An Uncommon Road: How Canadian Sikhs Struggled out of the Fringes and into the Mainstream by Gian Singh Sandhu
(Echo Storytelling/Heritage Group Distribution $29.95)

Review by Gurpreet Singh

Today, harjit Singh Sajjan is the first Sikh federal Minister of National Defence and Jagmeet Singh is the first Sikh leader of the federal NDP.
But, as Gian Singh Sandhu?s subtitle, How Canadian Sikhs Struggled out of the Fringes and into the Mainstream suggests, the Sikh community?s journey to gain widespread respect, with only 2% of Canada?s population, has been fraught with racism.

In his memoir, An Uncommon Road, Gian Singh Sandhu recalls how he came from India in 1970 to Williams Lake, where he went into the lumber industry and started Jackpine Forest Products in 1987.

To become a part of the Canadian mainstream he had to cut his hair?a painful experience for a devout Sikh, for whom cutting long hair is unthinkable. However, he grew his hair back when the situation changed and Canadian society started showing signs of openness. He credits a Canadian friend for encouraging him to follow his religion openly.

His daughter was harassed at school because of her ethnicity. But this memoir is not merely a forum for personal revelations. Sandhu proceeds to provide historical background to the Sikh struggle against racial discrimination, highlighting complex issues such as Sikh extremism and the Air India tragedy.

Efforts to carve a separate and independent Sikh homeland (Khalistan) out of India had its roots in events of the early 1980s. Sikh leadership was fighting for concessions for their minority community as well as political autonomy for the state of Punjab, which remains the home for the followers of Sikhism through democratic means.

Previously the situation had escalated with the emergence of Babbar Khalsa, an extremist group formed in 1978 that believed in armed resistance against injustice. Gradually, the movement turned violent and death squads began killing innocent Hindus in Punjab.

This divisiveness culminated in an army invasion on the Golden Temple Complex, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs in Amritsar, in June 1984. Accusing the militants of stockpiling arms and ammunition in this place of worship, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered a military attack on the shrine.

The infamous army operation left many innocent pilgrims dead and buildings heavily damaged. This enraged Sikhs all over the world, including in Canada. On October 31, 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards at her official residence in New Delhi. This was followed by anti-Sikh massacres allegedly engineered by the supporters of Gandhi?s Congress party.

The movement to establish an independent state of Khalistan eroded considerably by the mid-1990s, partly because the militants lost public sympathy due to excesses committed against ordinary civilians.
In the meantime, Air India Flight 182 from Vancouver to London was bombed mid-air above the Irish Sea in June 1985, killing all 329 people aboard. The crime was blamed on Vancouver-based Sikh separatists associated with Babbar Khalsa, now a designated terror group.

As one of the founders of the World Sikh Organization (WSO), Sandhu points out in his book how the incident brought the entire Sikh community under the microscope. He himself became a target of racial taunts and came under surveillance merely because of his advocacy for Sikhs, even though the WSO denounced violence.

Sandhu goes into depth as to how Indian agents have been trying to malign the WSO and link it with violent groups such as Babbar Khalsa, even though the WSO never endorsed extremism and encouraged its members to stay away from violence and to keep a safe distance from state provocateurs. Not only was the WSO dubbed an extremist group, Indian diplomats were discouraged by Canadian politicians from mingling with its leaders.

Sandhu and some of the people close to him, including one his neighbours in Williams Lake, were subsequently denied visas by the Indian government. Sandhu clarifies in An Uncommon Road that he has had arguments with extremists, including the late Talwinder Singh Parmar, the Babbar Khalsa leader who was the alleged mastermind in the Air India conspiracy. He has also denounced hate speech made by another Babbar Khalsa activist and former Air India suspect, Ajaib Singh Bagri (in a public speech at New York?s Madison Square Garden, Bagri threatened to kill 50,000 Hindus).

Sandhu believes that the Air India bombing could be part of a larger conspiracy, involving Indian spies, to discredit Sikh activists and weaken their cause. He writes that some Sikhs, including himself, were equally disturbed by the deaths of innocents aboard the ill-fated flight and would never condone such action by anyone.

The WSO, meanwhile, has tried to build bridges with other communities and faith groups, such as Indigenous peoples, Jews, Muslims, and LGBTQ groups. The founders of the Sikh faith have always taught their followers to stand up for everyone. In the face of criticism from many orthodox Sikhs, the WSO has supported the demand for allowing same-sex marriage and same-sex education in schools. 9781987900163

Gurpreet Singh is an independent journalist and a broadcaster with Spice Radio (1200 AM) in Burnaby. He publishes Radical Desi, an online magazine and he writes frequently for The Georgia Straight.