Any better choice than Amita Paul for high commissioner to Canada?

  • Karan Thapar
  • Updated: Jan 10, 2016 01:26 IST
Canadian PM Justin Trudeau’s cabinet has a Sikh once thought to be a terrorist. (Reuters File)

This Sunday morning I want to share a wonderful story that should make all of you sit up and smile. Though hard to believe, it’s a true tale. More than that, it’s a story that refreshes one’s faith in mankind and, for those who wish to so interpret it, it could also be a sign that there is, occasionally, a helpful God high in heaven.

The story was told to me on Christmas Eve by my good friend and neighbour Dipankar Gupta, India’s foremost sociologist and one of the best informed pundits on television. I mention all of this so that you know he wouldn’t lie because what follows is, truly, stranger than fiction.

The story starts in the late 80s, when the Sikh situation was at its troublesome worst. At the time, Dipankar was on a research trip to Jehanabad in Bihar with a group of colleagues. His travels brought him into contact with the District Collector (DC), a lady called Amita Paul. Although they didn’t know each other, their conversations established a rapport and, as you will soon discover, a measure of trust.

Late one night Ms Paul summoned Dipankar for urgent advice. She had stumbled upon something unsettling and wanted to consult someone. That’s when the story started to emerge.

Earlier that day, in her ‘kacheri’, Amita Paul had come across a Sikh who, as Dipankar put it, was “all trussed-up”. Actually, that’s a euphemism but I don’t want the gory and disturbing details to distract you. This story leads in a different direction.

On questioning this gentleman, Ms Paul discovered he was Canadian and by profession a taxi driver. His name was Amarjit Singh Sohi and he had come to India to visit his family in Punjab. There he had joined a troop of actors and then travelled with them all the way to Jehanabad.

This was such an unlikely set of circumstances that the local police found it suspicious and suspected Mr Sohi could be a terrorist. Ms Paul, on the other hand, believed him. Rather than let him be arrested — or, indeed, worse — she had him transported out of her district and, hopefully, to safety. Unfortunately, her colleagues in the civil or police service were less discerning. So, not long afterwards, Mr Sohi was re-arrested, thus undoing Amita Paul’s good work.

I’m not sure of the precise details hereafter but I’m told Mr Sohi spent months in detention, possibly under TADA, including, perhaps, a stint in solitary confinement. But, eventually, he was released and returned to Canada.

Now this is where the story becomes truly incredible. Nearly 30 years later, Amarjit Singh Sohi is a member of Justin Trudeau’s cabinet and Canada’s Minister for Infrastructure and Communities. I don’t know how he recalls his unfortunate experience in India but, clearly, it hasn’t affected his career or his success.

Unfortunately, I doubt if Ms Paul has got the recognition she deserves. In fact, I’d be very surprised if she hasn’t been made to suffer for what she did. In India such good deeds are more likely to arouse suspicion than bring forth praise.

Today, however, there is an opportunity to make up for that lapse and also take a step that Justin Trudeau would truly admire and respect. It might even win the hearts of most Canadians. Why doesn’t the government appoint Amita Paul high commissioner to Canada? Frankly, in today’s circumstances, I can’t think of anyone who would be a better choice.

The views expressed are personal

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