On Saturday (November 14), Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a statement to congratulate Sikhs on the auspicious occasion to mark the return of their sixth master, Guru Hargobind, after being released from the jail.
He was imprisoned by the Mogal emperor for resisting injustice and repression in the early 17th century. However, upon his release, he insisted that 52 kings detained alongside him on trumped up charges must also be freed.
Since then, Sikhs celebrate the event as Bandi Chhor Divas. It literally means the day of liberation of prisoners.
Significantly, Trudeau’s statement mentions the story behind the occasion.
“Today, we join Sikh communities in Canada and around the world to celebrate Bandi Chhor Divas,” he said. “On this day, Sikhs recall the story of Guru Hargobind Sahib and his release from prison.
“According to Sikh history, the Guru had refused to be released unless 52 innocent kings were also freed. Like the Guru who believed that the freedom and rights of others were more important than his own, Bandi Chhor Divas reminds us of the importance of respect, freedom, and inclusion”.
Well said, Mr. Trudeau. But the statement means nothing without much action on the ground.
After all, his government remains silent about what has been going on in India under a right-wing Hindu nationalist regime led by Narendra Modi.
Ever since Modi became prime minister in 2014, attacks on religious minorities and political dissidents have grown.
Those opposed to his intolerant and fascist ideology continue to be arrested and thrown in jails.
This past April, prominent scholar Anand Teltumbde, who had previously visited Canada, was forced to surrender after being booked on malicious charges.
His only fault was that he has been writing against the state violence and defending the rights of minorities and oppressed groups.
He is not alone. Others being incarcerated include a disabled Delhi University professor, G.N. Saibaba, and a prominent female lawyer, Sudha Bhardawaj, as well as aged revolutionary poet Varavara Rao.
Then there are Sikh activists such as Jaggi Johal from the U.K. and Muslim activists like Umar Khalid who are being held under draconian laws for raising their voices for human rights.
The list is long and I can keep going.
All through this, the Modi government has been selectively releasing right-wing Hindu extremists—on compassionate grounds—who were arrested and put behind bars on serious charges of being involved in mass murders of Muslims.
But there is absolutely no sympathy for leftist, Sikh, and Muslim political prisoners even as the threat of COVID 19 is hovering over overcrowded Indian jails.
If Canada really cares about its own image as human rights leader in the world and Trudeau genuinely respects the spirit behind Bandi Chhor Divas, he needs to tell Modi to free all these individuals.
His silence on these matters leaves us with no doubt that his statement was a mere token to please his Sikh constituents and nothing more than that.