Businessman and community leader;
Born: May 13, 1919; Died: April 13, 2012.
Sewa Singh Kohli, who has died aged 92, was a well-known community leader and businessman in the Indian community in Scotland.
Sewa Singh (Papa Ji to his family) was born in Ambala, India on May 13, 1919. He was the fourth of nine children of Kishen Singh Kohli, who had married Karam Kaur Bedi in 1909. His father worked as an agent for Volkart Brothers, a company of Swiss cotton traders, and ensured all the children went to college or university. After school and college in Ambala, Sewa Singh graduated in 1941 from Punjab University Lahore with an honours degree in Oriental Languages majoring in Punjabi, Persian and English.
His journey from trade unionist to community and social worker is a remarkable one and an inspiration. His socialist views and passion for justice and equality were expressed in his Communist Party of India (CPI) activity. From 1941-48 he worked in NW Railways and was a trade union and CPI activist. From 1948-59 he was a full-time Northern Railway Union official and CPI leader. In 1948 the CPI was temporarily declared illegal and he went "on the run" (or as his grandchildren loved to say, "Papaji was on India's most wanted list!"). Partition of India in 1947 brought great challenges and for Sewa Singh it involved saving the life of a Muslim man from a Hindu and Sikh mob and helping refugees from west Punjab settle in Delhi.
He married Harinder Kaur Kapoor in 1946 and they had three children – Pushpinder (1949), Aman (1951) and Harpreet (1957). His political outlook gave him a broad, international perspective and in 1959 he went to Liberia to work in an import-export business. Harinder stayed in Delhi, working as a primary school teacher and bringing up the children. In April 1962 he came to Glasgow for medical treatment and stayed on. The rest of the family arrived in Glasgow in September 1962 and this ensured the children could have educational opportunities not possible in India.
The downside of migrating was that his and Harinder's Indian degrees were not recognised; therefore he decided to pursue the idea of importing Indian foods for the burgeoning minority ethnic populations in Scotland. BK Trading Company was created, operating from Shamrock Street and then Maryhill Road. To supplement his practical experience of import and export he acquired a diploma in this in Glasgow. In later years he owned a restaurant in Cumbernauld and then started Kohli Travel which his son, Aman, continues to develop.
Despite being engaged in his business and bringing up a young family he never forgot his responsibility towards the community. In the 1980s he campaigned to change the legislation to recognise Sikh, Hindu and Muslim religious marriages to be on a par with Christian marriages. His love of Urdu and Punjabi poetry led him to encourage others to take up south Asian culture. He developed the Washington Street Arts Centre, showcasing Punjabi folk dance and drama, and took his groups to India and Malaysia. During this period he worked as the Asian Community Arts Development Officer for the far-sighted Strathclyde Regional Council.
Also during this period of his life, his oldest brother, Kuldip Singh, was killed in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots following Indira Gandhi's assassination. Following this Sewa Singh was not consumed with hatred, rather he sought the truth behind the riots and justice for all affected by it.
In the 1990s he organised Sikh pilgrimages to India and Pakistan, a feat recognised by the president of Pakistan; he compiled a translation of literary works from Urdu to Punjabi; he organised the photographic exhibition of the Sikh community contribution to Glasgow, and Sikhs in the Second World War; and he worked tirelessly to create the Mel Milaap – a south Asian community centre in Glasgow for older people.
In the 50 years he spent in Glasgow he was actively involved in many organisations, including the Indian Workers Association, Sikhs In Scotland, the Indian Association, the Indian Graduate Society, the Asian Artistes Association and the Association of Indian Organisations. He was a long-standing Labour Party member and remained deeply interested in politics.
His work was recognised with many awards and he was particularly proud of the MBE he was given in 1998, the Punjabi Sewak award in 2001 and the Lord Provost of Glasgow's Special Award for Services to Community Relations in 2008.
Sewa Singh was supported by his wife Harinder, without whom he could not have achieved what he did for the south Asian community in Scotland. He was proud of his children, grandchildren and great granddaughter because, ultimately, they were the reason he and Harinder had decided to emigrate from India. He died peacefully at home with Harinder close by on Friday, April 13 – the day of Vaisakhi, the Sikh New Year.
He is survived by his wife, his three children, 10 grandchildren and great granddaughter.
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