It was Sunday, July 31, when some of us had gathered outside the Indian Visa and Passport Application Centre in Surrey, B.C.
The occasion was the martyrdom day of Indian revolutionary Udham Singh.
Singh was executed on July 31, 1940, in London for assassinating the former lieutenant governor of Punjab, Michael O’Dwyer, who was instrumental behind the circumstances leading to the indiscriminate firing on the assembly of the supporters of the passive-resistance struggle against British occupation of India. This mass murder occurred at Jallianwala Bagh Public Park in Amritsar in April, 1919. Protesters had come out to oppose repressive laws and arrests of leaders of the freedom movement.
We thought of giving tributes to Singh in an unconventional manner by raising our voices for political prisoners, especially well-known journalist and human rights defender Teesta Setalvad, who are being incarcerated for questioning power under the current right-wing regime in the world’s so-called largest democracy.
Setalvad was recently arrested on trumped-up charges at the behest of the Hindu nationalist BJP government in New Delhi for advocating for justice for victims of the 2002 anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat.
Thousands of Muslims were massacred in state-orchestrated violence after a train carrying Hindu pilgrims caught fire, leaving more than 50 passengers dead.
The then-chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, blamed the incident on Islamic fundamentalists before one commission of inquiry found that it was an accident. Though Modi was never charged for inciting bloodshed, he was denied a U.S. visa until 2014 when he became the prime minister.
Setalvad was detained after the Supreme Court of India had accused her of keeping the pot boiling while rejecting a petition challenging a clean chit given to Modi in the massacre by the Special Investigation Team.
Since her great grandfather, Chiman Lal Setalvad, once grilled a British army officer who had ordered the killings of at Jallianwala Bagh, the rally in her support was held on the martyrdom day of Udham Singh.
Organized by Radical Desi—an online magazine published by me—the rally was started with a moment of silence in memory of Vancouver-based Kat Norris, an Indigenous activist, who passed away recently. She was a survivor of the Kuper Island Indian Residential School, a dark legacy of the colonial history of Canada.
As Radical Desi had earlier invited Setalvad to Canada in 2018 close to the 100th anniversary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, it became important for us to stand up for her.
She has been consistently writing and speaking out against state violence and the majoritarianism of the BJP government under which attacks on religious minorities, particularly Muslims and political critics, have grown. If that is not enough, even more draconian laws are being drafted and implemented to suppress any voice of dissent.
Participants at the rally shouted slogans in support of Testalvad and asked for her release. We also held out signs reading, “Free Teesta” on the occasion.
Little did I realize that the Indian government would soon be drafting a dossier on me after this action. The copy of the document describes Setalvad as someone “inimical to India”.
This is despite the fact that she is the great-granddaughter of someone who interrogated the butcher of Jallianwala Bagh and who happened to be an associate of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, a towering scholar and social justice activist and the architect of the Indian constitution—a document that Setalvad deeply respects and follows in letter and spirit.
During her Canadian visit in 2018, she went to the Komagata Maru memorial in Vancouver. The Japanese vessel carrying more than 350 South Asian passengers was forcibly returned under a racist and discriminatory immigration law by the Canadian government at the behest of the British Empire that did not want British subjects of Indian heritage settling in North America. This entire incident in 1914 galvanized the freedom movement and became part of the independence struggle.
Also, she was herself pictured with the portrait of Ambedkar at Surrey Central Library. She never let her love for India, its people, and diversity die down even after being hounded by those in power. And yet she is being seen as part of so-called “anti-India” forces.
For the record, the founding fathers of Modi's BJP had no role in the liberation movement. On the contrary, they continued to work for establishing a Hindu theocracy. Some of their icons were rather involved in the murder of Mohandas K. Gandhi—the giant leader of civil disobedience. To her credit, Setalvad compiled a book based on documents related to Gandhi’s assassination case.
It’s a shame that a true patriot like her is in jail for doing the right thing, while those who are determined to divide the country along religious lines and openly violate the constitution are in power. The 75th anniversary of India’s independence on August 15, which Modi and his cohorts are celebrating as Amrit Mahotsav (a carnival of holy water), is in reality a poison being spread in the garb of narrow nationalism to instil more fear in the minds of minorities and silence reasoning.
It’s time to start another freedom movement for emancipation from Hindu majoritarianism at least until all political prisoners, including her, walk out with dignity and Modi is unseated. Until then, no celebration or tricolour for me. This August 15 should go down as another black day in our history.
As far as I am concerned, feel free to call me whatever. Honestly speaking, the dossier on me is a like badge of honour and I don’t care, but be fair to Setalvad who is being punished for trying to save the nation from going to the dogs.
Modi should actually be thankful to her for pursuing for justice and avoid a situation for the coming generation of Hindu majority from hanging their heads in shame and apologizing to the world for his crimes against humanity.