A journey of a lifetime: Excerpt from Ujjal Dosanjh’s autobiography ‘Journey After Midnight’

In his autobiography ‘Journey After Midnight’, Ujjal Dosanjh pens down his experiences -- from life in rural Punjab to cosmopolitan Canada.

Written by Ujjal Dosanjh | Updated: September 14, 2016 5:45 pm
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Ujjal Dosanjh, born in the Jalandhar district of Punjab in 1946 immigrated to the UK in 1964 and from there to Canada in 1968. He was Premier of British Columbia from 2000 to 2001 and a Liberal Party of Canada Member of Parliament from 2004 to 2011, including a period as Minister of Health and Minister Responsible for Multiculturalism, Human Rights and Immigration. In 2003 he was awarded the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman, the highest honour conferred by the Indian government to overseas Indians.

He is now preparing for the launch of his autobiography ‘Journey After Midnight’. The book is the compelling story of a life of rich and varied experience, and also of rare achievement and conviction. With fascinating insight, Ujjal Dosanjh writes about life in rural Punjab in the 1950s and early ’60s; the Indian immigrant experience—from the late nineteenth century to the present day—in the UK and Canada; post-Independence politics in Punjab and the Punjabi diaspora; and the inner workings of the democratic process in Canada, one of the world’s more cosmopolitan and egalitarian nations.

Here is an edited excerpt from the book, which is to be launched on September 14.

A variation on the common Indian expression “Mullan de daur maseet taeen,” which roughly translates as “An imam’s ultimate refuge is the mosque,” sums up my relationship with the world: India is my maseet. I have lived as a global citizen, but India has been my mandir, my masjid, and my girja: my temple, my mosque, and my church. It has been, too, my gurdwara, my synagogue, and my pagoda. Canada has helped shape me; India is in my soul. Canada has been my abode, providing me with physical comforts and the arena for being an active citizen. India has been my spiritual refuge and my sanctuary. Physically, and in the incessant wanderings of the mind, I have returned to it time and again.

Most immigrants do not admit to living this divided experience. Our lack of candour about our schizophrenic souls is rooted in our fear of being branded disloyal to our adopted lands. I believe Canada, however, is mature enough to withstand the acknowledgement of the duality of immigrant lives. It can only make for a healthier democracy.

Several decades ago, I adopted Gandhi’s creed of achieving change through non-violence as my own. As I ponder the journey ahead, far from India’s partition and the midnight of my birth, there is no avoiding that the world is full of violence. In many parts of the globe, people are being butchered in the name of religion, nationalism and ethnic differences. Whole populations are migrating to Europe for economic reasons or to save themselves from being shot, beheaded or raped in the numerous conflicts in the Middle East and Africa. The reception in Europe for those fleeing mayhem and murder is at times ugly, as is the brutal discrimination faced by the world’s Roma populations. The U.S. faces a similar crisis with migrants from Mexico and other parts of South America fleeing poverty and violence, in some cases that of the drug cartels. Parents and children take the huge risk of being killed en route to their dreamed destinations because they know the deathly dangers of staying. Building walls around rich and peaceful countries won’t keep desperate people away. The only lasting solution is to build a peaceful world.

Human beings are naturally protective of the peace and prosperity within their own countries. A very small number of immigrants and refugees, or their sons and daughters, sometimes threaten the peace of their “host” societies. But regardless of whether the affluent societies of western Europe, Australia, New Zealand and North America like it or not, the pressure to accept the millions of people on the move will only mount as the bloody conflicts continue. Refugees will rightly argue that if the West becomes involved to the extent of bombing groups like ISIS, it must also do much more on the humanitarian front by helping to resettle those forced to flee, be they poverty-driven or refugees under the Geneva Convention. With the pressures of population, poverty and violence compounded by looming environmental catastrophes, the traditional borders of nation states are bound to crumble. If humanity isn’t going to drown in the chaos of its own creation, the leading nations of the world will have to create a new world order, which may involve fewer international boundaries.

In my birthplace, the land of the Mahatma, the forces of the religious right are ascendant, wreaking havoc on the foundational secularism of India’s independence movement. I have never professed religion to be my business except when it invades secular spaces established for the benefit of all. Extremists the world over—the enemies of freedom— would like to erase both the modern and the secular from our lives. Born and bred in secular India, and having lived in secular Britain and Canada, I cherish everyone’s freedom to be what they want to be and to believe what they choose to believe.

I have always been concerned about the ubiquitous financial, moral and ethical corruption in India, and my concern has often landed me in trouble with the rulers there. Corruption’s almost complete stranglehold threatens the future of the country while the ruling elite remain in deep slumber, pretending that the trickle of economic development that escapes corruption’s clutches will make the country great. It will not.

Just as more education in India has not meant less corruption, more economic development won’t result in greater honesty and integrity unless India experiences a cultural revolution of values and ethics. The inequalities of caste, poverty and gender also continue to bedevil India. Two books published in 1990, V.S. Naipaul’s India: A Million Mutinies Now and Arthur Bonner’s Averting the Apocalypse, sum up the ongoing turmoil. A million mutinies, both noble and evil, are boiling in India’s bosom. Unless corruption is confronted, evil tamed, and the yearning for good liberated, an apocalypse will be impossible to avert. It will destroy India and its soul.

On the international level, the world today is missing big aspirational pushes and inspiring leaders. Perhaps I have been spoiled. During my childhood, I witnessed giants like Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew of the Indian freedom movement take their place in history and even met some of them. As a teenager, I was mesmerized by the likes of Nehru and John F. Kennedy. I closely followed Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy as they wrestled with difficult issues and transformative ideas. I landed in Canada during the time of Pierre Trudeau, one of our great prime ministers. Great leaders with great ideas are now sadly absent from the world stage. The last few years have allowed me time for reflection. Writing this autobiography has served as a bridge between the life gone by and what lies ahead. Now that the often mundane demands of elected life no longer claim my energies, I am free to follow my heart. And in my continuing ambition that equality and social justice be realized, it is toward India, the land of my ancestors, that my heart leads me.

As my engagement with India grows stronger, I am more keenly aware than ever of its promise, its triumphs and its failures. India’s heart pulsates with the hopes and aspirations of its youthful population brimming with energy and impatience. The billion plus citizens of the country are wrestling with poverty, corruption, injustice and the almost complete indifference, even callousness, of the wealthy and the political class who monopolise and continue to plunder the country’s resources.

The economic development of recent decades—especially since Liberalization in 1991—has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty, but hundreds of millions more remain below the poverty line. Indian polity and administration at the Center and in the states is adrift, in a Nero-like trance: India burns and bleeds, the political class fiddles. The ruling BJP government headed by Narendra Modi, in power since May 2014, continues to wallow in the dangerous politics of religion. It is intent on rewriting history and fundamentally damaging the secular fabric of the country already severely weakened by the Congress’s opportunism, its cynical manipulation of communal and identity politics.

A fierce battle now rages for secularism and the soul of India. The elements of the Hindutva brigade, comprising both the masters and the foot soldiers of the BJP, are threatening to deliver the ultimate insult to the vast majority of Indians who still believe that secularism is the sin qua non of a stable and harmonious India. They are threatening to erect mandirs and statues in public places memorialising Nathuram Godse, the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi.

Meanwhile, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, surrounded by shameless, undying sycophants, is suffocating any dynamism left in the Congress. The corruption during the UPA regime of 2004–2014 has almost completely destroyed the vitals of the Congress; the once mighty party is morally and ethically bankrupt and too emaciated to confront the insidious onslaught of the RSS and the BJP against Indian secularism. In a dynastic stupor, the party’s brightest minds, like automatons, persist in blithe obeisance to the Family whose current iteration brings no glory to India or itself.

The entire political climate stands vitiated. A third of those that sit in the august halls of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha are either convicted criminals or have series of criminal charges, including murder and rape, pending against them. And the Parliament of India does not even sit enough days to adequately do the business of a country facing enormous challenges. When it does sit, its work is constantly disrupted. In a disgusting display of lack of decorum and principles, MPs routinely enter the well of the Houses, trying to shout each other down and making any rational debate impossible. The Speakers are brazenly disobeyed and they regularly throw up their hands and adjourn the proceedings—that is, of course, when they aren’t being partisan themselves.

Through all this, India suffers. Its tragedies multiply.

Primary school education in the country is a cruel joke. The primary and secondary government schools are abysmally underfunded and substandard. Many schools don’t have adequate buildings, sufficient teaching aids and materials. Many have much less than the full complements of teachers and of the teachers that there are, many don’t regularly show up to teach. The students from those schools are ill equipped for colleges or universities.

On the other hand, successive central governments have been spending a fortune on universities, IITs, IIMs and other institutions of higher learning. In itself that is magnificent. However, the students who benefit disproportionately from this are those that come from the privately funded expensive schools for the rich that are still inanely called ‘public schools’. They are anything but public. The children of the relatively poor and the disadvantaged are ill served and ill prepared to take advantage of the large amounts of money spent by the central government on post secondary education. It’s a vicious cycle: public money being used to serve the needs and aspirations of the affluent or near affluent, leaving the poor perpetually behind.

For most poor and powerless Indians the rule of law and justice remains elusive. It takes years and much money to have ordinary cases heard by the judiciary. No one trusts the Indian police. The two premier national investigative bodies, the Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI) and the Enforcement Directorate (ED), are in total disrepute. No one believes them or any other police force in the country to be operationally independent from their political masters—the governments or the wealthy and the well connected. In important corruption and terrorism cases there is the absurd spectacle of the opposition always asking for court monitored investigations, and the government always preferring the CBI and the ED. Political interference and the meddling of the powerful in police investigations and prosecutions makes that old adage of “garbage in garbage out” about justice so true of India.

There is a crisis in the universities of the country. Many students no longer feel free on their campuses to be critical of the government. For the ideologues of the governing party, the BJP, the government is the country. This has brought us the virulent streak of intolerance that has killed rationalists and scholars, and has threatened people—from university students like Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid of JNU to film stars like Aamir Khan and Shahrukh Khan—with charges of sedition for mere differences of opinion.

Seditious! Why not? I must confess I have always felt a tinge of sedition in my heart. A degree of sedition and subversion, undermining and challenging of the status quo, is inherent in any ambition or movement for change. In that sense the RSS and the BJP, the current flingers-in-chief of the allegations of sedition, are also subversive as they want to change the nature of the Indian state. And so are all the political parties worth their name who have differing visions of India. If they intend no subversion of the extant reality—the status quo—then they have no business in politics, unless they are in it for massaging their own egos or plundering the country.

On my recent visit to India I witnessed the brutal poverty in the jhuggies lining both sides of the railway tracks as I journeyed by rail from Delhi to Phagwara. The surroundings of these dwellings, if one could at all call them dwellings, were littered with runaway plastic and other garbage. There were small ponds, puddles and sewers of organic and industrial waste. A significant part of the future of India lives in those shanties; countless children all over the country grow up in similar sub-human conditions. None of them seem at all touched by the Swachh Bharat or any other grand scheme of state or central governments, past or present.

India leads the world in the curse of child slavery and labour. Millions of India’s children are trapped in bonded labour, sex trafficking and domestic ‘help’ servitude. Officially there are 14 million children living and working under slavery. But an honest counting will put the number at twice that—closer to 30 million. The whole world has signed the International Labour Organisation’s convention 182 banning exploitative forms of child labour. It is embarrassing that as one of the only six non-signatory countries, India is in the company of ‘giants’ like Cook Islands, Eritrea, Marshall Islands, Palau and Tuval.

There are massive water shortages across the country. There’s a crisis in health care: government hospitals are badly equipped and appallingly staffed, and private hospitals cater only to the rich. Under the weight of crippling debts and droughts, small and marginal farmers are killing themselves. There aren’t enough jobs being created for the millions of youth joining the job market every year. The human-rights record of the Indian State in Kashmir, the North East and other parts in the grip of insurgency is horrific and shameful. Dalits and Muslims are lynched with impunity by Hindutva-inspired mobs for skinning dead cows, or being in the vicinity of meat that may or may not be beef.

On the international scene too India’s ruling classes have been caught napping by the Chinese encirclement of India with the now well known string of pearls: The Chinese influence and presence looms large in Sri Lanka, Burma, Pakistan, Bangladesh and now Nepal. And lately India is geopolitically being thrust into the US orbit of influence.

India is a great country. It needs to develop its economy and power accordingly. It must resist the danger of being Pakistanised in its foreign relations—becoming an appendage to any power, no matter how great or how useful.

As India became independent on the midnight of August 14-15, 1947—nine decades after the earlier unsuccessful war of Independence of 1857—Nehru sketched the contours of our ongoing “tryst with destiny”: “Whither do we go and what shall be our endeavour? To bring freedom and opportunity to the common man, the peasants and workers of India; to fight and end poverty and ignorance and disease; to build up a prosperous, democratic and progressive nation . . . to ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman.”

But India’s tryst with its destiny has so far been terribly elusive. The ruling class has failed to live up to the aspirations of an independent India so eloquently captured by Nehru on that fateful midnight. One is constantly haunted by the images of malnourished children who, dressed in rags, play and ‘live’ with animals chewing gobs of plastic as they graze on patches of dying grass littered with garbage all over India. These children will one day—and they must, if India is to have any hope of change—grow up to be seditious and subvert the status quo that has kept them and their preceding generations in such dreadful poverty.

In the name of the hundreds of million children, men and women living in desperate poverty, in shanties and jhuggies, under bridges and flyovers, all governments of India since 1947 richly deserve to be charged with sedition for betraying India; and I publicly so charge them. Before any defenders of the governments, past or present, pronounce me guilty of rebellion, I plead: Guilty as charged; guilty of dreaming of an egalitarian, prosperous, just, harmonious, inclusive and compassionate India!

In rags and in riches, in jhuggies and in palaces, in farms and in factories, in the Lok Sabha and in Gram Sabhas, I have seen Indians who love their motherland. This love is genuine; unlike the love professed by the scoundrels seeking refuge in pseudo-patriotism. It is a good thing to love one’s nation. But it should not blind us to its problems and failings. It is easy enough to be “patriotic” when faced with an external enemy; but internal dissent against injustice is the bravest kind of patriotism. It is also the most valuable.

In India, poverty is extreme, corruption endemic, injustice and inequality pervasive, communalism and violence rampant. India today is an uncivil society. There is a dangerous disconnect between the professed love of the country on the one hand and the everyday actions of many Indians on the other.

Wherein lies the solution?

Economic development, universal modern education and improved technology are all crucial. But these alone will not be enough for India to climb up from its absolutely dismal 135th place in the United Nations Human Development Index. The past several decades have seen the rich getting richer and the middle class expanding a little, but the vast numbers at the lower end of the economic ladder have become ever more pauperized.

So the task ahead is one of turning this increasingly uncivil society into one that is peaceful, fair, equitable, inclusive and just; where economic development happens faster than ever before, and its benefits are enjoyed by all. But it is clear that a substantial portion of the Indian economy is underground; all due to the sadly enduring disease of corruption. The albatross of financial, ethical and moral corruption is strangulating and shortchanging the country.

Those who say economic progress will by itself free India from corruption are just as wrong as those who in the 1950s maintained that education by itself would reduce corruption. It obviously hasn’t, and India finds itself counted among the most corrupt countries on earth. Corruption shatters human dreams and stunts ingenuity. It constrains personal and political liberties. It severely limits opportunities.

The main hindrance in the path of social, political, economic and cultural progress is the disconnect between knowing what is right and doing the right thing; most know what is the right and the ethical thing to do, but they continue to do the wrong and the unethical thing; hence the ubiquitous corruption.

Today’s world has few leaders brimming with great ideas. The paucity of great leaders afflicts India as well. There are no inspiring giants on the national stage tall enough to lead India out of the ethical and moral quagmire. Asked whether he was working to create a new India along with seeking its independence from Britain, Mahatma Gandhi had declared that he was trying to create a new Indian—an honest, fair and just Indian for a proud, progressive, prosperous and caring India. Since the Mahatma’s time the moral and ethical values of India have decayed. In Indian politics, civil service and public life there is little evidence of the ideals he lived and died for.

The sculpting of Gandhi’s Indians, and the building of the India of the dreams of its founding fathers and mothers, requires a moral and ethical revolution—a revolution of values that are of Indians, by Indians and for Indians. No matter how bleak the political and ethical scene today, I’m certain there are great minds—fearless, humane and brave—among the billion plus residents of India. We may not see them, but they exist. We may not know them, but they are among us. They must heed India’s call. They must come forward and lead. India’s destiny demands it.

Make no mistake and have no doubts—a progressive, prosperous and caring India is not only possible but inevitable. Such an India will make the entire world a better place for all humanity.

This excerpt has been published with permission of Speaking Tiger Books. Ujjal Dosanjh writes regularly for IndianExpress.com.