"if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen
the side of the oppressor." - Desmond Tutu.
Super User

Super User

Gurpreet Singh

Cofounder and Director of Radical Desi

 

Gurpreet Singh  

When the Indian Residential Schools were open in Canada, one of their mandates was to kill aboriginal languages to assimilate the First Nations into the body politic of a Eurocentric nation state environment. The survival or extinction of the languages of indigenous peoples still remains a very sensitive issue.  

But the Vancouver-based Dhahan Prize for Punjabi Literature has come a long way to celebrate both the Punjabi and the indigenous cultures simultaneously.  

Not only is the organization determined to promote Punjabi in Canada, it has taken upon itself the cause to strengthen reconciliation with the aboriginal communities that are struggling to keep their languages alive.  

Back in 2016, the organization honoured Punjabi author Jarnail Singh, who wrote Kaale Varke (Dark Pages), a fictional account of the impact of the Indian residential school system on indigenous communities.  This year, it has invited an indigenous author of the famous book, First Nations 101, as a keynote speaker for their annual award event in Surrey on Thursday, November 17.  

Lynda Gray is excited to be a part of the initiative.   

As estimated 250,000 indigenous children were forcibly sent to residential schools mostly run by churches, to indoctrinate them into Christianity. Once at these schools, they were forced to give up their own indigenous names and customs. Defiance would often invite punishments. The Canadian government has already apologized for this cultural genocide. Gray’s book becomes handy for anyone who wishes to learn more about First Nations. The second edition of her book with additional chapters came out this year.  

When the first Dhahan Prize ceremony was held at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC in 2014, it opened with a traditional song by Cecilia Point from the Musqueam First Nation.   

Barj Dhahan, the cofounder of the prize, feels that it is important to recognize that we are sitting at unceded lands belonging to the First Nations. 

“Just as indigenous communities are trying to preserve their languages that residential schools tried to erase from their collective memory, Punjabis, too, are struggling to save their language from extinction.” 

 

 

Gurpreet Singh 

November 16 marks the 107th martyrdom day of a towering revolutionary of the Indian freedom struggle.  

Kartar Singh Sarabha was executed in 1915 in British India for waging a war against the Empire while he was only 18-and-a-half years old.  

He was a part of the Ghadar movement that was started to liberate India from foreign occupation through armed rebellion.  

Sarabha had gone to the US for studies, and instead got involved in the freedom struggle among the Indian expatriates, who wanted to establish an egalitarian republic back home. He had returned to India in 1914 to help start the uprising with the help of the Indian peasants and soldiers working for the British government. However, the authorities got wind of the conspiracy and crushed it with an iron fist.  

The courts remained unmoved by the fact that Sarabha was of an impressionable age group and deserved some leniency. Rather the judges described Sarabha as the “most dangerous” in spite of being the youngest of those arrested. They noted that he warranted no sympathy.  

This was when India was still under British rule. Fast forward to 2022, when the Indian Supreme Court in a so-called free and democratic environment showed similar curtness towards a wheelchair-bound political prisoner.  

Former Delhi University Professor G.N. Saibaba, who is disabled below the waist and suffering with multiple ailments, is being incarcerated under trumped up charges for merely speaking out for the poor and marginalized and questioning the power.  

He was convicted for life in 2017 after being branded as a Maoist sympathizer.  

Even though he was acquitted by the Bombay High Court in October, the Supreme Court suspended the sentencing and denied him freedom. It has now listed the matter for hearing on December 8. One of the judges said that the “brain is the most dangerous thing”, when Saibaba’s lawyer requested for house arrest. 

The judge’s statement echoed what the courts observed for Sarabha years ago, and reinforced the position taken by the Solicitor General, who opposed the plea for house arrest.  

That the prosecution and the judiciary consider human brains as dangerous was true both in British India, and even today, when the people have their own elected government. It does not matter whether you are young enough to deserve capital punishment, or physically challenged enough to stay behind bars. Your involvement with any pro-people initiative is sufficient to provoke state violence, which only shows that whoever challenges the status quo and wants a change will be on the wrong side of the law. 

Much like the judiciary worked at the behest of the British Empire back then, it is dancing to the tune of their present political masters in New Delhi. So, nothing has really changed since 1915 , especially for social justice activists who continue to be detained under draconian laws, subjected to unfair trials, tortured or killed at will by those in power. 

As long as Saibaba is in jail, it’s better that the Indian politicians stay away from celebrating the legacy of Sarabha, and others like him who dreamed of a just society, and not just a country free of white rulers and governed by the natives.  

 

Gurpreet Singh  

When Shushma Datt started Rim Jhim (drizzle) radio, she was partly influenced by the rainy weather of Metro Vancouver to pick the name for her station. When she looks back almost four decades later, it does not feel the same.  

Once known as wet coast or Raincouver, the lower mainland is now constantly grappling with drought-like conditions and heat waves from summer through fall, due to climate change.  

As Rim Jhim celebrates its 35th birthday this month, meteorologists are reporting a huge decline in the amount of rain received around this time of the year. The daily Chaataa (umbrella) update on her radio is no different.   

Datt, who launched the Hands Against Racism campaign in 2015, has now created a space for discussions on environmental racism on both her stations, Rim Jhim and Spice Radio, taking her initiative to another level.  

Since environmental catastrophes affect racialized groups disproportionately, it has become impossible to ignore the issue.  

This coincides with the emergence of Anjali Appadurai, a South Asian climate justice activist, who challenged the Premier-designate David Eby for the BC NDP leadership. She was disqualified in spite of a very strong campaign. Anjali was interviewed by Datt for her famous TV show Women in Focus. Not only that, Appadurai also visited the Rim Jhim studio in Burnaby to participate in Hands Against Racism, which encourages participants to dip their hands in colour and leave a palm print on a white sheet of paper alongside a message against bigotry. “Everything for Everyone: Peace, Justice, Liberation, Love”, scribbled Appadurai.  

Throughout her leadership run, she did not miss an opportunity to talk about the seriousness of environmental racism.  

Other dedicated and vocal climate justice activists, such as Rita Wong, Peter McCartney, Alison Bodine and Donna Clark, as well as former Federal Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, have joined Hands Against Racism remotely since the beginning of 2022 by sending in selfies with hands up in the air. 

Wong is critical of controversial projects that are creating challenges for the livelihood of the indigenous communities. McCartney is associated with Wilderness Committee, and Bodine is a part of the Climate Convergence movement. Clark is a former teacher who is involved in civil disobedience against the cutting of old growth forests.  

With its anti-racism mandate, Rim Jhim marches ahead to make everyone look into the intersectionality of environmental degradation, which remains the biggest threat to humanity.   

 

Gurpreet Singh  

Close to the 38th anniversary of the Sikh Genocide, two Indian movies have tried to expose the reality of the world’s so called largest secular democracy. 

Laal Singh Chaddha and Jogi depict the state sponsored massacre of the Sikhs in the first week of November 1984, following the assassination of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. Both are produced by Muslim filmmakers Aamir Khan and Ali Abbas Zafar respectively.  

Thousands of Sikhs were murdered across India by the mobs instigated by leaders of Gandhi’s ruling Congress party with the help of police. In the national capital of New Delhi alone about 3,000 Sikhs were slaughtered.  

Khan is a prominent Bollywood actor, who had earlier produced a documentary Rubaru Roshni that deals with the same subject.  

Whereas Laal Singh Chaddha is a Hindi adaptation of Forrest Gump, Rubaru Roshni is an inspiring story of reconciliation between former Sikh militant Ranjit Singh Kukki and the daughter of a senior politician, Lalit Makan, who was murdered for being allegedly involved in the anti-Sikh pogroms.  

Zafar’s Jogi looks deeply into the complicity of the police machinery that openly sided with the goons that targeted Sikhs. 

Though a number of movies have been made on the horrific events of 1984 over the past three decades, these two films come at a time when attacks on religious minorities, especially Muslims, have grown in India under a right wing Hindu nationalist BJP government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.  

Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002 when Muslims came under attack after a train carrying Hindu pilgrims caught fire, leaving more than 50 passengers dead. The technique that was once used to eliminate Sikhs was applied against Muslims this time. While Modi was never charged, he was denied US visa until he became the Prime Minister in 2014, for letting this happen under his watch.  That the two Muslims chose to make films on the pain and sufferings of the Sikhs instead of the Gujarat episode and the current situation is heart-warming and shows how the two minority groups need each other.  

 

 

Gurpreet Singh   

India has reasons to celebrate after the first man of Indian origin has become the British Prime Minister. Considering how the British Empire once ruled the giant South Asian nation, and Indians had to fight to liberate their homeland from foreign occupation, this means a lot. That the Indians faced racial hatred as immigrants in the UK for years is another story.  

While everyone both in India and the Diaspora is congratulating Rishi Sunak, and rightfully so, there is a need to pause and examine what he truly represents, apart from the Indian identity.  

Sunak is a rich man who does not come from the working class of the citizens and immigrants of Indian descent in UK. Since he belongs to the right wing Conservative party, can we really expect him to stand up for them when it comes to systemic racism? Had he been from the more progressive Labour camp, we could have relied on him in addressing the issue which has been haunting Indian and other immigrants from across the globe. Things have changed over the years, with more people of colour joining British politics, and Sunak’s ascendance to the post of PM clearly reflects that. But it is nothing more than tokenism.  

History has been made certainly, but can Sunak make a change when it comes to decolonization? The British government has yet to apologize for the infamous Jallianwala Bagh massacre. In April 1919,  close to 1,000 people had died in an indiscriminate firing by British troops on peaceful demonstrators who had gathered in Amritsar to protest against draconian laws. With Sunak becoming the PM, expectations have obviously risen. We still have to see when the British government will return artifacts and relics plundered during their rule in India. It will be refreshing to see if Sunak delivers on these two ticklish issues.  

The way that supporters of the ruling right wing Hindu nationalist BJP in India are cheering the moment is hugely problematic. Since Sunak is a practising and proud Hindu, their jubilation sees no bounds. Sunak has every right to follow his faith and be proud of it; nevertheless, will he dare to challenge those in power in New Delhi about growing attacks on religious minorities under their government? Several reports suggest otherwise, and hopes are dismal. His critics within the South Asian communities apprehend that the Hindu Right will become emboldened in the UK under him, especially because his party is a natural ally of the BJP.  

For the record, this whole episode has also exposed the double speak of the BJP and its supporters, who did not let Sonia Gandhi, a widow of the former Indian Prime Minister the late Rajeev Gandhi, become the leader of India only due to her Italian heritage. This was despite the fact that she had spent years in India and gave her dues to her opposition Congress party. Notably, she too congratulated Sunak, even though the right wing Hindu nationalists did not show her similar respect and graciousness.  

Jubilation is fine, but it’s time to get real and make Sunak accountable.   

To Anjali

October 12, 2022

You are not just a name on the ballot

You are more than that

A flowing stream

A shady tree

A roaring ocean

A breeze of fresh air

The song of a hummingbird

The sound of the cricket in my backyard that gives me hope of a living earth

Your fight isn’t yours alone

You are an embodiment of a long awaited rain on a parched land of our dreams

 

- a poem by Gurpreet Singh  

Heartbroken

September 12, 2022

Gurpreet Singh 

It’s been one year now and there is still no response from her. Not even an acknowledgement for all those messages I have been sending her way. 

I am even losing interest in her Instagram posts. Often I prefer to take a break for days from social media, to overcome frustration caused by her indifference towards me. 

Earlier, I used to like almost all her posts and made sure to leave a comment beneath. But it’s not the same anymore. 

That might be true for others who have celebrity crushes which usually end up with disappointments, but I wasn’t expecting this, at least in my case. After all, I am not just another fan. I have written a book on her film career. 

My infatuation with Kareena started way back in early 2000s when she stepped into the Indian film industry. I always found her beautiful and attractive. Her flowing hair, fair skin, gorgeous eyes and charming smile were simply irresistible. She looked hot in any attire on the screen or for her photo shoots. 

I kept looking for magazines carrying her pictures and surfing for more on the internet. Even until recently, my day would begin first looking for news about her and images on my Iphone. In my early years, my cheeks turned red whenever she popped up on TV. Oh boy, will I ever meet her one day? Being a middle-aged man with wife and two kids has not stopped me from dreaming about dating her. Almost everyone in my life knows about my fondness for her. And why wouldn’t they, after noticing my Facebook posts and TikTok music videos I have make for her, much to the embarrassment of my family?  

I never missed any of her new films. But soon, being a political journalist, I began following her work more seriously and tried to see her performance, especially in meaningful movies, using a very different lens. With a changed political environment of India over the past eight years that urge turned even stronger.  

I have not succeeded in my attempts to interview her, or get her attention on Instagram where she remains active, but I was lucky enough to get pictured with her wax statue at Madame Tussauds Museum in London in 2014. My wife who accompanied me was kind enough to take a nice picture of me with her replica. I still remember Rachna teasing me and telling me not to be shy and hug the statue for a memorable image. Rachna has always been like that. A big hearted woman, who only wants my happiness. 

That same year, India elected Hindu supremacist Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Little did I realize that this year in history was going to redefine my relationship with Kareena.

I worked with an ethnic radio station as a talk show host in Surrey. The owners wanted me not to be too critical of Modi, as they did not want to annoy a new government under him. A fiery argument ensued, after which I quit, only to found myself more isolated within the South Asian community that rarely dared to challenge Modi, except during the recently concluded farmers’ protest in the streets of India.    

Ever since he became the leader of the world’s so called largest democracy, attacks on religious minorities, especially Muslims, have spiked. Film actors from the Muslim community were not immune to such hate. Not surprisingly, being married to Muslim co-star Saif Ali Khan, Kareena became a target of such madness.  

Born in a prominent Punjabi Kapoor Hindu family, she chose a man from another faith group to be her husband, despite him being ten years older than her  with grown up kids from his previous marriage. 

The early signs of impending intimidation and harassment started showing when they married in 2012. 

The followers of Modi, who was still waiting to become the future leader of India, accused Saif of luring her and forcibly converting her to Islam. That’s the argument they use to go after interfaith couples, particularly to discourage Hindu women from marrying Muslim men.

Undeterred by anti-Muslim hysteria, she adopted Khan as her last name, without giving up Kapoor or her Hindu identity. 

By the time, the couple was blessed with their first child in 2016, Modi was in power. Even though Saif and Kareena met him at a public event, following which Saif had showered unnecessary praises on the Prime Minister, they both came under attack for naming their son "Taimur", which means iron. The supporters of Hindu Right took it as an assault on their religion, claiming that it was the name of a Muslim conqueror, who some believe tormented Hindus.  

Kareena was brave enough to withstand pressure of changing his name. The story did not end there, and was repeated in 2021 when she delivered her second son. The child was named Jeh, meaning “to come”. This too was misinterpreted as short form of Jihad. 

Around this time, I had finished writing my book on her. Until then I had written several articles on her work and the challenges she was facing in a toxic environment created by Islamophobes in New Delhi. During the pandemic I began thinking of writing this book to let the world see her struggle. I was deeply disturbed to see the way she was ridiculed by the troll army which was said to be created by the IT cell of Modi’s party. 

I took out time to watch all her movies again, including those I had accidentally missed, and to take notes of her posts on social media on issues that concerned  humanity. She has been vocal against sexual violence with political undertones and also racism and police brutality. 

In 2018, she came under attack for standing up for Asifa Bano, an eight-year-old Muslim nomad girl, who was raped and murdered by the Hindu fanatics to terrorise the community of the victim. This episode was followed by protests all over the globe, including here in Metro Vancouver. Since then any innocent mistake she makes as a public figure becomes an excuse for the trolls to put knife on her throat. 

It was decided then that a book on her is a must. I called up a publisher in Chandigarh to see if he would be interested, after another one in New Delhi flatly refused. A few others did not bother to respond.  

The one in Chandigarh showed his eagerness. I sent him my manuscript a few months later, only to be kept waiting indefinitely. After a while, I messaged him to find why there was so much delay. My world was almost turned upside down when he asked me to take out political references. I had to tell him that those references were the reason why I have written the book in the first place. 

I then went to another publisher in Ludhiana and the book was finally out. My journalist friends in India launched it on her birthday on September 21, 2021 at a press club in Chandigarh in my absence since I wasn’t in a position to travel to India. They sincerely tried to promote it in spite of potential challenges from the Hindu Right.  

The book release was reported by several media outlets, and I had a copy sent to Kareena’s valid address in Mumbai through a well-respected journalist. 

Now I was anxiously waiting for a feedback from her. I remained hopeful that she would acknowledge it soon. That’s the best birthday gift a fan could offer a star. Or so I thought. 

Friends and relatives began sending me congratulatory notes, with some wondering whether she knows about the book launch, or any word from her. Some of her fans started approaching me through twitter to find out how can they get a copy? But all this only added to more uncertainty.  

The wait continued for days, while big media in India kept talking about daily activity related to her family, friends, parties and business, but not a word about my book. No serious review, except a few commentaries - less than five in number. 

Then I began messaging directly to her and her manager. A deafening silence followed. My best options now were to contact her father and a veteran actor, besides her actor sister. I requested both separately through Instagram to help me reach out to her so that my book gets some kind of endorsement. All these efforts remained fruitless. It was clear now that my book won’t get much attention from her, let alone the big media. Her single post about it would have generated huge interest, but that never happened. My only hope to connect with my favourite diva also faded.  

It is hard to figure what could be behind such disinterest, but I am guessing it has to do a lot with the vicious socio-political environment of the country under Modi, and its spill over effect on Bollywood. 

I have reasons to believe that she and people in her team are aware of my book. Considering that the book launch was reported by a few prominent newspapers in and outside India, how could her publicity handlers miss that? If they can be cognisant of gossip and rumours about her, how come they don’t know anything about my book? I have noticed how she has appreciated junior artists composing songs for her, or ordinary folks making her sketches, so why can’t she appreciate someone standing up for her in the face of direct threats from a powerful group of people? 

Muslim actors continue to get a lot of heat in new India. Maybe that explains her silence. Any small gesture from her to endorse my book, which is heavily political, is likely to invite the wrath of Modi supporters. Or maybe it is because I am not a famous writer, who does not have a  huge following, or maybe because my publisher does not have a big name. 

My disillusionment apart, we did a book launch in Surrey too. Among those who came and spoke were my radio colleagues, a prominent story writer, a filmmaker and actor, besides a few journalists and Rachna.   

I was deeply indebted to each and every one who showed up at the event, but Rachna’s speech shook me to the core. 

She had seen how I was battling through my writings to make people aware of the ongoing high handedness of the majoritarian rule in India, and how it has affected me, with not many in Canada paying attention. For her, my celebrity crush was rather a good thing as it gave me some fresh air in these dark times. She would have been happier if I had written more about my romantic feelings towards Kareena instead of focussing on political side of things. She revealed that she was told by many of her relatives and friends that I should stop making silly music videos of Kareena and posting her pictures on Facebook as they feel ashamed, but she took that in stride and preferred me to continue with all that for my sanity. Her concern for me that day was another reminder of how deeply she loves me. 

Honestly, I am heartbroken because my celebrity crush has snubbed me, but I have still won the battle by making a point of how Modi’s regime has made it difficult for Muslims and free press to work freely and how he has transformed India into a Hindu theocracy, where minorities and political dissidents are mistreated with impunity. This has greatly changed Bollywood, which was once a beacon of diversity and pluralism. If nothing much, the book has caused minor ripples within the community of her fans on twitter. They continue to talk about it, with some trying to outreach her team on my behalf. If anything gives me hope, it is the breaking of silence about the crimes against humanity going on unchecked under the garb of secularism and democracy in the country of my origin. 

My date with Kareena can wait, but any effort to make the Modi government accountable cannot.  

 

Gurpreet Singh  

 

It was Sunday, July 31, when some of us gathered outside the Indian Visa and Passport Application Center in Surrey, BC.  

The occasion was the martyrdom day of Indian revolutionary Udham Singh.  

Singh was executed on July 31, 1940 in London for assassinating the former Lt. Governor of Punjab, Michael O’ Dwyer, who was instrumental behind the circumstances leading to the indiscriminate firing on supporters of the passive resistance struggle against the British occupation of India, at Jallianwala Bagh Public Park in Amritsar in April, 1919. The protestors had come out to oppose repressive laws and the arrests of leaders of the freedom movement.   

We thought of giving tributes to Singh in an unconventional manner by raising our voices for political prisoners, especially well-known journalist and human rights defender Teesta Setalvad, who are being incarcerated for questioning the power under the current right wing regime in the world’s so called largest democracy.  

Setalvad was recently arrested on trumped up charges at the behest of the Hindu nationalist BJP government in New Delhi, for advocating for justice to the victims of the 2002 anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat.  

Thousands of Muslims were massacred in state-orchestrated violence after a train carrying Hindu pilgrims caught fire, leaving more than 50 passengers dead.  

The then-Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, had blamed the incident on Islamic fundamentalists, even though one commission of enquiry had found that it was an accident. Though Modi was never charged for inciting bloodshed, he was denied US visa until 2014 when he became the Prime Minister.  

Setalvad was detained after the Supreme Court of India accused her of keeping the pot boiling, while rejecting a petition challenging a clean chit given to Modi in the massacre by the Special Investigation Team.  

Since her great grandfather Chiman Lal Setalvad had grilled a British army officer who ordered the killings at Jallianwala Bagh, the rally in her support was held on the martyrdom day of Udham Singh.  

Organized by Radical Desi, the rally started with a moment of silence in memory of Vancouver-based Kat Norris, an indigenous activist, who passed away recently. She was a survivor of an Indian Residential School, a dark legacy of the colonial history of Canada.  

Since Radical Desi had invited Setalvad to Canada in 2018, close to the 100th anniversary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, it became important for us to stand up for her.   

She has been consistently writing and speaking out against state violence and majoritarianism of the BJP government, under which attacks have grown on religious minorities, particularly Muslims and political critics. If that is not enough, more draconian laws are being made and implemented to suppress any voice of dissent.  

The participants at the rally raised slogans in her support and asked for her release. We also held out signs reading, “Free Teesta” on the occasion. 

Little did I realise that the Indian government would soon be drafting a dossier on me after this action. The copy of the document describes Setalvad as someone “inimical to India”. While accusing me of being “in cahoots” with such forces, it mentions the July 31 demonstration at the very end. This is despite the fact that she is the great-granddaughter of someone who interrogated the butcher of Jallianwala Bagh and happened to be an associate of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, a towering scholar and social justice activist and the architect of the Indian constitution - something Setalvad deeply respects and follows in letter and spirit.  

During Setalvad's Canada visit in 2018, she had gone to the Komagata Maru memorial in Vancouver. The Japanese vessel carrying more than 300 South Asian passengers was forcibly returned under a racist and discriminatory immigration law by the Canadian government at the behest of the British Empire, which did not want British subjects of Indian heritage to settle in North America. The 1914 incident had galvanized the freedom movement and became part of the independence struggle. Also, she got herself pictured with the portrait of Ambedkar at Surrey Central Library. Even after being hounded by those in power, she never let her love for India, its people and diversity, die down. And yet she is being seen as part of “anti-India” forces.  

For the record, the founding fathers of the BJP had no role in the liberation movement. On the contrary they continued to work for establishing a Hindu theocracy. Some of their icons were involved in the killing of MK Gandhi- the giant leader of the civil disobedience. To her credit, Setalvad had compiled a book based on the documents related with Gandhi murder case. Beyond Doubt: A Dossier on Gandhi’s Assassination exposes the complicity of the Hindu Right in the entire episode.   

It’s a shame that a true patriot like her is in jail for doing the right thing, while those who are determined to divide the country on religious lines and openly violate the constitution are in power.  The 75th anniversary of India’s independence on August 15, which Modi and his cohorts are celebrating as Amrit Mahotsav (a carnival of holy water), is in reality a poison being spread in the garb of narrow nationalism, to instil more fear in the minds of minorities and to silence reasoning. It’s time to start another freedom movement for emancipation from Hindu majoritarianism, at least until all political prisoners, including her, walk out with dignity and Modi is unseated. Until then no celebration, or tricolour for me. This August 15 should go down as another black day in our history.  

As far as I am concerned, feel free to call me whatever. Honestly speaking, the dossier on me is like a badge of honour and I don’t care, but be fair to Setalvad, who is being punished for trying to save the nation from going to the dogs. Modi should actually be thankful to her for pursuing justice and avoiding a situation in which the coming generation of the Hindu majority will hang their heads in shame and apologize to the world for his crimes against humanity.  

On Sunday, July 31, South Asian activists came together outside the Indian Visa and Passport Application Center in Surrey, BC, to raise their voices for a detained journalist and human rights defender 

Teesta Setalvad was recently arrested on trumped up charges at the behest of the right wing Hindu nationalist BJP government in New Delhi for advocating for justice to the victims of 2002 anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat.  

Thousands of Muslims were massacred in state-orchestrated violence after a train carrying Hindu pilgrims caught fire, leaving more than 50 passengers dead.  

The then-Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, blamed the incident on Islamic fundamentalists, even though one commission of enquiry found that it was an accident. Though Modi was never charged for inciting bloodshed, he was denied US visa until 2014 when he became the Prime Minister.  

Teesta was detained after the Supreme Court of India accused her of keeping the pot boiling, while rejecting a petition challenging a clean chit given to Modi in the massacre by the Special Investigation Team.  

Since Teesta’s great grandfather Chiman Lal Setalvad had grilled a British army officer who ordered the killings of peaceful demonstrators in Jallianwala Bagh Public Park in Amritsar in 1919, the rally in her support was held on the martyrdom day of Udham Singh.  

The Jallianwala Bagh episode galvanized the freedom movement in India. Udham Singh was executed in London on July 31, 1940, for assassinating the former Lt. Governor of Punjab Michael O’ Dwyer, who was instrumental behind the circumstances leading to the indiscriminate firing on the gathering of supporters of the passive resistance struggle against British occupation of India. 

Organized by Radical Desi, an online magazine that covers alternative politics, the rally started with a moment of silence in memory of Vancouver-based Kat Norris, an indigenous activist, who passed away recently. Notably, Radical Desi had invited Teesta to Canada in 2018 close to the 100th anniversary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. She was honoured with a medal of courage at a public event held in Surrey that year.  

Teesta has been consistently writing and speaking out against state violence and majoritarianism of the BJP government, under which attacks on religious minorities and political critics have grown.  

The participants at the Sunday rally raised slogans in support of Teesta and asked for her release. They also unanimously demanded the scrapping of draconian laws being used to suppress any voice of dissent in India, and freedom for all political prisoners. They held out signs reading, “Free Teesta” on the occasion.   

Those who spoke at the demonstration included Coalition Against Bigotry cofounder Imtiaz Popat, who is a Muslim of Gujarati heritage, as well as Sikh activists Barjinder Singh, Gian Singh Gill, Kesar Singh Baghi and renowned scholar Puran Singh Gill. Others who addressed the gathering were Radical Desi supporter Harbir Rathi, leftist activist Parminder Kaur Swaich, prominent Punjabi poet Amrit Diwana,  well-known media personalities Gurvinder Singh Dhaliwal and Navjot Kaur Dhillon, and cofounder of Radical Desi Gurpreet Singh.  

The Honourable Justin Trudeau, 

Prime Minister of Canada 

Re: Public enquiry into the role of Indian agencies behind Air India bombings episode and related incidents 

 

Mr. Trudeau, 

I am a Canadian citizen of Indian origin, who grew up with ugly memories of the worst episode in the history of aviation terrorism before 9/11.  

I was only fifteen when Air India flight 182 was blown up above the Irish Sea on June 23, 1985, leaving all 329 people aboard dead. Around the same time, another blast at Narita Airport killed two baggage handlers. In all, 331 innocent lives were lost in the blasts caused by the bombs that originated from British Columbia.  

I was in New Delhi with my family to attend the wedding of a cousin when the news came, and still remember the heart-wrenching TV images of debris floating on the surface of the ocean.  

A year before, the national capital of India was rocked by anti-Sikh massacres in the wake of the assassination of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, who wanted to avenge the June 1984 military attack on the Golden Temple Complex, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs in Amritsar. The scars of the destruction of the Amritsar assault are also etched in my memory permanently. As we lived right in the city, we had seen first-hand the signs of devastation caused by the Indian forces. My own family of practising Sikhs was hurt by this sacrilegious action of the government. My father and myself turned deeply religious, although I gave up on my faith as I grew older.    

We were deeply concerned as the media began speculating on the involvement of Sikh militants in the Air India bombings. In fact, there were apprehensions of another pogrom. While nothing untoward happened, I feel that the community has lived under a microscope since then.  

As I became an adult and chose the profession of journalism, I began looking for answers in this series of incidents, ranging from the ill-conceived military invasion of the Golden Temple Complex to the Air India tragedy. I am therefore aware of all the conflicting perspectives on this issue. I have listened to all the different sides, and have felt the pain of the victims on both sides of the violence. While covering these issues, I never discriminated when it came to hearing out the stories of the victims of the state violence or the militants.  

I have been following the Air India case since 2000, when one of the former suspects, Ripudaman Singh Malik, was arrested. I worked with The Tribune in Punjab and was posted in Ferozepore, the native city of Malik. I had an opportunity to meet his extended family and his old classmates. What I came to know was that he was disturbed by the events of 1984, like many other Sikhs across the globe. Considering my own family background, Malik wasn’t an exception.  

That said, the innocent passengers and crew members on the two flights did not deserve this. Until now, the governments in Ottawa and New Delhi have tried to make everyone believe that this was the handiwork of Sikh separatists seeking revenge for 1984. Malik was subsequently arrested, but acquitted for the lack of evidence in 2005.  And yet the court refused to reimburse anything to him in 2012, saying that his “not guilty verdict” wasn’t a pronouncement of his innocence.  

Like many other media persons I had reasons to suspect the complicity of Malik and others associated with him. I kept criticising him and other potential suspects, such as Talwinder Singh Parmar, Ajaib Singh Bagri and Inderjit Singh Reyat. While Parmar died at the hands of the Indian police in 1992, Bagri was acquitted alongside Malik. Reyat is the only convict, even as the investigation continues and remains inconclusive. For doing that I had received death threats. Supporters of the Sikh separatist movement kept saying that Air India was done by the Indian spy agency R&AW to discredit their struggle and defame Sikh activists abroad.  

My only grouse was that the Sikh suspects whose names have repeatedly appeared in the media need to come clean. How come they have been charged if they are really innocent? Also, they have no right to use the Sikh community as a human shield. So much so, some claimed that with the acquittal of Malik and Bagri, the blot on the Sikhs has been removed, as if they represented the entire Sikh community.  

I was outraged over the fact that close to 80 children had died in the bombings. Those little souls had nothing to do with what the Indian state did to the Sikhs. They were only going to visit their families in India for summer vacation.  

In order to do some justice to the victims’ families, I traveled to Ireland to attend the 25th anniversary of the bombings and met many of them who had gathered there to remember their loved ones. I published a book based on their stories.   

In the meantime, many conspiracy theories continued to be floated around. A book titled Soft Target was widely quoted by the Sikhs. According to it, the Air India bombing was an inside job of R&AW. Soft Target went into many details of the association the suspects had with Indian agents. A group of human rights activists in Punjab came out with a similar suggestion, based on their own independent findings. I kept reporting that as well, and have always insisted that this whole incident needs to be looked into with an open mind.  A section of the moderate Sikhs and the victims’ families were also skeptical, and suspected the involvement of Indian agencies through their spies penetrated among the militants. 

One can conveniently dismiss all this by calling it propaganda, but the facts speak for themselves. Recent developments should make everyone revisit the whole affair to address these murmurings more objectively and critically.  

This should have been done much earlier, but it isn’t too late even now, especially after Malik’s mysterious murder in broad daylight in Surrey on July 14.  

Malik had recently become a supporter of the current Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. Earlier, he was given visa by the Indian establishment in 2019 to visit his home country, where he and his relatives met the head of R&AW.  As a result, he fell out with a section of Sikh separatists. But that is just one part of the story, as the Indian intelligence, pro-Modi media and his supporters have started pointing fingers at his Sikh critics, without looking into other possible scenarios. This is despite the fact that two non-Sikh suspects have been arrested in connection with his killing, and there is no word on motive. Circumstances suggest that this could be a professional hit. And that’s the reason why I am writing you this letter. 

Common sense demands that the investigators should look into all possibilities and rule out nothing.  

As of now, let’s examine who is going to benefit from this high profile murder. It’s easy to blame the Sikh separatists. So the question is, why would they kill someone whose murder can be conveniently blamed on them? Does it really help them or cause them more damage?  

In recent years, the Indian lobby has intensified its campaign against Sikh separatists in Canada, even though the movement for a separate Sikh homeland has lost its charm in India. Any violent action attributed to them in Canada only helps India’s ruling classes to polarize the Hindu majority, to strengthen their case against Canada for being soft on Sikh extremism, and help suppress any voice of Sikh dissent in terms of the stories of human right abuses and the fight for justice for 1984.  

So why not try to find out the real culprits, instead of going after the imagined ones?  

Let’s see who are trying to jump the gun? Among them are the right wing supporters of Hindu chauvinist leader Modi, who have taken to social media to suggest that Malik was murdered by Sikh radicals in connivance with Pakistani agencies, for writing a letter of support to the Indian prime minister. This makes no sense; the investigation in Canada hasn’t made any headway, while a number of Hindu and Sikh leaders who openly welcomed Modi during his 2015 visit to Vancouver haven’t met any harm. So how can we believe that?  

It is worth mentioning that most of these people have simply overlooked how the court explicitly denied Malik's innocence in 2012, and never questioned the wisdom of the Modi government giving him visa and access to no less than the head of R&AW.  

Unfortunately, until now the Air India inquiries either completely failed to look into this angle, or touched upon it very reluctantly, in spite of demands by several Sikh bodies. This only strengthens the belief that Canada is under pressure from India. 

With Malik’s death it has become highly important for your government to examine this probability with a sense of urgency. Your police have already exhausted energy and resources on the usual suspects. The Sikh figures such as Malik have already been subjected to investigation and trial. It’s time for a more specific inquiry to go beyond what we already know.  

A heartless government of India, that was capable of killing its own people in 1984, won’t think twice to engage elements  who could take 331 human lives if it suits them. After all, the Air India bombings eclipsed the cause of justice for the victims of Sikh Genocide.   

It has already been established that the Air India bombings were preventable, in the light of threats made by men such as Parmar. The least Air India or the government of India could have done was to cancel the flights for some time. But that never happened. Instead, the bombers were given enough time to conspire and execute their plans. Later, people like Parmar were liquidated by the Indian police when he fell into their net in 1992, which only shows an attempt to cover up something more sinister.  

Your government should step in before it is too late. Kindly ask the Canadian security and intelligence officers to find more about the unholy connections between the suspects, both dead and alive, and the Indian agents in Canada, at least for the sake of the truth. Right now, India's media and intelligence agencies are making too much unnecessary noise about the murder of Malik, and trying to trash Sikh activists in Vancouver. Canada needs to make them accountable for their own failures and the games they play to vitiate the socio-political environment of our country. Hopefully, you will listen to the voice of someone embedded in the community who has his ears to the ground.  

Gurpreet Singh  

Independent journalist and author of Fighting Hatred with Love: Voices of the Air India victims’ families.