75th Indian Independence Day - An Indo-Canadian Journey

Manju Sekhri tells us about the stories she heard from her father and the glory of patriots who sacrificed their beings for us to see the freedom we have today. Manju Sekhri is a resident of Milton, Ontario, and is proud of her heritage.

75th Indian Independence Day - An Indo-Canadian Journey

We all have memories of Independence day, whether it was a cultural celebration at school, movies, or stories told by our grandparents about the rise and fall of our beloved country India. Indian National Anthem still brings goosebumps every time we hear it, and it doesn't matter which land we stand. Love for our motherland is in our blood and will be until the last breath we take on this Earth. Manju Sekhri tells us about the stories she heard from her father and the glory of patriots who sacrificed their beings for us to see the freedom we have today. Manju Sekhri is a resident of Milton, Ontario, and is proud of her heritage. 

Manju Sekhri is a highly sought-after business consultant with a wide array of leadership positions in telecommunications, purchasing, and oil and gas industries. In addition to maintaining a highly successful career in the private sector, Manju is actively engaged in multiple charitable, educational, and community activities in Milton, Ont., where she lives with her husband and daughter. In June of 2022, Manju launched her effort to secure election to Milton Town Council representing Ward #3.

My father often told stories about India's freedom struggle and the British Raj when we were children. He spoke about how advanced India was centuries ago, especially in the areas of science, mathematics, arts, and spices. This made India a target for many European colonists such as Portugal, Spain, France, Holland and England. Specifically, my father talked about Britain's "Divide and Rule" colonization strategies that ousted other European rivals and effectively drained and impoverished India beyond recognition. He spoke of his Nanaji (my great-grandfather), Dr. Satyapal, as a brilliant man who changed his entire life to become an Indian freedom fighter. 

It is hard to imagine now, but in 1970 when my family first immigrated to Canada, there were very few Indians here and fewer still in my neighbourhood. Back then, my knowledge of India was limited to family events and Bollywood. So when my father spoke of his childhood, it often felt like a fairy tale about a faraway kingdom with oppressive leaders and righteous Indian freedom fighters. I didn't know any children who heard similar things in their homes, and these epic tales felt entirely unreal to my young mind.

Growing up in Canada, my father often got frustrated with my siblings and me at our lack of pride in our Indian identity. He was concerned that we didn't know who we were because if we did, we would be different and better people. In those moments, I felt the weight of his disappointment. I also had no context; most times, I had no idea what he was talking about. 

When I was about ten years old, my father decided that growing up in Canada was not going to work for his children. His solution to this problem was for us to return to India, a place I barely knew, so that we could complete our high school education and, hopefully, restore the missing bonds with our heritage and family.

The move to India was a huge culture shock. My siblings and I were immediately immersed and overwhelmed by India's hustle, noise, and frequent social gatherings. I also discovered that Indians were not the homogenous group I was used to being around in Canada. I didn't speak any of the local languages, didn't know most of the customs, and barely ate any of the food. In comparison, our life in Canada felt very orderly and quiet, and to me, India felt like a foreign land.

I attended Delhi Public School (RK Puram), where I experienced India's extensive diversity firsthand. Hindus are the majority in India, but the high-school curriculum was secular and included courses in all major religions. My experience was that Indians are naturally social and welcoming people, and I quickly made many Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist friends. While Hindi and English were the national languages, I was surprised to find out that many spoke neither.

In the beginning, as an outsider looking in, it was hard to comprehend how India "worked" in the midst of this extreme cultural and linguistic diversity. And while I didn't always understand, it became clear that, somehow, India figured out a way to navigate these challenges. The result is this incredible mosaic of different people, rich in history, culture, religion and languages, who peacefully coexist and thrive. It is remarkable.

When I was in 7th grade, the movie Gandhi was released around the world. This was a major event for India because, back then, it was rare to see Indians in Hollywood, let alone for Indian history to be the focus of a major production. Suddenly, the lessons I learned in high-school history class and my father's stories merged together and came to life. 

The movie Gandhi put a spotlight on the cruel and barbaric behavior of the British Raj and, as one example, their mishandling of the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh peaceful protest of the Rowlatt Act. My father's Nanaji, Dr. Satyapal was mentioned as part of a group of courageous freedom fighters who took on the might of the British Raj. Along with his compatriot, Saifuddin Kitchlew, I understood the significant role my great-grandfather played in promoting Hindu-Muslim unity at a time when that relationship was in severe turmoil. From my many Muslim friends, the creation of the new state of Pakistan, was a hopeful new chapter for their families as well.. 

 Being one of Gandhi's supporters meant choosing an extremely difficult path for himself as well as taking on the huge emotional and financial costs to his entire family. For decades, my great-grandfather suffered numerous arrests, grueling forced labor, public humiliation, and other forms of physical and mental torture.

"We were deposited in the Central Jail, Lahore, and it was all novel and strange experience. In Punjab jails, men were treated worse than animals, and humiliation, insult, disgrace, and dishonor were prominent features of jail life.

The unsanitary and unhygienic conditions were appalling. It was perhaps for the first time when so many respectable citizens were the inmates of that place where falcons and criminals were kept. The superintendent and jailor were both cruel, tyrannous, and brutal as anyone with a beastly soul in human garb can be. I fail to imagine I could be treated worse."

Dr. Satyapal, 1946 

My Dadiji (my father's mother) Yashoda suffered lifelong trauma as a result of the months and years she grew up without seeing her father or protection from the brutal treatment her family and friends received at the hands of the British. Adding to her emotional distress was the anxiety of not having a regular household income. 

The 75th anniversary of Indian Independence is a reminder to me that, no matter where you live, Indian freedoms were achieved through sacrifices and extraordinary acts of courage made by ordinary people. I never met my great-grandfather, but I think he would be proud of the part he played in attaining social, economic, and cultural freedoms for generations of Indians and how far India has come in the span of 75 short years.

Returning to Canada in the 90s, the cultural landscape was far more multicultural, which has been embraced fully by my multicultural family. My great-grandfather would have been proud that his legacy of secularism and tolerance lives on in his family. Canada took me in as its own but also encouraged me to celebrate and retain my heritage while being wholly Canadian. These experiences have enriched my life, and I am forever grateful.

So thank you, Canada, for bringing us all together to celebrate a momentous occasion for so many Canadians!

Happy 75th Independence Day, India!

Happy 75th Independence Day, Pakistan!

Some interesting/related articles and references:

  1. Dr. Satyapal - The Hero of Freedom Movement in the Punjab, Dr. Shailja Goyal, https://franklin.library.upenn.edu/catalog/FRANKLIN_9939004613503681
  2. Dr. Satyapal, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satyapal
  3. Saifuddin Kitchlew, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saifuddin_Kitchlew
  4. On the 75th Independence Day Eve, Punjab CM Inaugurates Jaliawallah Bagh Memorial Park in Amritsar: https://www.outlookindia.com/website/story/india-news-on-75th-independence-day-eve-punjab-cm-inaugurates-jallianwala-bagh-memorial-park-in-amritsar/391501

You can find Manju on all social media platforms;

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