Rana Bose


This meeting has been organized as we all know by the West Bengal chapter of PIPFPD, to honour the memory of Daya Varma and Ved Bhasin. I will be talking about Daya and as well as, his close friend and comrade Hari Sharma. Both of who went to Canada some 55 years ago and have consistently fought for progressive values abroad.  In 2015 we lost Daya Varma. In 2010 we had already lost Hari Sharma. Both to cancer.


Daya was born in a peasant family in a village called Narion, in UP. Starting from a one room pathshala, in a mud house with a dirt floor, he went on to complete his secondary, post- secondary and graduate education. He walked to school every day for eight kilometres and sometimes was seen taking a ride back on a bullock cart. He was known as the boy who did his homework on the cart. His father had lost the little land he had to money lenders, but taught in a primary school to pay back the money lenders. His father carried 40Kgs of grains on his head and walked 30km to deliver to Daya, when he was going to college. Daya went on to study at King George Medical College in Lucknow for his MBBS.  On his part, Daya worked as a servant in households and slept in a space donated by a fellow student outside his hostel room.


In 1959 Daya obtained a scholarship to McGill University, known as the Harvard of Canada and he finished a PhD in a record time of less than two years. It remains a record in McGill annals. He went on to publish over 225 scientific papers in reputable journals worldwide. He retired as a Professor Emeritus, some ten years ago.  But, this is not just about Daya as the brilliant academic.


I first met Daya in 1977, when I arrived also at McGill, from the US, as a biomedical engineer to work in his research lab in Montreal. Earlier I had met Prof. Hari Sharma, in Calcutta, in 1972, being introduced to him by my late father, Dr. Amiya Kumar Bose, an early member of the APDR. It was at the time of the end of the Vietnam War. Hari had also been travelling all over India, and abroad, contacting civil liberties organizations about the situation of political prisoners in India and the extra-judicial killings that had been going on.  He had been developing petitions with amnesty International, signing up well known academics, writers and scientists in support of civil liberties in India. Hari introduced me to Daya Varma, sometime during the Emergency. Many of us had been active in US campuses against the war in Indo China. We had been working in various cities of North America,  in different organizations, trying to organize the community with the BCAS and other organizations in opposition to the Emergency. In 1973 Hari went to the Amnesty International in London and the Commission of Jurists in Geneva and sent a written representation to the UN Human Rights Commission to publicize the condition of more than thirty-thousand political prisoners in Indian jails. In 1974 he and Gautam Appa in London organized a petition of international scholars to protest the treatment of political prisoners in India, which he handed to the Indian Consulate in Vancouver, BC on August 15 of the same year.


Hari had gotten his BA from Agra University, his Master’s in Social Work from Delhi University, MSW from Case Western Reserve, and Ph.D. in sociology from Cornell University. He taught briefly at UCLA and at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia from 1968 to 1999, when he retired as an Emeritus Professor. Like many other compatriots of Indian origins abroad Hari began his political activism during the anti-Vietnam war era.  Subsequently, Hari and Daya were also very much inspired by the Naxalbari movement. The Indian Peoples Association in North America, IPANA, was founded in Montreal during the emergency as a broad united front of all progressives of Indian origin in North America who were opposed to the dictatorship exemplified by the Emergency and supported democratic and economic and social justice for the people in India. This was shown by the IPANA publications: New India Bulletin, a theoretical journal published from Canada, India Now, a popular monthly tabloid-style newspaper published from New York, and Wangar, a progressive Punjabi-language publication from Vancouver. IPANA chapters were born in New York, New Jersey, Buffalo, Chicago, Cambridge,  California and across Canada in Montreal, Toronto,  Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon and in several cities of BC. Meetings, pickets, demonstrations, collaborative programs with other organizations were held.


During the emergency, we were able to spirit out a galley copy of the APDR document “Bharatiyo Gonotontrer Shorup.” My father had advised me that the press had been seized and it was essential that the document got published abroad. My father died in 1975 a little after the Emergency was in full swing. Before the document got published.  In IPANA we translated the whole document and published around 10,000 copies for worldwide distribution.  “The Real Face of India’s Democracy.” It had a significant effect all over the world, about the conditions in India.  Both Hari and Daya, travelled every year in India, as did many of us. Hari was declared a persona non grata and was not allowed to enter India. He fought hard against it as he had done throughout his career, in grass roots community activism in the US and Canada and in his academic community as well.  IPANA was by then also in the forefront of organizing Farmworkers in BC and against Racism across the country.


It is important at this point to also bring up an understanding of what Indians historically have been doing in North America since the mid 1800s. Indians, especially Sikhs came to North America, mainly to New York, California and the Vancouver coast from the 1880s and established themselves as farmworkers, ship workers, railway workers, lumber yard workers , transport workers,  machinists and also general entrepreneurs.  Today there are thousands of Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani workers in New York, Boston, Chicago, Toronto and Vancouver. They are in the same unions together.  It is not always about Indians as academics, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, PhDs and financial analysts.  The fact that the Federal Cabinet of Canada has at least 4 senior ministers of Indian origin, including the Minister of Defence, who is a turban wearing Sikh veteran of the Armed Forces is not because Indians living abroad do well in business and IT related activities. Their predecessors worked and fought with their hands for more than a century.  Half of Canada’s cabinet is women and the Minister of Justice is a woman of the First Nations. This is the same country where the Komagata Maru, a ship laden with hundreds of Sikh, Muslim and Hindu workers was turned back at Vancouver Harbour in 1914, using the Asian Exclusion Act, to turn back ships that had not made a continuous journey. Of course when the ship arrived here in Budge Budge, they were fired at by the British authorities and over twenty workers were killed.  So the victories of overseas Indians in support of their own livelihood and against colonial racism as well as for their compatriots in India needs to be understood in that context.  This does not mean that Canada is a heaven of multicultural peace. But it is not a stewpot of crazy fanatics and fundamentalists, as is the case with the nation to the south of us.


In this context, it is important to consider some labels that are often in use, today. Labels that are misrepresentative and misleading.  For example, the notion that one is a peace activist is often still seen with a negative connotation.  Peace activists were born, not just for the sake of a non-violent credo, but to oppose imperial wars and also to seek peace with social justice. Another label that has been popularized is that of being a Naxalite sympathizer. Naxalites were labelled as Chinese agents to instigate uninformed crude nationalism, even by certain Marxist types. At the same time the notion of an NRI is often also equated with flashily dressed, misbehaving, moneyed, upstart individuals . Well, among the first NRIs were the Gadharites of the west coast and as well as in England the Indian Workers associations. Key members of the Ghadar Party in Canada and the US included Lala Har Dayal, Sohan Singh Bhakna, Abdul Hafiz Mohamed Barakatullah, Kartar Singh Sarabha, Rashbehari Bose and Pandurang  Khankhoje. They were freedom fighters, socialists and many of them fought and died for India’s independence and as well in the post-colonial period for progressive causes.  The tradition continues and NRIs are not all about sending money to Kejriwal and Modi.


Inspired by the uprising of peasants in Naxalbari in 1967, Hari traveled to the area in 1969 and received an impression that stayed with him for life. He carried on work in Vancouver through the weekly paper, Georgia Straight, published by the Georgia Straight Collective, of which he was a founding member. In 1972 he and one of his suspended colleagues, Kathleen Gough, coedited Imperialism and Revolution in South Asia, which was published by the Monthly Review Press and made him a well-known leftist scholar.  Hari was also a photographer and his B&W photographs were mounted and sold in campuses to support  civil liberties organizations in India.


By 1973 about 40-50 progressive Indian nationals, with Daya and Hari and several others in the leadership, laid the basis for IPANA. We worked in various progressive secular organizations in various cities.  Indira Gandhi had declared the dictatorial Emergency in India as we met and these 40-50  individuals  gathered in Montreal to collectively found IPANA, the Indian Peoples Association in North America. Daya was among the leaders of this effort.  While most of the leaders of IPANA were taken in by what was happening in India and were essentially of left wing persuasion, they were not dogmatic about their affiliations.


But, sectarianism had set in India and it had its impact as well in North America. In the last fifteen years or so Daya found it increasingly difficult to align himself with those whom he had been with for many decades. Lately, in his heart and mind he returned to the enthusiasms of his youthful days when he was attracted to the programs and efforts of the undivided Communist Party of India ; in particular, he rediscovered his admiration for P.C. Joshi, once General Secretary of the CPI, as the only leader with mass appeal that the communists in India had produced. In an article in the magazine Mainstream in 2009, he elaborated on Joshi’s achievements:


“The only [communist] leader who could foresee the necessity of a United Front of secular and democratic forces, not for electoral gains but as a prerequisite for the national regeneration of India, was Puran Chand Joshi.”


The rise of an aggressive Hindutva in the late 1980s capped by the destruction of the Babri mosque in 1992 by mobs led by the Sangh Parivar was an issue that he felt very strongly about.  We participated in numerous meetings and campaigns to oppose the pernicious ideology of Hindu rashtra that was being propagated by Hindutva’s votaries in the U.S. and Canada.  Daya also realized that promoting secularism in India needed a South Asian focus, in particular, fostering peace and friendship with Pakistan.  Accordingly, he became active in the advocacy group Pakistan-India Peoples Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD) composed of activists with similar views and agendas from both countries and visited Pakistan to discuss and promote this agenda.


When the Union Carbide plant disaster happened in Bhopal, killing over 2500 people overnight, Daya flew to India and started collecting data from the survivors and victims — data which would later become the subject of his research and, eventually, potential evidence against the corporation. He told his son, Rahul and me, that that the impact of this poison gas (MIC or methyl isocyanate) would haunt not only the present but the generations to come. He told us that those not yet born at the time of the explosion would carry devastating effects of the MIC. Like Agent Orange used in Indo China, MIC has proven that two generations later children were being born with disabilities due to exposure.  Apart from his major studies on toxicity of drugs on subjects suffering from malnutrition, this study on MIC became a cornerstone contribution to understanding what Union Carbide had unleashed on the people of India.


At the beginning of last year, Dr. Shree Mulay, Daya’s wife,  let me know that he was not well. They were living in St. John’s Newfoundland.  I called Daya and told him that I was planning to come and see him in April. He smiled and said “ it may be too late… come now.  I wish to talk to you.” So, that week I took a plane to St. John’s .  Of course cancer had taken its toll on him. We talked. He was feeble. The last paper written by Daya, which I have helped to edit, considers Poverty as an inflicted Disease, not simply a state of inequality, but a state of suffering and suffering is a disease. We talked about a lot of other things. We seemed to agree on most.  I cooked a lot those few days, because they were expecting many visitors. I thought it would be of some help. Then Daya told me that he no longer has meat. He told me that when he went to Kashmir, what he saw permanently affected him. There was no blood on the streets that he saw. There was blood in the air. Kashmir was in a state of siege. It was not just the 70,000 people who had been killed..but the 700,000 troops that were stationed there. Their presence was like a death watch.  A state of siege. The citizens did not show their faces. They moved away, with chaddors around their heads. The violence was in the air. In the sand boxes, in the patrols, in the APCs  and in the faces of the state. And it left an impression on him that was akin to losing one’s life and limbs by the merciless swing of institutional swords.


I came back to Montreal and Daya passed away a week later.  He has left a hollow inside many of us.  At the same time, both Daya and Hari continue to inspire us, those who have known them for over forty years as peace activists in the true sense, secularists who go to the root of the divide between religious and cultural affiliations and advocates of social change who are not afraid to change their minds. Because if you cannot change your mind, you cannot change anything.


The above notes have been constructed with the help of former IPANA members, Vinod Mubayi, Rahul Varma and Chin Banerjee.

Top - Home