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

All eyes on New Westminster for a motion like Seattle’s against India’s discriminatory citizenship law Featured

 

Since early February, after Seattle city council passed a motion highly critical of a discriminatory citizenship law brought by the right-wing Hindu nationalist government in India, expectations have grown for a similar move in New Westminster.

The Seattle motion, introduced by council member Kshama Sawant, was approved unanimously.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in India recently adopted the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act, which discriminates against Muslim refugees coming from neighbouring countries—including Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh—on the pretext of giving shelter to non-Muslims facing religious persecution in those places.

The law blatantly ignores Muslims and only encourages non-Muslims to come to India from these Muslim-dominated nations.

This is despite the fact that not only non-Muslims, but even some sects of Muslims and atheists have been facing oppression in these countries. 

The CAA violates the principle of secularism enshrined in the Indian constitution.

The BJP government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is determined to transform India into a Hindu theocracy. Attacks on religious minorities, especially Muslims, have grown under the BJP government ever since it came to power in 2014.

There have been angry protests against the CAA all over the world.

Yet politicians, for the most part, have been silent in Canada, which has a history of the racist Continuous Journey Regulation, passed against South Asians in 1908 to discourage their permanent settlement in this country.

While Canada has already apologized for the Continuous Journey Regulation, it remains indifferent to the CAA, which is repeating that history in its worst form. 

Notably, Vancouver was the site of the Komagata Maru episode - the outcome of the Continuous Journey Regulation, designed to keep Canada as a white man’s country.

The Japanese vessel carrying more than 350 South Asian passengers was forced to return to British-ruled India from Vancouver's harbour in 1914.

Unlike Sawant, Canadian leaders have largely remained unmoved by these public demonstrations, apart from statements against the CAA by NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and former B.C. premier Ujjal Dosanjh, and Vancouver councillor Jean Swanson’s presence at one of the anti-CAA rallies outside the Indian consulate on January 26.

No motion like Sawant's has been passed in any municipal council or provincial legislature in Canada, let alone in the House of Commons.

However, New Westminster city councillor Chuck Puchmayr tabled a motion against CAA on the night of March 9. The motion has yet to pass with a majority, since the vote has been delayed due to the crisis caused by COVID 19.

While Swanson was expected to bring a motion against the CAA before Vancouver city council, she was forced to withdraw it, due to a strong push back from pro-India lobby groups and lack of support from other councillors.

Although New Westminster city council also came under pressure from the Indian consulate and supporters of the Modi government, Puchmayr went ahead with his plan to move the motion amidst tension. The council was initially supposed to vote on the motion on March 30.  It will now set a new date once the health emergency ends in BC. 

Notably, New Westminster has a sizable population of people of Indian origin who are really concerned with the developments in India.

Their hopes remain high as New Westminster has already started taking steps to become a designated sanctuary city where refugees can live without fear.

New Westminster has proved to be a leader in human rights and social justice in the past.

On January 11 this year, the City of New Westminster proclaimed Bhai Mewa Singh Day. This was in commemoration of a Sikh political activist who was hanged in New Westminster in 1915.

Mewa Singh was part of a radical movement launched by Indian immigrants in North America in the early 20th century against the British occupation of India and racism abroad.  

Singh was also a devout Sikh, who assassinated a controversial Immigration Inspector, William Hopkinson, in Vancouver in 1914. The incident was the culmination of infamous Komagata Maru episode.

This episode led to bloody clashes between the political activists and the pro-establishment faction in the South Asian community.  

As a result of this, Bela Singh, a mole of Canadian authorities within the Sikh community, went inside a gurdwara in 1914 and shot to death a revolutionary community leader, Bhaag Singh, and his associate Badan Singh.

Since Bela Singh was patronized by Hopkinson—who precipitated the conflict among local South Asians through his network of spies—Mewa Singh murdered him. 

Mewa Singh faced his trial with courage and conviction, and chanted prayers while being taken to the gallows in New Westminster. His testimony establishes that he took such an extreme step in response to racism and sacrilege of the temple. 

As a fitting tribute to Mewa Singh, who laid down his life fighting against racism, the City of New Westminster decided to proclaim January 11, 2020 as “Bhai Mewa Singh Day”.  

The City of New Westminster had earlier removed the statue of a controversial colonial era judge, Matthew Begbie, who had ordered the execution of six Chilcotin Chiefs in 1864 for the murder of 14 white road construction workers who were harassing Indigenous peoples.

Likewise, the City of New Westminster showed leadership in 2010 by becoming the first municipal government in Canada to apologize to Chinese Canadians for injustices of the past.

Will the city now stand up against India’s anti-Muslim law and pass the motion unanimously? That remains to be seen.

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