Gurpreet Singh: Human rights are not just Sikh rights

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      (Editor's note: After this column appeared, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh put out a tweet criticizing the Indian government's treatment of Prof. G.N. Saibaba.)

      Canadian politicians have once again shown their true colours.

      When it comes to human rights, their approach is either selective or flawed. The latest case in point is the promptness displayed by them in responding to the arrest and torture of a Scottish Sikh activist in Punjab, India.

      Following reports of the detention and inhuman treatment of Jagtar Singh Johal a few days ago, Canadian politicians have raised concerns.

      Among them were federal ministers Harjit Singh Sajjan and Amarjeet Singh Sohi, as well as newly elected NDP leader Jagmeet Singh—all of them taking to social media to denounce the arrest of Johal.

      Johal was detained on suspicion of being involved in series of murders of right-wing Hindu political activists in Punjab.

      His supporters believe he has been framed for campaigning for justice for victims of an anti-Sikh pogrom in 1984.

      That year thousands of Sikhs were slaughtered across India following the assassination of the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. No justice has been done to the victims' families as political leaders involved remain unpunished.

      Johal and many others like him have been campaigning for justice from abroad.

      Canadian politicians, including Jagmeet Singh, have also been instrumental in raising this issue in Canada. While there is nothing wrong with what Canadian politicians have done—as we all need to stand up for human rights anywhere in the world—they have been ignoring another pressing case for the past several months.

      Prof. G.N. Saibaba is a Delhi University academic who is 90 percent disabled below the waist. Currently in jail where he is serving life sentence for supporting Maoist insurgents in the tribal areas of India, Saibaba is confined to a wheelchair and suffers from several ailments.

      He recently wrote to his wife Vasantha from inside jail saying that as winter sets in, he may not survive due to inhuman conditions in his cell. He does not have a blanket or a sweater and is complaining of constant muscle pain.

      G.N. Saibaba is confined to a wheelchair and he's told his wife that prison conditions are very tough on him.
      Gurpreet Singh

      Radical Desi launched a petition seeking the release of Saibaba on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. The petition was signed by close to 1,000 people and presented to at least two MPs, Sukh Dhaliwal (Liberal) and Peter Julian (NDP) before the fall session.

      These have not been tabled in the house yet, though they were submitted to the house clerk for verification, according to both Dhaliwal and Julian.

      Dhaliwal later indicated that Canada government wants to remain neutral in this case.

      Separately, a letter signed by 100 residents of Delta was presented to the then minister responsible for people with disabilities, Carla Qualtrough (now public services minister), asking for immediate action.

      Her staff had also said that the Canadian government would remain neutral and cannot interfere in this matter.

      Jagmeet Singh too was apprised of the situation repeatedly through personal messages by myself. On one occasion he even acknowledged having received one of my articles on Saibaba but remained noncommittal on making any statement. So much so that he never even answered to my question whether we can count on him.

      Saibaba was first arrested in 2014 and incarcerated in jail in the western Indian state of Maharashtra. Following a series of protests, including some in Canada he was released on bail, but the right-wing forces never let him go back to work.

      Saibaba has been raising his voice against the repression of minorities, particularly tribal people and Dalits, otherwise known as the so-called untouchables.

      Indigenous peoples in India's tribal belt continue to face persecution at the hands of the extraction industry and security forces in the name of a war on terror against Maoist insurgents active in the area.

      Many Indigenous peoples have been forced to support the Maoists due to the barbarity of a government bent upon evicting them from their traditional lands to facilitate mining.

      Saibaba has been instrumental in organizing actions in India's cities against these atrocities.

      His supporters feel that he is being punished for standing up for the underdog and was slapped with baseless charges with an intention to eliminate him.

      In March this year he landed back in jail after being given life sentence in spite of his poor medical condition.

      It is pertinent to mention that Jagmeet Singh has raised the issue of political prisoners in Punjab in addition to Jagtar Singh Johal.

      These included a Sikh militant, Balwant Singh Rajoana, who faces a death sentence for the murder of Punjab chief minister Beant Singh in 1995.

      Likewise, Dhaliwal and another Liberal MP from Surrey, Randeep Singh Sarai, have consistently been raising the issue of 1984 attacks on Sikhs in India.

      Honestly, I have nothing against Jagmeet Singh and the others. I respect them for raising issues concerning Rajoana and Johal.

      Rather, I shamelessly supported Jagmeet Singh during his leadership race because of his stance on human rights and have been critical of right-wing forces both in Canada and India who have been maligning him.

      However, I am disappointed by these politicians' silence over Saibaba.

      It suggests that for all of them, only the numbers game matters and nothing else.

      We don't need to be rocket scientists to understand the logic behind their selective attitude.

      After all, Sikhs are an influential community who has been politically active in Canada for many years. Nobody can and nobody should ignore the interests of the Sikhs, especially their genuine grouse against the Indian state.

      But our politicians should stand up for the rights of everyone and not just one religious group for vote-bank politics.

      That most Canadian politicians are equally shy of standing up for the people of Palestine and the Indigenous communities is another story.

      It is important to point out that Sikhism teaches its followers to stand up for the rights of others.

      Jagmeet Singh, in particular, needs to know that Sikh temple congregations that supported him enthusiastically also signed petition for Saibaba. The Sikhs have absolutely no problem with raising the issue of Saibaba, yet Canadian politicians are conveniently ignoring this cause.

      Their obsession for Sikh issues seems to be driven more by an urge to attract ethnic votes rather than honestly rattling the cage for social justice.

      Jagmeet Singh and other politicians should wake up and raise their voices for a disabled scholar.

      If the hands of the ruling party are tied because of the compulsions of geopolitics, at the very least Jagmeet Singh can show some courage.

      Otherwise, his name will go down in history like any other politician who did not dare to stand for someone simply because this issue did not have a big following in Canada.

      Gurpreet Singh is cofounder of Radical Desi magazine. 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.