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Poet, Singer, and Activist

The year that was 2012!

Posted by on Jan 2, 2013 in Discussion | 0 comments

Dear Friends,
2012 has been a dramatic year, from Malala Yousafzai to Damini to mass murders and unrelenting violence, especially against women and children in places where they are most vulnerable. Having received a lot of good wishes for the new year, I was thinking hard how to reciprocate to all of my friends. Then came along an email written by Prof. Chaman Lal of Jawahar Lal Nehru University Delhi addressed to Kuldip Nayar, copied to me.  I could not have found better words than this to wish you with the year 2013 and I partly quote: “May the year prove to be little just, with less violence, reviving more humaneness. There would be no lasting peace till society becomes just with equitable distribution of natural and social resources to all human beings on earth without reference to class, race, caste, nation, gender or age. Where there are no crimes or fewer crimes with fast justice.”

I leave you my Punjabi Kavita,”Dheeaan” (Daughters)  and you can read the Kavita di Kahani if interested.


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Discussion:Cradle of Civilization Hit Hard By Ravaging Floods

Posted by on Aug 23, 2010 in Discussion | 1 comment

Flooding in the Indus Valley

Flooding in the Indus Valley

The devastating floods ravaging Pakistan have been written about in various publications, covering aspects such as the displacement of people, loss of homes, lives, illness, and the slow movement of aid. But the particular plight of the farmer is seldom mentioned. I was reading an article by Ashraf Khan in the Associated Press that discusses this matter, “Farmers bear brunt of Pakistans’ deadly floods.” In the article, he points out that in addition to all of the above mentioned problems victims of the floods are facing, farmers have the added pressure of losing their livelihood once they do return to their homes and if they are unable to plant wheat for the winter by September, food shortages in Punjab and Sindh as well as throughout Pakistan will be inevitable.

Floods in the Indus Valley

Floods in the Indus Valley

Indus River to this side of the Himalayas constitutes an integral part of the Indus Valley, “the Cradle of Civilization” and is what The Yellow River is to China and its ancient civilisation on the other side of the Himalayas. The Indus Valley was perhaps the richest in ancient Indian history where man first brought the land under plough.  Like The Yellow River, Indus is both the mother and misery to millions of people who, for their survival, have depended on it for thousands of years since they first inhabited its banks.

Map of Indus Valley

Map of Indus Valley

Under relentless rain, the Indus breached its banks almost along the entire route within Pakistan this time. Homes and people, farms and animals alongwith orchards and crops have been wiped out  as they are washed away without a trace in many instances right from Khyber Pakhtunwa province and southern Punjab down to Sindh and Balochistan.

People displaced fight for bags of wheat

People fight for bags of wheat

Also mentioned in “Farmers bear brunt of Pakistans’ deadly floods, one of the victims of this unprecedented disaster, Razaq, while raising a finger skyward, tells Ashraf Khan that “only a prophet could pass a test as stern as the one we are going through now. It is beyond our capacity. It is coming from Allah.”  When everyone and everything else turns its back, the human heart pins its hope on Almighty God. Since human beings are created in God’s image as all religions teach us, I guess it can be interpreted that the opposite is also  true in such situations. Human beings could become the last refuge for each other in times of dire need. That is what  has happened elsewhere in the recent past when the world governments / communities joined hands during disasters of this magnitude and that should happen here in Pakistan now.

Devinder Singh Saroya sent me a link for an Editorial in The Hindu – Mitigating Pakistan’s Miseries on FaceBook. The editorial goes like this:
“. . . the fury of the floods having subsided, Pakistan still needs help to deal with the aftermath.  A U.N. appeal for $459 million has evoked a disappointing response from the international community. The pledges made so far total only 47 per cent of the target, with the United States and United Kingdom making the most substantial commitments.”

Map of Gujarat Earthquake

Map of Gujarat Earthquake

As the region’s biggest economy, India should have been first off the blocks in offering help to its beleaguered neighbor. Its belated offer of $5 million in relief assistance is a pittance compared to what it has done for other neighbors. At the time of the 2004 tsunami, India went out of its way to provide Sri Lanka with an assistance package of nearly $200 million. Prime Minister Mamohan Singh took the right step by calling his Pakistan counterpart Yusuf Raza Gilani on Thursday to express India’s readiness to do more for the relief effort. This rectifies New Delhi’s earlier position that it would give more only if Pakistan responded positively to the “initial offer,” which was as narrow-minded as Islamabad’s response that it was yet to decide whether or not to accept Indian assistance.

Despite strained political relations, there have been instances in the past of spontaneous solidarity such as when Pakistan sent relief materials after the Gujarat earthquake and India did the same after the Kashmir earthquake. It is unfortunate that the two countries are letting present animosities come in the way of addressing a humanitarian situation. If Pakistan can accept assistance from other countries, there should be no problem taking it from India. For its part, New Delhi must unreservedly raise the assistance amount, and provide it to Pakistan, if required, as part of the United Nations fund.”

Pakistani Flood Survivor

Pakistani Flood Survivor

Floods caused by an unusually heavy monsoon since July have jolted Pakistan to the hilt . The initial death and destruction as reported may follow with even bigger disasters by the spread of diseases and famine, usually associated in the aftermath if help is delayed from the outside or does not reach all the needy inside the affected areas on time due to mismanagement, politics or whatever reason. Time is running out fast for those millions marooned in Pakistan. My heart goes out to the honorable, hard working farmers and their families who have lost all they had and are reduced to destitutes, begging for food and shelter overnight through no fault of their own.

When all is said and done, there has to be a silver linning to this dreadful dark cloud of awful human tragedy brought about by these out of control rain waters as opposed to the havoc caused by the salty seas during the tsunami. Fresh water is the most precious commodity; even more precious than the oil as the time goes by. The fresh water is disappearing fast beneath the surface in this part of the world; as fast as oil is in the Middle East . By overcoming this mamoth human tragedy and moving  past this nightmare caused by the excessive rainwater, if managed properly through imaginative river management policy / plan as a national priority, it almost guarantees the replenishing of its tired soils and recharging its exhausted aquifer for the future. That way, the Indus valley civilization can go on being supported as it has been for the past thousands of years.

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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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Discussion: Punjab Cries for a New Perspective on the Environment

Posted by on Aug 16, 2010 in Discussion | 0 comments

The Land of five rivers-Punjab, bears witness to one of the oldest, if not the oldest civilizations in the world, where man first brought the land under the plough. That little man called the farmer or ‘Jat’ in Punjabi, (also politically addressed these days as ‘aam aadmi’)  kept the civilization ticking for over 5000 years.  What can be a greater ironic tragedy of all times, than watching the very specie itself, being pushed out of existence in its own habitat, and in front of our very eyes?

Persian Wheel

A Relic of the Past: The Persian Wheel

Change that comes through progress also means the destruction of what was in its place before.  Evolution through which this universe has evolved also meant change. Man cannot stop the wheel turning but he can learn to regulate and steer it safely. In my own generation, I watched the Persian wheel with its earthen pitchers and wooden mechanism driven by oxen replaced by metal buckets, wrought iron mechanisms with ball bearings in its own time. The things moved so fast and out of control since then that shallow and shallower tube wells went deeper and deeper in no time and now all are replaced by submersibles sucking water up to and beyond 500 feet beneath the surface. Elsewhere I also watched the man landing on the moon, perhaps in search of more water! This is the story of water alone, and there are stories of this nature abound.

Judging  the direction the aforementioned, the aam aadmi is being lured to go, and the continuing trend beyond, I wrote these poems, ‘Piplan de sung Bohrr Gva Lei… and ‘Umber di Shehzadi de Naa’ many years ago. The other day, my son Navdeep Singh Dhillon who teaches college level English in New York, sent me an interesting music video ‘Kikran,Tahlian,Berian’ by a popular Punjabi satirist comedian /singer,  Bhagwant Mann.

Appropriately, the video starts with Surjit Patar’s  sher on Punjab,  recited by Patar sahib himself, which when translated from Punjabi to English, while it loses all of its poetic essence, means something like this:
All birds flew away from here,
Monsoons made a U-turn there.
Even trees now secretly plan here,
To go elsewhere, any place, anywhere!

Anything said, sung or spoken to raise awareness (amongst our not so fond of reading people), to stem the tide of environmental degradation under their very nose, must be appreciated, encouraged, shared and popularized at every level. Surjit Patar, from his high pedestal as one of the leading thinking poets alive, is well positioned to do that. And he has done a wonderful job in introducing this useful work of art in the form of this musical video presented artfully by dedicated Bhagwant Mann.

Having said that, it is not quite as accurate as Patar suggests. According to the introduction, everything ever written or spoken about Punjab prior to this video, are all lies and nobody before Mann told the truth about Punjab. Even his own sher translated above, reiterates this point. Since environmental degradation is a nationwide phenomenon, Patar himself along with others, though not many, which include some writers, journalists, poets and a handful of community activists both in north and south India, have reported the true picture nationwide many a time.  Jaswant Singh Kanwal, Kuldip Nayar, and Gurbachan Singh  Bhullar, for example, have written numerous articles to raise alarms from time to time about the near breakdown of Punjabiat and Punjabi culture in Punjab, which is a victim of the same overall mindset.

With a background dealing in the environmental matters, and having spent over thirty-years working as a landscape architect half around the world, I fail to see a comprehensive  environmental policy ever conceived or being enforced statewide. In a fast changing scene for road widening schemes just to take one example in one aspect, it has a major impact on its flora and fauna including man. In layman’s terms, there is no evidence of a compensatory tree plantation plan in action for these major ecological corridors that remain for the bird and insect life as the last refuge in Punjab.

Banyan Tree Cut in Punjab

Banyan Tree Cut in Punjab

According to many newspaper articles, century old trees are being axed under road widening schemes without proper alternate route studies and alignment options fully explored.  The most recent article I read was by Rashmi Talwar in The Tribune, Chandigarh, aptly titled “Century-old tree cut in the name of commercialism.

Environmental Impact Assessment reports based on alternate route studies which ought to be properly carried out by the professionals, fully understood by concerned parties, and made public under the Right to Information Act (RTI) are rarely adhered to in countries like India. Consequently, planting of replacement trees, which ought to be organized before the felling or axing should begin, hardly catches up even years later. The native trees such as Tahli, Kikkar, Neem, Pipal, Bohrr and others are replaced by fast growing species such as eucalyptus and poplar for quick effect. This may look good for the overflying politician in a helicopter in the short term but it offers no refuge and little solace for the insect and the dependent bird life. Hence my poems, ‘Piplan de sung Bohrr Gva Lei… and ‘Umber di Shehzadi de Naa’ published in my book ‘Diva Bale Samundron Paar’ were written in the same vein.

Surjit Singh Rakhra, President of the Oversees Akali Dal

Surjit Singh Rakhra, President of the Oversees Akali Dal

This past weekend, I had the chance to discuss some of these issues with S. Surjit Singh Rakhra, President of the Oversees Akali Dal, currently visiting California at S. Charanjit Singh Batth’s residence near Woodward Lake in Fresno. His views on this subject were not new and mirrored what seems to be the general consensus: First, let India catch up to other countries in terms of technology, industry, and food. Then worry about the environmental damage. But getting up to speed for a nation delayed is one thing and is perfectly understandable for the respective governments to show to its people the quick results. But hoping to coming back and clean up the mess left behind later is an unrealistic goal. How can a century old bohrr (banyan) tree be uncut? How do we reverse the effects of air pollution and illhealth caused by air polluting vehicles, or industrial waste in our rivers and oceans by companies held unaccountable for their actions? There are, of course, steps that can be taken in the right direction, but many environmental problems such as groundwater pollution are simply irreversible.

Baba Balbir Singh Seechewal

Baba Balbir Singh Seechewal

It is not that the true picture has not been painted before the release of Mann’s video. The more poignant question to ask is where do we go from here? The only person today, who is brave and resourceful enough to catch the bull by the horn –  so to speak – appears to be Baba Balbir Singh Seechewal, a Punjabi eco-activist.  By combining his assiduously cultivated self-help philosophy with the environmental essence of the Gurbani, Seechewal has successfully reinstated the 110-miles long Bein rivulet by his own design. A more scientific approach however, is adopted and vigorously advocated by Jaito based environmental community action group called Kheti Virasat Mission (KVM) in Punjab. They appear to have initiated some innovative and systematic survey data collection work in the Malwa Belt infested with mysterious diseases apparently due to environmental degradation.  Maybe these kinds of initiatives and awareness at the grass root level are the only way forward to shame the present day rulers, policy makers  and the ruled alike. Your thoughts?

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Legacy of the Ghadarites

Posted by on Jul 27, 2010 in Discussion, Radio Show | 0 comments

Tune in to KBIF AM 900 every Sunday between 3-4pm (PST) to listen to Punjab News and Views.
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This week’s topic: Legacy of the Ghadarites

Looking Back:

Baba Sohan Singh BhaknaThe term “Ghadar” means revolt, to overthrow power by force.
The scene is early 20th century America. The people had been enjoying the fruits of freedom for over a century now as they had overthrown their colonial masters , the British, as far back as in 1776.  But it was not the same for the communities of color as they had to struggle for another 100 years plus to get it close to where we are today. Nonetheless, the United States of America was indeed a new world

with stories of dreams come true abound. As the saying goes that workers home is where work takes them, USA the great country of ours  today, had already become a magnate  for workers all over the world.

Across the seven seas and thousands of miles away hopelessness drove hoards of workers from India to the United States, especially Punjabis, many of whom were predominantly Sikhs. Although the United States was affectionately known as a nation of immigrants, they were not welcome here. None of the Asians were, but Indians, being ruled by the British, were subject to even more ridicule. They were discriminated against every which way. They were addressed as ‘coolies,’ ‘Hindu slaves’ and to add injury to the insult a nation of a cowards, a population of millions ruled by a few hundred British who came 10,000 miles away. One of the horrendous stories I heard from Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna, straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, was that in a restaurant in Sanfrancisco, the manager refused to serve them meals when he visited the restaurant with a friend. There were  writings displaced at certain premises that said,”Indians and dogs not allowed”. These Indian immigrants, majority of whom were not that highly educated, not only read the writings on the wall but their wisdom, integrity and foresight enabled them to read between the lines also. These were the kinds of straw which instead of breaking camel’s back turned these ordinary workers in to Ghadrites.

Baba Bhakna who was pretty young at that time, along with other Indians working in North America helped found the Ghadar Party in America and became its president along with Dr. Lala Hardyal as its general secretary. Baba Ji had a profound influence on my life as I graduated from Janta High School Bhakna, also founded by him  . It was here in Sacramento-California in December 1913, a second meeting was held as a follow up from Astoria- Oregon in which more members in the executive committee were included and they vowed to free India at any cost, which was better known as ‘Ghadar’, perhaps taking the name after the Ghadar news paper which began to publish in Sanfrancisco. As the history bears witness, its members were all Indian workers, regardless of what language they spoke or the religion they practiced (or didn’t practice). As an organization, Ghadar party was a model of Indianness which stood the test of time through thick and thin as they returned to India to free their motherland. They not only talked the talk but also walked the walk as they went to the gallows together while fighting to overthrow the British Rule from India. True to the spirit of the word which JFK said many years later to his own country men here in America,” Ask not what the country can do for you, ask what you ca do for the country,” the Ghadrites gave it all to the freedom movement without asking anything in return.

Although the Indian government  did not give it its due place after the independence, the Ghadar Movement is generally considered to be the first potent freedom fighter movement against the British Rule in India, which shook the sleeping Indian giant into its yearning  for freedom, some 15 years before the  Indian National Congress Resolution of 1928 was adopted by the INC. There was an armed uprising in 1857 against the British, which is also referred to as Ghadar. Brutally crushed by the British however, it was considerd by many to be an uprising to regain the the lost princely states rather than the complete freedom for the Indian populace as a whole.

The price these Ghadarites paid as a movement and the role it played for Indian Independence is history now. It is another matter, however, that their dreams of prosperity for all countrymen still remains unfulfilled and the vision incomplete.

Looking Forward:
Ghadar Memorial Punjabi Conference 2010

Dedicated to the Ghadar Movement, the Ghadar Memorial Foundatiion of America held a Ghadar Memorial Punjabi Conference and 10th cultural fair in Sacramento on July 10, 2010. If you can read Punjabi and are interested in the poem I wrote for Preet Lari, click here.

This was the first conference of its kind  in which half a dozen stalwarts of sorts from Punjab also participated.  They came all the way from Punjab to take part in this unique  conference and to help pave the way forward.

Kuldip Nayar at Ghadar Memorial Conference, Sacramento, CA

Kuldip Nayar at Ghadar Memorial Conference, Sacramento, CA

Paying a tribute and sharing his vision at a place where it all began some 97 years ago, Kuldip Nayar, a vetern journalist and widely respected diplomat from India, presiding over the conference attended mostly by Punjabis said in his address that in order to build Punjab of the Ghadrites dreams, we need to be Punjabis first and then reclaim self confidence of being Indians. He added that because of the Ghadarites, India is now a democratic country and as Indians we have the right to criticize her as much as we like but never turn our backs on our mother country.

Dr. Sucha Singh, a reknowned economist from the Punjabi University Patiala read an exhaustive research paper on the economy of Punjab. He concluded with the remarks that the dreams of the Ghadrites can be fulfilled only if the economic prosperity reaches all sections of its countrymen. Each and every citizen becomes a partner in the progress and prosperity, cultivating a society which does not discriminate based on religion, caste , gender or ethinicity or geographic location of its citizenry.

Your Thoughts?

What do you think? Can Indians ever be united again to fix its moral compass as did the Ghadrites and fight against the  corruption and decadence in all walks of Indian society or is it inevitable that we quibble over non issues made into issues such like language, region, religion, and caste? How can we move forward in the 21st century?

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