Nearly twenty-five years ago, Amarjeet Sohi was released from a jail in Bihar, after a 21-month incarceration under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Prevention Act or TADA.
The next time Sohi travels to India, he will do so as a Canadian cabinet minister, handling the critical portfolio of infrastructure and communities.
While Indian prosecutors accused him of being a Khalistan extremist, no formal charges were ever filed. He maintained his innocence and the case against him was dismissed for lack of evidence.
Despite the trauma of that period, Sohi holds no rancour towards India, and maintains a close connection to the nation where he was born in 1964, in a village near Sangrur, Punjab.
“What happened to me is something I wish does not happen to anyone at all. But I have strong ties to India, those ties are still very strong and they will remain very strong,” said Sohi, who last visited India in 2013.
“I go back to India to visit my family. We have an extended family in our village (Banbhaura) and one of my sisters is in India,” he said in an interview with Hindustan Times.
As he comes to grips with his portfolio in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet, Sohi isn’t sure yet if it will include matters that will form part of the bilateral engagements between India and Canada. But he added, “I personally do want to explore those opportunities as a Member of Parliament, whether it ties into the infrastructure portfolio, I don’t know at this time.”
Sohi’s remit has three principal focal points in terms of investment -- public transportation, social infrastructure and green infrastructure. Much of that ties into his passion for human rights and social justice.
That partly emanates from his nightmarish imprisonment in Bihar: “The experience that I went through kind of shaped my thinking in those areas. That’s why I strongly believe in creating communities where you feel part of it, where you feel your rights are not violated. I try to use those very difficult experiences to do some of the work we can do to build stronger communities.”
Even after that exceptional experience aside, Sohi’s journey has been fascinating. He immigrated to Canada in 1981 and was a municipal bus driver before being elected to the city council of Edmonton in the province of Alberta.
His election to parliament last year too was dramatic -- he won the Edmonton Mill Woods constituency by 92 votes after a recount, defeating then incumbent minister of state Tim Uppal.
“We knew if we win this riding (electoral district), it will be by a very close margin so we were prepared for that,” Sohi said.