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Gurpreet Singh  

July 28 marks 50 years of the extra-judicial killing of an 82-year-old former Indian freedom fighter by none other than the police force of his own nation.  

Bujha Singh, who deserved state honours for participating in the struggle to rid India of the British occupation, was instead murdered by the police for his association with revolutionary communist movement sparked by an uprising of landless tillers who've been fighting against the rich and the elites since the 1960s. 

Singh was part of the Ghadar party, that was launched in 1913 by Indian immigrants who lived in B.C., Washington, Oregon, and California to rid India of foreign occupation trough armed resistance. Later, it spread its wings and those who lived in faraway places such as South America also established branches. 

Singh, who worked in Argentina, was instrumental in creating a chapter in that country. Formally known as Hindi Pacific Association, it came to be known as the Ghadar Party after the launching of its official newspaper called Ghadar, which means "mutiny" in Urdu. 

The Ghadar Party believed in social justice and equality. Its members desired to establish a democratic, secular, and socialistic republic that provided equal opportunities to everyone with no discrimination against the poor or marginalized. 

Many Ghadar activists returned to India hoping to start an insurgency, only to face the gallows or life imprisonment. They did not get the desired support from the public, as the popular leadership of the independence movement was in the hands of moderates, who denounced political violence. 

Those who survived carried on their struggle even in post-independent India after the British left in 1947. Among them was Singh, who became a die-hard Communist. 

Following an uprising in the Naxalbari village of West Bengal by poor farmers, who claimed a right to the land, there was a campaign of police repression. People like Singh parted ways with the mainstream Communist parties to join the radicals. All reports indicate that he died in a staged shootout by Punjab police. From his perspective, India's independence was merely symbolic, really just transfer of power between the ruling classes of Britain and India. 

Influenced by Ghadar ideology, the revolutionary communists have continued their struggle.  

Half century later, the history of Singh is being repeated in the form of state repression of those who are in the forefront of this fight. Among them is a Telugu radical poet and political activist, Varavara Rao.  

The 81-year-old Rao has been recently tested positive for COVID 19, leaving his family and admirers deeply worried.   

In spite of old age and poor health, he was being held in Mumbai jail, then shifted to hospital only recently, after his condition deteriorated.  

Arrested in August 2018, he was thrown into prison on trumped up charges after being branded as a Maoist ideologue, accused of being involved in a plot to assassinate right wing Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi. These allegations have been strongly refuted by his relatives and supporters, who believe that all this is being done to stifle voices of dissent.   

Rao is among several known scholars and human rights defenders detained for merely standing up for the poor and marginalized, especially Adivasis (Indigenous peoples), who continue to face displacement from their traditional territories by the extraction industry looking for access to mineral-rich lands with the backing of the state. 

Maoist insurgents, fighting a class war, have been active in tribal areas, where Adivasis often take up arms due to the high-handedness of the police and security forces. The roots of their movement can be traced back to the bloody events of Naxalbari. Many Adivasis see Maoists as protectors in their fight for survival from barbarity of the state. 

Rao’s health condition worsened over the last several days, as the threat of COVID 19 hovers over badly crammed Indian jails. Despite many petitions and protests seeking the release of political prisoners under these extraordinary circumstances, the authorities have refused to release him on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. There is a a feeling among his supporters that the Indian state wants to finish him legally and send a message to the opposition.  

If this was not enough, India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) opposed the bail application for Rao, claiming that he was trying to take “undue benefit of his situation”.   

All this only reflects on India’s so called democracy.  Rather than trying to get to the bottom of the problem of social unrest caused by systemic injustice and inequality, the state is going after veterans such as Singh or Rao, to instil fear in the minds of political dissidents. And to achieve that end, Indian officials can go to any length.  

It’s a shame that Indian society claims to be respectful of its seniors, but remains indifferent to these horrific stories. The tales of these two men shows that the Indian system’s brutal side remains unchanged even as the disparity between the rich and the poor has grown over the past 50 years. There is no respite to the most underprivileged and underserved, despite tall claims of development and progress.   

*** 

Gurpreet Singh  

If the insensitivity being shown towards a senior revolutionary poet by the Indian state is any indication, the government of the world’s so called largest democracy lacks compassion.  

81-year-old Varavara Rao, a well-respected political activist and poet, has been recently tested positive for COVID 19, leaving his family and admirers deeply worried.   

In spite of old age and poor health, he was being held in Mumbai jail, but shifted to hospital only recently, after his condition deteriorated.  

Arrested in August 2018, he was thrown into prison on trumped up charges after being branded as a Maoist ideologue and accused of being involved in a plot to assassinate right wing Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi. These allegations have been strongly refuted by his relatives and supporters, who believe that all this is being done to stifle voices of dissent.   

Rao is among several known scholars and human rights defenders who are being detained for merely standing up for the poor and marginalized, especially Adivasis (Indigenous peoples), who continue to face displacement from their traditional territories by the extraction industry looking for access to mineral-rich lands with the backing of the state. 

Maoist insurgents, fighting a class war, have been active in tribal areas, where Adivasis often take up arms due to the high-handedness of the police and security forces. Many Adivasis see them as protectors in their fight for survival from barbarity of the state. 

Rao’s health condition had worsened over the last several days, as the threat of COVID 19 was hovering over badly crammed Indian jails. Despite many petitions and protests seeking the release of political prisoners under these extraordinary circumstances, the authorities have refused to release him on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. There is a feeling among his supporters that the Indian state wants to finish him legally and send a message to the opposition.  

If this was not enough, India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) opposed the bail application for Rao, claiming that he was trying to take “undue benefit of his situation”.  All this is in sharp contrast to what Indian Prime Minister stated at the beginning of the campaign against COVID 19. Narendra Modi had called for battling Corona (COVID 19) with Karuna (compassion), but seeing what Rao is being forced to go through, his actions do not certainly match his words. If Rao’s condition does not evoke Karuna then what does?  

In the meantime, the Indian government remains adamant not to release a disabled scholar and former Delhi University Prof. GN. Saibaba either.  

Ninety percent disabled below the waist, wheelchair bound Saibaba is being incarcerated after being convicted for life, after being branded as a Maoist sympathizer.  His only crime was that he has been raising his voice for the Adivasis and religious minorities. Although the UN had urged for his immediate release on compassionate grounds, the Indian authorities continue to oppose any attempt to bail him out.  

 

*** 

 

 

Indians Abroad for Pluralist India honoured New Westminster City Councillor Chuck Puchmayr with a medal of courage on Sunday, July 19, for bringing a motion against India’s highly discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).  

The medal was presented to Puchmayr by the IAPI President Parshottam Dosanjh and another member of the group, and prominent poet Amrit Diwana, at an event held at Guru Nanak Sikh Temple, Surrey-Delta.

The officials from Guru Nanak Sikh Temple and Abbotsford-based Banda Singh Bahadur Society also honoured him for his role behind Bhai Mewa Singh Day proclamation on the occasion.

Mewa Singh was the first Sikh political activist to be executed in Canada on January 11, 1915, for assassinating controversial Immigration Inspector William Hopkinson. Singh was a part of the revolutionary group that fought against the British occupation of India and racism abroad. Hopkinson was patronizing a network of spies within the South Asian community to weaken the freedom struggle and was complicit in the murders of two community leaders by a British agent inside a gurdwara in September, 1914.

Early this year, following the efforts of Chuck Puchmayr, the City of New Westminster unanimously proclaimed January 11 as “Bhai Mewa Singh Day”.

Puchmayr had moved a motion against CAA on March 9, but it was passed with a majority vote on July 13. The motion was approved more than four months later in a 5-1 vote, with one city councillor absent. The voting was delayed because of COVID-19 restrictions and public health emergency in the province. The motion makes New Westminster the first Canadian city to denounce the CAA, which blatantly discriminates against Muslim refugees coming to India from neighbouring countries, and only allows non-Muslim refugees to make India their home.

The law was passed at the behest of the right-wing Hindu nationalist government, under which attacks on religious minorities and political dissidents have grown over the last several years. Indian police continue to hound CAA opponents. 

The law violates India's constitution, which guarantees religious equality, and sparked angry protests all across the country. Demonstrations have been held in Canada as well, with Puchmayr attending one rally in Surrey days before the motion was tabled. 

The New Westminster motion is a huge setback for pro-India lobby groups, which have been trying to prevent it from being approved.

Puchmayr read out the motion, which asks the Canadian government to intervene. Speaking to the congregation, he acknowledged that this was one of the most difficult motiona, which eventually passed with the support of Mayor Jonathan Cote and his colleagues.

Others who spoke on the occasion included the President of Guru Nanak Sikh temple, Hardeep Singh Nijjar; the President of Baba Banda Singh Bahadur Society, Ranjit Singh Khalsa; the President of Sukh Sagar Gurdwara in New Westminster, Harbhajan Singh Atwal; and IAPI spokesperson Gurpreet Singh. Diwana also read out a poem dedicated to Mewa Singh at the event.

 

***

Gurpreet Singh

Ever since the Bollywood star tested positive for COVID 19, the social media is flooded with messages for his speedy recovery.

Amitabh Bachchan and three generations of his family, including son Abhishek and daughter-in-law Aishwarya Rai, and their eight-year-old daughter, were tested positive. This has obviously alarmed their fan following, as husband and wife too, like the family patriarch, have acted in the film industry.

The development has been widely reported in the international media, including CBC and Global, and Bachchan's admirers are publicly praying for his well-being.  

Though all this is understandable, considering the stature of Bachchan clan, there is a complete silence and lack of outrage over the inhuman treatment being meted out to people’s poet Varavara Rao.    

81-year-old Rao is not only a revolutionary Telugu poet, but a well-respected political activist. In spite of old age and poor health, he continues to be detained in Mumbai jail.

Arrested in August 2018, he was and thrown into prison on trumped up charges after being branded as a Maoist ideologue and accused of being involved in a plot to assassinate right wing Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi. These allegations have been strongly refuted by his relatives and supporters, who believe that all this is being done to stifle voices of dissent.  

Rao is among several known scholars and human rights defenders who are being detained for merely standing up for the poor and marginalized, especially Adivasis (Indigenous peoples), who continue to face displacement from their traditional territories by the extraction industry looking for access to mineral-rich lands with the backing of the state.

Maoist insurgents, fighting a class war, have been active in tribal areas, where Adivasis often take up arms due to the high-handedness of the police and security forces. Many Adivasis see them as protectors in their fight for survival from barbarity of the state.

Rao’s health condition has worsened over the last several days, even as the threat of COVID 19 continues to grow in overcrowded Indian jails. Despite many petitions and protests seeking the release of political prisoners under these extraordinary circumstances, the authorities have refused to release him on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. There is a feeling among his supporters that the Indian state wants to finish him legally and send a message to the opposition. 

Those who are really concerned about the health of Bachchan and his privileged family must not overlook the struggle of Rao, who is being persecuted for his advocacy of the underdog.

Unlike Bachchan, who has largely remained indifferent to the ongoing repression of religious minorities in India, individuals like Rao haven been putting their lives at risk for the rights of ordinary people. It’s time to stand up for real and not fake celluloid heroes.

Gurpreet Singh

 

The University of British Columbia has conferred an honourary degree on India-based social justice activist Teesta Setalvad.

An award-winning journalist, who played a prominent role in the campaign for justice for the victims of a state sponsored massacre of Muslims in 2002, Setalvad is among the ten recipients of this year’s Honorary Degree of UBC.

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 was instrumental behind her nomination for the degree.

The 2002 pogrom against Muslims took place in Gujarat, under the watch of current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was the state 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. One commission of inquiry later found that it was a pure accident, but Modi had blamed it on Muslims, inciting violence against the minority community. He had reportedly asked the police to look the other way and let Hindu mobs vent their anger on helpless Muslims.

Modi was denied visa by US until he became the 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 mobs led by Congress activists following the assassination of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. This was despite the fact that Congress claims 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.

***

 

Gurpreet Singh 

 

Today marks 35 years of the Air India bombings that left 331 people dead on June, 23 1985. 

This was the worst incident in the history of aviation terror before 9/11. 

Widely blamed on Sikh separatists in Canada seeking revenge for repression of Sikhs in India during 1984, the investigation and trial of the case culminated into one lone conviction of alleged bomb maker Inderjit Singh Reyat, who pleaded guilty of manslaughter.

Two other suspects,  Greater Vancouver Sikh millionaire Ripudaman Singh Malik, and Kamloops sawmill worker Ajaib Singh Bagri, were acquitted in 2005 for lack of evidence.

Bagri was associated with the now-banned Babbar Khalsa, a Sikh extremist group whose leader, the late Talwinder Singh Parmar, was said to be the mastermind of the conspiracy. He died at the hands of Indian police in 1992 under mysterious circumstances. Other potential suspects were never charged.

Ajay Basaria, the current Indian High Commissioner, has made a brief statement on social media condemning the incident. Due to COVID 19, most commemorative events are planned online; otherwise, Indian officials do not miss an opportunity to personally attend memorial services across Canada.  

India has been consistently raising this issue with Canada for years. The present Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the memorial site in Ontario during his 2015 official tour of Canada. When Malik and Bagri were acquitted, the Indian government had expressed its outrage.  

However, recent developments suggest that India has lost any moral right to talk about Air India in particular and terrorism in general.

Firstly, the Indian government gave visa to Malik to visit his birthplace late last year. This is despite the fact that until then, India has been accusing him of being a financier of the conspirators. In fact, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Ian Bruce Josephson declared that Malik's acquittal “was not a declaration of innocence” while rejecting his claim for compensation for losses incurred by him on his legal defence.

Secondly, Indian agents continue to attack certain Sikh temples that glorify Parmar as a martyr of their cause. Canadian politicians who often visit these temples are frequently blasted by pro-India lobby groups. If Malik’s acquittal is a yardstick for getting Indian visa, there is no point going after the supporters of Parmar, as he never got a fair trial to prove his innocence. He was rather killed in an extra judicial manner.  

Considering what India is going through under a right wing Hindu nationalist government led by Modi, what right has India to talk tough on terrorism? 

Modi himself nominated a controversial female Hindu ascetic to run for the office in last year’s general election. Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, a Member of Parliament from Modi’s own Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), was involved in a bombing targeted at the Muslim community in 2008. Close to 10 people had died and many were injured. Thakur, who was cooling her heels in jail, was given bail to run for the parliament.

If this was not enough, the BJP government helped in the acquittal of Swami Aseemanand, another Hindu ascetic involved in the 2007 rail bombing that left close to 70 people dead. Most victims were Pakistani Muslims. His proximity with Modi is well documented.

Notably, these two individuals did not meet the same fate as Parmar. Apparently, India treats extremists belonging to the Hindu majority differently. 

Even otherwise, terror attacks on Muslims and other religious minorities have grown in India ever since Modi came to power in 2014. All this indicates that India is blatantly patronising terrorism, which takes away its legitimacy to question other countries on this issue.

To put things in perspective, Indian government’s decision to give visa to Malik might have to do something with the shrewd politics of Modi to create a wedge between Muslims and Sikhs in places like Canada, where the two communities have come together to challenge ultra-Hindu nationalism.

Modi’s calculation might be based on the fact that the Sikhs were subjected to state violence in India under a previous Congress government. In spite of its tall claims of being secular, Congress had engineered a Sikh massacre in 1984, following the murder of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. Nevertheless, Modi repeated that against Muslims in 2002. He was the Chief Minister of Gujarat, which witnessed a similar pogrom after a train carrying Hindu pilgrims caught fire, killing more than 50 people. Modi had blamed that incident on Muslims, even though one commission of enquiry had established that it was a pure accident. 

Instead of shedding crocodile tears for the Air India victims and playing with their emotions, the Indian state needs to look hard at itself in the mirror. Blaming others all the time isn’t helpful. It’s time for India to change its ways and treat its minorities humanely. Either deal with terrorists of all shades alike or stop being selective. 

 

Members and supporters of Indians Abroad for Pluralist India (IAPI) held a rally for D.S. Bindra outside the Indian passport and visa application center in Surrey on the afternoon of Sunday, June 21.

An advocate and activist, Bindra has been named in a charge sheet filed by Delhi police against individuals accused of inciting violent protests against India’s discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which is unfair to Muslim refugees coming to India from neighbouring countries.

Bindra’s only fault was that he had organized langar (community kitchen) for the peaceful protestors in Delhi, in accordance with his Sikh traditions.

This follows the arrests of several activists, including Safoora Zargar, a pregnant woman, for raising their voices against CAA passed by the right wing Hindu nationalist government. This is in sharp contrast to leniency toward supporters of the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) who actually instigated hate and mob violence against Muslims. 

Canada-based IAPI came into being in response to growing attacks on religious minorities and political dissidents under the BJP government since 2014.   

On Mother’s Day last month, the IAPI held a car rally outside the same venue for Safoora due to COVID 19. The June 21 rally was also kept very small because of health emergency guidelines, and the physical distance was maintained by those in attendance.  

The participants held signs reading, “Serving Langar is not a crime” and “We stand with D.S. Bindra”, besides those reading, “No to CAA” and “Free Safoora”. They raised slogans against state violence in India. Since June 21 is National Indigenous Peoples’ Day, the rally started with a moment of silence for Chantel Moore and Rodney Levi, an indigenous woman and a man who died at the hands of police recently in New Brunswick.

The speakers were unanimous in their demand for freedom of Safoora and other political prisoners, and condemned the highhandedness of Delhi Police against Bindra. The Sikh activists who showed up felt that it was a direct assault on their faith, and came as a rude shock to the community which is grieving the military attack on their holiest shrine, the Golden Temple Complex by Indian forces 36 years ago in the month of June, 1984.

Those who spoke on the occasion included former spokesman of Gurdwara Dashmesh Darbar, Gian Singh Gill, the president of Guru Nanak Singh Temple, Surrey-Delta Hardeep Singh Nijjar, Sikh scholar Charanjit Singh Sujjon, independent Sikh activist Kulwinder Singh, prominent anti-racism educator Annie Ohana, well known progressive Punjabi poet Amrit Diwana, and IAPI members, Sayed Wajahat and Gurpreet Singh.

 

 

Almost three months after the killings of 25 Sikhs in a terror incident in Afghanistan, US-based independent researchers have come out with a theory that counters official narrative. 

Published by Pieter Friedrich, an analyst on South Asian affairs and Bhajan Singh, a well-respected Sikh scholar and an activist, Kite Fights: The Proxy Wars Behind the Kabul Gurdwara Massacre is based, on close scrutiny of media reports.

The attack on March 25, 2020 on a historic gurdwara was blamed on Islamic State. A statement reportedly made by the group claimed that it was to avenge the repression of Muslims in Indian-occupied Kashmir.

The bloody incident followed series of developments in India that help in comprehending real intentions behind the massacre.

The document which is likely to raise many eyebrows in New Delhi points out that the incident comes at a time when the  right wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government in India is facing international criticism for mistreating religious minorities, particularly Muslims.

In all probability, the attack was like a god-sent opportunity for the Indian establishment for reasons well explained by Friedrich and Singh.

Not only have attacks on Muslims spiked in India ever since the BJP came to power with a brute majority in 2014, the BJP government arbitrarily abrogated special rights given to the only Muslim-dominated province of Kashmir in August, 2019 shortly after winning a second term. Civil rights remain suspended in the disputed territory which has been turned into a heavily militarized zone to suppress any voice of dissent.

Notably, in February 2019, when 40 Indian paramilitary soldiers died during a suicide attack blamed on Kashmiri insurgents seeking freedom from India, the BJP goons started targeting innocent Kashmiri Muslims all over India. This polarization helped the BJP government to win a second term in the May 2019 election, riding on a Hindu nationalist campaign.

As if this was not enough, the BJP government passed a highly discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that only allows non-Muslim refugees in the country coming from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh.  

The Sikhs had stood for Muslims, both in the wake of the February 2019 suicide attack, and against the CAA. They helped Kashmiri Muslims stranded in other parts of India to safely reach their homes, and were in the forefront of the protests against CAA. The Sikh diaspora also came out to show its solidarity with Kashmiri Muslims during demonstrations held in US and Canada. This has not gone down well with the BJP which has an agenda to assimilate Sikhs into the Hindu fold. 

It is therefore logical to ask: why would Islamic extremists be targeting the Sikhs in Afghanistan? Considering the timing of the Kabul attack, it sounds less convincing, as such an act would benefit the BJP government more than the Jihadists.

It is not surprising that the BJP supporters had tried to defend CAA in the aftermath of the Kabul episode. They justified its implementation by citing persecution of Sikhs in Afghanistan. It was like trying to kill two birds with one stone, by pitting Sikhs against Muslims and turning international attention to what is happening with minorities in Afghanistan. 

Even otherwise, the founding fathers of  Radhtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu supremacist organization of which the BJP is a part, harboured expansionist designs in South Asia and always saw Afghanistan as part of the  Greater Hindu India which they always wanted to establish. The report explains this in detail, and tells us how India has invested heavily in Afghanistan to not only maintain its supremacy in the region, but neutralize Pakistan by sponsoring insurgency in Baluchistan. India often accuses Pakistan of aiding and abetting militancy in Kashmir, but its own involvement in Pakistan’s Baluchistan state is no different.

Pakistan’s decision to open Kartarpur Corridor in November, 2019. has further frustrated the BJP. Kartarpur is close to the Indo-Pak border. The founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak Dev, spent the final years of his life at this place. It was separated from them due to partition between Muslim-dominated Pakistan and Hindu-dominated India in 1947. Relations between the two countries have never been stable. Nevertheless, for years, Sikhs in India have been seeking direct access to its important shrines, including Kartarpur. By allowing visa free entry to Kartarpur through a corridor, Pakistan has won the hearts of the Sikh community, to the dismay of the BJP which continues to maintain a hawkish posture toward its neighbours. This is despite the fact that Pakistan itself has become victim of the Islamic terrorism it once supported at the time of the cold war era. According to the report, the group being blamed for the Kabul massacre is also targeting Pakistanis. Any argument to suggest their desperation to target Sikhs under such circumstances holds little water.    

Rather, with the BJP government in power, the Indian establishment has turned more aggressive in its policy to establish a permanent base in Afghanistan. Both countries have seen Pakistan as a common enemy, and hold it responsible for creating the Frankenstein monster of Jihadi extremism, to help the US against the Soviets, that eventually spilled over to India. For this reason, India has been supporting Afghanistan both militarily and politically.  

That the Research and Analysis Wing, an Indian spy agency, is active in Afghanistan is not a secret. It cannot be a coincidence that India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) was looking for one of the suspects involved in Kabul attack since 2017.

Abdul Khayum was from Kerala, India, and was on the NIA radar for being involved in multiple terror plots. Therefore, the possibility of its agents being complicit in the Gurdwara attack cannot be ruled out.

The report has drawn parallels between the Kabul events and those which happened in India and Sri Lanka in the past, using these to conclude how such killings have helped governments to patronize rogue elements to their advantage.

Those who are really concerned with what is happening in South Asia need to take time to read it thoroughly, with an open mind. One may agree or disagree with the interpretation of certain facts, but their authenticity cannot be challenged. As the report rightfully says, ”Official narratives, ideologies, and authorities must all pass interrogation to be deemed trustworthy and true”.

 

 

Gurpreet Singh  

When Vancouver City Council unanimously passed a motion to formally apologize for the infamous Komagata Maru episode on Wednesday, June 10, a section of the Indo Canadian politicians, ethnic media, and self-styled community gatekeepers were thrilled.

Before you make any assumption that the entire South Asian population in Greater Vancouver is delighted, it is important to recognize that not everyone is impressed.

After all, the City of Vancouver has let down those who have been raising their voices against the highly discriminatory and divisive Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) passed by the right wing Hindu nationalist government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

CAA is a poor copy of the Continuous Journey Regulation, under which the Komagata Maru was forcibly returned from Vancouver harbour in July, 1914. The Japanese vessel with more than 300 South Asian passengers had remained stranded in Burrard Inlet for two months. This was done as part of the racist policy of the Canadian government to keep this country as a “white man’s land” and discourage immigrants from India from permanent settlement in BC.  

While Canada has repeatedly acknowledged its mistake, the Modi government has passed the CAA, which openly discriminates against Muslim refugees coming to India from neighbouring countries. 

CAA only allows non-Muslim refugees from Muslim-dominated Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

There have been angry protests in North America, as a result of which Seattle City Council has already passed a motion against CAA. 

However, a similar motion brought in Vancouver by city councillor Jean Swanson was withdrawn after a pushback from pro-India lobby groups. So much so, the officials of Khalsa Diwan Society, which runs the oldest Sikh temple in Vancouver and has a glorious history of defending the case of Komagata Maru passengers, shamelessly opposed the motion brought by Swanson. 

It is pertinent to mention that the current leadership of the Khalsa Diwan Society is completely aligned with Modi, and welcomed him with open arms when he came to Vancouver in 2015. This was despite the fact that Modi has a controversial past. Thousands of Muslims were murdered under his watch in 2002. Modi, who was the Chief Minister of Gujarat back then, was denied a US visa until he was elected Prime Minister in 2014. Since then, attacks on religious minorities have grown at an alarming rate across India. 

Even though Modi’s Bhartiya Janata Party is known for its anti-minority stance and aspires to turn India into a Hindu theocracy, Khalsa Diwan Society did not find anything wrong in entertaining him, even though the  organization was established in 1906 by Indian revolutionaries to fight back against British occupation of their homeland and racism abroad, to form an egalitarian and secular republic.   

Ironically, the latest motion on Komagata Maru was moved by Swanson, who was left alone on the issue of CAA. Since she wasn’t getting support from others on the council, she decided to withdraw it. She was not the only city politician to face a ba cklash for taking a stand against what is happening in India. The City of New Westminster  also came under fire from Modi supporters when a lone city councillor, Chuck Puchmayr, brought a motion against CAA on Mach 9. That motion is yet to pass as the voting is delayed indefinitely due to public health emergency in the wake of COVID 19. 

If the City of Vancouver and those who claim to be passionate about the history of Komagata Maru really care, they should show courage to stand up against tyrants like Modi. Their silence is only strengthening the hands of Modi as anti-CAA protestors continue to be arrested and harassed back in India. 

It is always easy to talk about what happened in the distant past, but if you cannot challenge what is going wrong in the present, then there is no point in remembering our history which is being repeated with impunity.

In the meantime, no thanks to the City of Vancouver for buckling under pressure of a bigot who is governing the world’s so-called largest democracy and trampling the rights of minorities every day.

 

Gurpreet Singh 

This month marks two decades of the emergence of a Bollywood Diva.

Kareena Kapoor Khan’s debut, Refugee, was released in June, 2000.  Since then, she hasn’t looked back and continues to steal many hearts with her beauty and talent.

The span of her twenty-year-old-long film career speaks volumes about her capability to represent the reality of the changing cultural and political landscape of India.  

From her very first role in Refugee as Nazneen, a stateless Muslim looking for permanent home and settlement in Pakistan, to the last one as Naina, a tough British police officer hounding suspected illegal migrants in Angrezi Medium, released early this year, proves her strength as a versatile actor.

In between these two films, Kareena has completed a journey of showcasing characters, who could be anyone from an innocent sweetheart to a loyal wife, besides a villain to a historical figure.

Kareena has acted in more than 50 films. The list includes those in which she either made special appearances or played cameo roles. However, the variety of powerful roles she has played help in understanding India’s transformation from a tolerant to an illiberal society.   

To begin with, the story of Nazneen educates the audience about the plight of stateless Muslims from Bihar state of India.

Nazneen’s parents were uprooted when India and Pakistan were divided on religious lines in 1947. This was following the liberation of the country from British occupation, forcing Bihari Muslims in Hindu-dominated India to migrate to East Pakistan. When East Pakistan was separated from Islamic Pakistan to become Bangladesh in 1971, they were forced to migrate again, as they weren’t accepted in a fledgling Bengali speaking nation. They had no choice but to go to Pakistan,  as it was difficult to return to their roots in Bihar. So they took an illegal route to travel to Pakistan, with the help of human traffickers. Nazneen, who falls in love with one of them, gives birth to a child on the no man’s land between India and Pakistan, symbolizing the hollowness of false border lines. This makes her role relevant not only for South Asian audiences, but for a global viewership in light of the ongoing refugee crisis everywhere.  

Refugee came in the wake of tensions between India and Pakistan. With India accusing Pakistan of sponsoring terrorism within its territory, the film gave a message how humanity continues to prevail in the hearts of ordinary people on both sides of the border. It was a far better film than many others made during that time, to mainly bash Pakistan and evoke narrow nationalism. The currently ruling right wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) was in power back then and much like now, there was no dearth of filmmakers who tried to outdo each other to please the government in New Delhi.

The BJP is known for its anti-Muslim prejudices and often portrays Muslims in India as terrorists and Pakistani agents.

Refugee was first in a series of films revolving around the ticklish subject of Indo-Pak relations done by Kareena in a highly polarized environment.   

In 2003, another movie LOC: Kargil was released. This time, Kareena played Simran, the fiancé of an Indian soldier who died during the fight between Indian and Pakistani troops deployed along the Line of Actual Control (LOC) in Kargil area of Kashmir.

The actual events took place in 1999.  The movie was certainly not like Refugee, and glorified the Indian soldiers, while vilifying their Pakistani counterparts.

Simran was the depiction of a courageous woman who is willing to marry and live with a soldier in spite of the war threat. Her story is similar to real life war widows, irrespective of being Indian or Pakistani, who know how to live with dignity.

Then came Agent Vinod in 2012. Kareena played as a spy of Pakistani origin. Iram Parveen wants to live a peaceful life, but circumstances land her in the espionage business. More than being a diehard nationalist, Iram is someone who cares for humanity and dies in pursuit of truth without taking sides, by helping Indians from a potential terror attack planned by international conspirators.

Her prominent role in Bajrangi Bhaijaan, released in 2015, gives hope for a better future between the two countries. As Rasika, a Hindu woman, she comes to the rescue of a Muslim girl from Pakistan who is separated from her mother during a train journey. Despite being born in a rigidly religious family that hate Muslims, she encourages her lover to locate and reunite her with her parents in Pakistan.

Moving beyond Indo-Pak ties, Kareena has to her credit some other significant roles that revealed Islamophobia in both Indian and western societies.

She played Aaliya, a survivor of anti-Muslim pogrom, in Dev (2004). Aaliya loses her family in the violence engineered by right wing Hindu politicians and testifies fearlessly against those involved. The film was produced two years after the Gujarat massacre of Muslims in 2002. The current Prime Minister Narendra Modi was Chief Minister of the state when the violence broke out under his watch. The storyline of the film clearly suggested it was based on the ugly events of Gujarat.

In 2009, she played as Avantika in Kurbaan, which is about Jihadist terrorism, and how Muslims are being mistreated all over the world. In spite of the reservations of her Hindu family, Avantika marries a Muslim man and ends up facing betrayal from her husband, who is part of an Islamic extremist group.

In her real life too, Kareena has stood up against Islamophobia. Married to a Muslim, she comes from a Hindu family. Saif Ali Khan is also an established actor and has acted with her in number of films, including Kurbaan.  She had to face a backlash from BJP supporters for marrying Saif and adopting Khan as her last name. She later came under attack when the couple named their child after an Islamic historical figure, who Hindu right wing leaders accuse of being a tyrant.

In 2018, when she stood up in support of an eight-year-old-girl Asifa Bano, who was raped and murdered by Hindu fundamentalists, she was widely trolled on social media, risking the fate of her film Veere Dee Wedding.

Although she is not an activist, she has played as one in at least two films, which are worth watching to comprehend the problems being faced by Indians due to corruption. Both Gori Tere Pyaar Mein and Satyagrah came in 2013. She played as Diya and Yasmin respectively in the two movies, that came around the time when people were marching in the streets against corruption. Yasmin is a journalist-turned-activist who expresses her concern over the anti-corruption campaigners taking the support of right wing nationalist parties that are bent upon dividing society. Her role proved prophetic, as a year later Modi became the Prime Minister in 2014, riding an anti-corruption wave that completely blinded the voters about his brand of divisive politics aimed at turning India into Hindu theocracy.

At the time of COVID 19, when healthcare workers continue to face challenges, Kareena’s role as a doctor in Udta Punjab (2016) needs special recognition. Preet is a doctor at a rehabilitation centre in Punjab who loses her life at the hand of a drug addict. She also tries to expose those involved in the drug trade, putting her life in jeopardy and speaking passionately for those who struggle with their addiction. The movie faced censor cuts due to political pressure, as it showed an inconvenient truth about the complicity of police and politicians in drug trafficking.

There is a long list of her roles as a feminist and confident career woman, but her performance as a sex worker in Chameli (2004) and Talaash (2012) was outstanding. As Rosie in Talaash, she became a voice of thousands of sex trade workers who are killed with impunity all over the world. The story has a special significance for Canada, where thousands of women went missing and the police remained indifferent because of their involvement in the sex trade.  

Likewise, she has acted as a rebellion lover, who goes against the wishes of her family and rejects social and class boundaries to choose a husband or a life partner in Jeena Sirf Mere Liye (2002), Talaash (2003), Mein Prem Ki Diwani Hoon (2003), Jab We Met (2007), Yuva (2004), Kyon Ki (2005) 3 Idiots (2009) and Heroine (2012).

It would be an injustice not to consider her roles as Kaurwaki in Asoka (2001) and Dolly Misra in Omkara (2006). Kaurwaki was a historical figure who was the second queen of King Asoka of India. Kareena amazed the audience with her acting skills while playing as Kaurwaki, who influenced Asoka to give up his lifestyle as a reckless warrior and become a Buddhist.

Omkara was the adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello. Dolly Misra was an equivalent of Desdemona, murdered by her husband, who is made to suspect her loyalties by his detractors, including her estranged father. Kareena’s performance in the context of Indian society strictly governed by patriarchy and a  brutal caste system left viewers completely overwhelmed. 

Her exceptional performances as a villain in Fida (2004) and a person with speech disability in Chup Chup Ke (2006) were equally commendable. 

As she completes 20 years in Bollywood, a lot has  changed. With the beginning of the 2020s, one can expect Kareena to bring us more knowledge and entertainment in the backdrop of new challenges.     

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