Gurpreet Singh / Image: Charlie Smith
“You are a lion, Mr. Singh. We Indians are proud of you”. I still remember those kind words of a Vancouver-based leader of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), a Hindu nationalist group that is currently in power in India. He showered praises on me after listening to my speech on Sikh separatists active in Canada.
I pulled no punches while criticising the Sikh extremists at the launching ceremony of the Punjabi edition of my book on the Air India victims’ families, back in 2013. Air India Flight 182 was bombed mid-air in 1985, killing all 329 people aboard. The crime was blamed on Sikh separatists seeking revenge from the Indian government for attacking their holiest shrine in Amritsar in 1984, and engineering anti-Sikh pogroms following the assassination of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards later that year.
Posted on social media, my speech had grabbed the attention of this self-styled patriotic Indian leader. He was excited to see how an Indo-Canadian journalist like myself, was “boldly” criticising “anti-India” separatists who have always been considered very powerful and influential in Canada.
He kept phoning me from time to time to give updates about BJP activities in Vancouver, and I as a reporter continued reporting them. But something went terribly wrong after the BJP came to power with a brute majority in 2014 under Narendra Modi, a controversial political figure.
Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat state when an anti-Muslim massacre took place in 2002. The massacre followed the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims. Over 50 of them died. The Modi government blamed Islamic extremists for the incident, after which the Muslim community was targeted across Gujarat by mobs led by the BJP activists. Human rights groups and the survivors maintain that Modi was complicit in the crime.
The scenario was no different from the one witnessed across India in 1984, when the Sikh community was targeted after the murder of Indira Gandhi. The only difference was that the anti-Muslim violence was orchestrated by an outright Hindu nationalist party, whereas Indira Gandhi’s Congress party claims to be secular.
Being a secularist, my criticism of all the religious extremist ideologies has been alike. I used to work with Surrey-based Radio India as a talk show host at that time. I had joined the organization in 2001 after emigrating from India where I used to work with The Tribune.
The Sikh separatists seeking Khalistan – an imaginary Sikh homeland to be carved out of Punjab, India – had been very active in Canada and I was frequently warned to stay silent against them. Nevertheless, I kept bringing up crimes committed by the Khalistanis in Punjab, such as killings of Hindus and political critics, including many leftists.
For the record I have been equally critical of the Indian government for its high handedness in dealing with the militants and repression of Sikhs in 1984. Also I had criticised Modi for allowing the anti-Muslim violence a year after my joining Radio India. But I was still branded as “anti-Sikh” and “an Indian agent” by the supporters of Khalistan.
The leader of a Hindu temple that honoured me for my book on Air India actually accused me of having an agenda against Modi. During a radio interview when I grilled him about his support for Modi, he just hung up the phone. He is a die-hard supporter of Modi, but highly critical of Sikh fundamentalists.
The threats started when I began criticising those involved in the Air India bombing. Luckily at that time, my employer, Maninder Singh Gill, supported me whole heartedly in spite of pressure on him to get rid of me. He also used to complain that my commentary was causing financial loss to the organisation, as advertisers who subscribe to the Khalistani ideology were reluctant to sponsor our programs. Still he stood behind me like a rock.
When Modi became the prime minister, the situation completely changed. Not only in India, but in other countries too, his critics began facing the heat. Hindu extremists became emboldened. They started harassing anyone who questioned Modi and his politics of hatred.
In India, media persons who were critical of Modi began to be pushed around. Some felt that an era of censorship had been ushered in under a right wing government. With the BJP assuming power after getting elected, it gained legitimacy around the world. Modi, who had been denied visa by various countries for repression of Muslims in Gujarat, was free to go anywhere.
On top of that, the BJP and its supporters also gained the upper hand within the Indo-Canadian community and increased its influence over Indian consulates. In those circumstances, several groups decided to organise protest rallies against Modi during his first official visit to US.
One of them was Sikhs For Justice (SFJ), a human rights advocacy group that supports Sikh sovereignty. As a host, I decided to highlight the contentious tour of Modi and gave some airtime to SFJ. Although I strongly disagree with their political agenda of Sikh sovereignty, as a journalist I felt it necessary to talk to their leader about the upcoming visit of Modi and the planned protest in September 2014.
This enraged my employer, who did not want any anti-Modi voice to be given air time. He was particularly annoyed over my interview with someone who supports a Sikh homeland. The story did not end there, as he also wanted me to start endorsing Modi’s visit on behalf of the radio station. I was suggested a change in nature of my duties if I could not handle this. This led to an argument and I rather decided to quit.
This small step made me an alien among the very people who earlier appreciated my stance against Khalistan. The same BJP leader who earlier used to call me a lion and often stated “you are always in our hearts” began avoiding me, to the extent that he did not invite me to cover an event organised for a visiting BJP leader, the chief minister of Haryana state, Manohar Lal Khattar.
When another senior politician from Punjab Prem Singh Chandumajra came, I could see a pattern behind slighting me. Chandumajra’s party, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) is an alliance partner of the BJP. Its supporters have known me for years. Nobody invited me to his media conference, despite the fact that both the BJP and SAD supporters know that I still write for India-based publications, including Hindustan Times, for which the visits of Khattar and Chandumajra were important.
Notably, the leader of a Hindu temple that honoured me for my book on Air India actually accused me of having an agenda against Modi. During a radio interview when I grilled him about his support for Modi, he just hung up the phone. He is a die-hard supporter of Modi, but highly critical of Sikh fundamentalists.
The Indian agents in Vancouver also started to eye me with suspicion. I often hear from sources close to them that they are upset over my comments, which are obviously not favourable to the ruling party, because of its right wing policies against religious minorities and growing attacks on Muslims and Christians under Modi.
Those who violate the principles of secularism and democracy enshrined in the national text are the biggest anti-nationals. If questioning Sikh separatists alone makes you a patriot, and challenging Hindu separatists makes you seditious, then the apologists of India should openly admit that the current Indian state is really a Hindu nation in the making, and not the secularist and pluralist India I loved and I was born in
Some sources tell me that they now refer to me as “friend-turned-enemy” and I never get any personal invitation to attend any of their official events, although they had recommended my name for coverage of the annual Indian Diaspora event held in India in 2010. In the years of my frequent criticism of Khalistani extremists, before Modi came to power, I used to get calls from them appreciating my journalism. Back then I was seen as a friend of India.
When I joined Spice Radio, some of the Indian officials expressed their displeasure with my current employer, Shushma Datt, who did not buckle under any undue pressure and gave me freedom to work fairly and fearlessly. After all, she is a seasoned broadcaster who understands how to run a media outlet with integrity.
Whenever I had Sikhs For Justice activists on air to speak their mind against Modi, or interviewed those who protested against Modi’s visit, she never interfered. It’s a shame that in spite of her open-mindedness, even some so-called progressives in our community questioned me: being a Hindu, will she allow me to criticise Modi? Just because she is a Hindu woman, one cannot presume her to be a BJP supporter. How many times have such questions been raised about the ethnicity of the male Sikh owners of South Asian radio stations?
So much so, the moderates and secularists within the local Sikh community, who have been opposed to Sikh fundamentalism and often sided with India, also started neglecting me. This was despite the fact that I had defended them in an event of ostracising by the orthodox Sikh clergy at the behest of fundamentalist forces on religious matters.
Some even went out of their way to meet Modi in the US, and were among those who accorded him a heroic welcome during his visit to Vancouver in 2015. Others, who call themselves Marxists, affiliated with the mainstream communist parties in India that are opposed to Modi, have remained indifferent towards any activity or demonstration in Vancouver against Modi’s government. Notably, they have been supporting moderates in maintaining control over Sikh temples, to keep Sikh separatists at bay. They too continue to enjoy cordial relationships with Indian agents.
It seems that the commitment of the grand moderate coalition towards secularism is sham and selective. It conveniently overlooks the fundamentalism of Modi’s party, while only targeting Sikh extremists, either due to their blind patriotism or with an agenda to please their political masters in New Delhi.
As the Modi government completes almost two years in office, the threat of Hindu extremism has grown enormously. Anyone who challenges their ideology and anti-minorities’ stance is branded as anti-national. Interestingly, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, the ultra Hindu nationalist body of which BJP is a part, never participated in the freedom struggle when India was under British occupation.
Rather its supporters had helped the British rulers in continuing with their policy of divide and rule, by asking for a separation of Hindus and Muslims into two distinct nations. They stand incriminated in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, the towering leader of the passive resistance movement, in 1948, for standing up against both violence against Muslims and the untouchability that was permitted in orthodox Hindu society.
Gandhi has always been known as the father of the Indian nation. Since Modi came to power, demands have grown for the installation of statues of Naturam Godse, a staunch Hindu separatist and the assassin of Gandhi. Anyone who questions the BJP and Hindu extremists is quickly branded as anti-national.
It seems that “anti-national” has become a synonym with anything that is anti-BJP. This year witnessed a spate of incidents in which students, scholars, journalists, activists and even elected officials who are critical of the growing threat of religious intolerance and Hindu nationalism were either intimidated, assaulted or slapped with sedition charges.
Student leaders at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University were thrown into jail after being charged with sedition for questioning the government. When I had to quit Radio India and suffer the silent social boycott, I sometimes found myself very lonely. But today, when I look at the resistance being given to the Modi government by people with a burning conscience, I feel vindicated. I rather feel proud of standing up against Modi mania. If one is branded as anti-national for standing up for reason, pluralism and humanity, then I am definitely very proud to be an anti-national.
But here is my question to those who claim to be nationalists: how do they describe a nation? Is it just a territory, a piece of land, or a composition of political borders and land mass represented by a symbolic flag or a constitution? Or is a nation is represented by people? By human beings, who have dreams for a better future and who want to live with dignity?
If anyone is anti-national, it’s definitely not those who fight for the rights of the people, but those who lick the shoes of those in power and work against people, and divide them for their political survival. How can a person like me, who actually respects the values enshrined in the Indian constitution, be seen as anti-India?
Those who violate the principles of secularism and democracy enshrined in the national text are the biggest anti-nationals. If questioning Sikh separatists alone makes you a patriot, and challenging Hindu separatists makes you seditious, then the apologists of India should openly admit that the current Indian state is really a Hindu nation in the making, and not the secularist and pluralist India I loved and I was born in.
(The writer is a senior journalist with radio in Canada)