From my first encounter with charismatic Lieutenant-Colonel Pritam Singh Jauhal, I was quite smitten with this 93-year-old for his endurance, tenacity and strength, yet gentle and caring nature. Over several weeks, we continued to have lovely chats about his life, the challenges he faced in Canada and his recent book “A Soldier Remembers,” co-authored by Jauhal, along with Sharanjit Kaur Sandhra, and published by the Centre for Indo-Canadian Studies (CICS) at the University of Fraser Valley.
Many may recognize Lt. Col.Jauhal’s name, as he is the turbaned Sikh, World War II veteran, who was denied access to the Surrey Newton Legion Branch on Remembrance Day in 1993 because he was wearing a turban. He could not believe this and took his battle public, even going as far as contacting Queen Elizabeth II. His goal was to not only educate those about the turban and its significance, but to remind society that every soldier is equal, and despite religion or race, fought together as one united force in the war.
Lieutenant-Colonel Harjit Singh Sajjan, commanding officer of the British Columbia Regiment, shares light on this incident and says, “Lt. Col. Pritam Singh could have just gone home and tried to forget the insult, but instead he readied him- self for another battle; a battle that he fought with his wits by attacking the ignorance with education. He achieved his mission and in doing so, created greater awareness in Canada about the turban and what it represents.”
Sajjan goes on to say, “I read an article in a newspaper while I was visiting Toronto during the height of Lt. Col. Pritam Singh’s fight. The article was a letter to the editor from another World War II veteran with a Caucasian name. The synopsis of his letter was that any soldier who served on the front line would have seen a Sikh with a turban in the thick of the battle. This statement spoke volumes…combat breaks racial barriers because a soldier in war does not look at the ethnicity or faith of another soldier. They only care about one thing: ‘Will you be there for me when the bullets start flying?’ Lt. Col. Pritam Singh was there in combat proudly wearing his turban serving alongside Allied soldiers fighting the Nazi’s.”
On that fateful day in 1993, Jauhal, along with four other Sikh veterans, were stopped at the gate and refused entry to the Newton Legion (as per the Legion’s rules, you are not allowed to wear a headdress as it is considered an insult), despite receiving clearance a few days earlier on dress code from the legion. Jauhal recalls the incident, “Although I was an invited guest, and had obtained prior clearance to wear my turban, I was told to remove my turban to enter the [legion] lounge. Being an observant Sikh, how could I? I refused to do so. I tried my utmost with the president of the Newton Legion, to reason out the significance of an invited guest and symbol of the turban to a Sikh, but all my pleas fell on his deaf ears and I was not allowed in.”
The incident received local, national and international media coverage, and Jauhal conducted numerous interviews. “What I fought for was, not against the dress bylaws, but the fact that for a Sikh, a turban is not a mere headdress.” He then went on and wrote detailed letters about the incident and the significance of a turban, and sent them to Canadian politicians, organizations that dealt with religious discrimination, 100 branches of the Royal Canadian Legion, and lastly to Queen Elizabeth II. He received a response from the Queen, who had forwarded his letter to the headquarters of the Royal Canadian Legion in Ottawa with a request to investigate the incident.
An emergency meeting was held by the Royal Canadian Legion, and Jauhal received a letter stating the organization had reviewed its “National Policy governing the wearing of religious headdress. You can now enter in any of 1,720 Legions across Canada with a turban on your head.”
He had the opportunity to meet the Queen in 1994, and she had an in-depth conversation with him about the incident and was glad the matter was resolved. Jauhal thanked the Queen for her “kind intervention,” which “proved to be a turning point in ending the injustice and discrimination against the Sikhs wearing turbans [in Canadian legions],” he adds.
Through perseverance, Jauhal continued to fight for his rights as a Sikh and war veteran when faced with adversity here in Canada, and his story is one of hope, optimism and determination. He was a hard working soldier, who rose up the ranks to Lieutenant-Colonel and retired after 39 years of service with 13 medals in tow. He fought in World War II under the Eight British Army, in addition to the 1947-49 Pakistan War, the 1961- 62 China War and the Vietnam War in 1961.
In November 2013, Jauhal’s biography “A Soldier Remembers” was unveiled to a gathered crowd of politicians, family, friends and admirers. Sandhra, who is a coordinator at CICS, co-authored the book and conducted numerous interviews with Jauhal over an 18-month period and says her Director Satwinder K. Bains decided that CICS should chronicle Jauhal’s amazing life in a biography.
She recalls the process fondly, and says, “I think if there was one thing that struck me time and time again whenever I met Uncle Ji to interview him or get details for the book, it was how much drive and passion that he continues to have to this day. He is such a role model, and we are so proud that we have been able to publicly record and recognize the achievements of this wonderful man, and the very heavy and large step he took to fight against intolerances and to provide the pagh and Sikhi the respect that it deserves in mainstream society.”
Photo: A Master Media