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

When will Canada speak out for beautiful minds that remain behind bars in the world’s so called largest democracy? Featured

 

Gurpreet Singh  

 

It was the fall of 2018, a year before the last federal election in 2019 which saw Prime Minister Justin Trudeau returned to power with a minority government.  

He was visiting Surrey, which has a sizable Indo-Canadian population. At least two MPs of Indian heritage from his Liberal Party, Sukh Dhaliwal and Randeep Singh Sarai, represent different ridings in Surrey and were at the event hosting Trudeau.  

During his speech, the Prime Minister brought up the conviction of two Myanmar journalists and emphasised about press freedom. However, the oddness of the facts that were conveniently overlooked did not go unnoticed.  

It was September 4, 2018, almost exactly a year after Indian journalist Gauri Lankesh was assassinated in Bengaluru. She was highly critical of the right wing Hindu nationalist BJP government in New Delhi under which attacks on religious minorities and political dissidents have grown. She was murdered on September 5, 2017, yet there was no mention of that in Trudeau’s address on the eve of the first anniversary of the gruesome act that invited global outrage.  

Understandably, he wasn’t even told about that by his Indo-Canadian party colleagues, otherwise why would he not recognize such an important incident, in a setting within a predominantly South Asian community?  

Whatever may be the explanation, Trudeau’s silence on Lankesh's murder reflected very badly on his government, and on Canada which claims to be a human rights leader in the world.  

Today, when Trudeau is seeking another term, the situation has not changed. A number of Indian scholars and journalists are being incarcerated under inhuman conditions for questioning the power and challenging the policies of the BJP government.  

Among them is former Delhi University Professor GN Saibaba, who is disabled below the waist and suffers from multiple ailments. He was arrested and convicted under trumped up charges for raising his voice for the Adivasis - the indigenous peoples of India who are facing eviction from their mineral-rich traditional lands by the extraction industry with the backing of the Indian state.  

In spite of so many protests in Canada for Saibaba, Trudeau and others have chosen to remain quiet.  This is despite the fact that two MPs, Sukh Dhaliwal and Peter Julian from the ruling Liberal Party and the opposition NDP respectively, were given petitions signed by thousands of people. The petitions sought an immediate intervention of Canada to ensure Saibaba’s release on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, but nothing came out of it. Nor did the two MPs make statements in the house.  So much so, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, who is otherwise very vocal on human rights, did not respond to many requests to take up the issue until he came under heavy criticism for his indifference, sometime in November 2017.   

If this was not enough, Liberal MP Carla Qualtrough was approached with a letter signed by 100 residents of her riding of Delta seeking intervention on this matter. Since she is known for her disability rights advocacy and had been a minister for disability inclusion, we had high hopes from her. Her staff told us at the end that their solidarity is there, but the government wants to remain neutral.  

All these efforts could not melt the hearts of our politicians, irrespective of their party affiliations, for a physically challenged political prisoner.  

The story does not end here.  

Another jailed Indian scholar, Anand Teltumbde who had visited Canada in 2016, is also behind bars for his critical writings. The Indo-Canadian New Democratic BC legislators who met him during the visit refused to make a statement when he was arrested. They rather suggested that the matter be taken up with Federal NDP, since it was their jurisdiction. They couldn’t answer why, if that is the case, they go to events held by the Indian consulate, or why they have spoken out in support of India in the face of any terror attacks against Indian forces.  

These politicians need to be made accountable for passing the buck and doing nothing. If our MLAs cannot stand up for human rights in India because it’s a federal matter, while our MPs prefer to remain neutral, then where should we go? Why should we even vote for the people who are timid, either because of the fear of being denied Indian visa, or because of their loyalties with the government in New Delhi? What if we remain neutral as voters and elect none of them by staying away on Election Day? How are they going to take it?  

As of now, Canadian politicians should walk the talk. Instead of loving yourselves and making everyone believe that you really care for human rights, show some spine and speak out for all the beautiful minds whose place is not the jail or a graveyard, but outside, so that they can live with dignity and guide society through the crisis we are in. Lankesh is not going to come back, but at least make sure that those detained are released, while her killers are punished to send a strong message to those trampling free speech at the behest of a fascist regime.     

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