Calgary

OPINION | From 'bhayya' to brother, a personal reflection on racism

A member of Calgary's Anti-Racism Action Committee reflects on the racism he has witnessed in his life, and his hopes for a future free of discrimination.

'I have been a witness to all of this. I have seen them and their families crying at their fate.'

‘Bhayya’ literally means ‘brother,’ but it is also a derogatory term used to describe the farm workers of Punjab, says Rishi Nagar. (The Associated Press)

This column is an opinion from Rishi Nagar, a member of the Calgary Anti-Racism Action Committee.

Not long ago, while living in Punjab, I saw agriculture workers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the northeastern provinces of India, being discriminated against badly and treated inhumanely.

If they travelled in a bus in winter, they were not allowed to occupy seats. In summer, they had to travel on the roof of the buses.

They were addressed as "bhayyas," literally meaning "brothers," but bhayya is such a derogatory term now that nobody wants to be called it. Usually these workers lose their identity and remain bhayyas for everyone and for years. Maltreatment, abusive language, no or fewer basic amenities — these bhayyas accept these as their fate.

They sow seeds, plant saplings, take care of the animals (cows, buffaloes, oxen, etc.), bring fodder for them, take care of the agriculture, and reap the harvest for their livelihood and to send money to their families. Most of the time, they don't bring their families with them.

They work hard from early morning until late evening and then cook their food. Every media outlet refers to them as migrant labourers. Are they migrants in their own country? It is this very labour force that keeps Punjab ahead of every other province in India in agriculture, but no credit is ever given to them. 

No relief for brass bands

Another discriminated class, on the verge of disappearing these days, is the brass band. No celebration, no marriage, is complete without them.

Dressed in thick military-style uniforms, these people play the latest Bollywood tunes. Very poor wages, irregular hours, and endless travel are the regular features of their life.

They are the last to board the vehicle for a marriage party. They are the last to be invited for the leftover food. Members of the marriage party demand one tune after another. These brass band musicians play with the power of their lungs. They are dog tired after the day's work, but there is no relief for them. 

The sweepers and the cobblers are still those who receive the worst treatment at the hands of the people of "high stature." The elite class never treated them as humans. I have been a witness to all of this. I have seen them and their families crying at their fate.

No celebration or marriage in India is complete without a brass band, but they are also discriminated against, says Rishi Nagar. (The Associated Press)

In 2009, I chose Canada as my home. I came here with my wife and son under the Skilled Worker Program. In India, I was a college principal and my wife was a teacher at a government-aided school.

I landed in Toronto. Was I a "bhayya" in Canada from India?

Then I moved to B.C. Was I a migrant labourer from Ontario in B.C.?

Then I came to Calgary in 2013. Was I still a migrant labourer from B.C.?

Never. I was never treated like a bhayya. Everybody treated me like a brother.

The recession was at its peak in 2009 and I could not get a job of any type. I went to a hiring agency in Toronto, where they suggested we move to B.C., as the province was going to host the Winter Olympic Games the next year. It was brotherly advice, not the bhayyaly kind!

He also suggested I get a security guard's licence. I acted upon his advice. 

Bhayya was gone forever

After moving to Surrey, B.C., I was hired as a trainee machinist and the owner treated me as a brother. Looking at my CV, he treated me the best he could and advised his fellow workers to treat me well.

My eyes sometimes suffuse with tears of thankfulness for him when I think of the treatment he and my co-workers gave to me. I realized the dignity of labour here. The concept of being a bhayya was gone forever. 

I cannot think of anybody being treated like a bhayya here. Canada is much changed now. No Komagata Maru is going to happen ever again. Now is the time when Harjit Sajjan can be the defence minister of Canada, and Ahmed Hussen, the minister of families, children and social development. 

Then came the opportunity to apply for a spot on the Calgary Anti-Racism Action Committee. I did. My name is there in the list now.

I am excited to be on the committee. I am ready to work with my co-members to end racism and discrimination, the picture of which is still stinking in my mind.

I want everybody to look for brothers when they hire somebody, and not bhayyas.


This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read our FAQ.

About the Author

Rishi Nagar is a member of the Calgary Anti-Racism Action Committee, a senator at the University of Calgary, and the news director and host at Red FM, a South Asian, multicultural radio station.

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