In 2018, Justin Trudeau visited Surrey, which has a sizeable population of Indo Canadians.
At least two MPs of Indian heritage from his Liberal Party of Canada, Sukh Dhaliwal and Randeep Singh Sarai, were at the event hosting Trudeau. Dhaliwal and Sarai each represented ridings in Surrey.
This was a year before the last federal election, which saw Trudeau return to power with a minority government.
During his speech, the prime minister brought up the conviction of two Myanmar journalists and emphasized the importance of press freedom. However, the oddness of facts that were conveniently overlooked did not go unnoticed.
It was September 4, 2018 and almost a year earlkier, an Indian journalist, Gauri Lankesh, was assassinated in Bengaluru. She was highly critical of the right-wing Hindu nationalist BJP government in New Delhi under which attacks on religious minorities and political dissidents had grown.
She was murdered on September 5, 2017 and yet there was no mention of that in Trudeau’s address on the eve of the first anniversary of the gruesome act that invited global outrage.
Understandably, he likely wasn’t even told about that by his Indo Canadian party colleagues. Otherwise, why he would not recognize such an important incident in a setting with the predominantly South Asian community?
Whatever may be the explanation, Trudeau’s silence on Lankesh's murder while touting press freedom in neighbouring Myanmar reflected very badly on his government and on Canada, which claims to be a human-rights leader in the world.
Today as Trudeau is seeking another term, the situation has not changed. There are a number of Indian scholars, including journalists, being incarcerated under inhuman conditions for questioning power and challenging the policies of the BJP government.
Among them is former Delhi University professor G.N. Saibaba, who is disabled below the waist and suffers from multiple ailments. He was arrested and convicted under trumped-up charges for raising his voice for the Adivasis (Indigenous peoples of India), who are facing eviction from their mineral-rich traditional lands by the extraction industry with the backing of the Indian state.
In spite of so many protests in Canada for Saibaba, Trudeau and others have chosen to remain quiet. This is despite the fact that two MPs, Liberal Sukh Dhaliwal and New Democrat Peter Julian, were given petitions signed by thousands of people. The petition sought the immediate intervention of Canada to ensure Saibaba’s release on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, but nothing came out of it.
The two MPs did not make statements in the House of Commons, either. Moreover, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who is otherwise very vocal on human rights, did not respond to many requests to take up the issue until he came under heavy criticism for his indifference in November 2017.
If this was not enough, Liberal MP Carla Qualtrough was approached with a letter signed by 100 residents of her riding of Delta seeking intervention on this matter. Since she is known for her advocacy for disability rights and had been a minister for disability inclusion, we had high hopes from her. Her staff told us at the end that their solidarity is there, but the government wants to remain neutral.
All of these efforts could not melt the hearts of our politicians, irrespective of their party affiliations, for a physically challenged political prisoner.
The story does not end here.
Another jailed Indian scholar, Anand Teltumbde, who visited Canada in 2016 is also behind bars for his critical writings. Indo-Canadian New Democratic politicians in the B.C. legislature, who met him during that visit, refused to issue a statement when he was arrested. They rather suggested that the matter be taken up with the federal NDP as this is under its jurisdiction.
If our MLAs cannot stand up for human rights in India because it’s a federal matter, while our MPs prefer to remain neutral, then where should we go? Why should we even vote for people who are timid either because of the fear of being denied an Indian visa or because of their loyalties lie with the government in New Delhi? What if we remain neutral as voters and elect none of them by staying away on the Election Day? How are they going to take it?
As of now, Canadian politicians should walk the talk. Instead of loving themselves and making everyone believe that they really care for human rights, they need to show some spine and speak out for all the beautiful minds whose place should not be jail or a graveyard, but outside so that they can live with dignity and guide society through the crises we are in. Lankesh is not going to come back, but at least make sure that those detained are release, while advocating that her killers are punished to send a strong message to those trampling on free speech at the behest of a fascist regime.