First it was the University of British Columbia and then it was Simon Fraser University—the two tallest academic institutions in Greater Vancouver.
One after the other backed off from an event featuring Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor of the New Delhi-based Caravan magazine.
After that event was cancelled, SFU stepped in and organized another event for Bal on Monday (April 26). Shortly after going public with this, SFU too developed cold feet and decided to cancel.
Bal had been invited to talk about the ongoing farmers’ struggle in India.
Thousands of farmers have been camping outside New Delhi for months asking the right-wing Hindu nationalist government to revoke controversial farm laws that threaten their livelihood.
The veteran journalist has covered the agitation extensively and has been a vocal critic of the government and its repressive policies.
Attacks on religious minorities and political dissidents have grown ever since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party came to power with a majority in 2014.
Bal is one of the rare journalists who have been holding the Indian establishment to account whereas most media outlets have turned into apologists of the ruling BJP.
However, his invitation was being resisted by some Sikh activists.
It's because Bal is the nephew of a highly controversial police officer, the late K.P.S. Gill.
Gill was the head of the Punjab police during the Sikh militancy in the 1980s and 1990s. This was when the movement for a separate Sikh homeland of Khalistan was at its peak.
During this period, Gill was widely accused of allowing police excesses to curb the insurgency. Thousands of innocent Sikhs and political activists were brutally tortured and killed in an extrajudicial manner in the name of Gill's “war on terror”.
His nephew, Bal, has objectively covered state repression, especially the government-sponsored violence against Sikhs in 1984.
In the first week of November of that year, Sikhs were slaughtered across India following the assassination of then-prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. They were seeking revenge for the military invasion on the Golden Temple Complex, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs, in Amritsar in June that year.
The ill-conceived operation was launched to suppress the Sikh movement and gain the support of the Hindu majority in the impending general election.
In fact, the then-ruling Congress party that claims to be a secular alternative of the BJP won a huge majority in the parliamentary election that year in the aftermath of the Sikh Genocide.
Bal has been writing consistently against what happened to the Sikhs in 1984 and openly blames majoritarian politics for the situation the minority community was pushed into. He sees many parallels between policies of the present prime minister, Narendra Modi, and those of Indira Gandhi. And he pulls no punches while criticizing any of them.
And yet, a section of Sikh activists opposed the two events by emphasizing that he has "praised" his uncle in the past.
The fact is that Bal never justified the police barbarity in Punjab. On the contrary, he has been critical of police repression.
He has only emphasized that Gill alone cannot be singled out as other police officers preceding or succeeding him during militancy did the same—but due to the selectivity of some on both the left and right sides of the political spectrum, the misdeeds of others were conveniently overlooked.
Bal was only trying to contextualize Gill and his actions and he had every right to do so. In one such article, he acknowledged that he could be biased.
His speech describing Gill as a "hero" from a memorial event organized after Gill passed away in 2017 is also being used against him. Let’s face it that Bal was speaking there as his nephew and not as a journalist. He has every right to have his personal observation about his uncle, however problematic it might be.
One can always disagree with Bal on many things, including his high opinion about his uncle and debate with him, but how wise it is to shun him by simply glossing over his entire work?
I, for one, have no sympathy for Gill and all those police officers who were or remain complicit in crimes against humanity. For Bal, he might be a hero, but for me the real hero was Jaswant Singh Khalra, a human rights activist who was murdered by the Indian police for investigating all those extrajudicial killings.
Khalra faced death with courage and conviction in his fight against the Indian establishment. Gill, being a spoke in the wheel of injustice, can never be my hero. It is Bal’s professional integrity that in spite of his deep admiration of his uncle for numerous other reasons, such as his passion for chess or literature, that he too covered the cases of human rights abuse that were being investigated by supporters of Khalra even after his death in 1995.
In fact, I first met some of those activists at Bal’s rented accommodation in Chandigarh where Bal and I worked together for Indian Express. They were visiting him to provide him information on those who were kidnapped and murdered, only to be cremated unceremoniously by the police.
Had Bal been prejudiced or blinded by his bonding with Gill, he probably wouldn’t have even touched the story, leaving aside the question of entertaining those people at his home.
I, too, might have some disagreements with Bal, but I agree on one thing with him: we need to question the entire system of majoritarian democracy where minorities are being tormented at will by those in power and the police under them.
Gill should have been tried for all those brutalities, but he died unpunished. Nevertheless, he wasn’t the only one and won’t be the last to be used by the world's so-called largest democracy against its own people.
But we cannot treat his nephew the same as him and should only judge him as a journalist. The knee-jerk reaction coming from those who didn’t want Bal to be included at the university events seemed to be as if Gill himself has walked out of his grave to come and speak.
It is unfortunate that UBC and SFU have both caved in due to pressure from a few self-styled gatekeepers in the Sikh community who do not represent every Sikh in B.C. There are many within the Sikh community who admire Bal and his work.
They see him as their ally in their fight against Hindu chauvinists who are turning India into an intolerant theocracy where minorities are being treated as second-class citizens.
Those who made a fuss about his event and got it cancelled are no different than those ruling India in trying to suppress any voice of reason.
They need to understand that by silencing Bal, they have only made their enemies in the BJP government happy. What an Indian consulate in Vancouver couldn’t have achieved has been achieved for it by these people, who are sitting here comfortably with nothing to lose.
It is people like Bal who are actually in the harm’s way and fighting with fascists every day, while the armchair revolutionaries in Canada are only good at passing judgements.
UBC and SFU have failed miserably to stand up for both academic and journalistic freedom and have displayed complete mental bankruptcy by not even honestly acknowledging that they have cancelled these events.
Their choice of words is simply deceptive and tries to make people believe that they have only postponed it.
The UBC earlier told the Straight that the event is being rescheduled for “a variety reasons and primarily due to the pandemic”, which is laughable as the event was to be held online.
Adding an insult to the injury, SFU stated that it will be asking the community to provide the list of “informed” and “appropriate” panellists as if Bal is ill-informed or an inappropriate person.
This whole experience shows that loya jirgas and khap panchayats that are similar to kangaroo courts also exist in Canada and not just in countries like Afghanistan and India.
It's a shame that our academic bodies have become puppets in the hands of those resorting to moral policing and dictating their terms. This is going to set a wrong precedent and might encourage the supporters of Modi as well to exert pressure on these institutions not to allow other speakers who are critical of the Indian state.