One of the Cabinet Ministers of the newly elected Canadian government was a Sikh political prisoner in India who was tortured for weeks in Bihar.
EDMONTON – “Physical scars heal,” Amarjeet Sohi says.
“It’s the emotional scars that you carry on the inside that you have with you for all time.” Via: Article by The Edmonton Journal
Most Edmontonians know Sohi as the thoughtful, respected city councillor for Ward 12, a consensus-builder known for his firm, quiet advocacy.
Not many know the story of Sohi, political prisoner.
In 1988, when Sohi was a young social activist doing volunteer development work in India, he was arrested by authorities in the state of Bihar and accused of being a terrorist.
He was beaten and tortured. He was held without charges and without trial for almost two years. Most of that time was spent in solitary confinement.
Sohi has made passing mention of it in talks to community groups. But he’s never discussed it in the media. Until now.
But with fear of terrorism dominating much of national political discourse, and with the councillor having been acclaimed the federal Liberal nominee in Edmonton-Mill Woods this week, after another would-be candidate was disqualified by the Liberal party, Sohi is ready to confront a painful part of his past.
“I really don’t know how you heal,” he says. “I haven’t figured out yet how to forget those memories.”
Sohi was born in 1964 into a close-knit Sikh farming family in Punjab. He was 17 when he moved to Edmonton in 1981, sponsored by an older brother.
“My level of English was almost non-existent. I couldn’t speak properly, I couldn’t read properly.”
He took English as a second language classes, then enrolled at Bonnie Doon High School. In India, his family had never been political. But the early 1980s saw tremendous tension in the Sikh community between fundamentalist Khalistani separatists and moderates who wanted to remain Indian citizens. In 1984, the Indian government attacked Sikhism’s holy shrine, the Golden Temple, to root out extremists. In retaliation, India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her own Sikh bodyguards. Then in 1985 came the Air India bombing, Canada’s worst terrorist event.
Sohi and his family deplored human rights abuses by the Indian government, but they opposed fundamentalism. Sohi himself didn’t wear a turban or a beard, didn’t consider himself religious.
He joined a local Punjabi literary society. He started working in community theatre as an actor and playwright.
“Amarjeet As a young man in Edmonton in the 1980s, Amarjeet Sohi was involved in a Punjabi theatre group that opposed both Sikh fundamentalism and human rights abuses by the Indian government. (Photo supplied by Sumeet Randhawa)
“I became more involved, speaking out against extremism,” he says. “Our goal was to oppose Sikh fundamentalism on the one hand, but also to oppose state oppression.”
In 1988 at age 24, he returned to India to study with a noted Punjabi playwright and reformer, Gursharan Singh.
There, the young actor joined a group of activists advocating for land reform in the impoverished state of Bihar. Powerful landlords controlled the farmland, and landless peasants had few rights. That November, he went to Bihar to help local villagers organize a protest. The night before their rally, police raided the village.
“When they saw me, a Sikh, there from Punjab and from Canada, they said, ‘We must have a terrorist here.’”
He was taken to the local police station. There began what he remembers as a week of torture. Beatings. Sleep deprivation. Threats to kill his family. He was interrogated around the clock.
Sohi says he was saved by the appearance of the district magistrate.
“She arrived to question me, and luckily, she believed my story.”
The district magistrate ordered local police to stop the interrogation and send Sohi to a proper hearing.
“I think her intervention saved me because at least I was presented in court. I wasn’t allowed to see a lawyer, but at least my existence was documented. They issued a press release to show what a big terrorist they’d arrested. It made national news.”
Bihar authorities called Sohi a Khalistani activist, a trained Canadian terrorist who had come to train left-wing Bihar extremists in methods of mass murder.
“It has been established, for the first time, that the extremists have international linkage and that they are being armed with sophisticated weapons,” the local director-general of police told The Hindu newspaper. Police claimed that Sohi had been arrested with a gun, live ammunition from Pakistan, and a novel.
Read More: The Edmonton Journal