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The Canada-based Punjabi media fraternity has strongly condemned the recent arrests of towering Indian scholars and the criminal case filed against a female photojournalist in the disputed territory of Kashmir.

On April 14, well known Indian authors and activists Anand Teltumbde and Gauram Navlakha were forced to surrender under motivated charges filed against them to suppress the voices of dissent.

Through their writings, the two men have been raising issues of state violence and repression of minorities and marginalized communities in the name of security and development.

Both men are published authors. They are among many other scholars and human rights defenders being incarcerated in Indian jails under a right wing Hindu nationalist regime.

Not only has the Indian government refused to release political prisoners in the light of COVID 19, it has forced Teltumbde and Navlakha to surrender. The calls for the release of all prisoners on humanitarian grounds under such difficult circumstances have been completely overlooked by the Indian establishment.

Over the weekend, the Punjabi Press Club of British Columbia (PPCBC) issued a statement condemning the unwanted arrests of Teltumbe and Navlakha and sought their immediate release. 

Earlier, the club had denounced the arrest of TV journalist Bhupinder Singh Sajjan by the Punjab police, and the filing of a criminal case against senior journalist Sidharth Vardarajan by the police in Uttar Pradesh. Both men have received threats from the right wing activists in the past. The police actions seem to be politically motivated, as these journalist have been questioning the people in power.    

On Monday, the club came out with another statement against the slapping of charges against a Kashmiri photojournalist under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).

Masrat Zahra has been accused of spreading “anti-national” propaganda on social media. Zahra is a freelance journalist who has been contributing to the Washington Post, TRT World, Al Jazeera, The New Humanitarian and The Caravan.

India-occupied Kashmir remains under lockdown since August 5. The journalists in that region are already finding it difficult to work freely and fearlessly. The PPCBC has been asking for the restoration of press freedom in the region since then, and has repeatedly expressed its concerns over challenges being faced by Kashmiri journalists.  

According to the club, these developments reflect very poorly on a country that claims to be the world’s largest democracy.

In the meantime, the club has also asked for an inquiry into the recent media reports about an Indian journalist being used by Indian intelligence to influence Canadian politicians. An unidentified journalist, whose wife and son are Canadian citizens, had applied for Permanent Residency in Canada. His application was rejected on the basis of his relationship with India’s secret agencies. The club wants the Canadian government to reveal his identity and look into the depth of the whole issue to establish the extent to which Indian moles have penetrated into media circles to prevent foreign interference.

***

 

On the birth anniversary of a towering social justice activist and an architect of the Indian constitution, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, members and supporters of Indians Abroad (IAPI) for Pluralist India took out a car rally outside the Indian consulate in Vancouver on Tuesday, April 14.

Ambedkar was born in a so called untouchable family, and faced caste-based discrimination in the orthodox Hindu society.

Despite many challenges, he grew up as a scholar who co-authored the Indian constitution that guarantees democracy and secularism and protects the freedom of religious minorities.

However, under a right wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government, attacks on religious minorities and political dissidents have sharply grown since 2014, when the party came to power with a brute majority.  The BJP aspires to turn India into Hindu theocracy and rewrite the constitution. 

Presently, under the garb of COVID 19 lockdown, minorities are being targeted aggressively by the police, while political dissidents are either being arrested or forced to remain in jail,  in spite of health concerns because of the global pandemic.  

Ironically, the Indian government has arrested the grandson-in law of Ambedkar on such an auspicious occasion. 

Anand Teltumbde is a well-known activist who is married to the granddaughter of Ambedkar.

He was forced to surrender under motivated charges for merely questioning the power through his critical writings. Demands for a delay in his arrest due to COVID 19 were ignored by the courts. This has outraged many within the Indian Diaspora. On one hand, the Prime Minister and the President paid tributes to Ambedkar, while on the other Teltumbde was sent into police custody. 

The Indian government has refused to release other political prisoners on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, including disabled Delhi University Professor G.N. Saibaba, who was also thrown in jail for raising his voice for the oppressed communities. 

In the meantime, Muslims and Sikhs continue to be demonized. The right wing media has been trying to portray them as spreaders of COVID 19, citing huge gatherings in their religious places, even as Hindus and BJP leaders too had several big congregations during the past several days. 

The IAPI had deliberately planned to take out a car rally to ensure physical distancing in the light of guidelines against gatherings of more than 50 people and for keeping a distance of two meters. 

Each car had a single occupant, except one in which the driver had his son as a co-passenger.

The fleet of cars bearing posters and signs asking for the release of all political prisoners, including Teltumbde and Saibaba, and to stop violence against minorities, halted outside the consulate briefly and left. No speeches were made and public address system was avoided on purpose.

Among those who joined the rally were IAPI President Parshotam Dosanjh, and Spokesman Gurpreet Singh, besides progressive Punjabi poet Amrit Diwana, Sikh activist Kulwinder Singh and a peace educator Susan Ruzic.

Two dedicated IAPI members Sandeep Modgil and Tejinder Sharma also participated.

IAPI was formed in response to attacks on religious minorities and political opponents in India under the current regime.

***

 

 

Yashveer Goyal has established himself as a role model for the Indian youth in sports and Information Technology, in spite of being born with a hearing disability. Now, he has come to the support of jailed Delhi University Professor GN Saibaba.

Twenty-year-old Goyal of Bathinda, Punjab was born in 1999 into a modest family, to a journalist father, Chander Parkash. 

Parskash first noticed the hearing disability when his child remained unresponsive to the loud sounds of firecrackers in the neighbourhood on the night of Deewali - the Indian festival of lights.

Goyal's undeterred parents brought him up with lot of care despite many challenges. Young Goyal had to face discrimination in school in a conservative society, where ostracizing of children with disabilities is very common. However, 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, Goyal was given a national award for the Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities in 2019, under the Role Model Hearing Impairments (Male) category.

Goyal has now started a campaign to raise awareness about COVID 19, and he has asked the Prime Minister of India to make arrangements for the release of wheelchair bound Saiibaba, who is being incarcerated under inhuman conditions.

Saibaba is ninety percent disabled below the waist and suffers with more than a dozen ailments. He was convicted for life after being branded as a Maoist sympathizer for defending the rights of Adivasis, or the indigenous peoples of India fighting against forcible eviction from their traditional lands in the name of development by the mining companies and the government.

Since the outbreak of COVID 19, the vulnerability of inmates like Saibaba, locked up in overcrowded Indian jails, has grown.  A petition has already been launched for the release of all political prisoners on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. Even the UN has asked for his immediate release.    

Goyal wrote 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”.

Warning the Prime Minister that Saibaba could come “face to face with death”, he has urged for his release before it is too late. 

***

Social justice activists came together on Saturday, April 11 to raise their voices for a physically challenged Delhi University Professor incarcerated in an Indian jail.

Wheelchair-bound G.N. Saibaba, who is ninety percent disabled below the waist, is serving a life sentence under inhuman conditions. His health continues to deteriorate because of 19 ailments and he remains vulnerable following the worldwide outbreak of coronavirus.

On Saturday, Indians Abroad for Pluralist India (IAPI) held a Zoom rally (because of a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people and strict guidelines for physical distancing), to press for the immediate release of Saibaba and all political prisoners under these difficult circumstances

Demand for the release of prisoners continues to grow across the globe due to the threat posed by the pandemic. Since Indian jails are overcrowded, a petition has been launched asking for the amnesty to Saibaba and others on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. However, the Indian government remains adamant and refuses to set him free.

Those who attended the rally included anti-racism educator Annie Ohana and peace activist and retired teacher Susan Ruzic. They both expressed their solidarity with Saibaba as strong advocates for human rights.

Ohana, who had organized teach-in for Saibaba at LA Matheson school in Surrey last month, is going to write a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on behalf of her students asking for his intervention into this matter. She warned that the current crisis is being used by big powers to silence the voices of resistance.

A Sikh activist, Barjinder Singh, also spoke on the occasion and said that the mistreatment of Saibaba has once again exposed the brutal face of the Indian state which has already been revealed by its poor human rights record. He pointed out that the Indian establishment continues to be repressive against minorities and political dissidents under the garb of secularism and democracy.

IAPI President Parshotam Dosanjh and members, Rakseh Kumar, Tejinder Sharma, Amrit Diwana and Gurpreet Singh also addressed the rally, besides Surrey-based independent activist PJ Lilley.

The participants held signs reading “Free Saibaba” and raised slogans.

The meeting was started with a moment of silence for more than 100,000 people, including doctors and health workers, who have died because of COVID 19.

***

 

 

Gurpreet Singh

The recent statement by BC’s Health Minister Adrian Dix commending the members of a group of Sikhs who have been donating blood for years in memory of those who were murdered at the behest of Indian state has missed a point.

While it has been widely welcomed by the Sikh community and rightfully so, the provincial government will be at pains to explain what prevented them from recognizing the cause that prompted the annual drive that began its journey in 1999.

Sikh Nation has heeded the call for more blood donations by Canadian Blood Services, which is grappling with a shortage of blood at the time of COVID-19. 

On Monday April 6, Dix said that he and many others across the country are “honoured and excited” by a new blood drive launched by the group.

Dix was speaking to the media during his daily press briefing in the presence of provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry. He welcomed the example set by these members of the Sikh community at a critical time. Although he acknowledged that the group launches one of the biggest blood drives in Canada every year, he neither identified Sikh Nation, nor mentioned the history of  the 1984 Sikh Genocide which is the motivating force behind the campaign.

Thousands of Sikhs were murdered all across India in the first week of November, 1984 by the state sponsored mobs.

The massacre was engineered by leaders of the ruling Congress party following the assassination of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. Years have passed, but Sikhs continue to wait for justice and closure. Barring one senior Congress leader, Sajjan Kumar, who was convicted and given a life sentence 34 years later, senior politicians and officials who were complicit in the crime remain unpunished.

Sikh Nation started its annual blood drive to raise awareness about the carnage in 1999. Since then, Sikhs come out in large numbers to donate blood in the month of November both in BC and other parts of North America.

Notably, their efforts have been slammed by the Indian officials several times. It is pertinent to mention that any reference to the 1984 Sikh massacre as Genocide has irked the Indian state, and pro India lobby groups continue to oppose Sikh Genocide motions being brought in Canadian parliament and legislative assemblies.

So much so, the New Democratic leader Jagmeet Singh was denied visa by the Indian government for supporting a similar motion in the Ontario legislature.   

While Dix’s statement takes into account the importance of such a blood drive at this time of health emergency, it glosses over these harsh realities. His silence over this inconvenient truth is not helpful. It raises too many questions, and the only possible explanation is that the BC government does not want to make powerful people in New Delhi and their agents in Canada unhappy. If the BC NDP government really cares for human rights and social justice, it should stand up against repression anywhere in the world; and if it truly believes that the Sikh community is an important part of our social fabric it must call spade a spade and send a strong message to the Indian establishment rather than getting into such meek balancing acts. 

 

Yashveer Goyal, who has established himself as a role model for the Indian youth in sports and Information Technology in spite of being born with a hearing disability, has now taken upon himself a mission to spread awareness about the coronavirus which has engulfed the entire world.

Twenty-year-old Goyal of Bathinda, Punjab has not only written a long poem to educate people to stay safe and be socially responsible, he has been going out to distribute flyers with a message on self-precautions.    

His poem notes that the coronavirus does not discriminate between the rich and the poor or between communities, and encourages everyone to fight it back jointly.

Goyal was born in 1999 into a modest family, to a journalist father, Chander Parkash. 

Parskash first noticed his hearing disability when the child remained unresponsive to the loud sounds of firecrackers in the neighbourhood on the night of Deewali- the Indian festival of lights.

Goyal's undeterred parents brought him up with lot of care despite many challenges. Young Goyal had to face discrimination in school in a conservative society where ostracizing of children with disabilities is very common. However, 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, Goyal was given a national award for the Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities in 2019 under the Role Model Hearing Impairments (Male) category.

Goyal, who also got a monetary award, has now decided to give back to the community in the time of crisis.

Parkash told Spice Radio that apart from raising awareness about COVID 19, his son is trying to help the poor and needy by buying them food and essential supplies.

He hopes that his son will inspire compassion and courage among the privileged youth who at times lose heart and try to indulge in substance abuse to overcome difficulties.

 

A former BC Premier who is also a known secularist wants Canada to stand up against a discriminatory law passed by the right wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government in New Delhi.

Ujjal Dosanjh told Spice Radio that India’s controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) violates international conventions on refugees.

He pointed out that since Canada and India claim to be allies who share common values, it is time that Ottawa should take this up with India.

The BJP government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently adopted the CAA, which discriminates against Muslim refugees coming from neighbouring countries, including Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, on the pretext of giving shelter to non-Muslims facing religious persecution in those places.

This has caused outrage as it goes against the principles of secularism and religious equality enshrined in the Indian constitution. The BJP aims to transform India into a Hindu theocracy. and the opponents of CAA believe it is a step in that direction.

Recent protests against the act in New Delhi had left more than 50 people dead. The victims were mostly Muslims. Violence against peaceful demonstrators was triggered by the BJP supporters with the help of police.  

Dosanjh, who has recently returned from a trip to India, had raised his concerns with the Indian press as well. 

A vocal critic of religious extremism of any shade, he was threatened and physically assaulted by the Sikh hardliners in the past. He has been writing columns on the growing violence against minorities under Modi even though he remains a well wisher of India. 

He said that CAA is a “deliberate destruction of the fabric of India”. He noted that the Modi government's actions go against the spirit of inclusion that was cherished by the participants of freedom movement.

Notably, Dosanjh’s maternal grandfather Moola Singh Bahowal had fought against the British occupation of India.    

Dosanjh also see similarities between Continuous Journey Regulation (CJR) and CAA. CJR was a racist law that was passed in 1908 by the Canadian government to prevent South Asian immigrants from coming to Canada. The Komagata Maru ship carrying more than 300 Indian passengers was forced to return under CJR by Canada in 1914. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has officially apologized for that episode in the House of Commons.

Dosanjh said that it is difficult to ignore what is going on under Modi and people like him sitting outside India have every right to be critical.

 

Gurpreet Singh 

Coronavirus, which has claimed more than 45,000 human lives across the world, may not be discriminating between races, but it has given an opportunity to bigots to scapegoat Chinese people and those with Oriental facial features.

The virus which originated in Wuhan, China has now spread to more than 150 countries, including Canada and the US. India, which shares a border with China, is no exception.

The disease has created a lot of fear, and with uncertainty prevailing because of lockdowns, economic crisis, and health emergencies in many parts of the globe, some vested interests are trying to capitalize on it.

All this has led to a spike in racism against the Chinese community, especially in countries like US and India. With extreme right wing leaders and governments with an axe to grind against China due to trade and territorial issues respectively, the hostility is getting out of hand. 

So much so, US President Donald Trump himself is inciting hatred against Chinese people by repeatedly describing COVID 19 as “China virus”.  Under such circumstances, Chinese people in North America are facing backlash.

In India, which has many longstanding issues with China, things are becoming more challenging under the right wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government that wants to turn the country into a Hindu theocracy. Attacks on religious minorities have already grown under this government ever since it came to power in 2014.

Apart from many BJP supporters calling for boycotting Chinese goods, people from north eastern states of the country are being targeted across the nation known for its cultural diversity. Just because residents of these states bear oriental facial features, they are taken as Chinese and being assaulted because of coronavirus.

A case in point is a woman from Manipur who was spat on in New Delhi – the national capital of India - by someone who called her “corona”. If this was not enough, Nagaland students were stopped from entering a grocery store in Mysuru. Such incidents have forced Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga to ask Prime Minister Narendra Modi to intervene and stop racial abuse against North-eastern people. He also tagged fellow Chief Ministers from other North-eastern states on twitter.

To be fair though, people from North-eastern states in India have always faced discrimination in other parts of the country. It’s a shame that the Indian mainstream has largely failed to embrace them adequately and have always seen them as “outsiders”. 

Caste-based prejudices, regionalism and religious divisions have existed in India for years. 

Nevertheless, coronavirus has made things more difficult, and Trump’s anti-China rhetoric has further fortified such hatred. With Modi being Trump’s ally and having a huge following, the trickle-down effect of such fear mongering is not hard to understand.      

 

Gurpreet Singh

In a post COVID-19 environment, where most of us are experiencing social distancing, self-isolation and near or total lockdowns, Future Tense comes in handy to comprehend the situation in disputed region of Kashmir.

Authored by Nitasha Kaul, a London-based academic and writer, it is the story of ordinary Kashmiris who continue to suffer from state violence in India-occupied Kashmir. It is the moving saga of shattered dreams and revenge against daily humiliation of Kashmiri Muslims at the hands of Indian forces.

The novel comes at a time when Kashmir is under lockdown since last August 5, when the Indian government unilaterally scrapped special rights given to the state under Article 370 of the Indian constitution, arresting local leaders on the pretext of maintaining public safety.  

The right wing Hindu nationalist BJP government claims that the act was necessary to stop terrorism in the only Muslim dominated state of India. Since then, Kashmir has been turned into an open jail, communication channels such as the internet have been shut, and leaders fighting for freedom and autonomy having been detained. These include political figures and activists who have been advocating for peaceful resolution of the problem of Kashmir, where people have been struggling for right to self-determination.

Kaul, an associate professor of politics at the University of Westminster, courageously testified in October before the US House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing where she strongly defended the rights of the Kashmiri people in her statement.  

Despite being Hindu herself, through her writings she has consistently raised her voice for the Muslims who are being persecuted in Kashmir by the Indian forces.

However, Future Tense does take a critical look at the struggle for right to self-determination. Kaul goes into the depth of many complexities of the issue, such as the marginalization of Kashmiri Hindus, class difference, social and cultural divisions within the Muslim community, orthodoxy and abuse of women.  

Kaul beautifully connects all these dots together in the story that brings two people together in conversation: Shireen, a Kashmiri Hindu woman whose family had to migrate mainly because of the threat to their community by the militants, and Fayaz, a Kashmiri Muslim man whose father was a former rebel.

Despite so much bloodshed and political violence with no bright future in sight, the novel gives hope through the characters that are resilient like real Kashmiri people, living under barbaric conditions imposed by the Indian establishment, with most determined not to give up their resolve for freedom.

Future Tense might help those privileged in relating their temporary inconvenience caused by coronavirus with the everyday experience of Kashmiri people , whose cries have largely been ignored by the outside world. The novel also depicts the conditioning of mainstream Indians who remain indifferent or insensitive to the aspirations of Kashmiri people and the reasoning behind their feelings of alienation. 

 

Gurpreet Singh

 

India’s Prime Minister, who is known for his oratory skills, recently urged the people of his country to fight Corona with Karuna (Compassion). 

In a highly emotional speech, he asked the citizens to provide poor and stray animals with meals in these difficult times.

The crisis of COVID 19 has created a lot of uncertainty for the most vulnerable, because of the lockdown imposed by Modi to maintain physical distancing and prevent the spread of disease which has claimed thousands of lives across the world.

However, the Indian government has refused to release political prisoners, including physically challenged Delhi University Professor G.N. Saibaba , who is incarcerated despite serious health concerns.

Wheelchair-bound Saibaba is fighting with numerous ailments and his situation continues to deteriorate. Yet his wife is unable to visit him in jail because of the lockdown. As If this was not enough, the jail authorities also denied her an opportunity to speak with him over the phone.

Saibaba was convicted in 2017 and given a life sentence after being branded as a supporter of Maoist insurgents. He was accused on motivated charges for merely speaking out against repression of Adivasis (Indigenous Peoples) in the tribal areas of India. These communities are being evicted from their traditional lands in the name of development by the mining companies with the backing of the Indian state. Since most of these forested areas are rich with mineral resources, the government has wanted to clear them off tribal populations. As Maoists have been active in those places, people who question the establishment over mistreatment of tribal communities are frequently labelled as Maoist sympathizers. Often the barbarity of the state compels indigenous people to join the Maoist insurgents in their class war.

In spite of calls for the immediate release of Saibaba by international bodies, like the United Nations, the Modi government has not relented. 

It is pertinent to mention that Indian jails are over-crowded, which is a cause of worry for not only the family of Saibaba, but many other political prisoners because of the threat posed by COVID 19. This has forced social justice activist Tushar Sarathy to launch a petition which has been signed among others by renowned author Arundhati Roy. 

Quoting the India Justice Report 2019, the petition notes that the national average of occupancy in Indian prisons is 114 percent of its capacity. It goes on to add that over 67 percent of prisoners in the country belong to the category of under-trial prisoners, who aren’t convicted yet and continue to face investigation or trial.

The petition has also given the list of some prominent political prisoners, including Saibaba.

If Modi really means what he says, then now is the time to release these political prisoners. After all, the Indian courts recently released several well-known right wing political prisoners owing allegiance to Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party. A case in point is Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur – who was released on medical grounds last year to fight  in the parliamentary election on BJP’s ticket. Now sitting as an MP in the Indian parliament, she was charged for her involvement in a bombing incident that left 10 people dead and many injured in 2008. The incident was aimed to terrorise the Muslim community, and yet she was given bail to run for the office. Modi himself supported her candidacy. By remaining indifferent to the worrisome condition of prisoners such as Saibaba and advocating for the freedom of a religious extremist, Modi has already shown his true colours.

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