Sewa Singh Kohli, MBE
13 May 1919 to 13 April 2012
Sewa Singh Kohli (Papa Ji to the family), a well-known community worker in the south Asian community in Scotland, died on Friday 13 April 2012.
Born in Ambala, India on Tuesday 13 May 1919, he was the fourth of nine children. His father, Kishen Singh Kohli, worked as an agent for Volkart Brothers, Swiss cotton traders. In 1909 Kishen married Karam Kaur Bedi. Papaji graduated from Punjab University 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 is an inspiration to all of us. His socialist views have their roots when he joined the Communist Party of India (CPI). In 1948 the CPI was declared illegal (temporarily) and he went “on the run” (or as his grandchildren say, “Papaji was on India’s Most Wanted list!”). In 1947, at the time of the Partition of India, he saved the life of a Muslim man who had been surrounded by a mob. After Partition he worked in refugee camps in Delhi and helped migrants from west Punjab to settle in their new life. He had 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 migrated to Liberia to work in an import-export business. During this time, 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, making Glasgow his home. The rest of the family arrived in Glasgow in September 1962 and this ensured that 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; he decided to pursue a business idea of importing Indian foods to the burgeoning minority ethnic populations in Scotland. BK Trading Company was created, trading in Shamrock Street and then Maryhill Road. To supplement his formal experience of import/export he also acquired a diploma in import/export from Glasgow.
Even though he was busy in his business and bringing up young family he never forgot his responsibility towards the community and issues which affected them. He was instrumental in getting exemption to wearing helmet for Sikhs whilst riding motor bikes. He campaigned to get approval from authorities to recognise Sikh, Hindu and Muslim religious marriages on par with Christian marriages. His efforts are testimony to marriages now taking place up and down the UK in Gurdwaras, Mandirs and Mosques.
He worked tirelessly to create the Mel Milaap – a south Asian Community Centre in Glasgow for older people. Today it is funded by Glasgow City Council and community support with twelve employees.
His involvement with Glasgow Arts Centre led him to show case Punjabi folk dance and dramas and took his troop to India and Malaysia. For several years he also took groups of Sikhs on pilgrimages to India and Pakistan, a feat recognised by the former President of Pakistan. His interest in literature led him to compile a book in which literary works in Urdu was translated into Punjabi.
In Glasgow he initiated or was active in the Sikhs in Scotland organisation, the Indian Workers Association (IWA), the Indian Association Indian Graduate Society, and the Association of Indian Organisations (AIO) in Scotland. He was a proud member of the Labour Party until his death and he was deeply interested in politics.
His contributions to society were recognised by many organisations. He was particularly proud of the award from Glasgow City Council and when received his MBE from the Queen in 1998.
He was supported unfailingly 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 and grandchildren because, ultimately, they were the reasons he and Harinder had made the decision to emigrate to Scotland. He died peacefully at home with Harinder close by on Friday 13 April – the day of Vaisakhi, the Sikh New Year. He is survived by his brother, Gurmukh, his sisters Tej and Harinder, his wife Harinder, his three children, 10 grandchildren and one great granddaughter.