‘Remembering the bloody side of Vaisakhi’ by Gurpreet Singh

From Georgia Straight, Vancouver, April 17, 2011

Whereas the Vaisakhi festival is marked with prayers and celebrations in the Lower Mainland every year, Indo-Canadians often overlook a bloody side of the carnival that changed the course of Indian history.

Around this time of year, the harvest festival of Vaisakhi is the focus of parades, which are mainly organized by Sikh temples in Vancouver and Surrey. These events coincide with the anniversary of the birth of the Khalsa, a force of devout and armed Sikhs created by the tenth master of the Sikh faith, Guru Gobind Singh.

But a gory historical aspect also needs to be remembered.

It was during Vaisakhi in 1919 when British troops opened fire on supporters of the passive-resistance movement. They had assembled at the Jallianwala Bagh (garden) in Amritsar to oppose the arrests of national leaders seeking the independence of India.

According to the official figures, close to 400 people died as a result of the shootings.

The incident that came to be known as Bloody Vaisakhi influenced revolutionaries, who fought against the British occupation of India.

Rabindranath Tagore, a prominent Bengali scholar and poet, renounced his British knighthood.

Many years later in London, Udham Singh, a Sikh rebel, assassinated Michael O’Dwyer, who was British lieutenant-governor of Punjab at the time of the massacre.

The assassin described himself as Mohammad Singh Azad, an unusual alias that symbolized secularism. The massacre of innocent Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs united nearly all Indians, irrespective of their castes, cultures, and ideologies.

The incident jolted the Sikh peasantry in particular. Back then, Sikhs were considered to be the backbone of the British army, and Punjab remained a garrison state. So much so that the pro-British Sikh clergy was unmoved by the bloodshed.

Arur Singh, a custodian of the Akal Takht, highest temporal seat of the Sikhs, actually honoured Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, who led the firing squad.

It is pertinent to mention that Singh was the grandfather of Simranjeet Singh Mann, a prominent Sikh separatist leader in India.

When Queen Elizabeth visited Amritsar in 1997, leftists campaigned for a formal apology, whereas the Sikh leadership did not insist on one. She went to the Jallianwala Bagh, laid a wreath at the memorial, signed the visitor book, and returned without making any apology.

I remember how I once caught Mann off-guard when he was complaining at a news conference that Sikhs who made many sacrifices for the independence of India were being treated as second-class citizens in the country. I shot him a question about whether his grandfather did the right thing by honouring Dyer.

Mann became thoughtful for a moment and then said, “What he did was wrong.”

Both moderate and fundamentalist groups within the Lower Mainland Sikh community continue to ignore the incident, which sent a message about the importance of unity and secularism.

Supporters of Khalistan, a theocratic Sikh homeland, wish to separate from India. They organize the Vaisakhi parade in Surrey and cannot to be expected to hold a memorial service for the victims of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

However, the so-called pro-India and secular moderates, who organized the Vaisakhi parade in Vancouver, have also overlooked this part of history.

This year, only two progressive groups—the Indo-Canadian Workers’ Association and the Fraser Valley Peace Council—came forward to hold a candlelight vigil in memory of the victims of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre at Surrey’s Holland Park.

Despite rain showers, people of both Indian and Pakistani origin gathered there on Friday evening.

After all, the two nations were one before independence and the religious division of India in 1947. Many Muslim families who migrated to Pakistan lost relatives in the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. It was a common tragedy before the partition of the country.

Ironically, the creation of Pakistan divided communities that were together when British troops fired indiscriminately at the Jallianwala Bagh gathering.

A moment of silence was held in the memory of the victims. A prominent satirist and political activist from Punjab, Bhagwant Mann, was the guest speaker. He insisted that the struggle for true independence must go on as the poor in India have no access to basic requirements.

He differentiated between the poor and the rich in India in this way: “While India is for the rich, Bharat (Hindi name of India) is still poor.”

Others who spoke on the occasion also insisted that secular forces should join hands, make it an annual event, and hold such memorials on a grand scale. Some of them demanded a formal apology from the British government. Politicians from both the Liberal party and the NDP also showed up.

The Jallianwala Bagh massacre carries a message not only for Indians, but for everyone who is opposed to imperialist wars and illegal occupations. Apart from unity and harmony, people can to learn the lesson of social justice from the sacrifices made at the Vaisakhi of 1919.

Gurpreet Singh is Georgia Straight contributor, and the host of a program on Radio India. He’s working on a book tentatively titled Canada’s 9/11: Lessons from the Air India Bombings.

From Georgia Straight, April 17, 2011

Obama Celebrations and Balls

A seminar in Surrey January 31/09 on the Liberation Struggle of Palestine was slow to catch on but as it did, it jelled into a warm and vibrant hub of information on Palestinian liberation, Zionism, US imperialism, Israeli war crimes, and international Palestinian solidarity movements.


Organized by Fraser Valley Peace Council, the seminar was presented by Hannah Kawas (Canada Palestine Association), Derrick O’Keefe (StopWar.ca), Sid Shnaid (Independent Jewish Voices), Chris Shelton (World Peace Forum Society), and Nazir Rizvi (Peace Activist).


Sana Janjua’s spirited rendition of a selection of Mahmoud Darwish’s “Madeeh al-Thill al-‘Aaly”: ‘In Priase of the High Shadow’ (published at the end of this post) was utterly moving as was Shahzad Nazir Khan’s introduction to the event.

It was a heartfelt attempt by local peace activists to help re-gain the lost momentum of a powerful international Palestine solidarity movement. The time between the end of December 2008 and the beginning of January 2009 was marked both by the height of Israeli state violence against Palestinians in Gaza, and the resolve of the people around the world for peace and retribution. Peace-loving Jews and Israeli citizens were at the forefront of the movement, and it appeared as if the will of the people was about to yield some results.

Instead, it became silent after the weekend of the Eleventh. On January 15, a leading South Asian activist in UK roared in frustration: ‘I am pretty pissed off there is no national mobilsation this weekend, i think the momentum will suffer as a result.. I am also pissed off that StWC coalition have not called for the protests either at the israeli embassy, or for a national day of action in terms of disruption to shops and businesses etc that deal with israel.’

The news headings changed overnight to congratulatory messages from calling for an end to Israeli state violence in Gaza; the move to boycott Israeli goods/services and to picket Israeli consulates/embassies was halted; and, all necessary strings were pulled to achieve this dead end.

It is unfortunate that Obama inauguration had to serve as the global distraction to knock the wind out of the Palestine solidarity movement right when the action was mounting to force a peaceful resolution of some kind. Instead, the international politicians, media and corporations annihilated the gains of the movement by becoming engrossed in the newness of the new President of the United States.

It is a matter of great pride and inspiration for democracy-loving Black people of the United States of America, and for democracy-loving people of all colors everywhere in the World that the elections in the United States have delivered the White House to a Black Democrat family. The mirth of these inaugural balls is marred by the continued inaction on Gaza, and by US drone attacks on Pakistan where civilian death toll is rising each day.

Yesterday, hope was not with Obama but with the protesters at the picket outside US Consulate in Vancouver, and at the Candlelight Vigil at Robson Square. Today, hope still resides:




And Here.


Excerpts from ‘Madeeh Al-Thill Al-‘Aly’
In Priase of the High Shadow
By Mahmoud Darwish

It is for you to be, or not to be,
It is for you to create, or not to create.
All existential questions, behind your shadow, are a farce,
And the universe is your small notebook, and you are its creator.
So write in it the paradise of genesis,
Or do not write it,
You, you are the question.
What do you want?
As you march from a legend, to a legend?
A flag?
What good have flags ever done?
Have they ever protected a city from the shrapnel of a bomb?
What do you want?
A newspaper?
Would the papers ever hatch a bird, or weave a grain?
What do you want?
Do the police know where the small earth will get impregnated from the coming winds?
What do you want?
Sovereignty over ashes?
While you are the master of our soul; the master of our ever-changing existence?
So leave,
For the place is not yours, nor are the garbage thrones.
You are the freedom of creation,
You are the creator of the roads,
And you are the anti-thesis of this era.
And leave,
Poor, like a prayer,
Barefoot, like a river in the path of rocks,
And delayed, like a clove

You, you are the question.
So leave to yourself,
For you are larger than people’s countries,
Larger than the space of the guillotine.
So leave to yourself,
Resigned to the wisdom of your heart,
Shrugging off the big cities, and the drawn sky,
And building an earth under your hand’s palm — a tent, an idea, or a grain.
So head to Golgotha,
And climb with me,
To return to the homeless soul its beginning.
What do you want?
For you are the master of our soul,
The master of our ever-changing existence.
You are the master of the ember,
The master of the flame.
How large the revolution,
How narrow the journey,
How grand the idea,
How small the state!

Peace, Justice for Palestine!
BOYCOTT Chapters !ndigo
Cut the Ties with Israeli Apartheid

BC Liquor stores sell products created in illegal Israeli settlements on occupied Arab and Syrian land.
DON’T DRINK WITH APARTHEID – Boycott Israeli Wines
Canada Palestine Association, Vancouver

‘Apartheid: From South Africa to Israel’: Ronnie Kasrils (ANC)
Sunday, March 8/09, 7PM
Vancouver Public Library, Alice Mackay Room
Canada-Palestine Support Network

Fauzia Rafique

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