Gurpreet Singh: UBC pressured by Sikh activists to cancel daring journalist’s appearance on panel
Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor of the New Delhi-based Caravan magazine, is scheduled to speak at annual Harjit Kaur Sidhu Memorial Program on Wednesday (April 7).
The online event was planned by Punjabi Studies in the University of British Columbia's department of Asian Studies.
Bal was 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 is being resisted by some Sikh activists, according to one of the organizers.
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 pulls no punches while criticizing any of them.
And yet, a section of Sikh activists oppose the April 7 event 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.
One can always disagree with Bal on many things 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.
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 in 2017. 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.
It is unfortunate that UBC may cave in due to pressure from a few self-styled gatekeepers of 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 are trying to get 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 will only make their enemies in the BJP government happy. Let’s not forget that divided we fall, united we rise.
The event featuring Hartosh Singh Bal was cancelled after this article appeared on Straight.com.