Playing the Politics Game with Punjabis

Brampton East is a liberal area. Their biggest issues include immigration policy, the staggering price of car insurance, restrictions placed on basements, and the fact that the 9th largest city in Canada doesn’t have its own university. The surrounding cities, for example, — Malton, Mississauga, etc. — have laws allowing homeowners to rent out their basements to students or workers on visas or anyone looking for a temporary place to stay. In Brampton, that is not the case. Supposing basements were made legal, young locals could be employed to build basements, then homeowners could charge tenants rent to stay in their homes. In my experiences, South Asians (especially Punjabis) are very willing to host people in their basements, so this policy is something of a hindrance to an act that, in many ways, is culturally ingrained. Take a young upstart politician who caters to a demographic’s ideals and ethnic identity in the right way (e.g. keeps a turban and beard, speaks Punjabi and English fluently, is a doctor or lawyer), and you have a candidate.

The issue, however, is how to perform Punjabi politics.

In the same way that no two snowflakes are ever alike, no two gurdwaras ever agree. If you go to any gurdwara in Brampton, — Gurdwara Dasmesh Darbar, Ontario Khalsa Darbar, Gurdwara Jot Parkash Sahib — you will find a side office for the administration, and maybe an additional office for the principal of the gurmat school, where children learn Gurbani and Sikh scripture. Each administrator is bound to have strong opinions about the other gurdwaras in the area. Sikh communities are accessed through their gurdwaras, and their gurdwaras, politically speaking, through the administration.

There are also dozens of events every weekend, especially in the summer. Ontario Khalsa Darbar (Dixie Gurdwara), and Jot Parkash have 6 halls each: two major halls and four auxiliary halls. At least four of the halls will have a wedding going on each Saturday of the summer (I’ve sat in on three Sikh weddings so far, and you can hear adjacent halls undergoing the wedding ceremony at the same time). If you are seeking power in the community, make your presence known these gurdwaras. Even weddings are appropriate times for politics, because if you have a public profile and give your blessings to the newlyweds, it reflects well on your standing in the community.

A wedding in one of the smaller halls in Dixie Gurdwara on July 5. The gold text in the back of the hall says “We Love Khalistan” — almost all of the major gurdwaras in the area support the creation of a Sikh sovereign state in the Punjab region of South Asia.

There are also multiple melas, or community gatherings, each weekend.

Association of Seniors Clubs meeting, July 19.

There are also larger-scale events, like annual festivals, many of which fall during the summer months.

Parminder Singh, Liberal candidate for MP of Brampton-Bramalea-Gore district, speaking at the Can-Sikh Cultural Centre 30th Annual Sports Festival in Mississauga, July 12. This festival hosted youth tournaments of soccer, kabaddi, and basketball.

People will take you seriously if they see you in the community, especially if you have the right credentials (e.g. doctor or lawyer).

It’s hard to discuss politics in Brampton East without two names coming up: the Honourable Gurbax Singh Malhi and Jagmeet Singh. Mahli held the MP (Member of Parliament) seat in Brampton-Bramalea-Gore-Malton (East Brampton, from which Malton has since been removed) for 18 consecutive years and was the first politician in the Western world to wear a turban in public office. No form of headgear was allowed in the Commons until Mahli petitioned to have that law changed in 1993. Mahli is also a tireless advocate for human rights, especially in his home state of Punjab, which has suffered numerous atrocities at the hands of the Indian government. His daughter, Harinder Malhi, is the current MPP (Member of Provincial Parliament) for Brampton-Springdale (Brampton-South). The Malhis support Parminder Singh’s run for MP of Brampton East.

Jagmeet Singh is the current MPP of Brampton East and a member of the NDP, or New Democratic Party, which is a social democratic party. Jagmeet is an amritdhari (devout Khalsa) Sikh with a huge following among young voters, largely because of the amount of social media support he got from JusReign. I cannot firmly say whether or not Jasmeet’s support for Jagmeet was make-or-break, but spending time observing Brampton politics has certainly made me hear plenty about him. Some say he is a tour-de-force in Provincial Parliament. Others say he doesn’t really know how to speak Punjabi, that his turban is too tall, and that he’s full of hot air. Jagmeet came to power during a huge sweep for the NDP that coincided with a loss in power of the Liberal Party. Talk in Brampton had been going on for a few years about having an MP or MPP who could speak both English and Punjabi (Malhi is notorious for how little he talked in Parliament), and Jagmeet came at just the right time. He still holds the imaginations of the youngest generation of voters in Brampton.

Who is Jagmeet Singh? —

On the 13th, Jagmeet sponsored a reading of the Sukhmani Sahib (a major passage from the Guru Granth Sahib) at Jot Parkash. The gurdwara incorporated this reading into its normal main hall Sunday service, along with the presentation of honors for a few members of the congregation. JusReign was not in attendance, instead parking across the street more than half an hour after the end of the event to pick up a friend. It is unclear at this point who JusReign will support in the next election, especially if Jagmeet gives up his MPP seat for an MP run against whoever wins the Liberal Party nomination in September.

Rumors travel fast in Punjabi politics. Maybe JusReign still supports Jagmeet, maybe not. Malhi totally supports Parminder Singh’s run for MP, and Dixie and Jot Parkash like him — strange, considering that honors from one gurdwara often means disdain from another. Raj Grewal, who is opposing Parminder Singh for Brampton East’s Liberal MP nominee, has connections to the Honourable Navdeep Bains and is apparently close to Trudeau. But then again, he was only Trudeau’s driver, so what does that mean? (Rumor also stated that Grewal had not yet gotten his braces off, but I can confirm that he indeed has.) Within this web of hearsay, family connections always prove strongest, so if someone books an event in a banquet hall owned by their opponent’s family member, their opponent will know within hours. The thing that often wins out is what a candidate has contributed to the community. Parminder Singh started a Punjabi broadcast on national television of Hockey Night in Canada through CBC. Broadcasters wanted to keep him on radio, but his campaign to get HNIC in Punjabi made him the first Punjabi-language professional sports broadcaster in North America. CBC has since lost the rights to HNIC to Rogers, but talks are in progress to get “Punjabi de vich Hockey Night” in HD.

Playing the politics game with Punjabis takes a steady gaze and the ability to wade through the rumors, but the concerns held by the community are surprisingly steady across generations. It’s important, however, to remember that family sticks together, gurdwaras disagree, pride (a dominant trait of Punjabis) is divisive, and public meetings will always have samosas, pakoras, and jalebis.

Jalebis have, for generations, won over and slowly conquered the hearts of many a Punjabi.