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Poet, Singer, and Activist

Everyone Should Watch the Punjabi Stage Play, “Komagata Maru Safar Jari Hai”

Posted by on Dec 12, 2014 in Discussion | 0 comments

KM PosterLast Sunday, I watched the Punjabi stage drama,“ Komagata Maru Safar Jari Hai” at Sunnyside High School auditorium in Fresno. The Indo American Heritage Forum, one of the two similarly sounding organizations commemorating Ghadrites in Fresno had also invited the Progressive Art Association of Alberta, Canada. The auditorium designed to accommodate 500+ people was fully packed and in spite of the initial hick-ups, the play written and directed by Davinder Daman was received very well, where the audience fell silent at the appropriate moments, and all eyes were intently on the scenes unfolding on the stage.

The painful saga of the historic Komagata Maru is not new information for many of my readers, who are familiar with the history, in some capacity. But the rendering of this collective pain into works of art is a relatively new occurrence, and one I fully embrace (you should too!)

The Punjabi Art Association in Edmonton also performed a play using the Komagata as its main inspiration, written by Ajmer Rode and equally artfully directed by Jaspal Dhillon. The difficulty in creating novels or stage plays that are rooted in historical facts, is the delicate nature of balancing fact with art. The facts cannot be altered, and the sequence of events remains the same in both plays, and the dramatization in Davinder Daman’s play is rendered very interestingly. Daman’s use of powerful dialogues and the way he took the emotional intensity of a scene that may or may not have happened in quite the way it is depicted is truly remarkable. He created new scenes which skillfully strip bare the underlying conspiracy of powers to be as well as the human struggle of trying to overcome the high handedness of the authorities. It has all the characteristics of a tragedy that makes this not just a good piece of history, but also a good play.

KM Picture NO 1Theatre has indeed added a new dimension thanks to some of these innovative Punjabi writers who have successfully revived this age old technique. Judging by the number of people who attended, the well written, directed and superbly played by wonderful actors had educated larger crowd than the number of people who would ever have read it in print.

Understanding ourselves and for our younger generation what really went on these American shores with our pioneer immigrants from the Indian sub-continent 100 years ago, is very important. Important still is to remember that although this difficult voyage or safar has come a long way, it still continues. It continues not only in India as the play appears to conclude but also here in North America our adopted country. Being far from fully accomplished, it would require input from us all. Are we making a positive contribution to make it happen? That is the question we need to be asking ourselves!

KM Picture NO 2As the history of Komagata Maru and the Ghadar Party is evidenced as inseparable in this play, likewise the freedom movement of India and history of North America especially of the West Coast are kind of intertwined.  Organizations, activists, historians and supporters such as Dr. Bruce La Brack, Dr. Mark Juergens Meyer, Dr. Harold Gold and Johanna Ogden to name a few, have attempted to keep these stories alive but the overall  political achievements and link to Indian independence is largely marginalized in India and their contribution to human rights and immigration reforms is almost forgotten here in America until now. In the recent years especially in the aftermath of 9/11 terrorist attacks, significant legislation has been passed by the California legislature when Sikhs were being targeted as terrorists by some misguided patriots due to their outward appearance being confused with the Taliban.

I am not a historian but it seems to me that there is much to be said and written about this story where it really matters and included in the school curriculum books. Simply stated these stories are not an “add-on” to established history but require a rethinking of that very narrative arc which tends to focus on an westward migration from South Asia to North America and then internal to the United States to the West Coast in those times. In  Johanna Ogden’s words who is an independent historian from Portland,“ it is impossible to fully understand how Western citizens understand themselves/ourselves without considering the how’s and why’s of the history of other peoples (Chinese, East Indians, et al) which were integral to the region has been sidelined or silenced.”

Berkeley PanelistsIn the same vein, I had attended the “Ghadar Day 2014”in Berkeley last month. Commemorating the 100th Birth Anniversary of the Founding of the Ghadar Party, the Berkeley City Council became the 8th city in North America after Astoria.

DSC00071Initiated by Johanna Ogden’s research work, the City Council and the Mayor of Astoria-Oregon, Willis Van Dusen had first designated November as the Ghadar Day last year. The City Council had also organized and paid for a 2 day International Conversational Seminar on 4-5 October 2013. and installed a plaque dedicated to the Ghadrites at the Columbia River Front next to the Finnish Hall site, where the very first meeting took place in 1913. A number of proclamations followed in California including one in  Canada, which are covered in more detail elsewhere.

Organized by the Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour, the Ghadar Day event that I attended was a rare public conversation with 3 generations of activists continuing the Ghadar tradition. Shwanika Narayan, a young reporter describes the event in her report published in QUARTZS India on December 4, 2014. Titled, “A century later, these Indian freedom fighters are finally being embraced—as Americans”, please read the report and leave your comments at:

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Agreeing to Preserve the Memory of the Ghadrites on Memorial Day?

Posted by on Jul 31, 2013 in Discussion | 0 comments

The Ghadar Party

The Ghadar Party

One hundred years ago, in 1913, a handful of Indians were inspired by the American Revolution and started a revolutionary movement of their own in Stockton, California, to reclaim their country (undivided India) from the British. This largely unknown aspect of American history and Indian history is being recognized in the United States for the Ghadrite Centenary 2013! The members of the Ghadar movement  first met in Astoria, Oregon in 1913 and  established their headquarters in San Francisco, California. They published and circulated a newspaper with revolutionary poetry from 5 Wood Street, San Francisco, where the first flag for total Independence of India was flown in 1913 for the first time. This October, through various organizations, Indian-Americans will be celebrating the 100 year Ghadar movement all over North America and Canada.

A few months ago, I attended a seminar organized by Global Organization of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO) to commemorate the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Ghadar Movement, in Newark Fremont Hilton. It was a wonderful gathering and nice to see that it was being acknowledged by not just a Sikh organization. While the Ghadar movement was started and was   largely represented by the Sikhs, it was a very diverse membership with Indians of all backgrounds, regions, and who spoke various languages involved with the goal of getting the British to quit India the same way the American Revolution caused the British to quit America. It was during a conversation I had with GOPIO Chairman, Inder Singh, who brought up a suggestion of dedicating a day on a yearly basis for all Indian-American organizations to unite and preserve the memory of the brave Ghadrites. Unfortunately, this wonderful suggestion became drowned out with unconstructive, hypothetical petty logistical issues that halted the conversation.

Logistical issues should of course be discussed, but first we should agree on the easy things before we bring up things we disagree with. I will borrow an acronym my son, Navdeep Singh Dhillon, uses to remind me not to start dwelling on the details from the start: KISS: Keep It Simple Stupid. People in the military are known for being blunt and it is not implying anyone is stupid, but it means we should start with the simple things and then delve into the more complex. So the first question, which I hope the answer would be yes is; in America should we for the future preserve the memory of the Ghadarites one day a year?

Assuming we are all in agreement (one aspect done!), let us move on to the next item, which is a little more complicated. When?

To backtrack a little: after I returned from GOPIO event, I discussed the idea with the Sikh Council of Central California (SCCC) Education Committee, of which I am the coordinator (the SCCC is a nonprofit organization representing 13 main Sikh Temples in the Fresno and Madera Counties with a combined congregation of approximately 15-20,000 members). After a full discussion where the members fully expressed their views and weighed all the pros and cons in the long run, a resolution in support was passed with a unanimous vote dated July 1, 2013.

(A copy of the resolution is included here if anyone is interested in reading the details) at:
SCCC Ghadrites Memo Resolution July 01, 2013

Having been raised in Bhakna at the household of the founder of the movement, Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna, it gives me great hope that many of the organizations, both Sikh and other Indian-American ones, are celebrating. Even Nirupama Rao, Indian Ambassador to the U.S. is fully supportive of preserving their memory in the freedom struggle. As reported in the Tribune India July 30, 2013, the Greater Washington Area organized an event to honor the contribution of the Ghadar movement in India’s freedom struggle that other Indian-Americans from across the US attended and called for remembering their sacrifices annually on Memorial Day.

Returning to my second question of “When?” I second the idea to dedicate Memorial Day – the last Monday of May, for all organizations in North America to come under one banner and preserve the memory of the Ghadrites forever!

What do you think?

Share your thoughts by posting a comment here, or replying on my Facebook Fan Page, or on twitter (@pashaura) with the hashtag #ghadarmemorial

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A Call to All Sikh Organizations: November is Sikh Awareness & Appreciation Month

Posted by on Sep 5, 2010 in Discussion, Sikh Council of Central California | 3 comments

The Ghadar Party

The Ghadar Party

Although the Sikhs have lived in the United States for over a century, many people are still unaware of who the Sikhs really are and where they originally come from. Following the 9/11 attacks, many Sikhs were targeted in cases of mistakenly identity; Sikh children continue to be harassed and bullied both during and outside of school hours. And the reason is not because of any ill will, but ignorance. People simply don’t know who the Sikhs are. And the reasons appear to be a lack of public education and media awareness in our multiethnic and multicultural society. And even within the Sikh Community, our own self created illusions and pre-occupations with non-issues made to be major issues have all coalesced and resulted in being detrimental to the Sikhs as a community. Because of our internal bickering, there has not even been a mention of Sikhi or Sikhism in the California school books although it is now the 5th largest religion in the world and almost 200,000 Sikhs made California their home by making valuable contributions right from serving in the American Armed forces, farming fields, and everything else in between for over a century now. Having said that, there have been many Sikh organizations who have made strides to educate people about Sikhs, but the point I am making is that we all need to join forces and do what is best for the Sikh Community as a whole.


Along with many other individuals and Sikh organizations, I have been working with the Sikh Council of Central California (SCCC) to set the records straight in the school curriculums and content standards which ensures inclusion in the classrooms. The Yuba city Sikh Community, for example, has been paving the way in getting Punjabi classes started in their school districts and also getting the legislation to pass the resolution to make November 2010 Sikh American Awareness and Appreciation Month starting in California. Under the leadership of some selfless individuals and with the support of the Sikh community, I am delighted to report that this endeavor is bearing fruit on both of these fronts.

While the November 2010 Sikh American Awareness and Appreciation Month is great news for the Sikh Community, November is just around the corner and there is a special message for the American Sikh community: Unite and create awareness of who the Sikhs are in your respective communities. Also, please listen to KBIF 900 AM this Sunday to listen to Dr. Jasbir Singh Kang, M.D. of Yuba city’s interview with Punjab News and Views.

A friend of mine, former professor and alumni of U.C. Berkeley- Dr. Onkar Singh Bindra – just sent me the details of resolution No. 181 (California Sikh American Awareness and Appreciation Month), introduced on August 2, 2010 by Assembly Member Daniel R. Logue, at the request of Marysville-Yuba City Sikhs. Remember to pass along the message of who the Sikhs are through your words and most importantly, through your actions:

November 2010 Has Been Designated Sikh Awareness & Appreciation Month in California.
Written by Dr. Onkar Singh Bindra

California legislature has unanimously approved the Assembly Concurrent Resolution No. 181 (California Sikh American Awareness and Appreciation Month). Introduced on August 2, 2010 by Assembly Member Daniel R. Logue, at the request of Marysville-Yuba City Sikhs, it designates November 2010 as California Sikh American Awareness and Appreciation Month. His press release in states,This is the first time in state history that Sikhs are receiving recognition for their outstanding contributions to California. He added, “month’s designation should serve to honor one of the state’s notable and accomplished communities.”

Resolved by the Assembly of the State of California, the Senate thereof concurring, the resolution reads “ That the Legislature hereby designates the month of November 2010 to be California Sikh American Awareness and Appreciation Month; and be it further Resolved, That the Legislature recognizes and acknowledges the significant contributions made by Californians of Sikh heritage to our state, and by adoption of this resolution, seeks to afford all Californians the opportunity to better understand, recognize, and appreciate the rich history and shared principles of Sikh Americans, their monotheistic religion and the tenets of their faith, and the important role that Sikh Americans play in furthering mutual understanding and respect among all peoples; and be it further Resolved, That the Chief Clerk of the Assembly transmit copies of this resolution to the author for appropriate distribution to the Members of the Legislature, members of the California Sikh American community, and other interested persons.”

The resolution, it is hoped, “would recognize and acknowledge the significant contributions made by Californians of Sikh heritage to California and afford all Californians the opportunity to understand, recognize, and appreciate the rich history, shared principles, religion, faith, and role Sikh Americans play in furthering mutual understanding and respect among all peoples.”

The following provided a justification for the resolution.

  1. California and our nation are at once blessed and enriched by the unparalleled diversity of our residents;
  2. Among this unprecedented diversity in California, there reside an estimated 200,000 Americans of Sikh origin, comprising nearly 40 percent of the nation’s estimated Sikh population;
  3. Sikh immigrants have resided in California for more than a century, with the first Sikh immigrants believed to have labored on railroad construction projects, in lumber mills, and in the agricultural heartlands of the Sacramento, San Joaquin, and Imperial Valleys;
  4. The first Sikh temple (Gurdwara) in California was established in Stockton in 1912, and Sikh temples have since been established in communities throughout California;
  5. While Sikh Americans have distinguished themselves in numerous areas of endeavor, they have demonstrated particular success in the areas of agriculture, trucking, medicine, and in the creation of small, family-owned businesses;
  6. Yuba City, California, boasts the largest population one of the largest confirmed populations of Sikh and Punjabi Americans in the nation;
  7. Dalip Singh Saund was the first Sikh American and Asian American member of the United States Congress;
  8. Dr. Bhagat Singh Thind struggled and fought for Asian Indians to be allowed to become American citizens;
  9. Dr. Narinder Singh Kapany of Palo Alto is acknowledged by many to be the father of fiber optics;
  10. Sikh Americans have served as mayors of California cities, including David Dhillon in El Centro, Gurpal Samra in Livingston, Amarpreet “Ruby” Dhaliwal in San Joaquin, and Kashmir Singh Gill in Yuba City, and numerous Sikh Americans have served as council members of California cities;
  11. The Sikh and Punjabi American communities of California continue to make important contributions to our state and nation;
  12. Sikh Americans City throughout California celebrates the coronation day of Sikh Scripture as Guru Gaddi Divas, along with parades in cities across California, the largest being held in Yuba City on the first Sunday of every November.

There is not much time left before November 2010. I urge all Sikh organizations in California (Gurdwara Managements, Cultural Associations, Sikh Students Associations in California, Jakara, Sikh Foundation, SALDEF, Sikh Coalition, United Sikhs, World Sikh Council – America Region (WSC-AR), Punjabi American Heritage Society (PAHS), Sikh Council of Central California (SCCC), KBIF900AM PunjabNewsandViews other Sikh organizations, and Sikh intellectuals to consider it their duty to arrange functions for awareness and appreciation of Sikhs in November 2010 throughout California. Museums, Libraries, School Districts and Media (TV, radio, print media, internet media – Blogs, twitter, Facebook) can all help. I recommend the use of PBS Sikh videos like “Meet the Sikhs”, “Sikhs in America”, and “A Dream in Doubt” etc., and Kaur Foundation’s “Cultural Safari”. Further, we need to hold open houses, exhibitions, seminars etc. and invite neighbors and teachers, and to hold teacher appreciation functions.  Furthermore, we must participate in Veterans Day Parade on Nov. 11 (Displaying a life-size picture of Bhagat Singh Thind, when he was in the United States army during WWI) and in other neighborhood parades, and distribute a brief leaflet about Sikh identity, religion, culture and history in California.

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Indian Independence Day Celebration at California State University, Fresno.

Posted by on Aug 17, 2010 in Discussion | 0 comments

Pashaura Singh Dhillon at Independence Day Celebration, Fresno

Harry Gill, Linda Haldermann, Mike Villines and Me at Independence Day Celebration

As soon as we arrived at California State University, Fresno’s Satellite Student Union Hall to celebrate Independence Day, an interesting conversation began. Was it the 63rd or 64th Independence Day celebration? After a few more people around us joined in the conversation, we quickly calculated that it was the 63rd Indian Independence birthday, but the 64th Indian Independence Anniversary.

But putting aside this minutia, it was a great show of Indianness by the community of Indian origin living in and around the Fresno area 10,000 miles away from “home.” In a show of solidarity, Indians with origins in east, west, north and south India, organized, performed, sang, mingled, and enjoyed the celebration together.  The whole event was very well organized, a rarity for functions such as these, and a special congratulations goes out to The Independence Day Celebration Committee for their tireless effort.

There were nineteen local organizations, predominantly of Punjabis, who all rallied together for the occasion. This was the first time when almost all of the various Indian organizations in the central valley channeled their differences in language, regional ties, and religions, and focused on the unifying factor: Being Indian and celebrating this fact together.

Ghadrites, 1936This, in a way, was a reminder of the days of the Ghadrites in the early 20th century. According to some estimates 35 organizations of Indian workers and students big and small, assembled in Astoria, Oregon in April 1913. The Hindi Association of the Pacific Coast was formed with Sohan Singh Bhakna as its President,  Lala Hardyal  as Secretary and Pandit Kashi Ram elected as its treasurer. Later renaming itself after its slogan, “Ghadar” meaning rebellion, this Hindi Association became better known as the Ghadar Party.

The Ghadar Party exemplified itself in fostering nationalism to the extent that they returned to India with one purpose in mind: to convince other Indians, regardless of what part of the country they were from, what religion they practiced, or the language they spoke, to rebel and oust the British colonizers by the use of arms. By not just talking the talk, but actually walking the walk, despite the repercussions (including jail, exile, and death), the Ghadrites humbled the sleeping Indian giant out of its 700 year long slumber to wake up and free itself. While their story is a part of history now, their legacy lives on.

President Obama and Priminster Manmohan SinghThe United States today is a very different place than it was in the time of the Ghadarites and it is because of them that we are able to live like human beings and are treated with dignity. The United States of America that greeted the Indian workers and students in Astoria, Oregon in 1913, by contrast, was not so hospitable. They were constantly ridiculed because of the food they ate, the way they looked, the clothes they wore, and even their names, all elements of their Indian identity. They were called Indian coolies, and worst of all, a nation of cowards who, numbering millions, were ruled by a handful of British living 10,000 miles away? There were degrading signs at restaurants and other public places that read ‘Indians and dogs not allowed,’ and laws enacted to prevent Indians from owning property and even getting married.

The celebration in Fresno however, was a great celebration of the progress we, as Indians, have made both in India and in our adopted country through the heroism shown by the Ghadrites. There were great speeches from all of the guests which included mayors, assembly members and senators from all over California. The speeches, one after another, genuinely conveyed their admiration of how the Indian community has made a difference by their positive contribution to American society and how proud they were in having us here.

Pashaura Singh Dhillon at the Indian Independance Day Celebration

Indian Independance Day Celebration

But the most powerful speech was by Mrs. Susmita G. Thomas, Consulate General of India, who traveled by road from San Francisco to attend this celebration. Standing like a rock and addressing the packed hall from the podium, apart from saying the niceties usually said on such occasions, she dedicated a large part of her speech to the Ghadrites’ role in Indian Independence, a fact rarely mentioned by politicians. Standing on the land where the Ghadrites had their century old footsteps still visible, however fading fast, she paid them a glowing tribute on this auspicious day that they deserved. She even went on to read a Ghadrite poem from one of the Ghadar magazines, a weekly paper which began publishing with its first issue in Urdu on November 1, 1913 from 5 Wood Street, San Francisco. She also promised to open to the public, the Yugantar Asharm, the then headquarter of the Ghadrites, named after a Bengali revolutionary paper Yugantar in San Francisco.

Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna

Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna

Mrs. Susmita G. Thomas’ speech was very Nehruesque speech to say the least. At least, I haven’t heard anyone mentioning the name of the Ghadrites on such occasions, with such a passion since Pandit Jawahar  Lal Nehru. India’s first Prime Minister, I believe, had a great respect for the Ghadri Babas. As the story goes  when Nehru came to attend a public meeting at Lahore during the days of struggle for independence, he saw Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna sitting among others on the floor mat in front of the chair he was to be seated and address the meeting. As soon as Pandit Ji saw him, he went straight to touch Baba Ji’s knees as a sign of respect. And grabbing Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna by the arm, he requested him to sit on the only chair which was brought for Nehru. Of course Baba Bhakna thanked Nehru for showing him that kind of respect but politely declined to sit on the chair. Nehru wouldn’t sit on the chair either. So another chair was brought for the Ghadri Baba before the meeting could start.

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