North of Punjab India lies the Jalandhar District, one of the oldest cities in India. East of the district is a dusty village named Dosanjh Kalan. This land is where Ujjal Dosanjh’s ancestors settled 500 years ago, and where he called home for 18 years.
Dosanjh relives his life in his memoir Journey After Midnight: India, Canada and the Road Beyond. The book chronicles his emigration from India to England, and finally to Canada where he practiced law, became a political figure and actively fought for social justice. His journey is a story from humble beginnings in India to occupying powerful political roles in Canada.
“I didn’t grow up here [Canada], and I didn’t go to English school. I’m from a simple background, and I think people felt that there was a story more than just the politics of it,” says Dosanjh.
For the former attorney general of B.C. (1995) and former premier of B.C. (2000–2001), writing an auto-biography was never a goal hovering in his radar. Yet, the people in his life were convinced he had a story to tell that went beyond politics.
“It’s been simplified and misunderstood. When people look at you, and people who don’t know, think a person from Sri Lanka, India, Burma are all the same,” says Dosanjh.
An immigrant from India, Dosanjh experienced xenophobic skinheads in England during the 1960s and prejudices during political campaigns, including death threats for opposing religious violence and extremism. He believes an immigrant’s identity can be distorted.
“And, so you are de-identified and lose your identity in a sense. It diffuses your identity,” says Dosanjh.
The political life
In Dosanjh’s eyes the political realm was intriguing because it was always around him.
As a child growing up in a rural and poor environment, Dosanjh witnessed post-Independent India and met supporters of the Independent movement in the area where he lived.
“I felt an attraction to them. I felt they were giants and so I always thought politics was a noble calling,” says Dosanjh.
However, it was not until fellow members of the NDP party nudged him towards running for election as a member of the Vancouver South NDP in 1979 that he began to consider politics seriously.
He realized it may be the only chance for a person of colour to lead a political party. He considered running because he knew it would open up doors for future generations.
“I felt – as an immigrant who knew different experiences, had an understanding of the farm workers and workers without legal rights, like the janitorial and domestic workers at that time –
that perhaps I could make a contribution that no one else could unless someone like me could get elected,” says Dosanjh.
The fight for rights
His pursuits go beyond what he sees as the “noble calling” of politics. Dosanjh has always stood for freedom and equality. His early influences were his father, Master Pritam Singh, grandfather, Jathedar/Jarnail Moola Singh Bains, and Mahatma Ghandi.
“There was a time when I didn’t agree with Ghandi, I was a young guy, and my father and I had arguments over it. He was Ghandi’s disciple. I think that influence made me who I am,” he says.
Dosanjh tried to advocate for justice during his time in power, and believes he has had a successful impact on combating inequality.
“I think for me being where I was, I did have an impact in terms of social justice and in terms of equality rights. If anybody was not equal, or if anybody was less than equal in society, then we weren’t equal either,” says Dosanjh.
He thinks everyone should protect each other’s rights, whether you are the majority or the minority.
“What you are claiming for yourself you should also claim for others, and that’s so important,” says Dosanjh.
Now retired, he is hoping to re-engage with Indian issues through a focus on human rights. He feels the need to give back to the soil that nurtured him.
“I’ve always felt like a fugitive running away from the battles of India. But I also realized that if I lived in India, I probably wouldn’t be who I am. So all of my experiences have made me who I am, so that has made me more acutely conscious and aware of my own obligations toward the country that gave me birth,” says Dosanjh.