The same issues that prompted Jagmel Dhillon to move from Punjab to Canada in 2000 had him packing his bags to catch a flight back to campaign for the upcoming elections in the North Indian state.
“Unemployment, drugs – nothing has changed,” said 42-year-old Dhillon, who works as a realtor in Brampton, Ontario, a city known for its large Punjabi population. One of his best friends, Ramesh Grover, an advocate in the High Court of Punjab and Haryana, is an Aam Aadmi Party candidate from the Moga assembly seat in Punjab. Last year, Grover came to Brampton to speak to a gathering of Punjabi Canadians.
“My friend is politically active, he’s a social worker,” said Dhillion. “He told us that the situation is very grave. It’s a grave situation of drugs and unemployment. Being Indian, and Punjabi, I felt very bad. “We met quite a few people, especially from AAP...And somehow we got interested in this election, and started helping out. We are trying to save Punjab from what is going on.”
The February 4 Punjab elections are more than a talking point for the large Punjabi-Canadian population in Canada. Indians reportedly make up close to 4% of Canada’s population, of which Sikhs account for approximately 1.5%. In 2015, after the Liberal Party won the Canadian elections, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau included four Sikh ministers in what was called the most diverse cabinet in Canada’s history. Punjabi is now considered the third language in Canada’s Parliament.
Known to be politically active in the North American country, many Punjabi Canadians are now hoping to help influence the outcome of the polls in Punjab. All major parties have a strong support base in Canada but it is the AAP campaign in particular that has galvanised large groups of people to return to India to campaign. Delhi’s ruling party is contesting state elections in Punjab for the first time and also performed well in the state in the 2014 Parliamentary elections.
While Dhillon and a couple of his friends left for India on January 19, the previous day, another “plane full of NRI Canadians” was reported to have left Toronto, as part of a Chalo Punjab movement, which had been organised by another AAP volunteer in the Canadian city, Joban Randhawa.
“You should have seen the airport when the plane landed,” said Sumesh Handa, the national secretary of AAP Canada. “Manish Sisodia, deputy chief minister [of Delhi] was there. Kumar Vishwas, AAP overseas convenor was there. There were lots of ministers and MLAs. There was bhangra. AAP had taken over Delhi airport.”
Describing himself as an IT professional, who used to live in Uttar Pradesh before moving to Canada in late 2010, Handa has been involved with the AAP since 2011. “When Annaji [Hazare] started agitating in 2011, we also did a demonstration in Toronto. About 400-500 people showed up. And this was before WhatsApp. As NRIs, we support the initiative of a clean India,” said Handa, referring to the AAP’s USP of being a party working to remove corruption in politics.
Like Handa, Dhillon moved to Canada seeking better opportunities for his family. Despite a master’s degree in chemistry, and a bachelor’s degree in teaching, there were few job opportunities available to him in his home state. “Even teaching jobs in the private sector aren’t there, forget about government sector,” he said. “Otherwise, we have a property, we have a house in Punjab. Who would like to move and have big mortgages, and all sorts of overheads?”
Yet, the problems of Punjab continue to bother him. The issue of drug abuse in the state especially hit him hard. “One my best friends in college – he was the best-looking, and most intelligent – he fell into drugs and died,” Dhillon said. “He has two young kids. One of my cousin brothers, we have put him in rehab 10 times, and every time he has relapsed. This is a huge problem right now.”
Punjabi-Canadians are dual citizens in the true sense of the word, said Jagmeet Singh, the current Ontario deputy New Democratic Party leader, widely considered to be a frontrunner for the party’s upcoming federal leadership race. “They are contributing, proud members of Canadian society, and they celebrate that identity, their love for Canada,” said Singh. “But they are also very connected to their roots and homes.
Singh added, “For the past many years, they have been disappointed by the politics and policies of the current administration. They see Punjab deteriorating in front of their eyes, and that’s really motivated them.” He comes across these conversations across social settings, said Singh, whether he’s attending political functions or personal events such as birthday parties and marriages. “Sometimes people lead (social pleasantries) with ‘What’s going on in Punjab?’”
Punjab’s political spring?
Campaigning for the Punjab elections among the Punjabi diaspora in Canada had started earnestly in 2015, after AAP won the Delhi elections, and motivated their local supporters, said Yudhvir Jaswal, group editor of Y Media, a South Asian media corporation in Toronto that publishes a weekly community newspaper and broadcasts radio and TV programmes on community networks. “They said, Dilli jeet li, ab Punjab ki baari hai,” he said. We have won Delhi, Punjab next.
Jaswal said the supporters had been actively participating mainly in the ethnic media platforms, about why AAP is better, how they will help in Punjab. “They have been going to India on a regular basis, back and forth,” he added. “A former citizenship judge in Canada, Harry Dhaliwal, he’s actively participating. He calls himself an AAP motivator. He’s also in Punjab these days.”
The exact number of AAP volunteers from Canada is hard to pin down. Estimates range wildly from 10,000 to 50,000. “Even [Congress leader] Captain Amarinder Singh gave a high number, he said 27,000 people from across the world have come to Punjab,” said Handa, speaking from the Chandigarh headquarters of AAP. “I think maybe about 5,000 people have come from Canada. There are planes coming everyday.”
Besides helping out with door-to-door campaigns, volunteers have also been calling friends and relatives to support their preferred nominees, and fundraising. “We have raised more than Rs 3 crore from Canada; a record Rs 1 crore in just the last month,” Handa said.
Jaswal considers this election to be a watershed moment, “not only in Punjab, but right across India.” Going by people calling into his show, he thinks an AAP victory is the likely outcome – an assessment shared by Singh.
“That’s the sentiment I am coming across,” said the New Democratic Party leader. “People like the message of AAP, of clearing corruption. It’s a big issue in Punjab. And it also fits in with the Sikh philosophy of equality for all.”
For his part, Dhillon is happy to be part of a new wave of optimism in Punjab. “It’s something like the Arab Spring. Maybe you can call it Punjab’s Arab Spring,” he said.