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

Bandi Chhor Divas greetings by Trudeau and Horgan are hollow and meaningless Featured


Gurpreet Singh

This past Sunday, the Sikhs in Canada celebrated Bandi Chhor Divas, which means Prisoners’ Liberation Day.

The occasion is held every year to mark the freedom of the sixth master of the Sikh faith, Guru Hargobind, from prison in 1619.

Guru Hargobind was arrested and detained for standing up against the tyranny of the then Islamist rulers of India. Sikhism since the time of its foundation by Guru Nanak teaches its followers to challenge the power and stand up against repression. As part of that mandate, the Sikh Gurus continued to fight against oppression. Earlier, Guru Hargobind’s father and the fifth master of the Sikh religion, Guru Arjan Dev, was executed by the authorities for similar reasons. 

Following mediations by those who understood that Guru Hargobind was a spiritual leader with a massive following, he was released.  But he ensured that 52 royal prisoners detained in the same jail should also be liberated.  So, the event became significant not only because of his release, but also the release of all political prisoners.   

Recognizing the importance of Bandi Chhor Divas, which coincides with Diwali, a Hindu festival of lights, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and BC Premier John Horgan issued greetings to the Sikh community. 

While it is good that the two leaders care for diversity and have tried to take different cultures into their embrace, their silence over the ongoing state violence in India is highly problematic.

This year’s Bandi Chhor Divas came amidst the backdrop of a crackdown in Indian-occupied Kashmir.

In the name of peace and security, the Indian forces have detained thousands of Kashmiris. The whole disputed territory has been turned into an open jail. The Indian authorities claim that the step was necessary to deal with armed insurgents who have been fighting for the right to self-determination, but the real intention of the right wing Hindu nationalist government is to polarize the Hindu majority against the minority Muslim community that dominates in the Kashmir region.

The state of Kashmir has been turned into heavily militarized territory since August 5. There have been protests all over the world, including Canada, and yet Canadian leaders have remained silent and indifferent. Though Federal New Democrats have made a strong statement, the BC NDP government and Trudeau’s cabinet have each remained neutral.  

Notably, a vigil was held in Surrey on the night of Sunday, October 27. But none of the elected officials showed up. This is despite the fact that it’s a South Asian issue and Surrey has no dearth of South Asian MPs and MLAs. Even Surrey Center Liberal MP Randeep Singh Sarai, in whose riding the vigil was held, was conspicuous by his absence. The only political activist who came and spoke passionately was Annie Ohana, who recently ran as a New Democratic candidate for Fleetwood-Port Kells. None of the MPs from Trudeau’s Liberal Party joined the vigil. Likewise, none of the South Asia MLAs from Horgan’s NDP was present. They did not even find it necessary to send a message of solidarity to the organizers. 

The officials of Guru Nanak Sikh Temple, Surrey-Delta were busy because of prayers and festivities at gurdwara and couldn’t make it, but they spread the word about the vigil and had lent the sound system to the organizers. The temple president Hardeep Singh Nijjar made a personal appeal to the Sikh community to go and join the protesters. He has participated in several other rallies held for Kashmir during the recent months. If a temple president and his associates can be so considerate, why can’t our MPs and MLAs?

Trudeau and Horgan should know that they are heading minority governments and shouldn’t be taking the support of progressive voters for granted. Apparently, Trudeau's team has not learnt anything from the recent election results. They lost their majority in the Commons only a week ago, but still they are not getting it.

Simply recognizing Bandi Chhor Divas won’t do. If you cannot speak up for the people of Kashmir or other political prisoners then these greetings mean nothing. The issue isn’t just confined to Kashmir. The case of disabled Delhi University Professor GN Saibaba, who is incarcerated under inhuman conditions for standing up for the oppressed groups and religious minorities in India, has also been ignored by the Trudeau government in spite of many protests for him in Canada. Then there are political prisoners who are fighting for freedom in Palestine and people fighting for democracy in China. Canada has also remained silent on these issues. It is better that these two leaders walk the talk rather than making such tokenistic statements.

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Gurpreet Singh

Cofounder and Director of Radical Desi


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