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

Cofounder and Director of Radical Desi

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. 

 

Gurpreet Singh  

It was heartbreaking to hear about the passing away of a tireless activist from Greater Vancouver on July 7.  

Kat Norris, a residential school survivor and a strong indigenous voice, died at the age of 67, leaving behind a rich legacy of social justice advocacy.  

She was one of the allies of the South Asian community and other racialized groups in BC. Apart from standing up against systemic racism against indigenous peoples in Canada, she consistently stood up for immigrants and refugees.   

Back in July 2016, she was invited by Radical Desi to launch a petition asking for the restoration of the BC Human Rights Commission that was dismantled by the previous Liberal government in 2002, making BC the only Canadian province without such an institution.  The absence of a human rights commission made it extremely challenging to investigate instances of racism and human rights abuse endured by visible minorities.  

Norris came for the formal opening of the event held at Surrey's Strawberry Hill Library.  She was first to sign the petition that was finally submitted to the BC NDP government that came to power in 2017. Subsequently, the new government under John Horgan brought the commission back.   

On other occasions too, Norris came to participate in the annual anti-racism campaign started by a Burnaby-based South Asian radio station in 2015. Hands Against Racism was launched by Spice Radio on the birth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.  

Norris will always be remembered, not only by her indigenous community, but also the South Asians, like me, who are deeply indebted to her.   

 

 

Gurpreet Singh  

Zain Haq, a 21-year-old international student at Simon Fraser University, has gone into hiding to avoid Canada Border Services agents.  

His "fault" is standing up for humanity, which is under constant danger due to the climate emergency.  

Haq is one of the organizers of Save Old Growth, a civil disobedience movement for climate justice.  

Arrested a few times for being part of protests, he was sentenced to two weeks in jail for criminal contempt of court after violating an injunction against demonstrations at the site of the controversial Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. Now, the Border Service agents want Haq to present himself before them.  

Fearing arrest and deportation, he has made himself inaccessible, while his supporters are working hard to find ways to prevent that. After all, he is here on a study permit. A native of Karachi, Pakistan, he apprehends even more hardships if he is sent back to a much more intolerant political environment that is hostile to activism for change.  

It’s a shame that in a country which claims to be a global human rights leader, someone like him has to go underground, just for raising his voice against something that puts each one of us at risk.  

We shouldn’t need to remind our government that it’s a global problem. Not only is Haq’s home country of Pakistan facing severe drought, Canada too is burning. Last year alone, we lost more than 600 human lives in BC due to the heat wave. What crime has Haq done by joining a climate justice action movement? If Canadian citizens can raise their voices for such a noble cause, without fear of being uprooted or exiled, why treat Haq like a criminal or an alien? Decency demands that Haq should instead be treated with respect. He is our hero, and history will prove him right. It’s up to Canada - either do the right thing, or earn disrepute.  

 

 

 

Gurpreet Singh  

June 23 marks the 37th anniversary of the worst incident in history of aviation terrorism before 9/11.  

On the ill-fated date in 1985, 331 people were killed in the Air India bombings, which were 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 in 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. 

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 in 2019. This is despite the fact that until then, India had accused 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. If that was not enough, Malik’s brother revealed in a TV interview that they had an opportunity to meet the head of India's spy agency RA&W. Malik even wrote a letter of praise for Modi recently.  

Secondly, Indian agents continue to attack certain Sikh temples that glorify Parmar as a martyr of their cause. Canadian politicians who 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, who never got a fair trial to prove his innocence. He was instead 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 office in the 2019 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 died and many were injured. Thakur, who was cooling her heels in jail, was given bail to run for Parliament. 

Also, the BJP government helped in the acquittal of Swami Aseemanand, another Hindu ascetic, involved in a 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.  

But 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, the Indian government’s decision to give visa to Malik might have something to do 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. Modi repeated that tactic 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 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.  

As far as the Air India victims’ families and their self-styled supporters are concerned, such as the leftists and moderate Sikhs or the local Hindu leaders, they need to make Indian officials accountable for using the Air India tragedy to their advantage for all these years. After all, India created the toxic environment for such a tragedy in the first place, and then botched the investigation. This forces one to suspect the involvement of Indian moles within the ranks of Sikh extremists, as complained by those who believe in alternative theories. Until now, all these groups have been mocking the Canadian government and its politicians for being “soft on terrorism”. Why are they not rattling the cage now and asking the Modi government some hard questions? Why hasn't the pandering of people like Malik by the Indian state made them angry? It is better to boycott Indian agents, rather than let them fake tears and make hollow statements to show sympathy with the victims’ families, only to score a political point on behalf of their masters in New Delhi.  

 

Gurpreet Singh   

I have always been fond of books, but never before had I read so many in one single year. I have actually lost the count of those I read one after another, at times two simultaneously, during the pandemic.  

COVID 19 turned me into a book addict, compelling me to keep researching for them online and continue ordering. So much so, I reread some, and pulled out those I have been collecting over the years for my home library but never had time to go through.  

Around this time, I began reading Panchatantra, a collection of fables that many believe were written around 200 BC by a Hindu scholar, Pandit Vishnu Sharma. It is said that a king entrusted his three sons to Sharma, so that they could learn niti (policy making).  

One of the stories that caught my attention deeply was of the crows and owls. I could not resist relating it with some bigger and real events that happened in Canada and continue to affect us even today. Being a journalist by profession, I have a responsibility to look at any issue from different angles. The story gave me one perspective that I wanted to share, but was not sure if anyone would listen.  

The story goes like this: there was a bloody rivalry between two kingdoms, one led by an owl and the other by a crow.  

Crows were enraged over the continued killing of their tribe by owls during nights. Since owls can see in the dark, the crows were always at the receiving end in an event of attack.  

The crows decide to wipe out owls once and for all. They begin chalking out strategy, and eventually agree to infiltrate one of their own among the owls, spying on their activities to find an appropriate moment for their annihilation.  

As part of the plan, they kick out one member of their flock. Once this comes to the attention of the owls, they get carried away and offer him refuge. Despite some opposition by a few owls who remain skeptical, the owl king remains adamant and decides to take the abandoned crow under his wings.  

The crow is brought to the kingdom of owls and given a place to stay. The days pass, as the crow who is perceived to be an estranged tribe member, in reality keeps a watch on the daily routine of the rivals.  

The owls sleep during the day, and remain active at night. Their precise location is revealed, making it easier for the crows to know where and when to strike. After gaining the confidence of the owls, the spy flies back to its kingdom while the owls are asleep, and gives the signal for invasion. As a result, the crows attack the cave and burn all the owls alive.   

If you are Canadian and have been following the case of Air India bombings, you cannot help making connections. This particular story of Panchatantra clearly speaks in the same language with the saga of Air India. 

The Air India Flight 182 was bombed mid-air above the Irish Sea on June 23, 1985, killing all 329 people aboard. Around the same time, two baggage handlers were killed in a separate blast on the ground at Narita Airport in Japan. The explosions were caused by two suitcase bombs checked in at the Vancouver airport on flights headed to India. The incident is widely blamed on Babbar Khalsa, a banned terror group seeking separate a Sikh state of Khalistan. The authorities in both India and Canada continue to claim that this was done to avenge the repression of Sikhs in India.  

A year before the bombings, the Indian military had invaded the Golden Temple Complex in Amritsar, to deal with a handful of insurgents holed up inside the holiest shrine of the Sikhs. The ill conceived army operation left many innocent pilgrims dead. This had outraged Sikhs across the world, culminating in the assassination of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards on October 31, 1984. Her murder was followed by state sponsored massacres of Sikhs all over India.  

To make sure that I read everything right in Panchatantra, I was forced to scan once again Soft Target, a book that challenged the official theory of Air India. 

Its author, Zuhair Kashmeri, goes into many details of the conspiracy, concluding that this might have been the handiwork of the Indian spy agency RA&W, which wanted to discredit Sikh separatists in the eyes of the international community. RA&W had infiltrated agents among the Sikh activists in Canada, and had them target Air India, so that supporters of Khalistan lost all their sympathy and support generated because of the ugly incidents of 1984.  

As the years went by this alternative viewpoint gained more credence with some of the characters named in the Air India case, either turning away from the cause of Khalistan, or some starting to show inclination towards the Indian state. A few have already passed away. These include Talwinder Singh Parmar of Babbar Khalsa.  

Parmar was the alleged mastermind had died at the hands of the Indian police under mysterious circumstances in 1992. With his death, an important link to the investigation was broken, raising even more questions about the involvement of the Indian establishment.  

Ripudaman Singh Malik, a BC-based Sikh billionaire, was accused of being a financier, but acquitted in 2005. He recently expressed his outright support for the current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose Hindu supremacist party BJP is determined to turn India into a Hindu theocracy. Before that, Malik was given Indian visa to visit the country of his birth. His brother even acknowledged during a TV interview that they had a cordial meeting with RA&W chief Samant Goel. This is despite the fact that the judge who acquitted Malik - due to lack of evidence - had said that his “not guilty” verdict wasn’t a pronouncement of innocence.  

The word that strongly binds the two stories together is niti, which has become relevant today under a Hindu nationalist government. For BJP, this is like a mantra, a tenet which is more sacred than the relatively advanced and progressive constitution of India.  

Whatever was done to the Sikhs in 1984 under a different regime was clearly aimed at pleasing the Hindu majority for short term electoral gains, but benefited the BJP in the long run.  If the so called secular Congress government under Indira and her son-the late Rajiv Gandhi, who succeeded her as the next Prime Minister, could behave in a sectarian manner to target the Sikh minority, what can stop Modi from pursuing a divisive agenda far more aggressively? Thanks to Modi's use of niti by the think tanks sitting in New Delhi, the capital of crows stands exposed.  

 

*** 

 

Gurpreet Singh 

It was the summer of 2018 when I was visiting Berlin with my family. My curiosity for the history of the Holocaust was one of the reasons that took me there. 

Once we drove to the city from Frankfurt, where we landed for the first leg of our vacation to Europe, I began searching for any landmark associated with Martin Niemöller. Luckily, his house wasn’t far from the place we had rented for our stay. After locating it through internet, I went there, but to my disappointment the building which is now turned into a museum was shut for some kind of construction. All the signs  were in German, a language that is alien to me. There was no response to the phone number given on the website with information about it. 

Niemöller’s story had always fascinated me. A theologian and pastor, he is famous for his poetic quotation; “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me”.

Being a critic of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, he spent several years in concentration camps, including one in Sachsenhausen near Berlin, where we went for a day trip. 

Previously a supporter, he fell out with Hitler after Nazis began taking control of the churches. His opposition to the Nazification of churches turned him into an enemy of the state. 

Niemöller never looked back after that, and became an icon for human rights defenders across the globe. His transformation truly reflects his sentiments expressed in his popular verses which are frequently appropriated by civil rights activists even today.  

Incidentally, he passed away in 1984, the watershed year for the Sikhs in India. 

It was around this time that the Sikhs in Punjab were struggling for  extra-territorial rights and safeguards for their religious freedom and political autonomy. Their agitation largely remained peaceful, and the Sikhs make up only two percent of Hindu-dominated India, but they were unfairly targeted by the self-proclaimed secularist Congress government in the name of national unity, to win the upcoming general election by polarizing Hindus. Any campaign by the moderate Sikh leadership was either ignored or maligned in the mainstream media as separatist. The allegations are that the government secretly patronised a parallel militant leadership to both weaken the Sikh movement, and create suitable circumstances to go after the community to please the majority. Both the state controlled media and embedded journalists of that time attributed a spate of death squad killings of Hindus and political critics of the militants, to those inside the shrine. 

Exactly 38 years ago in June, 1984 the Indian army attacked the Golden Temple Complex in Amritsar, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs, to deal with a handful of insurgents holed up inside the place of worship. The ill-fated military operation left many innocent pilgrims dead and important historical buildings heavily destroyed. 

All other alternatives to make the militants surrender, through negotiation, siege or cutting water and power supplies, were avoided to make it appear like a spectacular victory over one group of people. On October 31, 1984, the bloodshed culminated into the murder of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, who were outraged by the events of Amritsar. Following her assassination, the Congress party orchestrated a massacre of Sikhs all over India. In New Delhi alone nearly 3,000 Sikhs were slaughtered by the mobs with the help of police.

Riding an anti-Sikh wave, Indira’s son Rajiv Gandhi, who was complicit in the pogroms, won the next election with a huge mandate. He became Prime Minister, leaving little doubt about the real intentions behind the government targeting a particular community. The privileged majority remained indifferent to such blatant repression. Even the so-called liberals looked away, as they considered and still see Congress as a sacred cow. They very conveniently overlooked the grievances of the Sikhs. Rather than standing up for an aggrieved minority or doing anything meaningful to assuage their hurt, they were carried away by the one sided propaganda of the Congress party.  

It has been well documented that supporters of the Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) that currently governs India also relished the sufferings of the Sikh community. Some of them openly justified the actions of the Congress government, while others joined in the massacre. That explains why the Congress won a brute majority, leaving the BJP with only two seats in the parliament, while Congress bagged more than 400.  

Fast forward to February, 2002 when Gujarat witnessed its worst Muslim massacre on the watch of then-Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Thousands of Muslims were killed by mobs led by BJP activists in the state, after a train carrying Hindu pilgrims caught fire leaving more than 50 passengers dead. Modi, who is now the Prime Minister and leads the BJP government in New Delhi with a comfortable majority, had blamed the incident on Islamic fundamentalists, inciting Hindus to go after Muslims. 

Though he was never charged, the survivors continue to allege his involvement. The pattern of violence was similar to the one observed in 1984. Modi was re-elected with more seats in the assembly election that followed, and he was able to sustain his rule in Gujarat. This gave him an edge over other leaders of the BJP, gradually turning him into a potential candidate for the post of Prime Minister in the 2014 parliamentary election. 

In the meantime, the BJP continued to do its spade work by indulging in divisive politics to ensure his ascendance. In 2008, an anti-Christian massacre rocked the state of Odisha, where a controversial Hindu preacher was killed by Maoist insurgents. Looking for an opportunity to teach Christian missionaries a lesson for their work in the tribal community, the BJP supporters blamed them. The BJP has always accused missionaries of converting Hindus through fraudulent means, although India’s traditional secular conventions allowed people to change their religion. The fact remains that most poor and marginalized sections of India, especially Dalits or the so-called untouchables, and Adivasis or the indigenous peoples, often become Christians by choice to avoid caste-based persecution within the Hindu society. 

Emboldened by the majoritarian support for all these years, the  BJP knew exactly what they were doing. They were able to muster enough numbers to ensure outstanding wins for Modi, first in 2014 and then in 2019.  Notably, Modi did not lose the second election even though attacks on religious minorities and political dissidents grew under him. 

Back in Berlin, I was wondering where Indian society has gone since 1984. Here we could hardly see any residue of the Nazi era being celebrated, whereas India has gone backward in spite of tall claims of diversity. The Nazis actually have become the mainstream in India and live among its citizens. This should not surprise anyone, as the founders of the Hindu supremacist cultural organization Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), of which the BJP is a part, had glorified Hitler and justified the Jewish holocaust. Inspired by Nazism, they have spent years to transform India into a Hindu theocracy through social engineering; today, not just the Sikhs, but everyone is in danger. Had others stood up for the Sikhs in 1984, the fate of contemporary India would have been different. I wish Niemöller was alive to see this and relate it with his own experiences, to guide us all. 

One after another, minorities were assaulted with impunity, paving the way for Modi to take over India. Muslims and Christians have been turned into second class citizens, while the Sikhs face a challenge of assimilation into the Hindu body politic. The RSS has never acknowledged the distinct identity of the Sikhs, whom it vehemently considers part of the Hindu fold, something that triggered anxiety among the Sikhs during the 1980s, forcing some to take up arms in the first place. Dalits and Adivasis, who have endured systemic discrimination for centuries, have become even more vulnerable in Hinduized India. Under these circumstances, a reasonable or liberal Hindu voice from the dominant society isn’t safe either. Those who dare to question Modi or the RSS can end up being eliminated or thrown in jail on trumped up charges. 

It’s time to learn something from the legacy of Niemöller. If there is any take away from that, it is the lesson of getting united to fight back for everyone, and not leaving others in harm’s way, before it is too late. 

 

 

Gurpreet Singh  

As we mark the first anniversary of the discovery of 215 unmarked graves near the site of the former Indian Residential School in Kamloops last year, we need to acknowledge how the so-called system of educating Indigenous kids in the name of assimilation has actually contributed to the climate emergency.  

Indian Residential schools were opened by the colonists and churches to force Indigenous children to give up their culture, and instead adopt Eurocentric ways and Christianity to fit in.   

These laboratories of cultural genocide , as they should actually be called instead of schools, forced the original inhabitants of Turtle Island to alter their world view which was treated as pagan. The self-proclaimed founders of Canada arrogantly rejected many progressive ideas of the First Nations, such as to treat land as a shared space rather than personal property, and to respect the Mother Earth, water and nature, alongside all living creatures. Instead, they thrust their own hierarchal and individualist ethos on First Nations.  

If Europeans, who became a dominant force in Canada as it evolved, had come with humility to learn from the indigenous population, instead of imposing their way of thinking, the world would not have been dealing today with a climate emergency.  

Last year’s discovery of the unmarked graves coincided with the heat dome that left more than 500 deaths in BC. This exposed not only that has capitalism failed to prevent catastrophes, but has created them in the first place, making the survival of humanity more difficult.  

Let’s face it - climate change and greenhouse gas emissions are the result of capitalist greed, which prompted expansionism and imperialism, bringing Europeans to the doors of Canada, which was gifted with abundant forests, clean drinking water and wildlife. An effort was needed to preserve all this for future generations, but the resource-hungry and business-oriented colonists conveniently overlooked any possibility of a sustainable model of development, and exploited everything to fill their chests.    

The church made their task easier, giving the conquerors legitimacy to occupy everything through papal bulls, such as terra nullius - a licence to assume this was nobody’s land - and creating a baseless "Doctrine of Discovery" as if neither the lives or the values of indigenous peoples matter.  

Let’s hold our elected officials accountable for making tokenistic statements on this occasion, while at the same time allowing controversial projects, such as the Site C dam, Coastal Gaslink, and Trans Mountain pipeline, to be pushed through the IIndigenous lands, rendering the environment even more vulnerable.  

It’s time to give leadership into the hands of the First Nations, who alone can bring us out of this crisis. Being closely connected to nature, they can come up with better solutions that can only be found outside the box. That’s the least we can do to undo the damage caused by Indian Residential Schools and those behind this assimilationist strategy.  

***

 

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