"If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor”
– Desmond Tutu
This quote applies to Canada, considering its indifference toward some recent ugly events that unfolded in India.
Widely known as the world’s largest democracy, India is going through an era of intolerance and blatant repression of minorities and political dissidents under a right-wing Hindu nationalist government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Attacks on non-Hindus, particularly Muslims, have grown ever since Modi came to power with a majority in 2014. Apart from that, there has also been an increase in attempts to stifle any voice of dissent.
Those who stand up against injustice and challenge power through democratic means are branded as seditious and thrown into jail through the use of draconian laws.
Recent attempts to muzzle the intelligentsia's voices of resistance are particularly disturbing.
And yet Canada continues to overlook what is happening in that part of the world. This is in sharp contrast to its rather prompt response to a similar situation in neighbouring Pakistan.
The latest casualty of this complacency is Anand Teltumbde, a well-respected columnist and social-justice activist who is married to the granddaughter of B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian constitution and a towering scholar.
Teltumbde was arrested on February 2 in complete violation of Supreme Court orders. He earlier faced arrest after being charged under a draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) for raising his voice for the poor and marginalized.
He was charged last year, while five other activists like him were arrested and detained across India. Those taken into custody included a Telugu poet and political activist, Varavara Rao, and human-rights lawyer Sudha Bhardawaj. The others were two published authors, Gautam Navlakha and Arun Ferreira, and a former Mumbai college professor, Vernon Gonsalves.
Teltumbde escaped the police dragnet as he was away, while his house was raided in his absence.
They were all accused of being the sympathizers of Maoist insurgents.
Teltumbde’s plea for quashing the police case was rejected by the Supreme Court on January 14. The court had given him four weeks to file for pre-arrest bail; however, he was arrested much earlier in clear defiance of the court orders.
This became evident when a special court ordered him to be released, citing his "illegal" arrest. There are fears that Teltumbde might face the same fate as Delhi University professor G.N. Saibaba, who continues to be imprisoned despite being 90 percent disabled below the waist.
Saibaba's continued incarceration under inhuman conditions has already drawn criticism from United Nations human rights experts. A petition signed by hundreds of people in Metro Vancouver asking for Canadian intervention in that matter was also ignored.
What binds all these individuals together is their deep involvement in advocacy for the underdog, especially Adivasis (Indigenous peoples). They continue to face displacement from their traditional territories by extraction industries looking for access to mineral-rich lands with the backing of the state.
Maoist insurgents who've been active in tribal areas have a big following among Adivasis, who often take up arms due to the high-handedness of the police and security forces. Many Adivasis see Maoists as protectors in their fight for survival from barbarity of the state.
Police have not only branded those arrested as Maoist supporters, but some are being accused of being involved in a plot to assassinate Modi. These allegations have been strongly refuted by their relatives and supporters, who believe that all this is being done to stifle voices of dissent and win sympathy for the prime minister, who might face a tough general election this year.
Any genuine criticism of uneven development and growing impoverishment can invite the wrath of the Indian state. Those questioning the power are frequently branded as “anti-nationals” or “urban Naxals”.
Teltumbde has a big following in Canada, where he was invited to visit in 2016 by many groups of social justice activists within the South Asian community.
On January 27, several South Asians came together at Holland Park in Surrey to protest against his continued harassment and to raise their voices against his possible arrest. This occurred under the banner of Indians Abroad for Pluralist India, which was established in response to growing attacks on diversity in India by the country's right-wing regime. A group of activists also wrote a letter to Foreign Affairs Minister Christya Freeland seeking her intervention.
But to date, the Canadian government has failed to stand up. Elected officials were invited to the rally and urged to make a statement, but remained silent and never showed up. These included both federal and provincial politicians.
This is despite the fact that most of them are of Indian origin and completely understand the circumstances in the country of their birth. Nevertheless, some of them did show up the night before at a dinner hosted by Indian diplomats to celebrate India’s Republic Day.
Unfortunately, some of these same politicians had met Teltumbde when he was visiting Canada, but did not dare to say a word when they were approached to show solidarity. It’s a shame that some happened to be part of the labour movement before jumping into electoral politics and often projected themselves as supporters of international brotherhood and champions of the underdog on global issues.
In fact, they had wined and dined with Teltumbde when he was here, and displayed a lot of respect for his good work. But in the end, they preferred to remain quiet and not annoy the government of India, whose influence has been growing worldwide in a free-trade environment.
It is hard to say if their intervention could have prevented the arrest of Teltumbde, but their deafening silence during the situation leading to his arrest clearly reflects very poorly on them.
In a McCarthy era-like witch hunt of political dissidents under a fascist regime, Teltumbde’s arrest is aimed at creating a fear among those fighting for social justice.
Canada’s lack of interest only proves one thing—it has picked a side, none other than the oppressors in New Delhi.
If Canadian politicians have any shame, they can at least listen to the words of Tutu, whose ally Nelson Mandela was given honorary Canadian citizenship by this country. Either that, or stop pretending to be the flag bearers of human rights.