Punjabi, Sikh, and Dalit
On Migration, Activism, and Caste Abolition in Canada
By Riya Talitha |
JANUARY 20, 2022
In 1906, Maihya Ram Mehmi immigrated to Vancouver Island in Canada. He was part of a large, turn-of-the-century wave of migrants from Punjab, primarily Sikh men, who sought to chart new courses for their families in North America. Mehmi found work where possible, which, as for many of his peers, was in constructing the tracks of the Canadian Pacific Railway, labouring in shipyards and lumber mills. He sent home remittances and helped sponsor family members to join him. He found a place for himself in Victoria, where he first landed, and where many of his descendants still live.
At first glance, Mehmi’s story seems typical of South Asian migration in the early 1900s. But Mehmi’s was the very first Dalit family in the historical record to have immigrated to Canada, if not Turtle Island as a whole.i What appears at first blush as one family’s personal history makes up a crucial thread in the larger historical formation of the Dalit diaspora. As migrants, Dalit people have not had the same advantages as others. According to Anita Lal, one of Mehmi’s descendants, “a majority of migrants that have come to Canada have been Punjabi Jat people; they had land, power, and agency back in India.” Mehmi had to take a steep loan from an agent in India to afford the passage to Canada and was still paying it off years later.
The fertile Doaba region of Punjab is a point of origin for a well-established chain of Dalit migration. Approximately 32% of Punjab’s population are Dalits, primarily Chamars, and around 45% are concentrated in Doaba. Today, an estimated 25,000 people in the province’s Lower Mainland are Dalit; this may be the largest and oldest Dalit population on the North American continent.ii
“Chamar” is an umbrella caste identity for a multiplicity of Dalit castes and sub-castes historically comprised of leatherworkers and tanners. Like most oppressed caste names, it is also considered a casteist slur and, as such, is a bookable offence under India’s 1989 Scheduled Caste & Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. They are also scattered across the northern areas of the Indian subcontinent, including Nepal and Pakistan. Chamar Sikhs are Dalits who converted to Sikhism and are included on the Scheduled Caste lists.
It is no coincidence that the first recorded mention of the Chamar community in Canada is one of caste discrimination. The story takes place in the town of Paldi, an early South Asian settlement and mill town in British Columbia founded in 1916 and named after the hometown of its Punjabi Sikh founders: Mayo Singh Minhas, his brother Ganea Singh Minhas, and their cousin Doman Singhiii. Mehmi and one other Chamar man, who worked in Paldi’s historic lumber mills, were made to eat in their rooms and not in the dining hall with the other men. They were also prevented from taking shifts in the cookhouse, due to the fact that they were considered impure and dirty because of their caste.. Interestingly enough, a dominant-caste Hindu foreman, Kapoor Singh, noticed this dynamic. Once he uncovered the reason, he immediately stopped the exclusion and mandated that all workers eat in the same place from then on.
“I was raised by two powerhouse families in the Chamar community,” says Anita Lal, a community organiser based in British Columbia and, through her mother, one of Mehmi’s great-granddaughters.
“That’s not your problem,” Lal’s grandmother said. “You’re in Canada, just treat everyone with respect and make sure that everyone treats you with respect.”
Lal was content to not think about caste until she witnessed multiple instances of caste discrimination and tragedies undergone by Chamar community members, including her own younger cousins and relatives. She got to work. Cancelled marriages, failed relationships, name-calling and bullying in schools, the invisibilisation of non-Jat identity, social ostracisation, and outright harassment: she was not going to let these realities be swept aside by “caste-blind” rhetoric. “We need to start actually talking about [caste],” Lal says. “Because caste does matter…I saw that it was affecting the generations after me as well.”
The ramifications of caste on community belonging are vast and deep-rooted; they close in on religious belonging as well. Grappling with being Sikh, Punjabi, and Dalit can certainly be complex. However, a core part of Sikh doctrine centres on the idea that all people are equal before God. This tenet makes asserting one’s “upper-caste” identity while claiming to be Sikh deeply antithetical to the foundations and doctrines of Sikhi.
“It’s complex because this is something that I myself have been struggling trying to understand, right? Because it's not just the fact that I'm Punjabi [or] I'm Sikh [or] I'm Dalit. It is if I’m Dalit or if I’m Chamar,” Lal says. “[Some people] call themselves Punjabi Jats but also we see that whole Sikhi thing as a part of their identity that they want to push but not as a value that they want to live.”
The word “Dalit” is no mere identity marker. It alludes to a pan-India anti-caste formation that Ambedkar himself advocated and used. By that same token, it doesn’t fully capture the nuances and multiplicities at play in the Lower Mainland. Those who use Dalit, typically alongside the Ambedkarite terminology, express solidarity with other Dalit communities. Lal says that most people in her community do not find much resonance with the “Dalit” label but find connection and identity as Chamars.
The interplay of caste with other subjectivities and identities is one of exclusion and inclusion -- or rather, who facilitates and institutionalises practices of exclusion and who is being excluded. For instance, the Second Avenue Gurudwara, which was the first gurdwara constructed in North America in 1908.iv The early settlers set up a Khalsa Diwan Society in the summer of 1906.v Over the next few years, they funded and built it themselves in the heart of Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood. More than a century old and still functioning as a community centre and place of worship, it is a treasured part of Canadian Sikh history.
“My ancestors helped build the gurdwara…[it] was a communal space in Victoria, [where] everybody comes,” Lal says. “Years later, when my grandfather’s brother’s wife [Mehmi’s daughter-in-law] came ...they wouldn’t let her cook in the kitchen [along with] maybe a handful of other women who were of a Chamar background.”
Lal’s great-aunt and the other women resisted this attempt at exclusion and asserted their right to enter and use their communal space. “They were like, ‘What do you mean? We were the ones who helped build this—we’re part of the gurdwara,’” recounts Lal. This collective act of resistance from the women on Lal’s mother’s side of the family bore fruit because years down the line, Lal’s great-aunt became the head of the same kitchen.
“So, her journey was from being discriminated against right from the beginning and pushing back because, under the Guru Granth Sahib [the main holy scriptures of Sikhism], there is no discrimination, we are all sitting together in the Langar [the community kitchen of a gurdwara where all visitors are served free meals] eating.”vi
These explicit expressions of casteist exclusion come as no surprise because, as Lal notes, “the kitchen is always a place of discrimination.” It is one of the most common manifestations of caste exclusion, one that permeates across class, religious identity, language and nationality and echoes throughout the diaspora.
At the age of eighteen, Tarsem Lal immigrated to Canada from Punjab, with sponsorship from his maternal aunt, Rao Kaur Khera, who’s father-in-law had migrated to Canada in 1908. Khera arrived in the early 1960's with her children. Tarsem Lal landed in Port Alberni and moved to northern British Columbia in the 1970's working in lumber mills, settling in Quesnel, BC. Even though his immigration occurred years after Mehmi’s, Lal also faced discrimination and exclusion because of his caste background.
At this time in Vancouver, the Chamar community was facing a lot of discrimination and the gurudwaras in the city were rife with casteism. Instead of experiencing spiritual connection and community belonging, they faced alienation and exclusion despite their active participation and enthusiastic service. Even if they used the common halls for their events, any food they left behind was not eaten or taken as a contribution; neither were they allowed to help cook or serve Langar.
Eventually, the constant “frictions” with the dominant/oppressor caste Sikhs made them feel “so much discrimination that they built their own [gurudwara]” in 1982. Tarsem's cousin, Darshan Khera, and his family members were instrumental in establishing this space. They were part of a small group of Chamar people who pooled funds to buy land and set it up. Thus in 1982, the first Shri Guru Ravidass Sabha in Vancouver was built.
The Ravidas Panth is one of the most prominent sects in Sikhism and is also known as the Ravidassia religion, founded in the 14th century. Ravidassias, or followers of the 14th century mystic-poet Ravidas, see him as their particular saint, while Sikhs see him as one of many bhagats or holy men of the Sikhi tradition. Guru Ravidas’ teachings are notable for his strident critique of the caste system, passionate exaltations of equality and insistence that being born to a ‘lower’ caste doesn’t prevent faithful followers from meeting with God/participating in worship. Guru Ravidas was said to have been born to leather-working parents making him a member of an ‘untouchable’ caste. Most of his followers share his background and caste location and take great inspiration from his example.
According to Opinderjit Kaur Takhar, the Director of the Centre for Sikh and Panjabi Studies at the University of Wolverhampton, the “existence of sects or groups which define themselves as Sikhs in one way or another present several contentious debates within the global Panth.”vii Ravidassia centres of worship are frequently contested complicated spaces, particularly what people call them. Orthodox Khalsa Sikh communities in Canada and India tend to refer to them as ‘sabha.’ Sabherwal explains that the distinction is a way of separating themselves from those that worship there, “to say that this is not [their] community.”
“People called it ‘apna gurudwara’ like we’re going to [our] gurudwara instead of the other gurudwara,” says Lal, who was then a child but still remembers this distinction between the Ravidass Sabha and other gurudwaras.
Archives and Liberation
Asian Americanist Sasha Sabherwal describes caste as “a tendency that persists because of the novel ways that it creates, maintains and remaps hierarchies.” A significant part of her dissertation, Circuits of Faith: Transnational Religion, Caste, and Gender in the Sikh Diaspora of the Pacific Northwest, discusses the various expressions of Sikhi that flourish in British Columbia. Her research focuses on acknowledging the reality that sites of religious worship are a topic that contains “a lot of caste inflexion.”
“I guess it’s a question of who counts as Sikh,” she says.
The lack of representation of oppressed caste people across diasporic power structures like governmental and cultural organisations reflects the deep-rooted inequities of caste. Moreover, a lack of documentation and absence from the archives is damning proof of caste discrimination and caste-based inequity in South Asian immigration history. The Second Avenue Gurudwara and the Sikh settlement town of Paldi are bastions of North American Sikh history, remembered with affection and respect, but nowhere in community archives, local news, or self-documented records is there a single mention of caste.viii
“If it [caste-based harassment & discrimination] happens in India, it could happen to people here…[ but] people were surprised that it happened here, among Sikhs,” says Jai Birdie, founder of the Chetna Foundation, which fosters Ambedkarite community-building through advocacy, awareness-raising and organising events.ix
Interestingly enough, both Birdie and Anita Lal belong to families that first migrated to British Columbia. Even though their work and methods of organisation are quite different, they both are committed to the causes of Dalit liberation, caste abolition and anti-caste community-building in Canada.
Birdie moved to Canada from Punjab with his family at thirteen. His parents were Shri Guru Ravidas, but Ambedkarism was a decisive influence throughout his childhood. His father, in particular, used to tell him about how he had met with Ambedkar himself while in India, an instance that was a fond and favoured memory. Birdie became interested in Ambedkarism while doing his BA at Simon Fraser University. In 1991, on the occasion of Ambedkar’s centenary celebrations, it occurred to him that it would be beneficial to arrange for Ambedkar’s texts to be present in one of SFU’s libraries.x
He was successful in his endeavour, which set the pattern for the rest of his anti-caste centric advocacy. Chetna works through advocacy, lobbying, and organising talks and conferences; these institution-focused methods of activism have led to both triumphs and pitfalls.xi
One of their significant triumphs was the 2003 Vancouver International Dalit Conference, in which almost two thousand people from all over the world participated. According to Sabherwal, much of what happens in Surrey (where the IDC took place) reverberates across other diasporas, to Punjab, and back. The conference generated a declaration of demands directed to the Government of India, the UN, the World Bank (along with other international financial organisations) and collectively to all MNCs and private corporations trade in India; these will soon be echoed by the Bhopal Declaration.xii They demanded that the progress and material conditions of Dalits not be left behind in the scramble towards widespread privatisation, globalisation, the establishment of MNCs and liberalisation.
Lal, Birdie, and countless other North American-based organisers, writers, and advocates hope to slowly create a future where caste isn't the stronghold it is today. For Birdie, this advocacy is currently taking the form of planning another IDC scheduled for 2023, two decades after the original conference. He hopes the conference will serve as a global, public platform where Dalit issues and anti-caste politics can be discussed just before India’s 2024 General Elections.
“[It would be a good time] to see what we have gained and what we have lost [since 2003],” he says. “The Dalit community has been pretty resilient in response to so many struggles and challenges, so if we don’t take that as an inspiration if kids have no idea, how will they become strong and resilient?”
According to Lal, a caste abolitionist future will only be possible if imagined and worked towards from the present onwards. This is why she is focused on creating spaces for difficult conversations and opportunities for dialogue within and directed towards her communities, both Chamar and Jat, in the Lower Mainland.xiii
For Lal, liberation isn’t and cannot be a pipe dream. Instead, it has to be treated as a tangible goal, community-oriented and deeply intertwined with all other facets of life and living: “I feel like here in Vancouver in Surrey or even in Canada, we’re at the very beginning stages of community advocacy.” The work that must be done is anti-caste work, not Dalit work. Ultimately, as Lal stresses, caste abolition is everyone’s responsibility.
i. ‘Turtle Island’ is what many Algonquian- and Iroquoian-speaking Indigenous peoples mainly in the northeastern part of North America call the continent.
ii. News, Postmedia. “'We Are Zero': Immigrant Says She Can't Escape Sting of India's Caste System, Even in Canada.” National Post, 25 Jan. 2015, https://nationalpost.com/news/we-are-zero-immigrant-says-she-cant-escape....
iii. See Knowledge Network. “Working People: A History of Labour in British Columbia - E9 - Mayo Singh.” Knowledge.ca. Knowledge Network, October 30, 2019. https://www.knowledge.ca/program/working-people-history-labour-british-c....
iv. Kang, Raman. “Canada's First Sikh Temple Was Built in Vancouver, Here's What It Looked Like.” 604 Now, January 24, 2019. https://604now.com/canadas-first-sikh-temple-vancouver/. And “Group in Front of 2nd Avenue Temple, Vancouver.” Group in front of 2nd Avenue Temple, Vancouver | Komagata Maru Journey, n.d. http://komagatamarujourney.ca/hi/node/9113.
v. See “About Us.” Khalsa Diwan Society, n.d. http://kdsross.com/about/.
vi. Desjardins, Michel, and Ellen Desjardins. “Food That Builds Community: The Sikh Langar in Canada.” Cuizine 1, no. 2 (August 26, 2009). https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.7202/037851ar.
vii. Takhar, Opinderjit Kaur. ‘The Place of Scripture in the Trajectories of a Distinct Religious Identity among Ravidassias in Britain: Guru Granth Sahib or Amritbani Guru Ravidass’, Journal of Contemporary Religion, 29 (1): 105, 2014.
viii. “First Sikh Temple • Vancouver Heritage Foundation.” Vancouver Heritage Foundation, July 23, 2021. https://www.placesthatmatter.ca/location/first-sikh-temple/.
ix. See “Home.” Chetna, n.d. https://www.chetna.ca/.
x. “Jai Birdi, a Man with Vision and Mission to Build Inclusive Society.” The Times of Canada, November 19, 2015. https://thetimesofcanada.com/jai-birdi-a-man-with-vision-and-mission-to-....
xi. “Past Events.” Chetna, n.d. https://www.chetna.ca/past-events-EN.
xii. See Kumar, Vivek. “Dalit Diaspora Joins The Fight,” May 24, 2003. https://www.countercurrents.org/dalit-kumar240503.htm.
xiii. “Dalitsandjatts.” Instagram, n.d. https://www.instagram.com/dalitsandjatts/?hl=en.
Riya Talitha is a journalist from New Delhi, who writes about social activism, marginalised communities (particularly Dalits and Ambedkarites) and uses terms like ‘subaltern’ in casual conversation. Talk to her @riya.talitha on Instagram or email@example.com.