Power to the Brown People: Vancouver's Desis Rage against the Deportation Machine-And It Works

By Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah Lakshmi | Colorlines Magazine, May-June 2008 | Go to article overview

Power to the Brown People: Vancouver's Desis Rage against the Deportation Machine-And It Works


Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah Lakshmi, Colorlines Magazine


IT WAS AN IMMIGRANT RIGHTS ORGANIZER'S dream come true.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

On December 10, 2007, with just a few hours notice, close to 2,000 South-Asian Canadian immigrants flooded Vancouver International Airport. They paralyzed the international departures section and surrounded a cab taking a severely disabled 48-year-old Sikh refugee, Laibar Singh, to his deportation flight. The crowd did what no other protest in North America had done before--using civil disobedience, it stopped a deportation proceeding in its tracks.

The protest prompted a tense, hours-long standoff at the airport. Officers of the Canadian Border Services Agency announced, a bit nervously, that they were unwilling to wade into the crowd. And after eight hours, the cab--well, it just started backing up. Someone helped Singh climb out of the cab, and he was ushered back to the Sikh place of worship (a gurdwara), where he has sought sanctuary while awaiting a resolution of his legal challenge to stay in Canada.

Singh became an overnight celebrity, the subject of national and international headlines and live video feeds. Suddenly, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) was beaming rarely--if ever--seen images around the country. Right there on TV was the fierce sight of Sikh priests who looked like my uncle now transformed into defiant activists. They stood alongside hottie rabble-rousers like Harsha Walia of the group No One Is Illegal, celebrating an honest-to-God immigration rights victory. And support wasn't limited to Sikhs. As one unnamed young man at the rally said haltingly on CBC's live clip, "We see support from Sikh, Muslim, Hindu and all other groups. And we see that Singh is popular with anyone who has a compassionate heart. And we see that the government has lost that compassionate heart."

Of course, as the story blew up, Singh's celebrity grew in less-welcoming circles as well. Newspapers like The Globe and Mail and Vancouver Sun were forced to disable online comments on articles about Singh, as they were flooded with racist rants. "Only white people are real Canadians," one reader wrote. "America has Al Qaeda; Canada has Sikhs," opined another. Organizers received (and continue to receive) death threats.

None of which burst the community's euphoric bubble. "I laughed. I couldn't stop laughing. I couldn't believe it," said Vancouver-based Indian/Filipino artist and activist Hari Malugayo Alluri, recalling his reaction when he first heard about the airport scene.

And so did brown people all over the country. We'd won. For once, instead of another tidy, symbolic but ultimately impotent march, we'd actually won. We'd put our bodies on the line to stop one of our own from being sent back--and it worked.

Desis have been in British Columbia for over 100 years, and they've been fighting for their space all that time. In the early part of the 20th century, Vancouver's South-Asian community was a hotbed of revolution. The community boasted one of the highest rates of membership in the Ghadar Party--an armed, anti-colonial political group founded in San Francisco that offered a sharp contrast to the better-known non-violent Indian independence movement. The Ghadar Party newspaper's masthead made its brand of politics clear: "Wanted -- brave soldiers to stir up rebellion in India. Pay -- death; Price -- martyrdom; Pension -- liberty; Field of battle -- India."

The party, along with Vancouver's broader South-Asian community, played a key role in one of North America's earliest and most infamous immigration battles, which was itself the result of Desi civil disobedience. In 1914, 376 Punjabi Indians onboard the Komagata Maru steamliner en route from Hong Kong were denied entry under a convoluted British Columbia law that had been passed as a thinly veiled effort to block Indian immigration. The Komagata Maru voyage had been chartered as a way to confront the new law and to reveal it as a racist hit on Indians. …

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