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

IAPI completes first year of its journey Featured

 

Gurpreet Singh

 

This month marks the first anniversary of Indians Abroad for Pluralist India (IAPI).  

Formed in Surrey, BC on July 8, 2017, IAPI was created in response to the growing attacks on religious minorities in India.

Ever since the right wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in India in 2014, violence against minorities has grown in the world’s so called largest liberal democracy.

It is only a matter of time  before the BJP government officially declares a Hindu state, as cultural and religious diversity remains under constant threat from the Hindu chauvinists who continue to terrorise Muslims, Christians and Dalits or those considered untouchables with impunity.  In light of the recent declaration of a Jewish state by Israel, and a deafening silence of the west, the possibility for a Hindu India in the  near future cannot be ruled out.

Under the current government in India, not only minority communities, but people from the majority Hindu community who denounce the ideology of the BJP, are also frequently targeted by the Hindu extremists.

IAPI represents various religious and cultural sections within the Indian Diaspora in Canada and stands for a pluralist and tolerant society.  Among those who came forward to establish the group were people of Indian origin from different faith groups. Those who participated in the first meeting included two Hindus, two Muslims, three Sikhs, two Dalits and at least one Christian. Others were atheists or free thinkers. They unanimously condemned growing attacks on minorities in India and resolved to raise a voice for a secular and tolerant India. They decided to hold a big demonstration against killings of Muslims suspected of carrying beef by the self-styled cow vigilantes.

It was also decided not to limit the focus of IAPI to criticising the BJP, but also to act like a watchdog against other political parties, to discourage them from indulging in majoritarianism. The opposition Congress, which has been involved in sectarian politics for opportunistic reasons in the past under the garb of secularism, must also take the blame for the gradual growth of Hindu fanaticism in India.

Though IAPI is yet to formulate its constitution and set up a governing body, the active members and cofounders include myself, Parshotam Dosanjh, Navtej Johal, Rakesh Kumar and Amrit Diwana. There are others who are not actively involved, but remain a big support.   

On July 30 last year, we held our first public rally outside Surrey City Hall. More than 50 people participated, including a significant number of women and children. Unfortunately, no South Asian politician showed up, while the media also ignored the rally.

A month later, IAPI invited Rana Ayyub, a courageous Indian journalist who had exposed the politicians and state officials involved in the killings of Muslims under BJP government in Gujarat in 2002. The current Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, was the Chief Minister of the state when the anti-Muslim pogrom was organized by his party. Ayyub had investigated the involvement of BJP leaders and police officers in these killings during a sting operation she did for Tehalka media group. She later published a book based on her undercover investigation.  Gujarat Files remains a popular book which has been translated into different languages. IAPI helped in publication and distribution of the Punjabi translation, done by an activist friend Buta Singh, who lives in India. She continues to receive threats for being critical of the BJP.

On August 12, Ayyub spoke at a Surrey Central Library event organized by IAPI. The program was held inside the room named after Dr. B.R. Ambedkar the architect of the Indian constitution that guarantees religious equality and freedom. He had forewarned Indians about a threat by the Hindu right to peace and harmony.

This time, the response was huge and an unprecedented number of people came to listen to Ayyub’s lecture. She was duly honoured by the group for her bravery.

On August 27, we held a rally at the Komagata Maru memorial in Vancouver. The Komagata Maru ship carrying more than 300 passengers from British India was turned back in July 1914 under a discriminatory immigration law that was passed to discourage Indian immigrants from permanent settlement in Canada. Those aboard the ship belonged to different faith groups. IAPI decided to hold one demonstration right near the memorial that symbolizes unity and diversity of the founding fathers of India, who not only fought against British occupation back home, but also racism abroad. The idea was to make people in the mainstream aware of unfortunate incidents taking place in India.

We marched from the Simon Fraser University Harbour Center to the Komagata Maru memorial, and stopped at the Indian Consulate where slogans were raised and flyers were dropped to let the Indian agents know what we want. Speakers from different religious communities spoke at the memorial and condemned the policies of the BJP.

On September 5, the world was shocked at the news of the assassination of Indian journalist Gauri Lankesh by suspected Hindu extremists. We promptly condemned the murder. Lankesh was critical of the BJP and had translated Ayyub’s book in Kannada, which made everybody in IAPI anxious about her safety. A day later, we held an emergency rally against the murder of Lankesh at Holland Park in Surrey. This time, other than Rachna Singh, the MLA from Surrey Green Timber, no other elected official showed up. (For the record Singh is my wife, but her decision to join the rally was her own.)

IAPI was also prompted to intervene on the Rohingya issue when the Indian government got embroiled into an unwanted controversy.  Thousands of Rohingyas were slaughtered by the military and Buddhist extremists in Myanmar, forcing many to flee to India for safety. However, the Muslim Rohingyas did not get a good reception in India. Several BJP leaders suggested that they should be deported. Some went to the extent of saying that only Hindu Rohingyas be allowed to stay back. This was in violation of the Indian convention of accepting refugees without discrimination. So much so, the Hindu fundamentalists also attacked Khalsa Aid – a Sikh humanitarian group that was helping the refugees languishing in various camps - on social media.

IAPI held a rally at the Holland Park in Surrey again on September 23 demanding that India accept all Rohingya refugees with open arms, without discriminating against Muslims, and show its support to Khalsa Aid. Not only Muslim activists from Myanmar attended the rally; Surrey Center MP Randeep Sarai, and Conservative Party supporter Harpreet Singh also joined the gathering. Sarai later wrote a letter to the Prime Minister forwarding the demands raised at the rally. Few days later, IAPI supporters joined a rally for Rohingyas outside Vancouver Art Gallery. 

On October 12, IAPI honoured a retired school Principal from Punjab, Swaran Singh Aujla, at an event held at Strawberry Hill Library in Surrey.

Aujla had located the family of Muslim Indian revolutionary Rehmat Ali Wajidke in Pakistan. Wajidke had died fighting against British occupation of India. His family had migrated to Pakistan following religious partition of the country in 1947. Aujla had served as the Principal of the school at Wajidke’s native village. He not only located the family of Wajidke in Pakistan, but also got the school renamed after the national hero. This was an important step to build cultural ties between the two neighbouring countries. The recognition of Aujla’s work also became important in the light of growing attacks on Muslims, whose nationalism and patriotism is frequently questioned by the BJP. IAPI presented Aujla with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Rachna Singh was the only elected official to be present on the occasion, while Parliamentary Secretary for Multiculturalism Ravi Kahlon made a statement in the BC Legislature to recognize IAPI’s work and the contributions of Aujla.

On December 2, University of British Columbia researcher Dr. Kamal Arora was honoured by IAPI for her study on the female victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh violence engineered by the then Congress government following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. MLA Rachna Singh and her party colleague Amandeep Singh from the New Democratic Party were in attendance at the event held at Strawberry Hill Library.

On December 9, IAPI held a rally to mark 25 years of the demolition of Babri mosque by the BJP supporters on December 6, 1992. The BJP continues to claim that the ancient mosque was built after destroying a temple that was originally built at the birthplace of Lord Ram, a revered Hindu god. This time, not a single elected official turned up at the event that was held at Holland Park in Surrey.

On February 4, 2018 IAPI held another rally at Holland Park in commemoration of political figures, such as Mahatma Gandhi and Lankesh, who were killed by Hindu extremists. This year marks 70 years of the assassination of Gandhi by the supporters of a Hindu state. Gandhi had invited the wrath of the Hindu extremists for standing up against repression of Muslims during partition. Most media outlets and politicians ignored it.   

On February 11, IAPI again held a rally at Holland Park demanding the arrest of Jagdish Tytler, a senior Congress leader involved in anti-Sikh carnage. Tytler had made startling revelations during a media sting about the killings of innocent Sikhs. Most speakers agreed that a prompt action was needed against Tytler and other Congress politicians, but the BJP cannot be allowed to take advantage considering its own controversial background. Though this rally received good media coverage, some of the TV footage was disturbingly selective, omitting the statements made against BJP. The rally was started with a moment of silence for Asma Jahangir, a human rights activist from Pakistan who had passed away a few days before. Jahangir always stood for the rights of minorities in her country. 

On February 18, IAPI held a rally in commemoration of the Samjhauta express blast. The rail service that runs between India and Pakistan and was started to strengthen relations between the two neighbouring countries was targeted by the Hindu extremists on February 18, 2007. The blast had left 68 people dead. Most victims were Pakistani Muslims. An equal number of candles were to be lit in memory of the dead at Holland Park, but due to cold weather and snow, the candles couldn’t catch fire. Once again the media and elected officials ignored the rally that was attended by several known activists.

On March 20, another rally and vigil was organized at Holland Park in memory of the victims of Chittisinghpura massacre and subsequent incidents. 36 Sikhs were murdered in Chittisinghpura village of Indian-administered Kashmir on March 20, 2000. The story behind the bloodshed remains a mystery, although it is widely believed that this was either done by the Indian army or by state sponsored Hindu vigilante groups to discredit Kashmiri militants who are fighting for independence. This had happened when US President Bill Clinton was touring India. In order to cover up the affair, Indian forces killed five local residents, wrongly accusing them of being Pakistani militants involved in the massacre. This was followed by the deaths of nine protesters in the police firing. Those killed were asking for justice to the families of the five people killed by the Indian forces. Since the whole episode left 50 people dead (including 36 Sikhs) IAPI lit 50 candles in their memory.   

On April 13, IAPI honoured visiting activist from India Teesta Setalvad. Setalvad has been fighting for justice to the victims of the 2002 anti-Muslim massacre. She was invited for keynote address on the relevance of the history of Jallianwala Bagh massacre that happened on April 13, 1919. Scores of peaceful protesters were killed in an indiscriminate firing by the troops on a peaceful assembly at Jallianwala Bagh public park in Amritsar in British-occupied India. The demonstrators had gathered to raise their voices against draconian laws and the arrests of leaders of the passive resistance movement against colonialism. Among those who died were Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. The Jallianwala Bagh story symbolizes secular unity. Setalvad’s great grandfather Chimanlal Setalvad had cross examined the British officer responsible for the unprovoked firing. The Indian authorities tried their best to block her visit to Canada by slapping false cases against her.

She spoke at length about the history of the bloody event and its relevance today under BJP rule that continues to muzzle any voice of dissent and threatens the secular fabric of the country. Following an impressive event held at Surrey Central Library, she was honoured with medal of courage.  Buta Singh who translated Gujarat Files also joined the event where the Punjabi edition of Setalvad’s memoir, Foot Soldier of the Constitution was released. Singh, who had translated Setalvad’s book, also spoke on the occasion.

On April 22, IAPI held a rally for Asifa Bano, an eight-year-old Muslim girl who was raped and murdered by Hindu extremists in Kathua region of Jammu and Kashmir in January, 2018. The crime was committed to instil fear in the minds of Muslims and force them to migrate out of fear. Clearly, sexual violence was used as a weapon to humiliate one particular community. A rally was held near Surrey Newton Library. Teesta Setalvad and Buta Singh also joined the rally that followed a presentation by both of them on rape as weapon at the library.

MLA Rachna Singh was the only elected official to show up. She later raised the issue in the BC legislature.

In the meantime, Teesta Setalvad was also taken to the Legislature in Victoria where she met Premier John Horgan and apprised him of the current situation in India.  IAPI also arranged an informal meeting between her and Federal New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh during the Vaisakhi parade in Surrey.

On June 24, IAPI launched the autobiography of Dr. Chandra Sankurathri who lost his wife and two children in the Air India bombing on June 23, 1985. The midair blast above the Irish Sea had left 329 people dead. The crime is widely blamed on Sikh separatists seeking revenge for repression of Sikhs in India.  Sankurathri had turned his grief into strength and started a charity in the name of his beloved wife in India. The foundation runs a free school and a free hospital respectively named after his daughter and son. Since the Air India incident was also an attack on diversity, IAPI decided to support Sankurathri.  In the absence of Sankurathri, who was in India, the book was launched by other victims’ families. Georgia StraightEditor Charlie Smith and former Globe and Mail reporter Robert Matas were the guest speakers at the event, held at George Mackie Library in Delta.

On July 22, IAPI held a rally at Holland Park to condemn the attack on Swami Agnivesh.  

Agnivesh, who is a Hindu reformist and vocal critic of superstition and Hindu extremism was assaulted by the supporters of BJP in Jharkahd.  The IAPI also condemned the vandalizing of the office of senior Congress leader Shashi Tharoor in Kerala. Tharoor was targeted for warning against the attempts of turning India into “Hindu Pakistan”.

The demonstration coincided with the first anniversary of IAPI. Elected officials and the media once again ignored this important rally, even though many of them were present at a festival that was taking place in the same park. 

Apart from organizing its own events, IAPI took active part in similar demonstrations held by Ambedkar Internation Social Reform Organisation (AISRO) in Surrey. AISRO has taken leadership in organizing rallies against growing attacks on Dalits or so called untouchables in India in the recent months. IAPI has joined them time and again to show its solidarity with them.  

IAPI has just started its journey and we have a long road ahead, and we will continue to raise our voice against bigotry in any form. Even though our numbers have never exceeded 50, or we haven’t received much media support, we are still thankful to few dedicated friends in media, politics and community for their continued solidarity. Considering that we have just completed first year, with limited resources, we are proud of having been successful in inviting real heroes from India, like Teesta Setalvad, Rana Ayyub or Buta Singh who continue to fight against real challenges on the ground. We are also proud of being consistently vocal against sectarian violence of any kind in any part of the world. Hopefully, our caravan will grow as we continue to march ahead.   

 

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