where I lived in Surrey, Abbotsford and Maple Field, few notable things are-visit to Abbotsford old fort Langley site, where the mention to aboriginal children being killed, which has been the hot topic of Canadian newspapers and society since few months. I saw their genocide monuments being built in the hearts of cities like Surrey, Edmonton, Calgary and Toronto, may be few other cities too. In those designated spaces, the design or pictures of skulls of aboriginal children, their dresses, shoes with the banners like every child matters etc have been displayed and they attract huge attention of visitors. In most of place the use of Punjabi along with English and French was quite common.

Other smaller meetings in Surrey area was one at Jarnail Singh artist’s studio. A small indoor meeting, in which Punjabi senior writer of Pakistani origin Fauzia Rafique joined. CPM activists also held indoor meeting at Kulwant Dhesi spacious house with respectable presence and meaningful discussion, in which historian Sohan Singh Pooni and activist Surinder Sangha joined in intense discussion. A larger public hall discussion was held in East India defence committee hall Surrey, where for more than two hours an exhaustive discussion was held on the role of Bhagat Singh’s ideas to change the society on socialist principles.

Irony of the all these meetings was there were very few participants, who might have attended all meetings, not due to time constraints, but political constraints. Like their counterparts in India, they attend only their own faction or group’s meeting despite commonality in views and need for broader unity.

After spending ten days in British Columbia province, I moved to Alberta province with Capital at Edmonton. Here there is a strong Punjabi background group with Progressive Cultural platform with 85 years old Prithvi Raj Kalia as its main spirit. Kalia, himself a Hindi and English writer and retired official of Haryana Sahitya Akademi, contributed a lot after migrating to Canada post-retirement, bringing out Asian Times, bringing out books on Bhagat Singh, Ghadar Party, Marxism etc to mark the anniversaries. Jasvir Deol with Mangat Ram Pasla group political affiliation during his student days in Punjab is NDP popular MLA here. So, a well-attended public meeting was held here in a hall of Punjabi background Canadians. There was lively discussion. Mayor of Edmonton is a Punjabi background theatre activist, who was earlier a federal minister in Trudeau Govt. Amarjit Sohi came to see me after the meeting as he belonged to Trudeau’s liberal party while Deol belonged to NDP. Amarjit Sohi with a family background from Sangrur district of Punjab was a theatre activist, who in seventies had gone to Bihar to watch radical Naxal movement’s cultural activities, where he was arrested by special cell of Bihar police. He was tortured like anything and could have even been eliminated given the circumstances, which have still not changed much, perhaps worsened. To his good fortune and to the bad fortune of Bihar police a young IAS Punjabi lady with academic and poetic background had just joined as Deputy Commissioner of Jahanabad district. She raided the circuit house where Sohi was being tortured and called for the police officers who tortured Sohi. Sohi was sent to hospital immediately and the brutal police officers, one in drunkard condition and threatening DC herself was bundled out of the district. Sohi suffered few years of prison and later as a free person, again led a protest demonstration of some workers to the same Deputy Commissioner, this encounter did not turn bitter and things were settled smoothly! Later Amarjit Sohi migrated to Canada with whole family and in turn of the events became federal minister in Trudeau Govt. He continues to be the Mayor of Edmonton. Mayor post in Canadian system is very important. While meeting him, I asked him to display Bhagat Singh portrait in Mayoral office and get Bhagat Singh books in libraries of Edmonton. I am not sure whether they would do it as politicians in Canada, while more accessible and less arrogant than their Indian counterparts are not much different when coming to action.

My next lecture was very next day in Calgary, which is larger city of Alberta province. Here Taraksheel society organised lecture in a NGO hall again with large gathering and very congenial atmosphere for discussion. After spending a week in Alberta province, I returned to Ontario again for the last leg of my lecture tour as 30th April was the Taraksheel programme in same Pearson Hall in Brampton, from where I began on 26th March. After return to Ontario I stayed with different friends and visited my old friend and very sensitive Punjabi poet Navtej Bharti in London Ontario, almost one and half hours drive from Brampton. I had once translated his poem in Hindi-Ram Ab Ayodhya Nahin Lautenge-Rama will not return to Ayodhya now! It was in background of 1992 Babri Masjid demolition, it was published in popular Hindi daily Jansatta. Though this was equally good poem, the poem which got popular about this theme was Kaifi Azmi’s. There were display of Che Guevara photos in his small but aesthetically beautiful villa. It was there that we talked about Bhootwara, of whose he and just one more Prem Pali are survivors as a day before Surjeet Lee, had expired in Patiala. In Brampton, one indoor meeting was held in the house of Arider Hundal, a member of Canadian Communist Party, who fought local election. His father a progressive poet Harbhajan Hundal was affiliated to Pasla group in Punjab, who passed away recently. One pleasant invitation came from Concordia University Montreal.Dolores Chew organised a meeting at a small hall in Concordia University on 26th April. It was the only academic meeting in the whole lecture tour, though it was of radical political thinkers’ group. I was in hall just in time as I had missed a train to Montreal from Toronto, I was allowed to travel in next train without any additional charge with a gap of three hours, the train journey itself was pleasant, meeting an Afghan student during the journey and arousing her interest in atheism of Bhagat Singh! Apart from a very useful and rich discussion at Montreal, I met Maya Khankhoje, daughter of legendary Ghadarite revolutionary Pandurang Khankhoje whom I had met in Delhi earlier and our JNU alumnus Diane Sha, while Anand, son of legendry Hindi writer Yashpal, who was instrumental in organising this meeting. I travelled to Ottawa, the capital of Canada from Montreal before returning to Brampton for the last meeting on 30th April.

 As 30th April meeting organised by Taraksheel society was more focussed on a play by a Punjabi playwright, I was asked to speak briefly on Bhagat Singh, which I did with great precision.

The only major province and city I missed out was Winnipeg in Manitoba, for which I had invitation in 2020, but which could not materialise in 2023.

With this tenth and last meeting in Canada, my lecture tour was concluded and my return ticket was booked for 1st May. Out of these ten meetings, seven were public meetings and three were indoor meetings. There were book exhibitions in most of public meetings, but very exhibitions had my books on display except few. Though I had circulated the list of my books to all organisers, but few of them got them for display.

Despite a successful tour one question continues to haunt this writer. Why Indians/ Panjabis who have chosen to take citizenship of Canada and are ministers/MLAs, part of ruling elite and yet they indulge more in Indian politics than in their adopted country? They don’t question the Canadian Government for playing second fiddle to US in almost all international affairs. They find it easy to condemn or praise Indian Government, but don’t question Canadian government. Perhaps if they start criticising Canadian Government for its pro-US policies their liberty to indulge in Indian politics will also get checked. The hypocrisy of Sonia Gandhi being a foreigner, so can’t be an Indian PM, but how Indian background people at so many places become Presidents/Prime Ministers and are not called anti-national in the countries where they have become rulers, and Indian Government and people both celebrate it when Sunk becomes UK Premier, but in India any person of foreign origin is a suspect/anti-national etc.

The return journey was as difficult as the first journey was but again this was compensated by watching the Satyajit Ray film Jalsaghar itself!

[*Chaman Lal is a retired Professor of JNU and Honorary advisor to Bhagat Singh Archives and Resource Centre, New Delhi. His whatsapp no is 9868774820 and email is]

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Vol 56, No. 17-20, Oct 22 - Nov 18, 2023