Vancouver forum focuses on hypernationalism, persecution of minorities, and threats to journalists in Indian elections

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      In anticipation of the Indian elections, the South Asian Network for Secularism and Democracy (SANSAD) hosted an event titled “India's Elections: Hypernationalism and its Victims’’ at SFU Harbour Centre on May 5.

      “India is at crossroads,” said Chin Banerjee, a director of SANSAD.

      India is in a five-week-long election phase that kicked off on April 11 and goes on until May 19.

      Approximately 900 million voters are eligible to vote in the world’s largest democracy. Results will be announced on May 23.

      He also expressed serious concerns about hypernationalism during the rule of Narendra Modi, who became prime minister in 2014.

      “There is an extremely worrisome trend in the country and that was the need for doing the event,” Banarjee said. “The idea was to inform people of this urgent matter, not only the South Asian diaspora but the larger audience as well.” 

      SANSAD, an organization based in British Columbia, actively engages and unites the South Asian diaspora through events and peace rallies on issues pertaining to human rights and democracy.

      Dionne Bunsha moderated the discussion with Lubna Yusuf Moosa, Harsh Trivedi, and featured speaker Navsharan Singh at SFU Harbour Centre.

      The three panelists for the afternoon were Navsharan Singh, Lubna Yusuf Moosa, and Harsh Trivedi.

      Singh, a human rights activist based in New Dehli, began by unpacking the extreme right-wing mindset in India by saying “what we've been fighting in India for the last few years it’s not an easy battle.’’ She described the dominant political climate as "aggressive and exclusionary".

      “We are up against hypernationalism, which has been thrown at us by Mr. Modi and the entire right wing agenda—an ideology which has criminalized left and liberal dissent," Singh said. "[This] has normalized hatred against minorities especially Muslims, and somewhat Christians, and Dalits."

      Moosa, a journalism professor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, began her presentation by showing a picture of Gauri Lankesh, a journalist who was murdered in Bengaluru in 2017, asking audience members if they recognize her.

      She spoke about the state of journalism and how journalists are being silenced for merely doing their jobs.

      “They weren’t on some dangerous assignment or there wasn’t a crossfire or combat. It was just a direct retaliation for their work. It was something that they reported. Most of the journalists were targeted for their reporting on local corruption, crime, and politics,” said Moosa.

      For the last two years, Singh has also been travelling across India with the human-rights caravan called Karwan-e-Mohabbat (Caravan of Love) to visit families of the Muslim victims lynched on the suspicion of either carrying beef or trafficking cows. “There was a very clear pattern in how 'the mobs' lynched people. These were not mobs but organized gangs belonging to a very specific ideology.”

      Like Singh, Moosa also talked about how these attacks were traced to the right-wing organizations. “Journalists are being killed. They know who the perpetrators are.”

      According to the World Press Freedom Index in 2017, India ranked 136th on a list of 180 countries, below Afghanistan and Burma and fell even lower to 138th in 2018.

      Narendra Modi calls himself a "watchman", but that view isn't shared by his critics in Vancouver.

      In the pre-election period, India's prime minister and Bharatiya Janata Party Leader Modi released a “chowkidar” (watchman) campaign with a slogan “Main bhi chowkidar” (I’m also a watchman) in an attempt to encourage citizens to serve as the country’s watchmen. He also added “chowkidar” to his Twitter handle.

      “Our beloved prime minister calls himself the watchman of the country," Moosa said. "Unfortunately, the country that is being protected by the watchman, the watchdog of the society isn’t safe.”

      Trivedi, a recent political science graduate from University of British Columbia, shed light on how Indigenous rights in India are being undermined and neglected.

      “Indigenous people are not just victims of hypernationalism in terms of physical violence. That is just a given. But also, they are victims of a sort of enforced ignorance that goes on in the society, which is a very conscious product of the same nationalism,” he said.  

      Trivedi further talked about how India has refused to acknowledge Indigenous people as Indigenous people but instead they are defined as distinctive tribal groups. This ambiguity allows the country leeway, especially when Indigenous people are being displaced and their lands are being exploited.

      Amid all the chaos, according to Singh, there is still hope.

      “If India was never divided like this, India was never united like this also,” she said pointing to the large mobilizations of youth and of women in the last two years who have been coming out to claim their rights. In addition, many farmers are coming to Dehli seeking accountability and seeking the truth of farmer suicides.

      “We are seeking several truths and we are seeking justice. And although we are in for a long haul I think we are also giving this ultra nationalism a big fight,” she concluded.

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