On Sunday, July 31, South Asian activists came together outside the Indian Visa and Passport Application Center in Surrey, BC, to raise their voices for a detained journalist and human rights defender
Teesta Setalvad was recently arrested on trumped up charges at the behest of the right wing Hindu nationalist BJP government in New Delhi for advocating for justice to the victims of 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, even though one commission of enquiry found that it was an accident. Though Modi was never charged for inciting bloodshed, he was denied US visa until 2014 when he became the Prime Minister.
Teesta was detained after the Supreme Court of India 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 Teesta’s great grandfather Chiman Lal Setalvad had grilled a British army officer who ordered the killings of peaceful demonstrators in Jallianwala Bagh Public Park in Amritsar in 1919, the rally in her support was held on the martyrdom day of Udham Singh.
The Jallianwala Bagh episode galvanized the freedom movement in India. Udham Singh was executed in London on July 31, 1940, for assassinating the former Lt. Governor of Punjab Michael O’ Dwyer, who was instrumental behind the circumstances leading to the indiscriminate firing on the gathering of supporters of the passive resistance struggle against British occupation of India.
Organized by Radical Desi, an online magazine that covers alternative politics, the rally started with a moment of silence in memory of Vancouver-based Kat Norris, an indigenous activist, who passed away recently. Notably, Radical Desi had invited Teesta to Canada in 2018 close to the 100th anniversary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. She was honoured with a medal of courage at a public event held in Surrey that year.
Teesta has been consistently writing and speaking out against state violence and majoritarianism of the BJP government, under which attacks on religious minorities and political critics have grown.
The participants at the Sunday rally raised slogans in support of Teesta and asked for her release. They also unanimously demanded the scrapping of draconian laws being used to suppress any voice of dissent in India, and freedom for all political prisoners. They held out signs reading, “Free Teesta” on the occasion.
Those who spoke at the demonstration included Coalition Against Bigotry cofounder Imtiaz Popat, who is a Muslim of Gujarati heritage, as well as Sikh activists Barjinder Singh, Gian Singh Gill, Kesar Singh Baghi and renowned scholar Puran Singh Gill. Others who addressed the gathering were Radical Desi supporter Harbir Rathi, leftist activist Parminder Kaur Swaich, prominent Punjabi poet Amrit Diwana, well-known media personalities Gurvinder Singh Dhaliwal and Navjot Kaur Dhillon, and cofounder of Radical Desi Gurpreet Singh.