By Gurpreet Singh
A former B.C. premier—known for his outspokenness against bigotry and religious fanaticism of every shade—has chosen to write about one of the most condemned social orders of Indian society.
In The Past is Never Dead, Ujjal Dosanjh reveals the ugliness of the brutal caste system practised by Hindus It has also plagued the progressive Sikh community in Punjab.
Published by Speaking Tiger, it’s the first novel by Dosanjh, who is also a former federal minister of defence and health. Ever since he entered public life, he has been publicly condemning discrimination against Dalits (so-called untouchables) not only in India, but also in the diaspora.
In a phone interview from India, Dosanjh credited his forward-thinking elders for bringing him up with a humanist value system and not to treat anyone with contempt on the basis of caste or creed. He comes from the privileged Jat Sikh community of landowning farmers who otherwise dominate Dalits in Punjab,
Currently touring India to promote his novel, Dosanjh recalled his childhood days when he spent lot of time with a Dalit friend. He faced no restrictions from his parents.
Although he was aware of caste prejudices against Dalits in Punjab, he never encountered it directly while living in a liberal environment. He was rather shocked, however, to notice how Dalits were discriminated against more blatantly as far away as England. That’s where he moved from India before making Canada home.
His novel is inspired by those experiences. The setting of the story is in England, where some real-life incidents have frozen Dosanjh to his core.
“A Dalit man was slapped and insulted by the self-proclaimed upper-caste people,” he recalled. “I had only recently migrated to England and was completely traumatized.”
Dosanjh demands amendments to human rights codes
The story starts in the 1930s when India was struggling for freedom from the British occupation. The Dalit character of the novel leaves behind his wife and kids in Punjab to begin a new life in the U.K., where he faces many challenges from his compatriots.
“I feel Indians are hypocrites,” said Dosanjh. “Both the Hindus and the Sikhs claim to be compassionate and kind and often tell the world about great things about their religions, whereas in reality they spew venom against Dalits.”
He added that while the Indian diaspora asks for equal rights in places like Canada, they do not always want to treat Dalits as equals.
Welcoming the recent law passed by the City of Seattle against caste-based discrimination, Dosanjh called for amendments to human rights codes in Canada to check the growing anti-Dalit hate in this part of the world. He pointed out that in March, the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal awarded a Dalit $9,000 for being subjected to caste-based abuse by two of his colleagues. To him, it makes this kind of legislation even more important.
Meanwhile, Dalit activists have already started gathering signatures on a petition seeking a similar law in B.C. to the one in Seattle.
In the 1980s, Dosanjh survived a physical attack for criticizing Sikh fundamentalism. More reccently, he has been constantly writing and speaking out against the ultra-Hindu nationalist government in New Delhi.
Gurpreet Singh is a B.C. author, broadcaster, and cofounder of the online magazine Radical Desi. Follow him on Twitter @gurpreetonair. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.