Gurpreet Singh: Indians Abroad for Pluralist India focuses attention on devastating rise of extremism

    1 of 7 2 of 7

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

      Formed in Surrey, B.C., 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 that India is a Hindu state. That's because cultural and religious diversity remain under constant threat from Hindu chauvinists who continue to terrorize Muslims, Christians, and Dalits (those considered untouchables) with impunity.

      In light of Israel's recent declaration that it's a Jewish state—and the deafening silence of the west—the possibility of a "Hindu India" in the near future cannot be ruled out.

      Under the BJP government in India, Hindu extremists frequently target not only minority communities, but also people from the majority Hindu community who denounce the ideology of the ruling party.

      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 their voice for a secular and tolerant India. They decided to hold a big demonstration against killings of Indian Muslims suspected of carrying beef by the self-styled "cow vigilantes".

      It was also decided not to limit the focus of the IAPI to criticizing the BJP. The group would also continue to act like a watchdog over other political parties to discourage them from indulging in majoritarianism.

      The opposition Congress party has been involved in sectarian politics for opportunistic reasons in the past under the garb of secularism. It must also share blame for the gradual growth of Hindu fanaticism in India.

      Though IAPI has 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 major supporters.

      On July 30, 2017, we held our first public rally outside Surrey City Hall. More than 50 people participated. Significant numbers of women and children attended the event. Unfortunately, no South Asian politician showed up, while the media also ignored the rally.

      Indians Abroad for Pluralist India stood up for the family of Asifa Bano, an eight-year-old girl raped and killed in Indian-ruled Kashmir simply because she was Muslim.
      Gurpreet Singh

      IAPI promotes author of Gujarat Files

      A month later, IAPI invited Rana Ayyub, a courageous Indian journalist who had exposed politicians and state officials involved in the killings of Muslims under a BJP government in Gujarat in 2002.

      Indian prime minister Narendra Modi was chief minister of the state when the anti-Muslim pogrom was organized by his party. Ayyub had investigated the involvement of the BJP leaders and police officers in these killings during a sting operation she did for Tehelka Media Group.

      She later published a book based on her undercover investigation. Gujarat Files remains popular and has been translated in different languages. IAPI helped in the publication and distribution of the Punjabi translation done by an activist friend, Buta Singh, who lives in India.

      Ayyub continues to receive threats for being critical of the BJP.

      On August 12, she 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 right-wing Hindu forces threatening peace and harmony.

      At the Surrey Central Library, 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. In July 1914, the Komagata Maru ship was turned back from Vancouver's harbour, carrying more than 350 passengers from British India,  under a discriminatory immigration law. It was passed to discourage Indian immigrants from permanent settlement in Canada.

      Those aboard the ship belonged to different faith groups. IAPI decided to hold our demonstration right near the memorial, which symbolizes the unity and diversity of the founding fathers of India who not only fought against British occupation back home, but also against 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 Centre to the Komagata Maru memorial and stopped by at the Indian consulate, where slogans were raised and flyers were dropped to let Indian agents know what we want.

      Speakers from different religious communities spoke at the memorial and condemned policies of the BJP.

      The murder of respected South Indian journalist Gauri Lankesh shocked progressive members of the Indian diaspora.

      Journalist's murder stunned secularists

      On September 5, the world was shocked by news of the assassination of an 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, Surrey-Green Timbers MLA Rachna Singh was the only elected official who 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 refugee issue when the Indian government got embroiled in an unwanted controversy. Thousands of Rohingyas were being slaughtered by the Myanmar military and Buddhist extremists in that country.

      Rohingyas fled to India for safety. However, the Muslim Rohnigyas did not get a good reception when they arrived. Several BJP leaders suggested that they should be deported.

      Some went to the extent of saying that only Hindu Rohingyas be allowed to stay in India. This was in violation of the Indian convention of accepting refugees without discrimination. On social media Hindu fundamentalists also attacked Khalsa Aid—a Sikh humanitarian group helping the refugees languishing in various camps.

      Surrey-Green Timbers NDP MLA Rachna Singh spoke at a demonstration called to draw attention to the killing of journalist Gauri Lankesh.

      Rohingya refugees not forgotten

      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.

      Muslim activists from Myanmar attended the rally, as did Surrey Centre Liberal MP Randeep Sarai and Conservative Party supporter Harpreet Singh. Sarai later wrote a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, forwarding demands raised at the demonstration.

      A few days later, IAPI supporters joined a rally for Rohingyas outside the Vancouver Art Gallery.

      On October 12, IAPI honoured a retired school principal from Punjab, Swaran Singh Aujla, at the Strawberry Hill Library in Surrey.

      Aujla had located the family of a Muslim Indian revolutionary, Rehmat Ali Wajidke, in Pakistan. Wajidke died fighting against the British occupation of India, and his family had migrated to Pakistan following the religious partition of the country in 1947.

      Moreover, Aujla had served as principal of the school in Wajidke’s native village. He not only located the Wajidke's family in Pakistan, but also had the school renamed after the national hero. This was an important step in building cultural ties between the two neighbouring countries.

      The recognition of Aujla’s work also became important in 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 present, and the NDP parliamentary secretary for multiculturalism, Ravi Kahlon, made a statement in the B.C. legislature to recognize IAPI’s work and Aujla's contributions.

      One of the Gandhi family's henchmen, former cabinet minister Jagdish Tytler, has been taped saying incriminating words about the 1984 massacres.
      Filmi Tadka

      Spotlight falls on Congress-inspired extremism

      On December 2, a University of British Columbia researcher, Kamal Arora, was honoured by IAPI for her study of female victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh violence It was engineered by the then Congress government of India.

      These atrocities followed the assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.

      MLA Rachna Singh and her NDP colleague, Amandeep Singh, attended the event at Strawberry Hill Library in Surrey.

      On December 9, IAPI held a rally to mark the 25th anniversary of the demolition of Babri mosque in the Indian city of Ayodhya by BJP supporters on December 6, 1992. The BJP continues to claim that the ancient mosque was built after Muslim rulers destroyed a temple 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 the 70th anniversary of the assassination of Gandhi by supporters of turning India into a Hindu state.

      Gandhi invited their wrath by standing up against the repression of Muslims during partition. Most media outlets and politicians ignored it.

      On February 11, IAPI again held a rally at Holland Park, this time demanding the arrest of Jagdish Tytler, a senior Congress leader involved in anti-Sikh carnage. Tytler had made startling revelations during a media sting operation about the killings of innocent Sikhs.

      Most speakers agreed that prompt action was needed against Tytler and other Congress politicians, but that the BJP could not be allowed to take advantage of this, considering its own controversial background. Though this rally received good media coverage, some of the TV footage was disturbingly selective as it omitted speakers' statements against BJP.

      The rally was started with a moment of silence for Asma Jahangir, a human rights activist from Pakistan who had passed away few days before. Jahangir always stood for the rights of minorities in her country. 

      B.C. premier John Horgan met Indian author and human rights activist Teesta Setalvad when she visited B.C. earlier this year.

      Several more events were held in 2018

      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 It was targeted by the Hindu extremists on February 18, 2007.

      The explosion left 68 people dead. Most victims were Pakistani Muslims. An equal number of candles were going to be lit in memory of the dead at Holland Park in Surrey.

      However, due to cold weather and snow, the candles couldn’t catch fire. Once again media and elected officials ignored the rally, which was attended by several known activists.

      On March 20, another rally and vigil was organized at Holland Park in memory of the victims of a massacre and subsequent incidents in Indian-administered Kashmir. Thirty-six Sikhs were murdered in the village of Chittisinghpura 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 fighting for independence. This happened when then-U.S. 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 killed by police gunfire.

      Those who died were asking for justice for families of 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 a visiting activist from India, Teesta Setalvad, who's been fighting for justice for victims of the 2002 anti-Muslim massacre in Gujarat.

      She was invited to deliver a keynote address on the relevance of the history of Jallianwala Bagh massacre, which happened on April 13, 1919.

      At that time, scores of peaceful protesters were killed in indiscriminate firing by troops. This occurred during 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 the 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 unprovoked firing. Indian authorities tried their best to block her visit to Canada by slapping false court 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 a medal of courage.

      The Punjabi edition of Setalvad’s memoir, Foot Soldier of the Constitution, was released. Buta Singh, who translated Gujarat Files into Punjabi, also spoke. 

      On April 22, IAPI held a rally for Asifa Bano. She was an eight-year-old Muslim girl raped and murdered by Hindu extremists in the Kathua region of Jammu and Kashmir in January 2018. The crime was committed to instill fear in the minds of Muslims and force them to migrate.

      Clearly, sexual violence was inflicted to humiliate one particular community. Teesta Setalvad and Buta Singh joined a rally near Surrey Newton Library, which followed a presentation by both of them on how rape is being used as a weapon.

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

      In the meantime, Teesta Setalvad was also taken to the B.C. 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 NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh during Vaisakhi parade in Surrey.

      After losing his family in the 1985 Air India bombing, Chandra Sankurathri has provided free health care and education to the poor.

      Air India victim's good works recognized

      On June 24, IAPI launched the autobiography of 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 left 329 people dead.

      The crime is widely blamed on Sikh separatists seeking revenge for repression of Sikhs in India. Sankurathri has turned his grief into strength by starting a charity in India in the name of his beloved wife.

      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's presence, who was in India, the book was launched by other victims’ families.

      Georgia Straight editor Charlie Smith and former Globe and Mail reporter Robert Matas were guest speakers at the event, which was at George Mackie Library in Delta.

      On July 22, IAPI held a rally in Surrey's Holland Park to condemn an attack on Swami Agnivesh at Agnivesh, who is a Hindu reformist. He's a vocal critic of superstition and Hindu extremism, which led to him being assaulted by supporters of the BJP in the eatern Indian state of Jharkand.

      IAPI also condemned the vandalizing of the office of senior Congress leader Shashi Tharoor in the state of Kerala. Tharoor was targeted for warning against attempts to turn India into “Hindu Pakistan”.

      The demonstration coincided with the first anniversary of IAPI. The elected officials and the media once again ignored this important rally even as 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 the Ambedkar International Social Reform Organization (AISRO) in Surrey. AISRO has shown leadership in organizing rallies against growing attacks on Dalits in India in recent months. IAPI has joined them time and again to show its solidarity with them.  

      While IAPI has just started its journey and we have a long road ahead, we will continue to raise our voice against bigotry in any form. Even though our numbers have never exceeded 50 and we haven’t received much media support, we are still thankful to a few dedicated friends in media, politics, and the community for their continued solidarity.

      Considering that we have just completed our first year with limited resources, we are proud to have been successful in inviting real heroes from India, like Teesta Setalvad, Rana Ayyub, and 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.

      Gurpreet Singh is cofounder of Radical Desi magazine and Indians Abroad for Pluralist India. He's also the author of Why Mewa Singh Killed William Hopkinson: Revisiting the Murder of a Canadian Immigration Inspector and Fighting Hatred With Love: Voices of the Air India Victims' Families. Both were published by Chetna Parkashan.