As we head toward the next federal election on October 21, not many candidates are taking the current situation in India seriously. Nor are they talking about its impact on Canadian politics.
Under the right-wing Hindu nationalist government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, there has been an alarming increase in attacks on religious minorities and political dissidents.
This has occurred in the world’s so-called largest democracy under Bhartiya Janata Party's (BJP) rule.
Voices of resistance are not only suppressed there, but also outside India, especially in a country like Canada, with a sizeable population of people of Indian origin.
This is why not many South Asian politicians running in the federal election have come out with strong statements since the Modi administration unilaterally revoked the special status of the disputed territory of Kashmir on August 5.
Jammu and Kashmir is the only Muslim-majority state in India.
Modi gets free ride in Canada
Over the past several weeks, Kashmir has been turned into an open jail cell as civilian movements have been curtailed and political leaders have been detained indefinitely.
Thousands of troops have been deployed in a state where agitation for the right to self-determination has been going on for years.
This troop deployment is happening under the pretext of maintaining public order.
With the exception of NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, no other sitting MP of South Asian descent has dared to speak out loudly against what is happening in Kashmir.
The fear of a denial of a visa is real: Singh's wish to travel to India was blocked after he raised concerns over the country's human rights situation.
Politicians with business and family ties with India are obviously scared of taking any position against the Indian state.
However, the Surrey-Newton candidate for the Conservative Party, Harpreet Singh, is one of the rare voices within the community who has been vocal against growing repression in Modi’s India.
Also a prominent Punjabi-language TV broadcaster, Harpreet Singh has not only showed up at different rallies and demonstrations organized in protest against oppression in India. He has also consistently provided his platform to critics of the Indian state to voice their concerns fearlessly.
This is in sharp contrast with several South Asian MPs and MLAs in Surrey from more progressive parties, including federal Liberals and New Democrats, who mostly avoid attending demonstrations or speaking about this topic.
This is despite the fact that Harpreet Singh’s own party has close ties with Modi’s BJP.
Candidate publicly disagreed with Harper
Harpreet Singh recently told the Straight that his party doesn’t discourage him from speaking his mind. He believes that others may not be vocal mainly because of their own interests in India.
For the record, Harpreet Singh also rejected a controversial statement that former prime minister and ex-Conservative leader Stephen Harper made at an event organized by a pro-Modi lobby group.
Harper was speaking at a Canada India Foundation gala in Toronto when he criticized supporters of a separate Sikh homeland of Khalistan.
Harper assured the audience that he would assist Conservative leader Andrew Scheer and Modi to make the Canada-India relationship stronger.
This enraged supporters of Khalistan, some of whom live in Surrey.
Harpreet Singh has written a letter to the media expressing disagreement with Harper’s statement.
The Conservative candidate in Surrey-Newton declared: “The former PM’s statement does not reflect my views. While the Conservatives believe in united India, we also believe in freedom of speech and Sikhs have the right to articulate their views in a democratic manner.”
Harpreet Singh has also asked for an inquiry into a series of incidents leading to Harper’s statement.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh have been repeatedly accused of being soft on the Khalistan movement by Indian politicians and their supporters in Canada.
In recent months, the anti-Khalistan rhetoric has grown in India under the BJP government.
This coincides with recent reports suggesting the possibility of growing foreign interference in Canadian politics by the Indian and Chinese governments.
Harpreet Singh pointed out that the last time Trudeau visited India, the Indian government tried to highlight the issue of Khalistan.
Shortly after that, Sikhs were bracketed with Khalistani extremism in the 2018 Public Report on the Terrorism Threat to Canada, prepared by the Canadian government.
He wanted to know why such rhetoric has increased during this election year.
But taking stands like this has never been easy for Harpreet Singh. He said that he has received hostile messages from supporters of Indian government and those close to Indian diplomats in Canada.
Discrimination concerns this Conservative
Notably, Harpreet Singh has also been vocal against racism in Canada both against immigrants and Indigenous peoples.
He was in the forefront of a campaign in support of Laiber Singh, a disabled refugee claimant from India. The man faced deportation under Harper in spite of public demands to let him stay on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.
Harpreet Singh was also critical of a party colleague and former MP, the late Deepak Obhrai, who was known for his proximity to Modi's BJP.
Harpreet Singh says that he cares for these issues as he is from the minority Sikh community and came to Canada as an immigrant. He faced a number of challenges in getting his credentials recognized in Canada when he was trying to get a job in the mainstream media.
Before migrating to Canada from India in 2002, he worked with several reputable English dailies and news agencies and yet he had to live with the reality of working in the Punjabi media. He currently produces an independent TV show.
Whether or not Harpreet Singh makes it to Parliament is hard to predict. And if he does, will his party let him speak up on such sensitive issues?
That is difficult to believe.
But his consistent presence at rallies and protests against India—including a recent one on Kashmir as other South Asian MPs stayed away—speaks volume about his passion.