This weekend, people in the Indian community, notably Hindus, are celebrating the birth of their elephant god.
Lord Ganesh is considered a symbol of wisdom. Since the bandicoot is his ride, many enthusiasts see the computer mouse as the modern embodiment of the thoughts behind what Ganesh represents.
India is where big processions celebrate such an auspicious occasion as Ganesh Chaturthi. However, this same country has become one of the most dangerous places for scholars and teachers who dare to question power, especially under the right-wing Hindu nationalist BJP regime.
To put things in perspective, the country is going through its own McCarthy era when people with the slightest affiliation with left-wing ideology or a progressive worldview can land in trouble.
The government in New Delhi is run by those associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu supremacist organization that started its journey in 1925 with a dream of turning India into a Hindu theocracy.
The prime minister, Narendra Modi, has been an RSS man.
In the past, RSS founders were inspired by figures like Adolf Hitler and justified the Jewish Holocaust in Europe. They considered leftists as their traditional enemies and believed in totalitarian ways to control a society.
This explains why attacks on religious minorities, especially Muslims and political dissidents, have grown under Modi who came to power with a majority in 2014.
This is not to suggest that the previous government was excellent. The Indian state has been brutal on dissent for years, but the Modi administration has made the laws more stringent to deal with opposition coming from the left and minority groups.
Unsurprisingly, at present there is a number of scholars being incarcerated in Indian jails under trumped-up charges. At least six of them are prominent activist teachers. They have been opposing violence against minorities and the marginalized.
The most well-known case is that of physically challenged former Delhi University professor G.N. Saibaba. A wheelchair user, Saibaba is 90 percent disabled below the waist. He is suffering with multiple ailments.
He was first arrested in May 2014. For the record, this was before Modi came to power.
Saibaba’s only crime was that he advocated for the rights of the Adivasis (Indigenous peoples) who are being evicted from their mineral-rich traditional lands by the extraction industry with the backing of the Indian state in the name of development. He was branded as a Maoist sympathizer and thrown behind bars. He was given bail for medical reasons in 2015 but was arrested again, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison. He has been in jail since.
Even human-rights experts with the United Nations have asked for his release on compassionate grounds, but the Indian government remains indifferent.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, when demands for the release of all political prisoners were made, Modi did not show any compassion. So much so that Saibaba wasn’t even given an opportunity to visit his mother on her death bed.
In Canada, there have been protests for his release. A petition was signed by more than 2,000 Canadians and given to at least two MPs but nothing came out of it.
The Canadian government remains disinterested in the case even after several individual politicians, like NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and former MP Svend Robinson, and organizations such as the B.C. Federation of Labour have made statements.
Among other educators in prison is Anand Teltumbde, who has been to Canada.
Teltumbde has authored several books and happens to be married to a granddaughter of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. Ambedkar was a towering scholar of India and was the architect of the Indian constitution.
Meanwhile, an 82-year-old educator and poet, Varavara Rao, was only recently granted bail for medical reasons and under strict conditions.
Others imprisoned include women's-rights activist and English professor Shoma Sen, trade unionist and academic Vernon Gonsalves, and English professor Hany Babu. All of these individuals are being persecuted for challenging the status quo.
Significantly, the B.C. Teachers' Federation organized an event for jailed activist teachers across the word on August 24 at the University of British Columbia, a week before Ganesh Chaturthi. I was given an opportunity to speak for Saibaba and others being persecuted in India.
As if this is not enough, India celebrates September 5 as Teachers’ Day in commemoration of former president and educator Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. Modi won’t forget to congratulate teachers on this day, but who is going to tell him on his face that he must let jailed teachers go if he really cares for the sanctity of the day and believes in Ganesh?
Let’s join hands to make the world’s so-called largest democracy accountable for what it is doing to its teachers instead of letting it get away with its lies and misleading tokenism.