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If recent developments in Canada are any indication, white supremacy is on the rise in this country.

 

Members of the alt-right group Soldiers of Odin disrupted the annual International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination March, held on Saturday at Thornton Park in Vancouver. 

 

This was the second year in a row that the white nationalists disrupted the annual march in the presence of the police.

 

The Coalition Against Bigotry, one of the organizers of the annual march, has complained that laxity of the police is giving legitimacy to such groups. Last year, the same group tried to take over the center stage of the event while the police looked on.

 

Some witnesses claim that at least 14 members of the Soldiers of Odin came to disrupt the march this year.

 

The organizers feel that Canadian politicians and the police have failed to check the growing activities of white supremacists ever since the election of Donald Trump as US President.

 

Statistics Canada has already noticed a spike in hate crimes across BC.  

 

If this was not enough, a Sikh man was attacked in Ottawa last Friday. The two white men involved in the incident stole his turban and hurled racial abuses at him. The attackers also stole his wallet and bus pass.

 

In the meantime, the suspect in last year’s Quebec mosque shooting that left six people dead has pleaded not guilty. Alexandre Bissonnette, who was a supporter of far right leaders, including Trump is facing six first degree murder charges. 

 

 

 

Facebook has blocked Punjab-based Suhi Sahver, a website that covers alternative politics, allegedly under pressure from supporters of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP).

Its publisher and editor, Shiv Inder Singh, is a critic of religious fanaticism and is known for his progressive and secular views.

He earlier used to give daily updates to a Vancouver-based Punjabi radio station, which also terminated his services, reportedly under pressure from the pro-BJP lobby.

A few days ago, Singh noticed that Facebook had stopped displaying posts from Suhi Saver. The provocation appears to be the publication of a Punjabi translation of an article by Vancouver-based journalist Gurpreet Singh.

The article was critical of the growing media censorship under the BJP government. Though it was posted by two English-language websites, Suhi Saver was the first Punjabi website to publish its Punjabi version. After Singh was unable to share it on Facebook, he noticed that many other Suhi Saver articles had also disappeared from the social media platform. He later found that this was done following complaints against his website, possibly from BJP supporters who have a very powerful IT cell. Singh says that he was falsely accused of spreading hatred, and wasn’t given an opportunity to explain his side of the story.  

Many of his followers on social media have condemned Facebook's action and have shown their solidarity with him.

 

 

The exoneration by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, of six Indigenous Chiefs executed by the colonial government more than 150 years ago, should be followed by a similar move to right the historical wrong of hanging South Asian political activist Mewa Singh. 

Singh was executed in 1915 for assassinating controversial Immigration Inspector William Hopkinson. He was the first Sikh activist to be hanged on Canadian soil for a political murder.

On Monday, Trudeau made a statement in the House of Commons absolving the Tsilhqot’in chiefs, who were hanged for the killings of fourteen white road construction workers during the Chilcotin War of 1864, which was precipitated by the settlers who came in for gold and gave no consideration to the rights of the Chilcotin people.

During this time, not only did the settlers try to build a road into their traditional territory without consent, they also raped indigenous women.

Following the killings, five Indigenous Chiefs were tricked into peace talks, but were arrested and hanged, despite their legal argument that as a sovereign nation, they were engaged in a war against invaders. The sixth chief was executed much later.    

Trudeau acknowledged that these Chiefs had acted as leaders of a proud and independent nation facing the threat of another nation.

So much so, Conservative MP Cathy McLeod, who is the opposition critic for Indigenous affairs, admitted that the six chiefs did what anyone would have done under similar circumstances to defend their rights.

In the light of Monday’s development, Canada should think of absolving Singh and recognize that what he did wasn’t a crime motivated by any personal motive or greed.

Singh was one of those South Asians who had started arriving to British Columbia by the late 1800s to earn a better livelihood. This was a time when India and British Columbia shared a history of British colonialism.

The British occupation of India had made lives of ordinary people in that part of the world miserable. Since the British Empire claimed that it treated its subjects fairly, many Punjabi Sikh immigrants emigrated to British Columbia in search of greener pastures. However, upon reaching here they had to face racial hostilities. They were not allowed to bring their families and were disfranchised in 1907. All this was done to discourage them from permanent settlement as the government wanted to keep Canada as a "white man’s country". 

The South Asian community elders realized that they were being treated with contempt only because their home country wasn’t free. Thus began struggles against colonialism back home, and racism abroad. Under these circumstances, the South Asian political activists started getting organized. Since a majority of them were the Sikhs, they built a gurdwara under the aegis of Khalsa Diwan Society. The temple provided a religious space, but also became a centre of political activism. Singh, who was a devout Sikh, was among those who collected donations for the first gurdwara in Vancouver. He later became involved in political actions.   

The turning point came in 1914 when the Komagata Maru was forcibly returned by the Canadian government under a discriminatory immigration law. The Japanese vessel carrying more than 300 South Asian passengers was forced to leave under the shadow of guns on July 23, 1914, after remaining stranded at sea in the Vancouver harbour for two months. This incident had galvanized the freedom movement in India.

Trudeau has already made an official apology for the Komagata Maru episode in the House of Commons.

The incident had started a bloody fight within the South Asian community, which was divided in two camps, one led by the radical activists and the other patronized by Hopkinson. The latter camp was a group of spies who often intimidated activists in the South Asian community. Through this network of moles in the community, Hopkinson was gathering secret information about political activists and sending it to the British Indian government. He had previously served in India and was sent here on purpose. 

In the month of September, 1914, Hopkinson’s agent Bela Singh went into the gurdwara and shot two political activists to death - Bhaag Singh and Badan Singh. This act of sacrilege and blatant racism turned Singh into an assassin. He fatally shot Hopkinson at the Vancouver courthouse where the latter had gone to testify for Bela Singh who faced jury trial. Singh did not escape from the scene and courted arrest. He also decided against pleading not guilty in the court and took sole responsibility of the murder. His statement gives us an idea that he was willing to face death with courage and had no regret for his action, which was the result of racism and mistreatment of the South Asian immigrants in Vancouver. He chanted prayers when he was being taken to the gallows on the morning of January 11, 1915.

Undoubtedly, the murder of Hopkinson was the culmination of British colonialism and systemic racism. If Canada really cares for reconciliation then it must accept this reality and absolve Singh of criminal charges. But what is more important than these symbolic gestures is that Canada should address real issues, like growing white supremacy in our communities, honest nation to nation consultations with the indigenous groups before making any decision about pushing controversial projects, such as Kinder Morgan pipelines or Site C Dam into their territories, a meaningful investigation into the tragedy of missing and murdered indigenous women, and making environment safe for refugees and immigrants. 

In the meantime, Radical Desi has launched an online petition seeking exoneration of Mewa Singh. Anyone interested to sign can go to “Hey Canada Exonerate Bhai Mewa Singh" at Change.org.

 

South Asian activists gathered at Holland Park in Surrey on the evening of Tuesday, March 20 to mark the 18th anniversary of Chittisinghpura massacre and subsequent incidents of state violence in Indian Kashmir.

36 Sikhs were massacred in the village of Chittisinghpura on March 20, 2000 close to then-US President Bill Clinton’s visit to India. The assailants wore Indian army uniforms. They lined up Sikhs from the village and shot them to death. Although the incident was blamed on the Pakistan-based Islamic extremists by the Indian government, many believe that this was a handiwork of either Indian forces or the Hindutva extremists operating as state sponsored vigilantes in the disputed territory where an armed insurgency has been going on for years.

One faction of insurgents wants complete independence, while the other wants Kashmir to be merged with Muslim-dominated Pakistan. Under immense pressure to solve the case, the Indian army later apprehended five Kashmiris and eliminated them in a staged shooting in Pathribal area. The army claimed that the dead men were foreign militants who died in an exchange of fire, while the families of those killed maintained that they were locals and were picked up by the army before the alleged shootout. People protested for an investigation into the incident, but the security forces killed nine more people in firing on the demonstrators in Barakpora.

Indians Abroad for Pluralist India (IAPI) held the rally, lighting 50 candles in memory of all the victims, including those killed in Pathribal and Barakpora. The placards carried by the participants asked for Justice for Chittisinghpura and the incidents that followed the massacre.

Women and children were among those in attendance.

The speakers were unanimous in their criticism of the Indian authorities and demanded an independent inquiry by international agencies. There was a general agreement among those who addressed the gathering that a needle of suspicion points at the involvement of “inside forces” as the later incidents indicate “cover up”.

Those who spoke on the occasion included Gian Singh Gill, the Spokesman of Gurdwara; Dashmesh Darbar, a veteran Sikh activist who has been consistently raising the issue of 1984 anti-Sikh massacre; Barjinder Singh, a visiting leftist activist from India; Sardara Singh Mahil, independent social justice activist; Gurmukh Deol, a Sikh activist from Kashmir; Nirmal Singh; and local Sikh activists Kesar Singh Baghi and Kulwinder Singh. IAPI cofounder Gurpreet Singh also spoke at the event, which began with a moment of silence for 39 Indian migrants abducted and killed by Islamic State in Iraq.

None of the South Asian MPs from Surrey showed up in spite of having been invited by the organizers.

 



The recent incidents of vandalizing of the statues of Vladimir Lenin in India by supporters of the BJP government have made the book on the towering leader of Bolshevik revolution more relevant.

"Reminiscences of Lenin" is a memoir of Clara Zetkin, a German political activist, based on her interactions with an icon of the communist movement. The towering Indian revolutionary Bhagat Singh, who was hanged on March 23, 1931 for killing a British police officer, was reading this book before being taken to the gallows.

Republished by Jalandhar-based Universe Publications, Reminiscences of Lenin gives us an idea how Lenin had influenced the freedom movement in India. Universe Publications is run by a dedicated researcher of radical history, Sita Ram Bansal.  

Jagmohan Singh, a well-known social justice activist and nephew of Bhagat Singh, was instrumental in finding the copy of the book that was first published in 1929 by Modern Books Ltd, in London. Bhagat Singh was always interested in personal traits that enabled one to carry forward revolutionary tasks, Jagmohan Singh writes in the introductory note.

The book brings to life the portrait of Lenin as a humble leader who always had an ear for the masses and who had given hope for liberation to the oppressed nations, including India, by leading the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. He had a dream to educate and enlighten society and free them from illiteracy and superstition. Unlike the BJP leaders who continue to promote bigotry and blind faith and attack art, Lenin created a free atmosphere for artists and cultural activism. “I have courage to show myself a barbarian”, he told Clara during a conversation on literacy and art in Bolshevik Russia.   

Lenin stood for values that are despised by the Hindu Right under BJP. Rather than learning from Lenin and acknowledging the role he played in inspiring the revolutionaries who died fighting for India’s freedom, the BJP supporters are recklessly trying to destroy Leninism by targeting his statues, without realizing that Lenin is beyond these icons and continues to rule the hearts of the people everywhere. You can break his statues in pieces, but you cannot kill Lenin, who symbolizes an ideology that is much greater in size than the politics of hate preached and practiced by the BJP.

 

 

 

The recent incidents of vandalism targeting the statues of Vladimir Lenin - a towering Communist leader of the Bolshevik revolution - in India by supporters of the ruling Hindu right wing Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) have captured international headlines.

This followed the defeat of the Marxists in the recently held assembly elections in Tripura state, where the Communists were in power for the past 25 years. Though outgoing Chief Minister Manik Sarkar was known for his integrity and secularism, he was unseated in the election that resulted into the victory of the BJP led coalition which won 43 out 59 seats in the legislature, ending the communist rule.

Not only did mobs of BJP supporters pull down two statues of Lenin in the state, some BJP leaders took to social media to applaud these acts of vandalism.

In Belonia town, one of the two statues was brought down with the help of an excavator. While this was being done, the miscreants chanted a patriotic slogan, “Long Live Mother India.” As the statue fell, its head was dismembered from the body.  A Marxist activist alleged that the BJP supporters were seen playing football with it.

One of the local BJP leaders claimed that this was the result of people's anger with the left government. Describing Lenin as a “foreigner”, who according to him, had nothing to do with the native population, he questioned why was the statue built with taxpayers’ money?

Some senior BJP leaders went to the extent of welcoming these incidents unashamedly. Not to be left behind, Tripura Governor Tathagata Roy tweeted: “What one democratically elected government can do, another democratically elected government can undo. And vice versa.” This is despite the fact that he holds a constitutional post. Yet, he is known for his political affiliations with the BJP.

Another BJP leader H. Raja posted on Facebook: "Who is Lenin and what is the connection between Lenin and India? What connection India has with Communists?”

 

The entire episode obviously reflects very badly on the BJP, which has shown its true colours of being intolerant. But this also shows the hollowness of its so called nationalism and disconnect with the freedom movement. 

 

India, which remained under British occupation for almost two hundred years, was liberated by the efforts of both pacifist and revolutionary freedom fighters. The founding fathers of the ideology of Hindu India, which is greatly cherished by the BJP, remained away from both camps. With an aim to establish Hindu theocracy, they either openly or discreetly served the interests of the British rulers. 

 

Instead, the Hindu extremists who are often glorified by many BJP leaders, were involved in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi – the world renowned leader of the passive resistance movement. He was murdered for standing up against Hindu zealots who terrorised Muslims and treated “low caste” people as untouchables. 

 

Contrary to these enemies within, Lenin became a guiding light for the Indian revolutionaries who were invited to Bolshevik Russia to learn how to liberate their motherland by organizing mass movements. He stood for the Indians who were fighting for the right to self-determination.

 

The BJP is trying to impose its own brand of patriotism, while doing nothing but scapegoating minorities, both cultural (read Muslims, Christians and other minority communities) and ideological (read left and secular parties) to polarize Hindu majority for political survival. Lenin is just one soft target they have picked to create divisions and re-frame the narrative of domestic nationalism. Every Indian should be indebted to Lenin for standing up for those who actually fought for our freedom rather than falling into the trap of the defenders of Hindu India, something that was strongly despised by Gandhi and the revolutionaries who fought for a secular republic which had no place for bigotry. What we need to recognize in these difficult times is the beauty of Lenin's internationalism, which can truly save humanity from falling apart, and bringing all of us together while at the same time embracing all nationalities without any malice or discrimination.   

 

 

The Georgia Straight Editor Charlie Smith and anti-racism educationist and activist Alan Dutton were honoured for standing up against white supremacy at the fourth annual Raise Your Hands Against Racism (RYHAR) campaign event held in Vancouver on Saturday afternoon.

Launched by Spice Radio 1200 AM in 2015, the RYHAR encourages people to celebrate Holi – a Hindu festival of colours - and make a statement against racism. 

As part of this campaign, Spice Radio CEO Shushma Datt and her team honour individuals who stand up against hate every year. This year, Smith and Dutton were picked for challenging white supremacy.

While Smith has been consistently writing against racism, Dutton has been on the frontlines of many anti-racism campaigns for which he has been receiving death threats from the white nationalists. Smith too had faced a racist backlash for advocating for the rights of visible minorities through his editorials.

University of British Columbia professor Dr. Sunera Thobani presented the first award to Smith. Dr. Thobani was honoured by Spice Radio last year for challenging Islamophobia. She had received many hate messages for questioning the racist policies of the US that led to the 9/11 attacks.   

Datt had presented the very first annual award to senior Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officer Baltej Singh Dhillon in 2016. Dhillon, who was the first turbaned Sikh officer to be recruited by the RCMP, had faced a hostile campaign both inside and outside the force.

BC Premier John Horgan also became part of this initiative by posting his picture with hand raised against racism on social media. A message from his office was read out by Surrey-Green Timbers MLA Rachna Singh at the event held at Roundhouse Community Centre.  Singh has been instrumental in organizing anti-racism events in Surrey and is very vocal on these issues. Minister Bruce Ralston was also in attendance.  

The event that invited people who dipped their hands in colour and left their hand prints on a white paper along with statements against racism was opened by Cecilia Point, Indigenous activist from Musqueam Band, with a traditional song to recognize that Canada was built as a nation state on the lands belonging to the First Nations. 

Another indigenous activist associated with BC Federation of Labour, Joyce Galuska, also addressed the gathering. Galuska had started a letter writing campaign asking the Canadian government to launch a national inquiry into the missing and murdered indigenous women.

Dr. Arun Garg, an authority on Hindu religion, told the gathering about the significance of Holi, which encourages people to bury their prejudices and differences and come together and throw colours at each other to become one.

Spice Radio News Director Safeeya Pirani introduced the gathering to budding newscaster Sohila Sethi, who is being groomed by Pirani as part of her initiative to train child news reporters.

Raya Arya, a young animal rights activist, also spoke on theoccasion and encouraged people to give up meat eating and respect other species on earth as well. 

Team Shiamak and South Asian Arts Society also performed at the event.

Another RYHAR event was simultaneously held at Surrey North Recreational Center that also received a huge response. Minister Jinny Sims was among those who showed up in Surrey.  

Renowned Punjabi director Gurvinder Singh says that his film based on the Sikh militancy that engulfed his home state during the 1980s is still relevant, considering growing attacks on religious minorities under a right-wing Hindu nationalist government in India.


Singh, who is currently visiting Vancouver, told RDNB that it is important to remember history and learn from it. He feels that nothing has really changed since the Sikh insurrection ended, as the cycle of violence continues to be repeated. Chauthi Koot screened at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and won the Silver Screen Award at the Singapore International Film Festival later that year. 

“Earlier, the Sikhs were being targeted during militancy in 1980s in the name of war against terror," Singh said. "Today, other minority communities, such as Muslims, Dalits (so-called untouchables), tribals, Kashmiris, and northeasterners are being attacked by the state.”

Chauthi Koot is based on two short stories, "The Fourth Direction" and "I Am Feeling Fine Now", by Toronto-based writer Waryam Singh Sandhu.

They focus on the sufferings of Hindus and Sikhs during the Sikh separatist movement that started in the 1980s and ended in the 1990s. Sandhu has been critical of both Sikh extremists and the Indian state for using repressive measures to crush the movement.

Singh believes that state violence and violence by extremists outside the mainstream cannot be equated.

“The state should not use violence as a tool," he said. "If the state becomes repressive, it won’t be able to break the cycle of violence.”  

Singh was 10 years old during an anti-Sikh massacre in India in 1984 following the assassination of then prime minister Indira Gandhi.

The bloodshed was organized by supporters of the slain leader’s ruling Congress party with the help of police.

Born and raised in a Sikh family in Delhi, Singh remembers being protected at the time by Hindu neighbours.

“From inside the confines of our home I witnessed a gurdwara being burned by the mobs,” he stated. “It was like a virtual house arrest as we couldn’t step out and connect with our relatives."

Singh said those impressions from childhood have been hard to forget and impacted him on a subconscious level, motivating him to make a film on such a sensitive subject.

He does not agree with those who keep suggesting that the events of 1984 should be forgotten.

“We definitely need to move on, but must not forget the history.”

His second film, Anhe Godhe Da Daan, deals with caste-based discrimination in Punjab, which he said also needs to be addressed.

The film is based on a novel by award-winning author Gurdial Singh, and reveals the plight of Dalit Sikhs. Anhe Godhe Da Daan received several national awards in India.

Even as Sikhism denounces the caste system, discrimination still prevails within the community against those looked down upon as untouchable in Hinduism.

Singh said that he was disturbed to discover how deeply entrenched the caste system is, even among followers of a very modern and progressive religion.

“By simply assuming that caste system does not exist in the Sikh community, you cannot have a debate on the subject.”

Singh purposely chose Dalit actors for the film so that they could truly connect themselves with the script.

“Only those who have Dalit blood in the veins can understand what it means to be a Dalit.”

Singh initially wanted to be a photojournalist and has consistently followed news and politics. This might explain why he picked inconvenient and controversial subjects for his films.

Even otherwise, he is pained by popular cinema and its impact on society.

For example, he feels that the attention generated by the recent death of Bollywood star Sridevi is not matched when it comes to the deaths of children in Syria and other conflict zones.

“The filmmakers have a responsibility to tell the truth rather than suppressing it,” Singh insisted.

Singh also touched upon the growing penetration of Hindu nationalists in India's educational bodies.

He's an alumni of the Pune-based Film and Television Institute of India. It was in the news after the ruling Hindu Nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) appointed one of its supporters as the chair. This sparked angry protests from students.

Singh believes that there's a trend in the BJP trying to Hinduize such bodies across India by appointing its hand-picked persons. He pointed out that such interference has led to confrontations between left-wing and right-wing student groups in many universities.

This has further complicated the situation, which has already deteriorated as a result of violent attacks on minority communities.

Gurvinder Singh is in Vancouver on the invitation of UBC's Department of Asian Studies. His first film, Anhe Godhe Da Daan, will be screened on Saturday (March 3) at 7:30 p.m. at UBC Robson Square. His second film, Chauthi Koot, will be screened on Sunday (March 4) at 4:30 p.m. at Surrey Centre Stage at Surrey City Hall. 

An online petition started by Vancouver-based Radical Desi publications asking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to investigate the activities of Indian agents in Canada continues to receive a huge response.

 

Within three days of its launching on Wednesday, February 28, the petition has received close to 2,000 signatures. The number is likely to grow as the petition is trending on social media.


The initiative was launched in the light of recent controversies that eclipsed Trudeau's visit to India. The petition that is available at change.org categorically asks Canada to look into the activities of Indian agents on its soil.

 

These controversies were mainly started by the Indian leadership that has been accusing Canada of patronizing Sikh separatists. Despite the fact that Sikh militancy has ended a long time back, Indian politicians want to keep the issue alive and create false fear to polarize the Hindu majority against the Sikhs.

 

Not only was Trudeau given a cold treatment by the host country, he also received bad press under the influence of the right wing government in India. Even as India kept blaming Trudeau for pandering to Sikh separatists, the Indian government gave a visa to former Sikh separatist Jaspal Singh Atwal, and removed many other names from its blacklist of Sikh activists living overseas. An invitation to Atwal by the Canadian High Commission for the Prime Minister’s dinner in Delhi has raised many questions.  

 

“All this demands an explanation from India, and to unfold the truth behind this entire episode, Canada needs to act fast and expose the Indian officials responsible for this mess and expel them immediately”, states the petition. 

 

Gurpreet Singh 

It was January 2010. I was visiting Calcutta for the first time. It’s a big Indian city located in the West Bengal state of India. I always wanted to see Comrade Jyoti Basu, the former Chief Minister of the state, who was at the time of my visit battling for life at a hospital. 

96-year-old Basu was the towering leader of India’s Communist Party (Marxist), and had led West Bengal state for many years before he retired. Though he was disliked by the Indian bourgeois for his land reforms,  he was equally disliked by the revolutionary communists who parted ways with him to launch an armed resistance that came to be known as Naxalite movement. The Naxals often accused Basu of not doing enough for the poor and marginalized and rather suppressing the rebels and voices of dissent. 

But there is one aspect of Basu that makes him a real hero for the minority Sikh community in that region. In fact, during my visit to Calcutta I stayed with Sohan Singh Aitiana, a Sikh political activist associated with Basu’s party. He has been a staunch supporter of Basu like many other Sikhs in Calcutta.

Basu had played a significant role during November 1984, when the country witnessed anti-Sikh massacres engineered by the Indian state following the assassination of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards in New Delhi. 

Gandhi was murdered in retaliation for the military attack on the Golden Temple Complex, the holiest Sikh shrine in Amritsar in June that year. The army invasion was ordered by Gandhi to flush out religious extremists led by a fiery Sikh preacher Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who had fortified the place of worship. Bhindranwale was accused of running death squads from inside the temple. His supporters were behind many political murders, including that of Communists who were opposed to religious fanaticism. 

The army operation had left many innocent pilgrims dead and several important buildings inside the complex heavily destroyed. Bhindranwale also died fighting against the army during the attack. This had enraged the Sikh community, and under those circumstances Gandhi was murdered inside her official residence. The slain leader’s Congress party, which  claims to be secular, organized mass violence against innocent Sikhs all over India.

Sensing danger in West Bengal, Basu displayed an exceptional leadership in his territory. He ordered the deployment of the army and asked his party volunteers to come out in the open and protect the Sikh community. While  the entire country burnt leaving thousands of Sikhs dead, West Bengal remained largely peaceful with very few deaths. Since then the Sikhs in West Bengal always saw Basu as their saviour.

From Aitiana I learnt how the Sikh community of his generation felt indebted to Basu, who ensured that the Sikhs remained safe in his jurisdiction, whereas the community was hounded aggressively in Congress-ruled states where the police either sided with the mobs or looked the other way. Indira Gandhi’s son Rajiv Gandhi, who succeeded her as the next Prime Minister, drew maximum mileage from the bloodshed, using the slogan of National Unity to win the next election with a brute majority. Riding on the anti-Sikh wave, famous Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan also got elected as a Congress MP. Bachchan was close to the Gandhi family, and had remained with Rajiv Gandhi throughout the funeral of his mother.

While in Calcutta, I kept trying to meet Basu at the hospital with the help of Aitiana but never succeeded. Nobody was allowed inside the Intensive Care Unit, except close family members. The local Sikh community also kept visiting the hospital and prayed for the speedy recovery of their beloved leader. Then one evening when we stopped by at the hospital, we saw a heavy deployment of police and a huge crowd outside the building. We were told that Bachchan was visiting the ailing leader. After some time when Bachchan appeared, to a big cheer from the crowd, which I realized had gathered not for Basu, but to have a glimpse of Bachchan. Many were eager to take his picture on their mobile phones. That was the first time I saw Bachchan in person as he walked past. 

There was a time when I too was a big fan of Big B, a term frequently used for Bachchan by media commentators. As a teenager I never missed a chance to watch his latest films. Supremo, a comic series based on him, was my favourite. I kept checking the bookstalls every month to get the newest edition of Supremo. I had sent a letter to Bachchan asking for his autograph on the mailing address I found either in Supremo or elsewhere. After some time when I got a postcard picture of him addressed to me with his autograph in the mail, I felt on top of the world. I loved to mimic his dialogues and sing his songs for my classmates and family. Collecting his posters also became my hobby. In 1982, when he got injured doing a stunt during shooting of the film Coolie, I too prayed for his long life. When he finally recovered I also thanked the almighty. I remember that when Coolie was released, Bachchan's fans rushed to theatres to watch the particular scene that led to his injury. I still remember watching the caption appearing on the screen during that scene, announcing it was here that Bachchan got injured.  

All this however changed in 1984 after the massacre of Sikhs. Though I became an atheist as I grew older, being born in a Sikh family, I was carried away by the repression of my community at the age of 14. I was religious at that time and could not bear the loss of my compatriots. Although my family did not suffer during anti-Sikh violence as we lived in Punjab, we were very shaken by what happened to the people of our community in other states. I somehow started getting disinterested in Bollywood because of the growing sense of alienation within the Sikh community. When I learnt from someone that Bachchan was among those Congress supporters who had incited the mobs, I couldn’t believe my ears. However, I do remember seeing him standing next to the body of Indira Gandhi lying in state on TV. During this time I remember having heard myself people chanting slogans, “Khoon ka badla khoon se lenge (we will avenge blood with blood)” on TV, but not sure if Bachchan was present at that particular moment or if he also joined the chorus. There are some who claim that he did raise the slogan. US-based Sikhs For Justice had tried to get him summoned for inciting the anti-Sikh massacre. So much so, Bachchan had clarified to the Sikh clergy that he wasn’t involved in the violence. He continues to insist that he is proud of his partial Sikh heritage as his mother was a Sikh.

However, that does not help. Bachchan never uttered a word against the massacre and those who organized it.  He rather was privileged to get elected as a Congress MP. There is no doubt that the entire Congress machinery was involved in the massacre, and for that reason Bachchan will always be seen as a complicit in the crime by the history. By remaining silent to the massacre of the Sikhs he did a great disservice to humanity. His image as “an angry young man” who could fight single handed with goons on the silver screen gradually began receding in my memory. His actions on screen rather than his acting skills had influenced me at an impressionable age.  Even as I kept watching some of his films during later years mainly due to peer pressure, I was left with no particular liking for him. The memories of 1984 kept coming back in waves whenever I saw his image. I once thought of mailing back his autographed picture that I cherished so much, along with a protest letter. Nevertheless, I never bothered about it and if I vaguely remember I threw it away in the garbage. A few months ago, I tried to confront him on Facebook when he was doing live posting, but he never answered my questions and kept responding to the greetings of those who joined.  

The year 2002 became another watershed year for me. The state of Gujarat under Chief Minister Narendra Modi witnessed a well organized massacre of Muslims. Those involved were supporters of the Hindu nationalist Bharitya Janata Party (BJP). The violence followed the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims. Over 50 passengers had died in the incident that was blamed on Muslim fundamentalists by the Modi government. The BJP supporters used similar techniques to target Muslims that were applied against Sikhs by the Congress in 1984. Following in the footsteps of Rajiv Gandhi, Modi too emerged victorious in the assembly election held after the violence.

Notably, Bachchan had acted in Dev, a powerful film based on the Gujarat massacre. He played a police officer who is determined to punish the guilty involved in the killings of Muslims. Yet, he chose to ignore all this in real life when he agreed to become a brand ambassador for Gujarat state at the request of Modi. So much so, he tried to project Modi in a positive light before 2014, when Modi became the Prime Minister of India with a brute majority in the national election held that year. Much like his deafening silence over the 1984 anti-Sikh violence, his quietness over the Gujarat massacre was very disheartening. This is despite the fact that he frequently tries to make statements on social issues. How can he therefore be so indifferent to such violent crimes against minorities in India?

His track record leaves little doubt that he isn’t the real hero we should be looking at with some hope. For one, being an elected politician in the past, he cannot claim to be politically naïve or neutral to distance himself from such episodes. Also, being a character of films like Dev, he cannot plead ignorance over such inconvenient truths.    

If I have to choose between Bachchan and Basu, I would pick the later as real hero. It was Basu who walked against the current by taking a strong position against violence against a minority community, while Bachchan was a beneficiary. He  lacked courage to stand up against majoritarianism, both in relation to the violence in 1984 and 2002. I don’t even recall if he ever took any position against similar violent incidents that happened in between 1984-2002 or later. When many actors and cultural activists have come out against recent attacks on minorities under Modi government, Bachchan has remained mum. On the contrary, Basu took great political risk for Sikhs who merely form two percent of the Indian population. He also acknowledged in his memoir that his party suffered heavy losses in the general election that followed the 1984 carnage, whereas the Congress gained by polarizing Hindu majority against the Sikhs by using Gandhi’s murder as a political weapon to get sympathy votes. He also pointed out that BJP supporters too had participated in the anti-Sikh violence. This isn’t surprising as the Congress supporters too had participated in the anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat as foot soldiers. Both parties have indulged in majoritarianism. The difference lies only in the brands. The BJP is an outright sectarian party that wants to transform India into a Hindu state, the Congress on the other hand tries to please the Hindu majority under the garb of secularism. As against Basu, Bachchan failed to challenge both parties. 

Basu was not a perfect politician, and he may have many limitations, but when he passed away on January 17 after I left without seeing him even once, he left behind a legacy of real secularism. This is the reason why the Sikhs in particular and minorities in general will always remember him as a statesman who continued to denounce religious intolerance. One striking thing I noticed during my trip to Calcutta was that a Sikh man who drove me around had a big sticker of Bhindranwale on the rear window of his car. In spite of his liking for Bhindranwale, whose followers continue to hate communists for being agnostic, this man said that he has always voted for Basu and his party and will continue to do so. I felt pity for those ordinary people who had gathered to see Bachchan at the hospital where Basu was admitted, without realising that the actual hero was the one fighting for life inside, and not the one they see in action on celluloid. Today when the minorities feel insecure under Modi government and the opposition lacks a strong leadership, Basu is even more relevant to get India out of the turmoil. 

Gurpreet Singh is cofounder of Radical Desi magazine. 

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