It was Sunday, July 31, when some of us gathered outside the Indian Visa and Passport Application Center in Surrey, BC. The occasion was the martyrdom day of Indian revolutionary Udham Singh. Singh was executed on July 31, 1940 in London for assassinating the former Lt. Governor of Punjab, Michael O’ Dwyer, who was instrumental behind the circumstances leading to the indiscriminate firing on supporters of the passive resistance struggle against the British occupation of India, at Jallianwala Bagh Public Park in Amritsar in April, 1919. The protestors had come out to oppose repressive laws and the 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 the 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 to the 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, had blamed the incident on Islamic fundamentalists, even though one commission of enquiry had 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.
Setalvad 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 her great grandfather Chiman Lal Setalvad had grilled a British army officer who ordered the killings at Jallianwala Bagh, the rally in her support was held on the martyrdom day of Udham Singh.
Organized by Radical Desi, the rally 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 an Indian Residential School, a dark legacy of the colonial history of Canada.
Since Radical Desi had 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 majoritarianism of the BJP government, under which attacks have grown on religious minorities, particularly Muslims and political critics. If that is not enough, more draconian laws are being made and implemented to suppress any voice of dissent.
The participants at the rally raised slogans in her support and asked for her release. We also held out signs reading, “Free Teesta” on the occasion.
Little did I realise 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”. While accusing me of being “in cahoots” with such forces, it mentions the July 31 demonstration at the very end. This is despite the fact that she is the great-granddaughter of someone who interrogated the butcher of Jallianwala Bagh and happened to be an associate of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, a towering scholar and social justice activist and the architect of the Indian constitution – something Setalvad deeply respects and follows in letter and spirit.
During Setalvad’s Canada visit in 2018, she had gone to the Komagata Maru memorial in Vancouver. The Japanese vessel carrying more than 300 South Asian passengers was forcibly returned under a racist and discriminatory immigration law by the Canadian government at the behest of the British Empire, which did not want British subjects of Indian heritage to settle in North America. The 1914 incident had galvanized the freedom movement and became part of the independence struggle. Also, she got herself pictured with the portrait of Ambedkar at Surrey Central Library. Even after being hounded by those in power, she never let her love for India, its people and diversity, die down. And yet she is being seen as part of “anti-India” forces.
For the record, the founding fathers of the 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 involved in the killing of MK Gandhi- the giant leader of the civil disobedience. To her credit, Setalvad had compiled a book based on the documents related with Gandhi murder case. Beyond Doubt: A Dossier on Gandhi’s Assassination exposes the complicity of the Hindu Right in the entire episode.
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 on 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 to 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 like a 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 justice and avoiding a situation in which the coming generation of the Hindu majority will hang their heads in shame and apologize to the world for his crimes against humanity.
Gurpreet Singh is a journalist