Gurpreet Singh: Canada says no to petition seeking honorary citizenship for author Arundhati Roy

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      Canada claims to be human rights leader in the world, but it has declined to accept a petition signed by hundreds of its citizens and residents in support of honorary citizenship for an internationally acclaimed author and human rights defender in India.

      Indians Abroad for Pluralist India (IAPI) collected the signatures in Metro Vancouver on petitions to grant Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy honorary Canadian citizenship.

      In a one-line response to the petition, Peter Schiefke, parliamentary secretary to the prime minister, wrote: “The decision to bestow citizenship is a decision of Parliament not that of the Government”.

      This is despite the fact that the petition was addressed to the House of Commons and sponsored by none other than the member of Parliament for Surrey Centre, Randeep Singh Sarai.

      The petition was first launched online in October, 2018, through the House of Commons website and was examined by the house clerk of petitions.

      Later, IAPI members gathered signatures on hard copies as well. These were submitted to Sarai at his constituency office in February.

      The petition demanded that Parliament add Roy to the list of other honorary Canadian citizens, which includes Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, and Malala Yusufzai—a young Pakistani woman who survived a violent attack by the Taliban for defending girls' right to education in her country.

      These individuals have received the honour for standing up for human rights and democracy in their own countries.

      Roy has always advocated for the rights of the poor and marginalized people in India and has been vocal, at great personal risk, against any form of state violence against minorities.

      This risk has been magnified under the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) regime, under whose rule intolerance has grown. Writers like Roy and scholars continue to face threats and harassment.

      India is presently witnessing an era of McCarthyism in which left-wing activists and thinkers are frequently targeted both by the police and Hindu vigilante groups.

      There have been several high-profile murders of progressive writers by Hindu extremists who enjoy the patronage of the ruling BJP. And police are being increasingly used to detain political critics of the state in the name of a war against left-wing extremism.

      Roy, who shot to prominence with her novel The God of Small Things, which earned her the Man Booker Prize, is also an essayist. She has travelled extensively and demonstrated her capability in challenging power anywhere in the world.

      She has faced threats for writing in defence of the people of Kashmir fighting for the right to self-determination, as well as for defending Adivasis (Indigenous peoples of India) facing eviction due to the extraction industry, which is often backed by the Indian establishment.

      She has pulled no punches in her lectures, media interviews, and writings as she has criticized supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who have been been terrorizing minorities.

      Roy has always been consistent in her criticism of Indian forces who've killed civilians with impunity and use rape as a weapon in conflict zones.

      Her recent novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, is a sad story about marginalized sections of Indian society forced to live under constant fear and insecurity.

      Even otherwise, Roy has been at the forefront of many grassroots campaigns for social justice and is never shy about speaking at public demonstrations and rallies against the government.

      While the Canadian Parliament honoured Yusufzai, its reluctance to stand up for Roy raises too many questions.

      Canada has not advocated for the release of Delhi University professor G.N. Saibaba from jail, even though his plight has attracted the attention of U.N. human rights experts.
      Gurpreet Singh

      All one can say is that Canada is being selective when it comes to questioning human rights abuses in the world’s so-called largest democracy of India.

      One does not need to be a rocket scientist to understand that Roy remains unpopular with the right-wing government of India, whose influence continues to grow in Canada. Whether or not Canada is under any pressure from the Modi government can only be explained by people in Ottawa.

      This is not the first time that Canada has let us down. In the past, the Canadian government gave a cold shoulder to another petition asking for its intervention to get a disabled Delhi University Professor G.N. Saibaba released on compassionate grounds.

      Saibaba, who relies on a wheelchair and is suffering several ailments, continues to be incarcerated under inhuman conditions.

      He was given a life sentence after being branded as a supporter of Maoist insurgents for merely standing up in defence of the Indigenous peoples whose lands are being taken away by the big mining companies with the backing of the Indian state.

      Saibaba is one of the few scholars who have been advocating for the rights of the poor and marginalized through democratic means. Roy has also been campaigning for his release.

      Petitions signed by hundreds of people in Metro Vancouver for Saibaba and submitted to Canadian House of Commons through two MPs, Sukh Dhaliwal and Peter Julian, did not elicit a favourable response, either.

      Gurpreet Singh is cofounder of Radical Desi magazine and Indians Abroad for Pluralist India.

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