The news of Chinmoy Banerjee’s death has greatly saddened the South Asian community in B.C.
An 80-year-old scholar and activist of Indian heritage, "Chin Daa", as we affectionately called him, was not keeping well for the past while.
He passed away on the morning of July 29, leaving behind a powerful legacy of tireless activism.
Banerjee previously taught English at Simon Fraser University and was deeply involved in the social-justice movement.
His demise came at a time when bigotry continues to grow all over the world. And that's created an irreparable loss to his comrades.
Until two weeks ago, he was actively trying to organize each one of us against racism.
I had an opportunity to attend one of the two Zoom meetings he hosted to figure out how to work in solidarity with Black Lives Matter in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by police in U.S.
Little did we realize that those might be his last interactions with us on such an intense issue.
As a true humanist and diehard secularist, Banerjee consistently raised his voice against state violence and repression of minorities anywhere, including India, where he was born in January 1940. He was among the founders of Indian People’s Association of North America and South Asian Network for Secularism and Democracy, two advocacy groups of progressive South Asians dedicated to challenging attacks on democratic and civil rights.
He was also instrumental behind the formation of the B.C. Organization to Fight Racism.
He not only denounced the attacks on Sikhs during 1980s by the then-so called secularist Congress government of India, but remained vocal against the outright sectarian and antiminority policies of the currently ruling right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by its controversial prime minister, Narendra Modi.
The BJP is determined to turn India into a Hindu theocracy. It believes in the political ideology of Hindutva, which is embraced by extremist Hindus to exclude Muslims and Christians as “outsiders” and tries to assimilate Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains.
Banerjee was among those few in the Lower Mainland who opposed Modi and his Hindutva world view, and protested against Modi's visit to Vancouver in 2015.
Attacks on religious minorities, especially Muslims, have grown in India ever since Modi became prime minister in 2014.
In addition, Banerjee invited many fabulous speakers from India to educate the world about what is going on under Modi. By virtue of knowing him closely, I had an opportunity to meet a number of them.
Among them is Anand Teltumbde, an established author, who was arrested in April this year on trumped up charges for merely raising his voice against the Indian establishment. Teltumbde has been questioning the government's power through his writings. He is among many other scholars who are being incarcerated for challenging the status quo.
Together with Chin Daa, we also held a protest outside Indian consulate when another Indian scholar, Delhi University Professor G.N. Saibaba, was first arrested and thrown in jail in 2014.
Saibaba, who is 90 percent disabled below the waist and gets around in a wheelchair, had been speaking out against eviction of Adivasis (Indigenous peoples) of India from their traditional lands by the Indian state. This was done in the name of development to help extraction industries.
Since Maoist insurgents are active in those areas, Saibaba was branded as Maoist and thrown in jail. He was later convicted and sentenced to life in prison despite his disability. The Modi government refuses to release him on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.
Banerjee also gave me opportunities to speak at public events organized by him and extended his help to Radical Desi, a magazine started by myself. In addition, he helped Indians Abroad for Pluralist India, a group we created in response to state-sponsored violence against minorities and political dissidents under Modi.
With Banerjee gone, we all need to carry on with his incomplete mission for a just society as the struggle is not over yet. It is only likely to become more difficult.
Rest in Peace, Chin Daa. You will always be missed.