Gurpreet Singh: Indian Summer Festival helps break global silence on repression in world’s so-called largest democracy

    1 of 3 2 of 3

      Now in its 10th year, an annual event celebrating diversity of India in Canada isn’t just about entertainment and parties.

      In August 2019, organizers of Vancouver's Indian Summer Festival invited two daring scholars for a bold conversation.

      Renowned author Arundhati Roy and U.S.-based journalist David Barsamian discussed Roy's latest book, My Seditious Heart, a collection of her all published political essays, some of which are highly critical of the Indian state.

      The talk occurred just when India's right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) government had revoked special rights given to the disputed region of Kashmir—and heavily deployed its armed forces there.

      Roy pulls no punches when writing against growing attacks on religious minorities and political dissidents under the BJP, which is turning India into a near-Hindu theocracy. Breaking the deafening silence in Canada over what is going on in India, Roy and Barsamian discussed a range of inconvenient issues, including Kashmir, which remains under lockdown in the name of national security.

      The only Muslim-dominated state in India, Kashmir is facing an internal blockade by a government that wants to suppress an ongoing indigenous struggle for right to self-determination. To achieve this end, the Indian government arbitrarily abrogated special status given to Kashmir and split it into different territories without any consultation with the local leadership. This was done to polarize the Hindu majority and it came in the wake of a spike in anti-Muslim violence all across India, mostly sponsored by the ruling party.

      Roy and Barsamian, coauthors of The Chequebook and the Cruise Missile based on their conversations on Indian issues in the past, started their live discussion in a very unconventional way. 

      Barsamian invited her on the dais with the Communist greeting of Lal Salaam (Red Salute). To that, she responded with saying “Lal Salaam Wallekum”, which is a combination of Communist and Muslim greetings, a fictional creation of Roy, which can be found in her last novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Considering the onslaught against leftists and Muslims under the present Indian regime, such imagination symbolizes the need for Muslim-Communist solidarity. 

      Video: Watch David Barsamian's conversation with Arundhati Roy in Vancouver in January.

      Notably, Roy has repeatedly faced threats in India, while Barsamian was deported from an Indian airport back in 2011. The two have been in the eyes of a storm even before the BJP came to power with a brute majority in 2014. Their consistent advocacy for the rights of oppressed groups and condemnation of state violence in India never sat well with any administration in New Delhi.

      That's not the only time Indian Summer Festival challenged the status quo.

      Even as repression continues in Kashmir and the rest of India, on June 27, Indian Summer Festival hosted Sanjay Kak, a documentary filmmaker to talk about his book Witness Kashmir. It's a powerful collection of the work of nine Kashmiri photojournalists, who have documented the tumultuous history of the region.

      The pictures from between the period 1986 and2016 in the book depict the ugly reality of Kashmir.

      An online talk between the Indian Summer Festival cofounder Sirish Rao and Kak took into account the blockade in Kashmir and how it has put people at great inconvenience because of lack of access to Internet. 

      Rao opened the discussion with very candid comments about the situation on the ground in Kashmir.

      Sanjay Kak was in Vancouver last year to talk about his film about photographers in Kashmir.
      Gurpreet Singh

      Indian Summer Festival has invited several other important guests in the years before. Roy had been here on at least two other occasions, while Jaspreet Singh, who authored Helium, a novel based on state-sponsored Sikh massacre of 1984, was invited to speak in 2015. 

      Thousands of Sikhs were brutally murdered in different parts of India following the assassination of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by mobs led by the members of her self-styled secular Congress Party.

      Likewise, famous journalist Tarun Tejpal, who was instrumental behind sting operations that exposed the complicity of the present Indian prime minister Narendra Modi in Muslim massacre of 2002, was here as an Indian Summer Festival guest in 2011. 

      Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat back then, when anti-Muslim pogrom broke out after a train carrying Hindu pilgrims caught fire, leaving more than 50 people dead. Modi blamed the incident on Muslims. 

      The list other worthwhile events at the festival is long.

      But the inclusion of the prominent speakers mentioned above illustrates that the Indian Summer Festival has emerged as a platform for the voiceless whose stories often remain unheard by an international community that has taken the democracy in India for granted.

      Rao and his team have proven themselves as true defenders of diversity, which was the foundation for an inclusive India. That country, tragically, has been transformed into an illiberal society by Modi.

      On Saturday (July 4) at 2 p.m., Indian Summer Festival will host Tiffin Talks - Zanani/Zamana/Zameen, with novelist Shauna Singh Baldwin, filmmaker Baljit Sangra, and visual artist Sandeep Johal, moderated by Suvi Bains. The conversation will focus on the clash between tradition and modernity within the context of patriarchy and gender inequality, and it will take place on the festival's YouTube channel and Facebook page.

      Gurpreet Singh is a cofounder of Radical Desi and Indians Abroad for Pluralist India. The Georgia Straight publishes opinions like this from the community to encourage constructive debate on important issues.