At 18, Ujjal Dosanjh left his village in Punjab and moved to the UK and later to Canada. The Canadian lawyer and politician, who has a degree in political science and law, became one of the first persons of Indian origin to lead a government in the West when he was elected premier of the Canadian province of British Columbia in 2000. As a Liberal Party leader, he went on to become a member of the Canadian Parliament, from 2004-11, and also served as the country’s health minister. Dosanjh, who has been vocal about issues such as equal rights for minority communities, came out with his autobiography, Journey After Midnight: India, Canada and the Road Beyond, earlier this year
SHUBHAJIT ROY: You emigrated in the ’60s, first to the UK and then to Canada. What changes has Indian immigration to the West seen since?
In terms of the kind of immigrants that are going to places such as Canada and other parts of the world… In the ’60s, particularly in Punjab, there was essentially a craze for better economic opportunities. People would return after five to six years in England and look different — healthier, richer, and with better skin tones. As a child, you wanted to be like them. I left for that as well.
My father was very loving but tough. So I wanted to get out of there. We weren’t rich and he had no way of sending me to college, away from himself. So I got admission to a school in London on my own. I knew I had no money to go but I got the visa and left.
Now, you still have my kind of economic immigrants, but you also have the richer class leaving India, China for better quality of life, better economic security, better environment, better health and education facilities. With the rich people leaving, wealth is also leaving the country. They are taking their wealth away, by hook or by crook. But I think people leaving with a sense of frustration and those leaving with their wealth are both not good for the country.
SHUBHAJIT ROY: New forces, new issues have come up in Punjab since you left. What are some of the changes that you have noticed in the state?
In Punjab, and I think that it is true of politics in general across the country, I found that despite people leaving in the ’60s — and I consider us rejects, we couldn’t make it and so we left — the other side of the coin didn’t lose very much. There was this afterglow of Independence then.
Watch Video: Idea Exchange with Ujjal Dosanjh
I grew up in a political family — not in the sense of elections, but in terms of the freedom movement. People had high hopes, high expectations. We felt that the country was going to go places. In 1964-65, Punjab wasn’t a poor province. It was among the better provinces, better states. But now when you visit Punjab, there is no sense of hope, there is no sense of direction, there is no employment, there is no industrialisation… Punjab is actually hollowing out. Most in terms of the human population because, you know, the kids are leaving. They are willing to buy their way to a foreign land and die on their way to a foreign land. Politics is equally decadent (in Punjab), as it is in the rest of the country.
Canadian society is a richer society, it doesn’t have the same issues. In India you have issues of life and death, clean air, clean water… the most fundamental issues of human life. Politicians should have some sense of commitment to the country, a sense of what they really want to do.
If I may say so, not to criticise the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)… It emerged from the whole Anna Hazare movement and we watched it from a distance. From my perspective, the Anna Hazare movement was great but I think it did horrible damage to the country; a whole movement arose and then just died. In societies where there is a lot of frustration, people rise up at certain points in time, but if you don’t lead them properly, decades are lost.
I think when you make a deal with the devil, you are no less than the devil. Ultimately you have to make those kind of decisions in politics. You may not win an election for 10 years, but when you win, you will win on the basis of ideals. And I think there is no one in India, at least in politics, that is prepared to do that. Everyone is prepared to cut a deal. Maybe I am being too harsh, I am talking about the characters that are known actors in politics.
SHUBHAJIT ROY: Do you think the AAP hasn’t lived up to the expectations of the people?
I visited India in February-March this year. At the time, I had a wonderful, long, two-three hour conversation with this very important, very reliable source in the AAP. He told me that Arvind Kejriwal knew about Mr Tomar… he knew about the other MLAs and candidates who ran on the AAP platform as well (Last year, then Delhi law minister Jitendra Singh Tomar was removed over allegations of producing a fake graduation degree). But he wasn’t prepared to actually tell them to leave. That’s what I am referring to… We are in the country of Mahatma Gandhi, if you are not prepared to stand for what you preach, then the country is not going to go places.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: How different is the Punjab of today from the Punjab you left behind?
We were a lower middle class family. We weren’t the poorest of the poor… There was hope. We saw men and women who had witnessed the Independence movement. They were clean, ethically upstanding… There was still a sense of idealism. You don’t have that anymore.
I am actually ashamed that I was in a car with a driver on two occasions, when he was stopped by cops. Both times he was pulled out of the car… I didn’t want to argue with the cops, because it was not my place to interfere. I am now a Canadian in that sense, when a cop is talking to someone, you don’t interfere. Both times they pulled him out, took his licence as if they were going to issue him a challan. The first time he was made to pay Rs 500, and Rs 300 in the second instance. I paid him some money because I felt bad for him.
I have been out of this country since 1964 and I have never, never, had the need to give one red cent as a bribe. So there is that kind of heaven and this kind of hell, and I just think that these cops have the power of life and death over these individuals. Corruption has made a home in our psyche, in our being, and the fight against it has stopped.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: Before elections, many politicians seek support from NRIs. But if the AAP has let people down, why do you think NRIs are still supporting them?
There was a lot support for the AAP. But now I am hearing from people that they are disappointed. In fact, I recently got a call from someone who said that he was disappointed that he gave money and organised meetings (for the party). He was so disgruntled and unhappy. I think most Indians in Canada are basically first-generation immigrants like me, and they want to see India improve. I don’t think there is any other motivation, other than to see Punjab and India get better. But they are disappointed, just as I am.
From what we read in the newspapers, the AAP seems to have imploded in Punjab. The Anna Hazare movement had a lot of support, but then it fizzled out. The sense of excitement and liveliness has just disappeared. The same thing is happening with the AAP too.
SHAILAJA BAJPAI: Why do you think NRIs have responded with such alacrity to Narendra Modi over the past two years?
Mr Modi may think that the response comes out of support for the BJP, but I think Indians abroad, just like Indians at home, are dying to see a leader in India who is able to stand up and speak to rest of the world.
Indians want change, they are dying to see a change on the national scene and in states. But they can see through things when it is all just talk. And you will see that the NRIs aren’t as enamoured of Modi as they were two years ago.
I think India needs economic development and better education, particularly, in elementary- and secondary-level education. Of course, secondary education is facilitated by some great institutions, so it needs only a little more push. But what I see missing in India is ethics.
I remember reading this in law school… When somebody asked (Mahatma) Gandhi whether he was trying to create a new India, he responded, ‘No, no. I am trying to create a new Indian — more honest, more ethical, more compassionate, more just.’
I do not think I remember anyone, perhaps after (Jawaharlal) Nehru or (Lal Bahadur) Shastri, and I have met Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Indira Gandhi, I K Gujral, Manmohan Singh, who has tried to talk to Indians about becoming better Indians.
Modi’s emphasis has been on economic development and physical cleanliness, which is wonderful and is much needed. But I think it is ethical cleansing which we need as a country.
SHEELA BHATT: Do you think, in Canada, pro-Khalistan elements are still organised? And are they organised enough to influence the Punjab elections? If so, what is their status and how do you see them?
I don’t think they are capable of influencing anything in Punjab, but they are capable of creeping into the politics of the country where they are in. I do not think the Khalistan movement has the capacity to create problems, as it did in the ’80s and early ’90s. You now have second- and third-generation Khalistanis who have never been to India, but who continue to believe in their heads that India is still killing Sikhs. And that can never be changed. But they are a tiny minority. What they are now doing is that they are actually creeping into local parties. If you talk to them, they are no longer separatists, they talk about human rights. So their approach has become sophisticated now.
I do not think the Khalistan movement poses a threat to India. India is such a huge country and it (pro-Khalistan movement) is such a tiny minority of a foreign population.
SHUBHAJIT ROY: We see news reports about some Canadian politicians sharing the stage with leaders of pro-Khalistan outfits. How does Canada, as a diverse and secular country, explain this?
There are two things here. First, the idea that anyone, anywhere should be able to say that ‘this is what I want. In this case, I want a separate Sikh country in India’ — anybody can say that. I don’t think that’s illegal. I disagree with it, but as a democrat, who believes in democracy and the right of free speech, and the right to free association, I would have to grant that right to someone to say that ‘I want to separate’. It is when you begin to do illegal stuff — killing, shooting, creating physical disruptions which could lead to loss of life — I think that is when you cross the line.
As far as Canadian politicians go, I think many of them don’t understand the danger that they are toying with when they go to these places and hobnob with people, who they may know or may not know are Khalistanis. Their answer is, well it is a democracy and they have a right to argue.
In my perspective, politicians should not be pandering to religion per se. Whether you’re a separatist in religion, or whether you’re just a religious person, no politician should be going to a mosque or a mandir or a gurdwara or a girija ghar (church).
LIZ MATHEW: India, like Canada, is a multi-cultural country. Do you think, the way nationalism is being defined and perceived here at the moment is healthy? What kind of impact will it have on society?
I believe it is very dangerous for India. I say this because I actually love the idea of India — a secular, united, progressive, just, compassionate country. I am convinced that what is happening today, whether it is the attack on Dalits for skinning dead cows, which they have been doing unfortunately for centuries, or any other form of pseudo patriotism that is going on, it is very dangerous for India.
India is a country of a million minorities. If you have a million minorities, of languages, of ethnicities, of cultures, of faiths, and if you do not have the underpinnings of a very strong sense of secularism, you will have a million mutinies on your hands. And I think that is something Mr Modi and his friends are perhaps not prepared to concede or understand.
I see forces that actually divided the country back in 1947, one insidious step at a time, being unleashed for political gain. I believe, as an Indian, that is very, very dangerous for India.
SUSHANT SINGH: What do you make of the situation in Kashmir?
I’m not that historically up to date about Kashmir… You can have meetings and send delegations, but unless the rest of India comes together and projects that the country is moving forward as one, I see no long-term solution.
If you have a prosperous India, a vast majority of people in Kashmir would not want to go anywhere else. Why would they want to go to Pakistan that is a failed state? So you have to create incentives, and unfortunately you are not creating those.
SHUBHAJIT ROY: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is very high on optics and symbolism — pro-women, pro-people of colour, pro-LGBT communities — but in terms of substance, does he intend to inject that substantive element in the India-Canada relationship? It has been just over a year since he took over, there have been talks of a bilateral visit, but it is all still in the works.
I hope so. Give it time. I think he will come to India soon. Canada is a small country, it has a large land mass, but it is still a small country.
The Canadian government is paying attention. Justin Trudeau does think of trade with India every now and then. India is an important player, but China is more important for Canada. China-Canada trade is much larger than Canada-India trade, and there are more opportunities. I am afraid to say, China is miles ahead of India on many fronts, and that is why I say India needs to move forward together with a sense of urgency.