By Darshan Maharaja
While living in Africa for a few years, I noticed something funny. When I told my African friends that Gujarati’s are vegetarians, they asked why Abdul Gaffar (a Gujarati) was a non-vegetarian. When I explained that only Hindu Gujarati’s are vegetarian, they were more confused, and asked how come Gajendrasingh Chauhan, a Gujarati, was non-vegetarian. I explained further that among Hindu’s, only the Brahmins, Baniya’s etc. are vegetarian. This increased the Africans’ confusion even further, because they knew that Debkumar Ray, a Brahmin, routinely ate fish and chicken. Why? Because he is a Bengali Brahmin. Even after many such discussions over many years, my African friends were unable to comprehend the internal divisions of the Indian society. In their eyes, all the people from India and Pakistan were alike. In their national language, Swahili, there is only one word for all of them – ‘muhindi’, meaning natives of India. The demographic that we know in Canada as ‘South Asian’ had started settling in East Africa when India was undivided (i.e. pre-partition), so in the Africans’ minds, there was no distinction between even Indians and Pakistanis.
The situation is somewhat similar in Canada, too. In the eyes of the mainstream Canadian society, we are all ‘South Asians’. They do not understand our internal divisions, and perhaps are not even willing to make the mental effort to understand those divisions. Only what can be understood from outward appearance, and without mental effort, registers. From this viewpoint, the Sikh community (mainly men) and the Muslim community (mainly women) get an automatic advantage in terms of conveying their distinct identity to the mainstream society. This provides a handy tool to the mainstream political leaders, who want to play the politics of vote-bank. During his recent visit to India, Prime Minister Trudeau had joked that there are more Sikh ministers in his cabinet than in the cabinet of the Indian Prime Minister Mr. Modi (as if there is an international competition in this regard). Perhaps there was no one around to tell him the blunt truth, but the reality is that even without immigration, Indian society is so vastly multicultural that there is little room for such communal arithmetic there. Canadian society, claiming to be multicultural on the strength of immigration, will perhaps take centuries to reach the complexity of Indian society.
But this was all about how others view us. The unpalatable question is: how much importance do we give to our internal divisions in our lives? Do we even try to transcend these divisions to constitute a united society? On close examination, the situation does not appear to be one that can add to our pride.
Let us begin our examination with ‘our’ elected representatives – because they are the most visible face of our society in front of Canada.
While writing an earlier article (about Mr. Raif Badawi), I had to visit the MP of my area. The MP belongs to the Sikh community, and both the staff members in her office were also from the Sikh community. The previous MP was a white, and his staff included white, Muslim and Sikh members. The initial minutes of my visit were spent in clearing the confusion of both the Sikh staff as to why, when my name is Darshan, I am not a Sikh. I clarified to them that ‘darshan’ is a Sanskrit word, hence it is possible to have that name in any part of India (even my Pakistani friends, if we meet after a long time, joke with me saying ‘chalo aaj to aapke Darshan ho gaye’). However, it did not appear as if these two had even a passing familiarity with Sanskrit (or Indian society in the broader sense).
Coming to the provincial level, there is a Sikh MPP in Ontario (considered as an emerging star within the NDP), who, in his luminous parliamentary career, has introduced the following motions in the parliament: (1) that the month of April be declared as ‘Sikh Heritage Month’ in Ontario, (2) that the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 that took place in India be declared a genocide, and (3) that Sikhs be exempted from the law requiring the wearing of helmets when driving motorcycles.
It is apparent that this gentleman is not a representative of all the residents of his riding, but only of the Sikh community. There is no denying that what happened in India in 1984 was a serious crime, but if that sorry chapter is at all relevant in Ontario in 2016, then the genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka (that took place after the anti-Sikh riots) is equally relevant, and so is the genocide of Bengalis in the then East Pakistan in 1971. Even now, in the Baluchistan province of Pakistan, activists demanding rights are secretly killed and their corpses left in the streets. All these regions are part of ‘South Asia’. If it is in order to discuss these matters at the provincial level (which are really issues for the federal level), then this honourable MPP has failed to bring these serious issues to the attention of Ontario’s parliament.
When ‘our’ MP’s organize a Baisakhi Parade on Parliament Hill, the South Asian media publishes euphoric accounts of the event. Nobody pauses to ask: just three weeks before Baisakhi was the festival of Holi. Did they do anything for that? In the Indian sub-continent, Baisakhi is celebrated mainly in two provinces, viz., Punjab and Bengal, whereas Holi is celebrated pretty much all across India. Then why didn’t they think to celebrate that festival?
The answer to this question is bitter. The Punjabi’s coming to Canada are predominantly from the rural areas. The mindset and priorities of those who succeed and prosper in Canada by taking advantage of the system (and especially its shortcomings) cannot, without the benefit of education, transcend the boundaries of the limited range of thoughts of their previous tradition. And in an exceptional case when one can, if that person is a politician, he or she willy-nilly adopts the mental limitations of those whose support is essential for the politician to preserve his or her political career.
Consequently, although we are one community in others’ eyes, we cage ourselves inside our own internal divisions of caste and creed, and keep our distance from the ‘others’ amongst us. What is needed is an attitude that creates a sense of unity amongst all South Asians in Canada, no matter where they are from in the sub-continent – from Peshawar in the west to Chittagong in the east, from Gilgit in the north to Kanya Kumari in the south. We could throw off the yoke of British rule and become independent because such a feeling permeated in the society at the time. Today, when we don’t have that sense of unity even within our limited numbers in Canada, are we truly free?