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Gurpreet Singh

On May 21, Twitter was flooded with tributes to the slain former Indian Prime Minister.

Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a Tamil suicide bomber on May 21, 1991.

Since Gandhi was the towering leader of the opposition Congress party, which claims to be a secular alternative to the currently ruling Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), many liberals in India took to social media to pay homage to him. Some of them went to the extent of contrasting him against the present right wing Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as “compassionate” and “visionary”. This may be partly because of growing attacks on religious minorities under Modi. After all, the BJP aspires to turn India into Hindu theocracy. 

Paying respect to someone who had died is one thing, but to completely gloss over the atrocities committed by any national leader is sheer dishonesty.

How can anyone forget that Gandhi was directly complicit in the 1984 Sikh Genocide that followed the murder of his mother and then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards? She was murdered for ordering a military invasion on the Golden Temple Complex, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs, in June that year, in order to deal with a handful of militants who had stockpiled arms inside the place of worship. The government justified the attack by accusing Sikh radicals of killing Hindus in Punjab. The ill-conceived army operation left many pilgrims dead, and historical buildings inside heavily destroyed, causing outrage among the Sikhs across the world.

In the first week of November, 1984, mobs led by Congress party activists slaughtered thousands of Sikhs all over India, with the help of police. Rajiv Gandhi had not only remained indifferent to the cries for help coming from the Sikhs, he did not even intervene when Congress supporters chanted “blood for blood” slogans in his presence at the venue where his mother lay in state.

So much so, he used the personal tragedy during the election that followed to polarize the Hindu majority against Sikhs, and won with a heavy mandate. Unsurprisingly, the BJP vote bank shifted to the Congress, reducing the BJP to only two seats in the parliament. It is well documented that BJP supporters also had participated in the anti-Sikh violence, to teach Sikhs a lesson for the killings of Hindus by Sikh extremists in Punjab. The late Nanaji Deshmukh, a controversial leader of the Hindu supremacist organization Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) of which the BJP is a part, had even justified the pogrom in one of his articles.

Adding insult to the injury, Rajiv Gandhi awarded those Congress leaders directly involved in the massacre with ministerial posts in his government.

Leave aside the question of punishing the guilty, he tried to rationalise the massacre by publicly saying, ‘When a big tree falls, earth shakes a bit”. The metaphor was clearly aimed at covering up the crime, and to project it as a natural reaction of the people upset with the killing of the Prime Minister. However, Tamils were not punished in a similar fashion when he himself was blown into pieces.

I still remember how Sikhs became anxious following initial reports of his murder, and feared another state sponsored bloodshed. They heaved a sigh of relief when it emerged that this was a handiwork of Tamil separatists, who were seeking revenge on the Indian government for sending forces to Sri Lanka to help in suppressing their resistance for independence.

It would be wrong to assume that the Sikh Genocide was the only crime against humanity committed under Gandhi’s watch. He was also instrumental behind allowing Hindus to pray at the disputed site of the ancient Babri mosque in Ayodhya. The mosque was later demolished by BJP supporters in 1992. The BJP continues to claim that the mosque was built by the Islamic rulers after razing the temple of Lord Ram, one of the revered Hindu gods, that once stood there.

As if this was not enough, to capitalize on Hindu nationalist sentiments, Rajiv Gandhi also started the broadcast of Ramayan – the epic of Lord Ram - on national TV. Most characters of the serial later joined the BJP. This was a time when the campaign for building the Ram temple in Ayodhya was picking up, which explains the intentions of Rajiv Gandhi.

It can be safely said that he contributed to an ultra-nationalist Hindu movement that eventually changed the socio-political environment of the country. 

In 2002, when some BJP supporters and Hindu devotees were returning by train to Gujarat from their pilgrimage to Ayodhya, it caught fire under mysterious circumstances. This was followed by reports of several skirmishes between Hindus and Muslims on railway stations because of hostilities created by these trips.

Modi, who was the Chief Minister of Gujarat back then, blamed it on Muslims, even though one commission of enquiry found that it was an accident caused by a cooking fire inside one of its cabins. Taking a leaf out of the Congress party’s history, the BJP government organized a 1984-like massacre against Muslims in the state. Much like Rajiv Gandhi, Modi also took advantage of an anti-minority frenzy to win the impending assembly election.

Human Rights activists believe that the Sikh massacre set the precedent for such state-sponsored violence. Had the state punished those guilty of 1984, the 2002 wouldn’t have happened.

Modi was first elected as Prime Minister in 2014 with heavy mandate, despite this baggage. Five years later, to the dismay of his opponents, he got another majority, in spite of a spike in mob lynching of Muslims.

One can understand the frustration of helpless secularists and liberals in a regime where the attacks on minorities have become a norm, but let’s not deceive ourselves about what Rajiv Gandhi really was. If we are really concerned about bigotry and intolerance, we need to look back at the history critically to see how people like him laid the foundation of hate politics. Instead of just grumbling over what Modi and his party stand for, it’s time for Congress and its apologists to take some responsibility for the mess India is in.     

Expectedly, Modi also tweeted on May 21 to pay his respect to Gandhi. Interestingly, what binds Modi and Gandhi together in terms of what happened in 1984 is that in 2019, the Modi government gave Bharat Ratna, a highest civilian award, to Nanaji Deshmukh - despite the fact that the Sikhs have been asking for revocation of Bharat Ratna to Rajiv Gandhi. With Deshmukh getting a similar award, the hopes of withdrawing Bharat Ratna to Rajiv Gandhi have died completely. But what can one expect from a system where one mass killer praises the other unapologetically, as people continue to make a choice between the bad and the worse?

 

 

 

The members of Indians Abroad for Pluralist India (IAPI) held a Mother’s Day car rally for Safoora Zargar in Surrey on the afternoon of Sunday, May 10.

The student activist who is an expectant mother is being held under draconian laws for opposing the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) passed by the right wing Hindu nationalist government in India.

Zargar is being falsely accused of inciting violence in Delhi during protests against CAA, which is unfair to Muslim refugees coming to India from neighbouring countries.

The car rally was held outside the Indian passport and visa application center, to maintain physical distancing due to restrictions because of COVID 19. Chanting of slogans and speeches were deliberately avoided. The participants honked while driving past the building. The cars bore signs saying “No CAA”, and asking for the release of Zargar. 

There were also signs for more than a dozen labourers who were crushed to death by a freight train in India recently. The poor people who had lost their jobs because of the pandemic were walking back to their native villages when the tragedy happened. They had fallen asleep on the rail track, as they were trying to avoid being harassed by the police that patrol the streets of India, using excessive force to impose curfews.  

The May 10 rally coincided with the anniversary of first major uprising against British occupation of India in 1857. The rebellion brought together people of different faith groups against colonialism. Formed in response to growing attacks on minorities in India, IAPI believes that this recognition is important to keep the spirit of secularism alive as the current government is bent upon turning the country into a Hindu theocracy.

The leading car in the fleet carried a flag of the Ghadar Party, a group of Indian revolutionaries who were influenced by the 1857 revolt. The Ghadar Party was established in the US by Indian immigrants in 1913 to liberate India from the British and form an egalitarian republic. Among those who participated were IAPI President Parshotam Dosanjh, prominent Punjabi poet Amrit Diwana, besides, other IAPI members Tejinder Sharma, Harbeer Rathi and Gurpreet Singh. 

Zargar joins many other activists incarcerated under inhuman conditions for raising their voices against repression of religious minorities and state violence. Amnesty International had called for urgent action for Zargar on the occasion of Mother’s Day. The Indian government refuses to release her on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, and its supporters have been attacking and demonizing her on social media.

 

 

 

Gurpreet Singh  

 

On the World Press Freedom Day, India has slipped on the global press freedom index.

Reporters Without Borders has ranked it at 142 out of 180 countries, in light of recent attacks on journalists and scholars under a right wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government led by Narendra Modi.

What could be more shameful for a country that claims to be the world’s largest democracy than this?

The news follows the recent incidents of slapping criminal charges against several journalists in different parts of the country in an attempt to suppress the voice of dissent and right to question.  

Only last month, well-respected columnist Anand  Teltumbde was sent to jail on malicious charges for being critical of a government that wants to transform India into a Hindu theocracy and has given legitimacy to those involved in violence against religious minorities and other oppressed communities.

Teltumbde has joined a few more thinkers already rotting in prisons. Among them is disabled Delhi University Professor G.N. Saibaba, who is suffering with 19 ailments. His only fault is that he has been raising his voice against repression of minorities and state violence. Not only have the Indian government and its courts refused to set them free on humanitarian grounds, in spite of a grave threat of COVID 19 in overcrowded jails, they have ordered the arrests of others, such as Teltumbde.  

Ironically, the Modi government had recently started the broadcasting of Ramayan – a tv serial based on the  epic of Lord Ram, a revered Hindu god - to entertain Indian masses locked in their homes because of COVID 19. It is believed that Ram was the King of Ayodhya. Episode 13 of the serial (posted on youtube) shows that when Ram was designated as the king, his father had advised him to be respectful of scholars and intellectuals as they are like “guiding lights” and accept their criticism with an open mid.

However, Modi's government is doing exactly the opposite, despite its advocacy for a Hindu nation. After all, the BJP has been campaigning for years to build a Ram temple in Ayodhya. The party supporters had razed an ancient mosque built in the city in 1992. They have been claiming that the mosque was forcibly built on the birthplace of Ram by the Islamic rulers after demolishing a Hindu temple. Ram has become a rallying point for BJP to polarize Hindu majority.  

In complete contradiction of its own politics that revolves around Ram, this government is throwing scholars in jails, let alone the question of listening to their concerns. It’s time for the Hindus to step forward and challenge this government which is bent upon using their religion for narrow political ends, and show Modi and his hypocritical cabinet colleagues the mirror. If they really care for Ram, then they must liberate scholars and save democracy; otherwise, history won’t ever forget Modi and those who voted him to power in the name of a faith that teaches everyone to see the entire world as one big family.

***

Gurpreet Singh 

The passing away of a well-known Hindi movie star when India is witnessing growing attacks on religious minorities has left a void that cannot be filled easily.

Rishi Kapoor, who was battling with cancer, died at the age of 67. 

The right wing Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi, under whose watch Muslims in particular are being blatantly targeted with impunity, expressed his condolences over the loss of a Bollywood celebrity, but Kapoor was a die-hard secularist who believed in pluralist India. 

Apart from acting on the silver screen, he was a vocal critic of religious extremism and frequently battled with right wing trolls on social media.  

He once criticised the banning of beef in India and described himself as a beef eating Hindu on Twitter, much to the annoyance of Modi supporters. Many devout Hindus consider the cow as sacred and won’t eat beef. Ever since Modi became Prime Minister in 2014, self-styled cow vigilantes have intensified violent activities against Muslims, accusing them of consuming beef.

Kapoor had also advised Modi and his cabinet colleagues to provide people with basic services rather than indulging in divisive politics.

He had come under attack for playing the role of a Muslim victim of police repression in Mulk, which was released in 2018. It was one of his last movies, worth watching to understand what India is going through under the current regime. Muslims are constantly intimidated by the police in the event of any bombing incident, and are treated as potential terrorists. In an eventuality of arrest they find it hard to get a lawyer to defend them in the courts.. Kapoor had played the role as a Muslim patriarch who is harassed and humiliated by the police and the prosecution, and by the wider society, because of the involvement of a family member in terrorist activities. Unsurprisingly, the film angered Modi loyalists, by exposing the existence of Islamophobia in India.

This is not to suggest that he was perfect. Like most of us, he also erred at times and history will judge him accordingly. He had applauded the former Punjab Police Chief KPS Gill on his death in 2017. Gill was a controversial police officer who was complicit in the repression of Sikhs in Punjab. In the name of the "war on terror" against insurgents struggling for a separate homeland for the Sikhs, the Punjab police had kidnapped many Sikh men, including political activists, and killed them through extra judicial means. Women were also subjected to custodial rapes during this period. Since the Sikh separatists were also involved in violent killings of Hindus and their political critics, many saw Gill as a saviour, and glossed over the power abuse by Punjab police. Perhaps, Kapoor was among those who believed in what most Indians were made to believe by the mainstream media in relation to Sikh separatism in Punjab and the state response to this challenge. Nevertheless, he never supported extremism of Hindu groups either, and the example of his tweets against cow policing is before us. 

It is pertinent to mention that Kapoor had questioned the naming of New Delhi Airport after Indira Gandhi, the late Prime Minister who had ordered the military invasion on the Golden Temple Complex, the holiest Sikh shrine in Amritsar in June, 1984. 

Aimed to rid the place of worship from Sikh militants, the ill conceived army operation left many innocent pilgrims dead, and important buildings inside heavily destroyed. This was done to whip up emotions against Sikhs to win the forthcoming general elections with the help of the Hindu majority. This outraged Sikhs all over the world and galvanized the movement for a separate state. As a result of this incident, Gandhi was assassinated in New Delhi on October 31, 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards, following which thousands of innocent Sikhs were targeted across India by mobs led by the slain leader’s so called secular Congress party activists.

Kapoor had asked on twitter why the New Delhi airport should not be named after more undisputed and respectable historical figures instead of Indira Gandhi.

Let’s not put him on pedestal, and be objective about his political positions and give credit where it belongs. His death isn’t just a loss to the film industry, but to a country that has gone to the dogs. Today when most Bollywood stars remain silent to the misdeeds of Modi and some are willing to please him, Kapoor will always be missed.  He was after all one of those rare individuals who can dare to stand up against majoritarianism. 

***

Amidst growing bigotry against people of Asian origin in the light of COVID 19, Shushma Datt has urged everyone to maintain calm and be kind.

Datt, who is the CEO of Burnaby-based Spice Radio, had started a campaign against racism on the birth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr. in January 2015.

#HandsAgainstRacism which has entered its sixth year is aimed to educate people against discrimination in any form.  

To mark the beginning of Asian Heritage Month, she called upon her listeners and the community at large not to indulge in scapegoating of people of Asian origin, especially those of Chinese descent, when the entire world needs to fight back against COVID 19 together.

Close to 250,000 human lives have been lost to the pandemic that originated in China. Since then, Canada has witnessed a spike in hateful incidents against people of Asian ancestry. Vancouver Police Department has already confirmed this.  The business of Chinese restaurants has also been affected.

Datt believes that this is both because of ignorance and the anti-Chinese rhetoric of right wing political figures like US President Donald Trump. Trump has been accusing China of spreading the disease and calling it “China virus”. She asked the audience of Spice Radio on Sunday morning to support Chinese restaurants and other local businesses to strengthen the Canadian economy.

Early this year, the BC Minister of State for Childcare went to Spice Radio to participate in the campaign and share her concerns over growing hostilities against Chinese people.

Katrina Chen, who is of Chinese origin, noted that there were attempts to polarise people in Canada by extreme right wing forces which are trying to take advantage of the current crisis.

Only recently, Conservative MP and leadership candidate Derek Sloan questioned the nationalism of Canada’s top doctor. Theresa Tam, who was born in Hong Kong. has been giving updates on COVID 19 in Canada and advising the government on necessary measures to contain the virus. Both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and New Democrat leader Jagmeet Singh denounced Sloan's statement.

Datt thinks that Trudeau has shown leadership by trying to take the Chinese community into his embrace. “Unlike Trump, he isn’t bashing any particular group of people”, she said.  Notably, Trudeau had gone to a Chinese restaurant to celebrate his daughter’s birthday to dispel fears. Years ago, Chinese people faced a similar situation in the aftermath of the deadly SARS virus that hit the country. The then-Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien also went to a Chinese restaurant to show his solidarity. 

In the meantime, Spice Radio named Harsha Walia and Kal Dosanjh as this year’s recipients of their annual awards for fighting against racism. Walia is a published author and a social justice activist, whereas Dosanjh used to be with Vancouver Police and has a group called Kids Play that educate youngsters to keep away from violence and racism. The event was scheduled to be held in Surrey on March 21, but had to be postponed indefinitely due to the public health emergency. Nevertheless, the conversation on racism continues on Spice Radio airwaves.

***

 

A virtual protest was organized on Monday, April 27 to raise voices for journalists being harassed in India-occupied Kashmir.  

Attended by South Asian journalists and community activists from various parts of the globe, the rally was remotely held in North Delta in the light of the public health emergency because of COVID 19.

The speakers unanimously condemned the slapping of criminal charges against several journalists in Kashmir, which they believe is an attempt to suppress press freedom and any voice of dissent under a right wing Hindu nationalist government. They also felt that it was part of a smear campaign of the Indian state to terrorise and demonize minorities and any right thinking journalist or scholar who questions the power.  

Kashmir, the only Muslim dominated province in India, remains under lockdown since August 5. Special rights given to the state were scrapped and military has been heavily deployed in the name of national security to contain an ongoing struggle for the right to self-determination in the region. Not only  have political activists been indefinitely detained, but journalists in Kashmir are finding it difficult to work freely and fearlessly. If that was not enough, at least three Kashmiri journalists, including female photographer Masrat Zahra, were recently charged under draconian laws after being accused of spreading “anti-national” propaganda. Gowhar Geelani, another prominent journalist and a published author is among the three.

The rally was held by Radical Desi, an online publication that covers alternative politics in partnership with Indians Abroad for Pluralist India (IAPI).

Among the participants was the President of the Punjabi Press Club of British Columbia (PPCBC), Navjot Kaur Dhillon. She is the first female president of the club which has been consistently raising the issue of Kashmiri journalists since last summer.

Dhillon pointed out that the Indian authorities are going after Kashmiri Muslim journalists and doing nothing against right wing media commentators who are openly spewing venom against minorities.

Others who spoke on the occasion were the Editor of Chardikala Newspaper, Gurpreet Singh Sahota, and Punjabi Tribune editor Dr. Gurvinder Singh Dhaliwal. Both are associated with the PPCBC.

The rally was started with a poem dedicated to the late Gauri Lankesh by Amrit Diwana. Lankesh was a journalist who was murdered by Hindu fanatics in 2017. She was a vocal critic of religious extremism.

Two social justice activists from India, Buta Singh and Satwant Singh, joined the rally online and threw light on the overall situation that exists in India under an “intolerant regime”.

IAPI President Parshotam Dosanjh, and other members of the group Sandip Modgil and Gurpreet Singh also spoke on the occasion.

The participants raised slogans and held out signs in support of Kashmiri journalists.

 

Annie Ohana, a well-known award winning social justice educator, has sent a letter to the Canadian Prime Minister urging him to stand up for an Indian scholar who is being incarcerated under inhuman conditions.  

Wheelchair-bound GN Saibaba used to teach at Delhi University before being convicted in 2017 after being branded as a Maoist sympathizer. Suffering with 19 ailments, his health continues to deteriorate.

The Indian government has refused to release him on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, in spite of increasing COVID 19 threat in overcrowded jails.

Saibaba has been raising his voice against repression of Adivasis, or the indigenous peoples, who are being forcibly evicted from their traditional lands by the extraction industry with the backing of the Indian state in the name of development. Maoist insurgents have been active in these mineral rich areas that big industry is eyeing to acquire. The police brutality often forces Adivasis to join the insurgents who are fighting a class war. 

Saibaba was instrumental behind peaceful demonstrations against atrocities against Adivasis in the garb of police operations against Maoists, as a result of which he was arrested and thrown in jail as part of a conspiracy to suppress voice of dissent.

There has been an international outcry for Saibaba, and the UN had asked for his release.

Hundreds of people signed petitions in Canada and held rallies in his support. However, the Canadian government that claims to be a human rights leader in the world remains indifferent to the whole episode.  

Ohana, who teaches at L.A. Matheson School in Surrey, has written a letter to Justin Trudeau on behalf of her students asking for his intervention. A copy has also been sent to the New Democratic leader Jagmeet Singh who had raised the issue of Saiababa in the past.

On March 12, she had hosted a teach-in at the school to educate Grade 10 and 12 students about the situation of Saibaba as part of the indigenous week, following which the students submitted their thoughts on the issue.

She has put their feedback together in a letter that reads, “As a government, please show our students leadership, practice what you preach, dare to stand up for human rights and call for the release of Saibaba.”

According to Ohana, sixty students participated in the teach-in, following which some of them stuck “Free Saibaba” signs on their backs to show solidarity with the jailed teacher.

Some of the comments from students included in the letter are really strong and heart-warming.  One student wrote, “In a country that believes in freedom of speech, right in our Charter, shouldn’t they [Canadian MPs] stand up to protect people trying to do the same in other countries?”

Likewise, another student commented, “Dr. Saibaba is being hurt by being in jail, he did not commit any crimes as I see it. Why is Canada staying silent about calling for his release? I feel like he is being tortured, Canada should never stand for this type of treatment.”

Ohana had also spoken at the rally for Saibaba held in Surrey on the International Day for Persons with Disabilities last December.

 

Gurpreet Singh

The COVID 19 pandemic has resulted in anxieties and mental health stress for many in an era of self-isolation in places like North America. But a group of oppressed people in the world’s so called largest democracy, has been enduring social ostracizing for centuries.

Dalits continue to face blatant discrimination under a brutal caste system practised by Indian society, in accordance with orthodox Hindu traditions, despite tall claims of the country’s progress.

April, which is celebrated as Dalit History Month, not only revives ugly memories of the past when the community was subjected to the most inhuman treatment, it brings into focus what has really changed over the years.

One of the most well respected Indian scholars and the architect of the Indian constitution, Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar, was born on April 14, 1891. A diehard Dalit activist, he faced caste-based oppression while growing up in Maharashtra and experienced humiliation on many occasions even after he started working.

Dalits are the lowest on the ladder of caste structure that puts the priest class on the top, followed by the rulers and traders. Those below in this hierarchy are considered as untouchables. They have been forced to survive on menial jobs, such as scavenging and cleaning gutters, removing human excreta and dead animals. Despite many constitutional safeguards, society hasn’t transformed, and these people are not  allowed to come out of this situation. So much so, they do not have access to drinking water from public wells, leave aside the question of letting them into temples in several parts of India. The strict laws against untouchability have not deterred the self-styled custodians of upper caste interests from denying them equal rights. They are still seen as “polluters” and discouraged from maintaining physical contact with upper caste people.

Ambedkar was frequently forced to sit separately from the upper caste kids at school. That was a long time back, but only last year, a school in Uttar Pradesh segregated Dalit students from others to serve them mid-day meal.  

This explains why they are usually forced to live on the peripheries of towns and villages, away from the mainstream.

While some affirmative action has helped Dalits to get into the parliament and top positions, many of them have been appropriated by the ruling parties of the day and hardly raise tough questions about these ugly realities.

Unlike Ambedkar, who had to take many challenges for talking back to power, these spineless Dalit leaders have succumbed to the current right wing Hindu nationalist government under which the attacks on Dalits and other minorities have spiked during past several years.

It is pertinent to mention that Ambedkar’s grandson-in-law, renowned author and activist Anand Teltumbde, was arrested on April 14, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Dalit President Ram Kumar Kovind were paying tokenistic tributes to Ambedkar. 

Teltumbde’s only fault was that he had raised his voice against growing attacks on minorities and political dissidents in an intolerant regime through his writings. A real Ambedkarite found himself in jail under malicious charges for merely standing up for the constitutional rights of the citizens of India.

Coming back to COVID 19, the present crisis has made the lives of Dalits even more difficult by not only further strengthening the walls of the caste system, but by increasing the dependency of the privileged society on them to work at the frontlines without proper equipment and getting exposed to the infection.

Next time you hear about polls and surveys suggesting that some of us are suffering because of loneliness and boredom, think about how those Dalits have been living for so long with such pain, caused by the structures of society. It’s time to use our privileges to lend a voice to their ongoing fight against this barbarity.

***

 

Gurpreet Singh

The COVID 19 pandemic has resulted in anxieties and mental health stress for many in an era of self-isolation in places like North America But a group of oppressed people in the world’s so called largest democracy, has been enduring social ostracizing for centuries.

Dalits continue to face blatant discrimination under a brutal caste system practised by Indian society, in accordance with orthodox Hindu traditions, despite tall claims of the country’s progress.

April, which is celebrated as Dalit History Month, not only revives ugly memories of the past when the community was subjected to the most inhuman treatment, it brings into focus what has really changed over the years.

One of the most well respected Indian scholars and the architect of the Indian constitution, Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar, was born on April 14, 1891. A diehard Dalit activist, he faced caste-based oppression while growing up in Maharashtra and experienced humiliation on many occasions even after he started working.

Dalits are the lowest on the ladder of caste structure that puts the priest class on the top, followed by the rulers and traders. Those below in this hierarchy are considered as untouchables. They have been forced to survive on menial jobs, such as scavenging and cleaning gutters, removing human excreta and dead animals. Despite many constitutional safeguards, society hasn’t transformed, and these people are not  allowed to come out of this situation. So much so, they do not have access to drinking water from public wells, leave aside the question of letting them into temples in several parts of India. The strict laws against untouchability have not deterred the self-styled custodians of upper caste interests from denying them equal rights. They are still seen as “polluters” and discouraged from maintaining physical contact with upper caste people.

Ambedkar was frequently forced to sit separately from the upper caste kids at school. That was a long time back, but only last year, a school in Uttar Pradesh segregated Dalit students from others to serve them mid-day meal.  

This explains why they are usually forced to live on the peripheries of towns and villages, away from the mainstream.

While some affirmative action has helped Dalits to get into the parliament and top positions, many of them have been appropriated by the ruling parties of the day and hardly raise tough questions about these ugly realities.

Unlike Ambedkar, who had to take many challenges for talking back to power, these spineless Dalit leaders have succumbed to the current right wing Hindu nationalist government under which the attacks on Dalits and other minorities have spiked during past several years.

It is pertinent to mention that Ambedkar’s grandson-in-law, renowned author and activist Anand Teltumbde, was arrested on April 14, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Dalit President Ram Kumar Kovind were paying tokenistic tributes to Ambedkar. 

Teltumbde’s only fault was that he had raised his voice against growing attacks on minorities and political dissidents in an intolerant regime through his writings. A real Ambedkarite found himself in jail under malicious charges for merely standing up for the constitutional rights of the citizens of India.

Coming back to COVID 19, the present crisis has made the lives of Dalits even more difficult by not only further strengthening the walls of the caste system, but by increasing the dependency of the privileged society on them to work at the frontlines without proper equipment and getting exposed to the infection.

Next time you hear about polls and surveys suggesting that some of us are suffering because of loneliness and boredom, think about how those Dalits have been living for so long with such pain, caused by the structures of society. It’s time to use our privileges to lend a voice to their ongoing fight against this barbarity.

***

Gurpreet Singh

The post-pandemic situation we all are living in demands that we must start reading Canadian author Naomi Klein’s much publicized book to understand how the corporate world and powerful nations are using the current crisis to pursue their agendas.

Published in 2007, The Shock Doctrine will help us understand the dynamics of what is happening across the border in the US under Donald Trump. The way his right wing supporters are trying to brush aside science and oppose a shutdown in the light of COVID 19 is a part of the ideology Trump and others like him believe in.

Right from Trump, to a Hindu nationalist Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, almost all pro-business leaders support a free market economy that does not want to work in a regulated environment, and wants to break itself free from government control. What they have in common is their determination to privatize public services and put profits before people.

A crisis of any nature gives them a perfect opportunity to downsize government and adopt tough measures in the name of safety. The insecurity of masses makes the task easier, as they willingly surrender their consent for any change, blindly trusting the recipe being offered by those in power.    

Taking advantage of COVID 19, Trump has begun his crackdown on immigrants. Not only are undocumented migrants being forced to leave US, he has announced his decision to suspend new immigration to save jobs. Notably, he has been purposely referring to the pandemic as the "Chinese" virus to rile up people against those of Asian origin, as the disease had originated from that country.

Similarly, in India, Modi supporters are picking on minorities who are being falsely accused of spreading the coronavirus. Among those at the receiving end are Muslims and people from north eastern states who are taken as Chinese due to their oriental facial features.

The mindset behind such ugly developments has been best explained in Klein’s book, which remains relevant for all times. She goes into the details of similar or worse consequences of many such catastrophes in the past, including the 9/11 terror attack, the Iraq war, tsunamis, or the power transfer at the end of Apartheid. A reader will quickly understand how these tragedies were exploited by heartless politicians and business leaders worldwide. They were no less than the vultures who survive on corpses.

If you haven’t read it, then begin reading it on April 23 and make this year’s World Book Day special, at a time when many of us are confined to our homes with ample time to reflect.

***

 

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