The Punjab model of agitations in history — from Vancouver to home

The success of the Indian diaspora, especially the Sikhs, in Canada is seen back home through multiple lenses. Some take pride, and many unfortunately issue blanket slurs.

But few know that if the collective diaspora from across undivided India — or rather Asia — was able to live and work with dignity in British colonies of the white world it was in part because Punjab’s workforce took up the cause and paid a heavy price to achieve it.

No fight, no revolution in history that had its connection with Punjab in India — from the shores of Vancouver to Singapore over 120 years — meant solely for a single community, occupation or a region.

It’s also true that vested interests have tried to colour them with communal brush, mostly unsuccessfully.


But whenever a Punjab-led protest turned into an agitation, graduated into a movement, and then into a revolution, it eventually forced powers to change course for good.

Aside from variations depending on the political climate and state response, the model that unfolded in the ongoing Kisan Morcha draws heavily on history.

The home-grown propaganda in 2020-21 against it is as vicious as what it was in the early 1900s when white supremacists in Canada nursed strong anti-Asian feelings, especially against the Chinese and Japanese workers.
Anti-Asian rioting in Vancouver in July 1907 resulted in the damage of property worth $36,000.

Around the same time, immigrants were told to leave Canada on their own and move instead to British Honduras (Belize).

Much like Punjab’s present-day peasantry which didn’t take the word “reform” affixed to the farm laws on its face value and instead studied them clause-by-clause, word-by-word, and line-by-line, the Sikh workers didn’t take the Canadian proposal hands down.

Trolleys of agitating farmers parked at Delhi’s Singhu border (Photo Credits: PTI)

They visited the Honduras, studied the conditions and the wage structures and found that the labour was indentured in that British crown colony.

The Sikhs came back and rejected the proposal, in much the same way Punjab’s peasantry has turned down the 2020 farm legislation.

The British Canadian state realized that Sikhs were definitely less docile than the Japanese or the Chinese, and responded harshly.

“Strange to say the Hindus (then a common term for Indian workers in Canada) are looked upon by our people in British Columbia with still more disfavour than the Chinese. They seem to be less adaptable to our ways and manners than all the other Oriental races that come to us,” wrote Sir Wilfrid Laurier, then Canada’s prime minister, to Lord Minto, the Indian viceroy, in April 1909.


The same year, the Khalsa Diwan Society built a gurdwara in Vancouver followed by several other gurdwaras across British Columbia.

Those who object to the use of gurdwaras for political activities impose their own definition of religion on the Sikh community.

Gurdwaras have historically been centres of political and social activism and philanthropy — and now just worshipping and meditation alone.

Much like the present-day discourses on farm laws and announcements about tractor rallies at historical gurdwaras in and outside Punjab, economic issues linked to the immigrant communities were actively discussed in gurdwaras of Canada and the United States in the early 1900s.


For the British, sending the Sikh soldiers to the frontlines of the First World War and allowing more Sikhs into Canada became two different things.

When a businessman from Singapore, Gurdit Singh, chartered a freighter, the Komagata Maru, in Hong Kong with 376 emigrants, mostly Sikhs, on board and dropped anchor in Vancouver harbour in May 1914, the passengers were not allowed to disembark.

Events that happened in Canada back then and Delhi’s response to the Kisan Morcha over the past two months share an eerie resemblance.

“The authorities, more racist even than their red-neck constituents, were unrelenting,” wrote author Patwant Singh in his book, The Sikhs, about the incidents that followed the arrival of the Komagata Maru off Vancouver.

“Making a mockery of their own law, they held a fake hearing in which the Supreme Court declined to interfere in the affairs of the Immigration Department; passengers were refused permission to disembark; grapeshot was fired across the ship’s decks; a deaf ear was turned to requests for medical attention for the sick aboard…”.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offering a formal apology for the Komagatu Maru incident of 1914, in the House of Commons on May 18, 2016 (Picture Courtesy: Twitter @JustinTrudeau)

And this is how The Times (London) justified Canada’s racist treatment of the subjects of the British empire in June, 1914:

“Phrases like British citizenship cannot be used as a talisman to open doors… sophistry and catch logic, the spinning of words or the reading of many books will not help her (India). And she is likely to get little profit out of enterprises like that of which has sent the Komagata Maru to hurl its shipload of hundreds at the door of Canada.”


On the Komagata Maru’s return to Calcutta, the British Indian police opened fire and killed 19 Sikh passengers and wounded 25 others.

“…the men and women who had braved the seas and bullets to return home undaunted, struck a chord in the Punjab population and helped kindle national resentment against the high-handedness of the ruling power,” Patwant Singh wrote.


The publication of the Trolley Times, the new mouthpiece of the 2020-21 Kisan Morcha at Delhi borders, and mini-libraries and book stalls at Singhu during this social-media age also have numerous parallels in Punjab-led movements of the last century.

A footnote in Khushwant Singh’s A History of the Sikhs refers to journals that the Punjabis — Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims alike — produced to mobilize opinion against power abuse by the British.

Among those placed in the shelves of the Berkeley University library are copies of Desh Sewak in Gurmukhi and Urdu by Harnam Singh and Guru Datt Kumar from Vancouver, the Khalsa Herald also in Vancouver by Kartar Singh Akali, Aryan by Dr Sunder Singh, Hindustani by Seth Hussain Rahim, and the Ghadr by the San Francisco-based Ghadr Party.

Harmeet Shah Singh at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2019

“Though Hindus, Mussalmans and Sikhs we be, sons of Bharat are we still,” the Ghadr wrote. The Ghadr articles and poems were reprinted in booklets like Naya Zamana and the Balance Sheet of the British in India.

Singers like Kanwar Grewal and Harf Cheema have emerged as the bards of the 2020-21 Kisan Morcha.

Punjabi singer Kanwar Grewal performing at the farmers’ protest at Delhi’s Tikri border on December 28, 2020 (Photo Credits: PTI)

Their Pecha album themed around preparing the peasantry for the long agitation ahead over the farm laws had powerful lyrics: “Khich Le Jatta Khich Tyaari, Pecha Pai Gya Center Naal”.

In 1907, “Pagdi Sambhal Jatta” resonated similarly as the signature anthem of a farmer agitation in Lyallpur (now across the border) against three British laws: the Doab Bari Act, the Punjab Land Colonisation Act, and the Punjab Land Alienation Act.

That time too, the farmers had read the legislation clause-by-clause, word-by-word and line-by-line, and found they might well be reduced to labourers, their lands eventually taken away by the more powerful. That too was a collective effort, not for an individual or a community.

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