Kumar: What took Jagmeet Singh so long?

What took Jagmeet Singh so long?

I’m trying to figure out Jagmeet Singh.

Full disclosure, I like the guy. I’ve interviewed him for a current affairs program I hosted. I’ve met him at public events. We even spoke on the phone once. I’m not immune to his youthful charm, his debonair style and earnest manner. And even though I am, by origin, a Hindu Punjabi and he’s a Sikh Punjabi (a distinction that doesn’t matter to me), I’ve been proud of his meteoric rise in Canadian politics. It’s especially striking since he did it all – not by hiding his identity but – by boldly embracing it. Jagmeet is by all accounts an all around Sikh-Canadian.

So it was doubly disappointing when, just after his decisive win in the federal NDP leadership race, he was evasive and non-committal in condemning the glorification of Sikh terrorists who were responsible for the worst act of terrorism in Canadian history.

I remember the shock of that 1985 Air India bombing vividly. I was a young girl and lived with my family in Montreal back then. My parents had sent my sister and I to Toronto one week ahead of them so that we could enjoy our cousin’s pre-wedding festivities. The morning after we arrived, we woke up early to the surreal sounds of shock and grief and knew that something was horribly wrong. The wedding was postponed and we were sent back to Montreal with family friends. We lost many personal friends that day. The loss for our Montreal and Toronto Indo-Canadian communities was staggering.

Wrong is wrong, irrespective of the faith, ethnicity, nationality or whatever, of the people who did it, right? So why did Jagmeet Singh have such a hard time saying it? Jagmeet seems like a decent guy with good values. He clearly cares for his family, community and fellow man. He believes in equality, social programs and human rights. And, really, he just doesn’t strike me as the “worship a terrorist-martyr” type.

But his refusal, until only very recently, to publicly denounce those responsible has perplexed and bothered me. It cost him votes in my family. I’m sure it has cost him many more across Canada. I just can’t understand why he would allow himself to be aligned with evil-doers, when he works so hard to do good.

Was it just to pander for the votes of hardliner Sikhs in Canada who hold on to bitterness and struggles from the old country? Was it political strategy? Aside from this seemingly being at odds with his values, it also doesn’t make sense to conflate all Sikhs with the more militant factions. I’ve known Sikhs my whole life. My best friend growing up was a Sikh. Even as young girls, she and I had agreed that wrong was wrong, whether committed by Hindus or Sikhs. In all the years of knowing her entire extended family, I never heard so much as a whisper of violence or anger about Indian politics from any of them. These were honorable people who believed that service towards others, in gurudwaras (Sikh temples) and in life generally, is the ultimate form of godliness. So if it was for votes, shouldn’t these votes count too? Such a strategy would gain him some votes to be sure, but the political costs could also be huge.

So if that doesn’t explain it, then what does?

Could it be about a deep sense of family loyalty? Where western cultures are more individualistic, eastern cultures are all about the family and, by extension, our communities. What hurts our parents, our families, our communities hurts us too. In his recent Globe and Mail piece, Jagmeet gave a glimpse into his inner turmoil for the pain his parents suffered from the horrible 1984 anti-Sikh riots in India.

As a child, I remember noticing how my parents changed when certain topics of conversation came up: They became more quiet, uncomfortable … There was a pain I felt, but I didn’t understand it. My parents were loving, caring, generous and thoughtful. But they were also suffering.”

It can sometimes be a process to separate these kinds of emotional ties from the inner compass of what’s right and wrong. I should know…I’ve experienced it firsthand. In 1998, I worked with a senior lawyer in Delhi who was leading the Wrongful Detention, Execution and Cremation of Persons in Punjab in the 1980s. It was, ironically, an examination of atrocities committed against Sikhs. I was an idealistic young lawyer. I believed in human rights and justice, and I felt it was right to put the actions of state agents under a microscope to see if their use of power was lawful and justified.

My extended family, who are truly an extension of my nuclear family here in Canada, could not understand why I was involved in this public inquiry. They had lived through those dark years when it wasn’t at all certain that once they left their homes in the morning that they would return at night. The threat of violence was the only constant, and they were caught between those people committing unlawful acts of terror and those trying to quash them. All that my family (and most ordinary citizens) wanted was for peace to be restored. Working for the commission felt like a betrayal of their experience, and I felt a deep sense of compassion, confusion and shame. I didn’t know if I was doing the right thing. It took me a long time to understand that I could love them and feel their pain, but also answer to my own notions of justice.

If family influences us, so might history…particularly a version of events from which balance and context are missing, and where bias is present. And often, we don’t think to question it. For instance, in my early days in Toronto, I visited a few gurudwaras and remember feeling shocked by the conspicuous framed photos glorifying pro-Punjab independence militants. Their very presence appeared to normalize the notion of violence…in a place of worship! If Jagmeet Singh grew up seeing or hearing only one version of events, is it any surprise that he would describe the invasion of the Golden Temple like this?:

“I also learned that in 1984, the Golden Temple – the most revered Sikh place of prayer –was demolished. Those who had taken up arms to defend it, along with thousands of innocent civilians, were killed.

Another view would describe events in this way: The government acted against the threat of pro-Khalistan militants who were terrorizing the population by assassinating those who opposed their views, and claiming the protection of the Golden Temple while boldly stockpiling weapons in it and transforming it into an armed fortress.

We may never know what took Jagmeet Singh so long to forthrightly condemn the “martyr posters” of the Air India masterminds. Whatever his reasons, as an experienced politician and a newly elected leader of a federal political party he should have anticipated being asked tough questions about his values, which voter interests he represents, and which he might be beholden to.

It took Jagmeet Singh months to do what is right by decisively calling out those who were wrong.

Now he’s going to have to work really hard to show Canadians that he has finally figured himself out.

Kumar: My Sikh Best Friend and I

My Sikh Best Friend and I

I met my best friend in grade two. It wasn’t BFF love at first sight, but over the years she and I became inseparable. We played together, hung out at each other’s homes, had kid adventures and laughed all the time.

By the time we hit high school, there were council campaigns, sleepovers, crazy homework all-nighters, unstoppable giggle fits in the library and coming-of-age adolescent adventures. There was nothing we couldn’t confide in each other.

My best friend was a Sikh. I was a Hindu. It never mattered one bit.

When her family had an important function at the gurudwara, we would go. When my family had an occasion to celebrate at the temple, her family would come. It’s just the way it was in the late 70s and early 80s.

Politics was about the furthest thing from our teenage minds. We were more preoccupied with our dreams for the future and our boy crushes to be concerned with all that. In some ways, we were sheltered by our youth.

But it was inevitable that we sensed our parents’ growing uneasiness, overheard snippets of conversations of the horrors taking place between Hindus and Sikhs in India, and ultimately understood the gravity of the changing situation. For the first time, there seemed to be a distance growing between the two groups.

In fact, one of my family’s closest friends, with three kids who were the same ages as my sisters and I and with whom we share so many of our fondest childhood memories, were Sikh. Suddenly, we stopped seeing them. I remember my dad explaining to me that we were all just taking a bit of a break from one another…that it was the best thing to do in order to let things cool down and save the friendships down the road.

I was lucky. I had good role models. So did my best friend.

At the height of the atrocities, she and I finally addressed the elephant in the room – the elephant in our friendship! – over lunch in the school cafeteria. I remember it like a scene from a movie…the two of us focused exclusively on each other almost like there was a spotlight on us, fading all the noisy high school kids around us into the background. It felt like our friendship was hanging in the balance. How would we handle this tension between our two communities? Would it change things between us? Would we become defenders of our own faiths? Would we blindly champion the actions of wrongdoers simply because of our shared religion?

It turns out that two somewhat silly teenage girls could actually get it right.

There was no false pride. There was no willful blindness. The only thing there was, was a mutual agreement to say that wrong was wrong, regardless of who did it. I was ashamed that Hindi mobs were taking to vigilante justice against innocent Sikh men, women and children in the name of revenge for Indira Gandhi’s assassination. She was ashamed that militant Sikh factions were waging a war with innocent civilians in the name of Khalistan.

This is not to say that either of us denounced our own faiths. In fact, just as she is a proud Sikh, I am a very proud Hindu! Hinduism is an inclusive, non-missionizing faith…everyone is welcome. There are several epic legends that have been handed down through the generations with superheroes and super-villains that rival the Marvel franchise in entertainment value, but also provide a moral code of conduct if you look closer. Many of the bhajans, traditions, customs and celebrations fill me with joy.

And yet, I don’t love everything about Hinduism. There are certain practices that disturb, and even more, offend me. Some have to do with the thread of patriarchy that runs deep in temple practices. Another I experienced in the city of Varanasi, India, which is often described as a sacred and soulful place, and which I fully expected to be the heart of pure Hinduism.

What I found instead threw me into a crisis of faith.

There are temples everywhere in Varanasi, often deep within the labyrinth of covered markets with narrow alleys and merchants peddling wares on either side. At first I thought it was kinda cool as I was coaxed into the maze and then guided to this “secret hidden temple”. That feeling soon wore off.

My husband and I were taken from one spot to another where various rituals were performed and mantras chanted. At each spot, there was a request for a donation. At first we gave because we wanted to, eventually we gave because we felt like we had to. Repeatedly we were asked by various “priests” if we were comfortable with our donation amount and ‘look how much so-and-so from Canada has given’. It felt like a crude cash grab, nothing remotely resembling a pure spiritual practice. In Varanasi, I experienced the “business of religion”…of Hinduism. And I didn’t like it one bit.

It took me a while to accept that I didn’t have to like, or even respect, every aspect of Hinduism or the way in which it is practiced in order to still love my faith. I could love it and disagree with it at the same time. That’s not a contradiction. I’ve come to see it as a healthier relationship with my faith, or any faith for that matter. We all know the tragic pitfalls of turning a blind eye to the flaws of any religion…just look at the state of the world today where unspeakable acts – often not sanctioned by the teachings of the faith – are committed in the name of religion.

Ultimately, religion should serve the people, not the other way around. And we shouldn’t be afraid to take a stance against those who abuse the tenets of their faith. Wrong is simply wrong. And it really should not be so hard to call out.

Kumar: Casting Brown shouldn’t be black or white

Kumar: Casting Brown shouldn’t be black or white

By Niru Kumar | Thinkbait, TNKR Media

TNKR Media is pleased to welcome Toronto-based host and producer Niru Kumar to the team. Niru is a former lawyer and CBC broadcaster whose podcast “The Desi Project” (working title) will debut in early 2019.

Once, a very long time ago, I had a dream. I was going to be an actor.

And this wasn’t just an idle childhood fantasy, even though my breakout lead role was the Velveteen Rabbit in my elementary school’s annual play. No, I had bigger plans. I was going to get a role on my favourite childhood program of all time, The Facts of Life.

The unfortunate reality of most great aspirations is that they fade over time, strangled by the crushing weight of pragmatism.  I did what all good kids do, I listened to my parents and became a professional – a lawyer – while only occasionally flirting with my first true love.

Through the lens of a grownup, I look back wistfully and sometimes find myself playing the “what if” game and wonder about my chances of success if had I pursued my dream, talent notwithstanding.

In other words, the real question is: Could I, as a South Asian woman, have had a fair shot at success as an actor? Does the entertainment world create spaces for people like me?

In North America, there are really only a handful of prominent South Asian actors. My A-list of names would include Aziz Ansari, Priyanka Chopra, Kunal Nayyar, Archie Panjabi and, yes, Apu from The Simpsons.  It’s not a long list. You may have come up with a few more, but let’s be honest: there are very few ‘brown’ acting successes in Hollywood or its Canadian equivalent.

The roles for which these actors get cast tells a story of its own: Aziz Ansari became famous for his portrayal on Parks and Recreation of ‘Tom Haverford’.  In Quantico, one of our biggest Bollywood stars played ‘Alex Parrish’.  In The Good Wife, Archie Panjabi became ‘Kalinda Sharma’.  All three of these characters had the “right accent”, the “right look” and fit comfortably into mainstream society, so any connection to their cultural identity was essentially white-washed. Yes, acting is all about assuming other identities, but why the total cover up?!

Then, there’s the opposite extreme. Kunal Nayyar plays the role of Raj Ramayan Koothrappali, the brilliant astrophysicist, complete with an Indian accent and mannerisms. Although enjoyably done, the character did play up Indian stereotypes. And when we think of Indian stereotypes, who can help but think of the quintessential Kwik-e-Mart owner Apu Nahasapeemapetilon on the long running hit show The Simpsons?

Apu is (or maybe by now, was) a delightful character – intelligent and talented, courteous and virtuous – so why the controversy? It stems from an ongoing perpetuation of the unidimensional cultural way in which South Asians are portrayed; and, to add insult to injury, the role wasn’t even given to an Indian to play! Hank Azaria has been the voice of Apu and, while I don’t hold him responsible for the stereotyping, it speaks volumes about where casting directors look for talent.

Even when it would be completely logical to cast South Asians, it seems for too long that an extra effort was made to avoid casting brown. Think of all the TV doctors, tech bros and sci-fi scientists on screen – and how few are brown – when in real life, South Asians are actually overrepresented in these industries and professions!

So, in the US, it seems that my acting choices would’ve generally forced me to either eliminate all traces to my heritage (except the colour of my skin), or take on roles specifically meant to mock my culture for the entertainment of others. Casting a ‘non-ethno specific, general role’ with a character who has an overtly Indian name and allowing for a dual South Asian-North American identity has been a huge challenge, and continues to be for brown actors.

But I live in Canada, a country that long ago forged a progressive path by embracing multiculturalism, in the city of Toronto, arguably the most multicultural city in the world. You would be right to think that this is a utopia, a land of opportunity where there would be a plethora of acting roles written for women like me. But can you name a single program by a private or public broadcaster that features a South Asian actor prominently?

No matter how you slice it or dice it, the pickings are slim. There are still too few roles for South Asian actors; we are vastly and disproportionately underrepresented in the entertainment industry. And when we do get roles, we typically either have to hide our ethnicity altogether, or exaggerate it for comic value. All or nothing.

But I am not that. I am both Canadian and Indian. I am a mom, lawyer, writer, journalist, host…and I don’t have an accent! One day, when I do wistfully look back and wonder what could have been, I’d love to see roles that aren’t written for “types,” but rather reflect the colourful, beautiful nuances in South Asian diaspora communities.

Maybe then, knowing the door is open just a bit wider for my kids, I won’t dread playing the “what if” game so much.

Niru Kumar is a contributor to TNKR Media, a Toronto-based producer and host of a forthcoming podcast on North America’s South Asian diaspora.