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The South Asian media fraternity came together to denounce an incident involving Ravi Choudhary, whose iconic image of the ongoing farmers’ protest in India has gone viral.   

Choudhary works with Press Trust of India. He was attacked by several unidentified people in Uttar Pradesh, after clicking the famous picture of a Sikh farmer about to be hit by a security person during the agitation.  

The Punjab farmers, predominantly from the Sikh community, are currently camping in New Delhi, the national capital of India, to protest against controversial bills affecting their livelihood brought by the right wing Hindu nationalist government. The farmers are outraged over the way these bills were pushed through without debate by the ruling party, which has a brute majority in the house.  

The police recently used excessive force on the agitating farmers, sparking angry protests all over the world.  

Choudhary’s picture was circulated widely on social media.  

He has alleged that the police refused to act promptly on his complaint.  

On Tuesday, December 8, the members of Punjabi Press Club of British Columbia (PPCBC) resolved to show their solidarity with Choudhary and strongly condemned the attack on him.  

Earlier, the PPCBC also welcomed the Editors Guild of India (EGI) advisory against malicious coverage of the farmers’ agitation, by embedded journalists and the right wing media channels owing allegiance to the ruling party.  The EGI had sharply criticised the portrayal of protesting Sikh farmers as separatists and “anti-nationals” by a section of the media. It had urged the press not to delegitimize their protest without any evidence. The PPCBC also appealed to South Asian media outlets in Canada to act responsibly and not to distort facts while reporting about the farmers’ struggle.  

 

A Punjab-based journalist and former Information Commissioner has appealed to the Indian government to release a physically challenged scholar from jail on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.  

In no uncertain terms, Chander Parkash from Bathinda said in a live interview with Burnaby-based Spice Radio on December 3, the international day of persons with disabilities, the mistreatment of Professor G.N. Saibaba is both unfortunate and a blot on Indian democracy.  

His son Yashveer Goyal has established himself as a role model for Indian youth in sports and Information Technology, in spite of being born with a hearing disability. He had come to the support of a former Delhi University lecturer, who continues to face inhuman conditions in an Indian jail after being convicted in 2017.  

Saibaba was first arrested on trumped up charges in 2014, for merely speaking out against the repression of religious minorities, and the Adivasis (indigenous communities) being evicted from their traditional lands by the extraction industry with the backing of the Indian government. He was given a life sentence after being branded as a Maoist sympathiser. Notably, the Maoist insurgents are active in the areas inhabited by the Adivasis.    

Even though the United Nations has asked for his release due to his deteriorating health, the government remains adamant. So much so, he was neither even given parole to see his mother on the death bed, nor to attend her last rituals.   

Yashveer was born with a hearing disability in 1999. His father noticed it when his child remained unresponsive to the loud sounds of firecrackers in the neighbourhood on the night of Deewali - the Indian festival of lights. 

However, his undeterred parents brought him up with a lot of care, despite many challenges. Young Yashveer had to face discrimination in school in a conservative society, where ostracization of children with disabilities is very common. His parents made sure that he concentrated on education and extracurricular activities, that helped him to master badminton and chess, besides Information Technology.  

After winning many championships and competitions in these fields, both at the provincial and higher level, Yashveer was given a national award for the Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities in 2019, under the Role Model Hearing Impairments (Male) category. 

Yashveer had asked the Prime Minister of India to make arrangements for the release of wheelchair bound Saibaba.  

Since the outbreak of COVID 19, the vulnerability of inmates like Saibaba, locked up in overcrowded Indian jails, has grown.       

Yashveer had written on his Facebook page, “As I am a special child with absolute hearing impairment so I know the life of specially disabled persons. I have come to know about the plight of Saibaba, facing hellish conditions in jail and also under danger due to Covid-19”. 

Reiterating similar views on his son’s behalf who cannot speak, Chander Parkash told Spice Radio that natural justice demands that Saibaba must be released. He added that whatever may be the political ideology of Saibaba, his condition does not allow him to stay in jail anymore. He added that he and his family are ready to face any consequences for defending the human rights of someone who deserves sympathy. 

 

On the death anniversary of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar - the architect of the Indian constitution - South Asian activists came together to raise their voices against growing repression of religious minorities and political dissidents in the world’s so called largest democracy.   

Organized by the Indians Abroad for Pluralist India (IAPI) on Sunday, December 6, the rally was called in response to the recent incident of police violence, involving protesting farmers in New Delhi.   

IAPI believes that the currently ruling right wing Hindu nationalist BJP government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is trampling the Constitution that guarantees democracy and religious freedom.  

It was on December 6 that the BJP supporters demolished an ancient Muslim mosque in 1992 On the anniversary of the adoption of the constitution on November 26 this year, police assaulted the farmers agitating peacefully in the Indian capital. Both these acts years apart reflect the BJP’s disregard for the constitution and Dr. Ambedkar.   

The participants assembled outside the Indian Visa and Passport Application Center in Surrey, and raised slogans against the ongoing attacks on minorities and incarceration of political activists, including Dr. Ambedkar’s grand son-in-law Anand Teltumbde.  

Teltumbde is an established scholar who was thrown in jail early this year on trumped up charges, for merely questioning the power and speaking out for the poor and marginalized.  Some of those present also held signs carrying the pictures of both Teltumbde and Ambedkar, besides others showing solidarity with farmers.  

The speakers were unanimous in their criticism of the BJP’s agenda to turn India into a Hindu theocracy by diluting the constitution, threatening minority rights and muzzling any voice of dissent. They expressed their outrage over the way Sikh farmers are being labelled as extremists and separatists by the right wing media owing allegiance to Modi.   

The event was started with a poem dedicated to Dr. Ambedkar by IAPI member and poet Amrit Diwana. Others who spoke on the occasion included IAPI members Harbir Rathi and Gurpreet Singh, besides Sikh activists Bhupinder Singh Hothi, Gian Singh Gill and Kulwinder Singh.  

 

Subject: Regarding the blocking of #Sikh

Dear Mr. Zuckerberg,

I hope you are well aware that some decisions that your staff at Facebook and Instagram has made can affect millions of people's lives. I am writing this letter to bring to your attention decisions by your staff that have affected and will continue to affect Sikhs negatively. In recent months, Facebook and Instagram have blocked the hashtag #Sikh, which is tantamount to blocking an entire religion and erasing them from your platforms.

Sikhs are a small (around 28 million worldwide) stateless minority that has gone through multiple cycles of genocide throughout their history, but particularly during the recent past. The first weeks of June and November hold special significance for the Sikhs as we commemorate two of the most painful events in our recent history: the Indian army's brutal assault on our holiest shrine Sri Darbar Sahib, Amritsar during the first week of June 1984 and the genocide of Sikhs in India during the first week of November of the same year. Both events are commemorated worldwide by Sikhs both online and offline. However, this year the commemoration became particularly painful as your platforms—Facebook and Instagram—blocked the #Sikh in June. Your platforms also deleted thousands of posts and blocked countless accounts this year in the first week of November. Now, your platform Instagram blocked the #Sikh again this week when Sikh farmers, along with farmers belonging to other religions all over India, are protesting against India's rights-wing Modi government's attempts to hand over their lands to the corporations.

I have a few straightforward questions for you: how can you justify blocking #Sikh, which is just the name of a religion and is not offensive in any way? How can your staff launch such a brazen assault on our freedom of expression and go undisciplined? How can the very invocation of our religious identity be deemed a provocation so serious that it must be censored at all costs? The denial of our voices amounts to an erasure of very existence. You must show accountability and make sure that it never happens again.

Our existence on your platforms has become so precarious that we no longer feel safe there. We use these platforms under the constant fear of being censored. I demand that you immediately launch an inquiry into why #Sikh is blocked and unblocked repeatedly and discipline those responsible for it. You have the moral responsibility to fully investigate this serious matter and make necessary changes to decision-making processes. I also want an assurance from you that it will not happen again. We want to use these platforms to raise awareness about human rights violations in India, and we have a right to do so. It is your job to make sure that we can do so without intimidation and censorship.

With regards,

Prabhsharanbir Singh

Ph.D., Interdisciplinary Studies

University of British Columbia

#Sikh #FarmerProtest

 

Me Too Khalistani

December 03, 2020

 

Gurpreet Singh  

Ever since the Punjab farmers’ agitation has picked up in India, the followers of the currently ruling right wing Hindu nationalist government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi have started labelling the agitators as separatists. 

Since the famers from Punjab are predominantly Sikhs, Modi’s troll army and some of his apologists in Bollywood have begun attacking them on social media, frequently branding them as “Khalistanis” or those seeking a separate Sikh homeland of Khalistan.  

The armed struggle for an imaginary Khalistan to be carved out of Punjab left thousands of people dead between the mid-1980s to mid-1990s. The movement was the result of the state repression of Sikhs who were merely asking for political autonomy and several economic and religious concessions. The situation was allowed to escalate, and turned violent; the Khalistan demand, which was never popular among the Sikhs, gradually gained momentum until it was ended brutally by the police, which were given extra-judicial powers by the government to suppress it.  

It partly fizzled out because the Sikh militants also lost support because of the excesses they committed.  

Although the movement has become irrelevant, and mainly survives at a propaganda level (mostly in the Sikh Diaspora), it has become convenient for the followers of Modi or the Indian establishment to brand any Sikh as a potential Khalistani to silence any voice of dissent.  

This is not to suggest that others are immune from being branded in such a way. Modi supporters have labelled any Muslim critic as  a Jihadi terrorist, and leftist critics as Maoists or urban naxals. For all of them, the most common message is either stay in India on our terms, or go to Pakistan.  

It is pertinent to mention that the attacks on religious minorities and political dissidents of any stripe have grown under Modi ever since he became the Prime Minister in 2014. Obviously, these people remain blind to what Hindu extremists - who are bent on turning India into a Hindu theocracy - are doing to the minorities, especially Muslims and Christians.  

They have conveniently overlooked the fact that the Punjab farmers represent a diverse group. Among them are practising and non-practising Sikhs, atheists and believers, leftists and Khalistanis. Ironically, the Khalistani militants killed many leftists during insurgency. How can one ignore such complexities, considering that any grassroots movement for a common ground can bring a variety of people together, irrespective of their religious or political beliefs?  

It is noteworthy that the Sikh farmers have also received massive support from Hindu and Muslim farmers from other states, since their issues remain similar. The current conflict is the result of the ordinances brought by Modi, which are widely seen as anti-farmer. These laws affect the livelihood of the broader farming community which is the backbone of the Indian economy. Their anger is directed at the fact that Modi, armed with his majority in Parliament, did not do all this in a transparent manner, and aims to roll back all the subsidies and protection to the farmers which were long guaranteed to them in an agro-based economy.   

It is not surprising that some of Modi’s own allies are also upset. The members of his party’s farmers’ wing have expressed their displeasure.  

Why are those who describe Sikh farmers as Khalistanis silent about that? Why not use similar expressions for Hindu farmers owing  their allegiance to the right wing ideology? Why not call them Hindu supremacists?  

One can safely conclude that this narrative has been created to discredit a genuine agitation. This is an attempt to isolate Sikhs who are leading the campaign, and to instil fear in the minds of the Hindu majority.  

This has only backfired and given more fuel to the Khalistanis abroad. Next time you notice more and more people waving Khalistan flags and raising slogans for it, please blame Modi and his stooges. On one hand you ignore the Sikh farmers, then you try to stop them from marching to the national capital of New Delhi, then you assault them brutally, and if that is not enough, you give them a bad name. Such measures will bring more alienation and eventually revitalize the Khalistan movement. Many young Sikhs in Canada believe that India mistreats their community and they have no place in that country. These actions will only reinforce those ideas.  

If you don’t want to hear this, or find it inconvenient, then please go ahead and call me a Khalistani too, as I am born in the Sikh community. But let’s be clear that these labels won’t work if people are united in their fight against repression. 

In the meantime, follow my campaign #MeTooKhalistani on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.       

In a strong rebuttal to the way protesters from the farming community are being treated by the Indian police, Justin Trudeau has expressed concern over the news coming out from New Delhi.  

While addressing the participants at a Zoom meeting organized to celebrate the birth anniversary of the founder of Sikhism Guru Nanak on Monday, November 30, Trudeau said, “Canada will always be there to defend the right of peaceful protest.”  

Adding that Canadians believe in the importance of dialogue, the Prime Minister revealed that they have used multiple means to highlight their concerns to the Indian government.  

He made the statement right at the very beginning of his address, after welcoming the Sikh members of his cabinet.  

This follows a series of tweets made by elected officials across the political spectrum, including the right wing Conservatives and left wing New Democrats, besides Trudeau’s own Liberal party, and protests held across Canada in solidarity with the agitating farmers who were assaulted by the police in New Delhi.  

Among those in attendance during the virtual celebration of Gurpurab were Surrey MPs Sukh Dhaliwal and Randeep Singh Sarai. Both had previously expressed their outrage on social media over the police repression of farmers. More than 300 people, including community leaders from all over Canada attended the remote event because of COVID 19 restrictions.  

The intensity of the ongoing demonstrations in India was such that many elected officials of Indian origin and those representing ridings with sizable South Asian populations were forced to make statements on Twitter or Facebook.  

This is the first time that Trudeau has made a strong public statement against state violence, which has grown under the current right wing Hindu nationalist government in India. Attacks on religious minorities and political dissidents have increased ever since Hindu chauvinist leader Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister in 2014. Trudeau has mostly remained silent about these developments until now.  

Police in New Delhi have been harassing Punjab farmers, who are camping in the city along with farmers from other Indian states to register their peaceful protest against recent controversial bills introduced by the government. These measures are aimed at rolling back subsidies given to the farmers, as India remains an agro-based economy. The bills were pushed through without due consultations, causing anxiety in the farming community.  

Not only were there attempts to prevent Punjab farmers from entering the capital, but they were brutally assaulted by Delhi police. Those at the receiving end included seniors.   

*** 

 

Gurpreet Singh  

The Indian Prime Minister’s greetings on the birth anniversary of the founder of Sikhism sound hypocritical, considering how his police have assaulted agitating farmers from Punjab in the national capital of the world’s so called largest democracy.  

The Sikhs will celebrate the 551st birthday of Guru Nanak Dev across the globe on Monday, November 30.  

In his radio address to the nation, Modi extended his greetings and noted that the influence of the Sikh Guru is visible in the entire world. He added, “From Vancouver to Wellington, from Singapore to South Africa, his message reverberates everywhere.”  

Undoubtedly, Nanak won over many hearts by preaching universal brotherhood, to share and earn one’s livelihood through honesty and hard work. He often dined with the poor and working people and refused to accept the hospitality of the rich and tyrants, because of which he remained popular among the oppressed communities and the tillers. Apart from spreading the word about his newly founded religion that denounced Hindu orthodoxy and the brutal caste system, he challenged the repression of the Islamic rulers.  

Modi’s greeting at a time when his police force in New Delhi has been harassing farmers from Punjab is a mere token, lacking sincerity towards the message of Nanak.   

The Punjab farmers, who are predominantly Sikhs, are camping in the city along with farmers of other Indian states to register their peaceful protest against recent controversial bills introduced by Modi's government. These measures are aimed at rolling back subsidies given to the farmers as India remains an agro-based economy. The bills were pushed through without due consultations, causing anxiety in the farming community.  

Not only were there attempts to prevent Punjab farmers from entering the capital, but they were brutally assaulted by Delhi police. Those at the receiving end included aged farmers. If this was not enough, Modi’s right wing Hindu nationalist supporters have been trying to label the Sikh farmers as separatists and anti-national, to discredit them in the eyes of those following developments on the ground. Several embedded journalists are also trying to create a narrative of the agitation being led by  Sikh radicals, without appreciating the fact that it is an organic movement that also includes people from leftist backgrounds, besides members of other faith groups.   

Modi and his sycophants should be ashamed that despite such barbarity and hostility, the Sikh farmers have been seen serving meal and water to the policemen on duty, in accordance with the teachings of Nanak, who had started langar or community kitchen to break the barriers of caste and class.   

The moral of the story is that either Modi should stop making such meaningless gestures, or give respect to those who plough the fields - like Guru Nanak - but are being tormented by his police on the streets of New Delhi. If nothing, at least ask your supporters to stop spewing venom against the people who put food on your table.  

*** 

 

British Columbia's largest university recognized the contributions of India-based social-justice activist Teesta Setalvad on the evening of Thursday, November 26. 

An award-winning journalist, Setalvad played a prominent role in the campaign for justice for victims of the state-supported massacre of Muslims in 2002. 

She was among the 10 recipients of honorary degrees from University of British Columbia.  

Setalvad has been to Vancouver twice. During her 2018 visit to Canada, she spoke at UBC. 

Anne Murphy from the university's department of Asian Studies played a key role in her nomination for the degree.  

The 2002 pogrom against Muslims took place in the western Indian state of Gujarat, under the watch of current Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, who was the state's chief minister back then. Though Modi was never convicted, Setalvad’s memoir Foot Soldier of the Constitution indicts him for the bloodshed. 

Thousands of Muslims were murdered by supporters of Modi’s right-wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) after a train carrying Hindu pilgrims caught fire, leaving more than 50 people dead. 

Even though one commission of inquiry later found that the tragedy was a pure accident, Modi blamed it on Muslims, inciting violence against the minority community. 

Though he was never convicted of wrongdoing, he reportedly asked the police to look the other way and let Hindu mobs vent their anger on helpless Muslims. 

Modi was denied a visa by the U.S. until he became India's prime minister in 2014.    

Setalvad’s fight for justice and closure continues even today. She has faced threats and intimidation because of her daring work.  

As a staunch secularist, she has also been critical of the anti-Sikh massacre engineered by the Congress party in 1984. Innocent Sikhs were slaughtered across India by the mobs led by Congress activists following the assassination of then prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. 

This orchestrated violence by Congress leaders occurred despite the party claiming to be a secular alternative to the BJP, which aspires to turn India into a Hindu theocracy. 

Ever since the BJP came to power, attacks on religious minorities and political dissidents have grown in the world’s so-called largest democracy.  

Held through remote technology because of COVID 19, which prevented the recipients from attending in person, the Thursday event coincided with the anniversary of the adoption of India's constitution, which guarantees religious freedom and equality. In her brief presentation, Setelvad pointed out how the Indian constitution is being violated by those in power under current circumstances.  

 

 

Gurpreet Singh  

“I don’t vote for foreign people”, scribbled an anonymous voter on one of the mail-in-ballots we were shown by those doing the final count for the Surrey-Green Timbers candidates on Friday, November 6.   

Being husband of the incumbent MLA Rachna Singh, who represented the riding for NDP and eventually got re-elected and has now been appointed as Parliamentary Secretary for anti-racism initiatives, I was there as a volunteer on behalf of her campaign to ensure that the final count was done smoothly.  

When one of the staff of Elections BC showed the ballot with those words written in no unclear terms, it instantly left a bad taste in my mouth. 

Although the ballot was rejected as the person had intended, the incident shook me completely. Those words were in clear reference to Rachna and her Liberal opponent Dilraj Atwal. Both candidates were of Punjabi heritage, and there was nobody else in the race. The intentions of the person were very clear - to convey hatred for those running because of their ancestry. This happened despite the fact that Surrey-Green Timbers is a diverse riding with a sizeable Punjabi population. Let’s face it. Racism is still alive and refuses to die.    

However, the results that gave an NDP majority in the end were very encouraging, considering what happened in several other ridings across the province.  

Another Punjabi candidate, Harwinder Sandhu of the NDP, who was elected in Vernon-Monashee, faced the worst during the campaign, when one of her election signs was defaced with a swastika and a misogynist word. She endured that in the past too, but this time her racist detractors were left with licking their wounds.  

She was not alone, nor the first woman of colour to suffer this. Amanda Poon Tang, a Green candidate in Kelowna-Mission, was subjected to racist and sexist vandalism as well. Unlike Harwinder and Rachna, she is of Chinese origin.  

Male candidates of colour also became targets of racism during the campaign for the October 24 election. Among them were the NDP's Aman Singh in Richmond-Queensborough, and Liberal candidate for Saanich South, Rishi Sharma.  

Singh got elected as the first turbaned Sikh MLA. Aman was more focussed on his campaign and remained discreet about it, but racial slurs hurled at Rishi became major news. 

Niki Sharma, elected as the NDP candidate in Vancouver Hastings, has been vocal against racism, and faced it in the past while running for the board of directors at Vancity credit union. Likewise, during the 2017 provincial election, Bowinn Ma, the NDP candidate who was elected in North Vancouver-Lonsdale, and her rival Liberal candidate Naomi Yamamoto, saw their lawn signs vandalized with swastikas because of their Asian heritage.

While the victories and re-elections of some of these candidates sends a strong message to the bigots in our communities, this does not necessarily mean a permanent defeat of those spreading hatred.  

The loss of Toni Boot, a black female NDP candidate from Penticton, was heart breaking.  As Mayor of Summerland, she had passionately led a campaign against racism following vandalizing of the house of an Indo-Canadian family last July.  The house was targeted with hateful graffiti.  

Right now, when the whole world is celebrating the defeat of Donald Trump as a racist US President, our politicians need to focus on racism here in BC. Considering how anti-Asian hatred has spiked in Vancouver because of COVID 19 that broke out first in China and gradually spread across the globe, this challenge has to be taken seriously. All the sweet talk about diversity and Canada being tolerant won’t do. A lot of action is needed to end this menace. With a comfortable majority, the NDP must deliver on its commitment towards social justice.  It goes to the credit of this government for bringing back the human rights commission that was dismantled by the previous Liberal government and creating a post of parliamentary secretary for anti-racism initiatives, but the herculean task of flattening the curve of rising hate is still to be achieved.  

 

Gurpreet Singh  

On November 24, the world renowned author is turning close to 60, but isn’t giving up her fight for a just society.  

This year's birthday of Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy coincides with the incarceration of dozens of scholars and writers who are rotting in jails in the world’s so called largest democracy.  

Among them are some of her closest allies, like disabled Delhi University Professor G.N. Saibaba, and Anand Teltumbde, who was arrested early this year. Their only crime was daring to question the power, and standing up for the religious minorities and oppressed people who face state violence under a right wing Hindu nationalist regime.  

Attacks on minorities and political dissidents have grown ever since Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister in 2014. His supporters continue to hound Roy and likeminded authors and activists.   

Undeterred by threats and intimidations, she continues to write and speak against the rising tide of fascism.   

Her latest book of political essays confirms her unwavering commitment toward human rights and social justice. Azadi (freedom) presents the true picture of India under an extremely intolerant government, a picture that otherwise remains obscured by embedded journalists.  

She pulls no punches while challenging the tyrants occupying high offices in New Delhi, and speaks about the imprisonment of fellow writers. Not only has she become a voice for those detained scholars, but also for political prisoners and those fighting for emancipation in occupied territories, such as Kashmir within the Indian union. One of her latest essays is about how the poor and minorities are being made to suffer more under pandemic caused by COVID 19.  

In a nutshell, this compilation of powerful and thought provoking essays is a call for freedom from the shackles of a barbaric state, and the structural violence affecting marginalised sections (religious minorities, Dalits or so called untouchables, and Adivasis, the original inhabitants of India), and neo-colonialism, all in the name of the free market.  

In such hopeless times, we wish Arundhati Roy a healthy long life, so that her march goes on till there is an end to this seemingly long and depressing tunnel. At least gift yourself with Azadi on her birth anniversary, to show your support for her beautiful work, and to empower others by educating them about what has been going on in India.

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