A letter writing campaign pressuring Justin Trudeau to raise the issue of minority rights in India has intensified as the Canadian prime minister has begun his weeklong visit to India. Trudeau will be meeting his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi on Feb. 23, six days into his first official visit to that country as PM.
Modi, the leader of the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party government, came to power in 2014 with a brute majority. Since then attacks on religious minorities have grown in India. Vigilantes owing allegiance to his party have, in particular, targeted Muslims and Dalits, or the so-called untouchables, as well as secularists.
The BJP, known for its strong anti-minority stance, has been unpopular among all minority groups in India, including Christians, Sikhs and Buddhists. BJP supporters desire to transform India into a Hindu theocracy.
Modi himself has a controversial past. He was the chief minister of Gujarat in 2002 when an anti Muslim massacre broke out in that state after a train carrying Hindu pilgrims caught fire under mysterious circumstances. Over 50 people died in the incident, which was promptly blamed on Muslim fundamentalists by the Modi government. Innocent Muslims were targeted by mobs led by the BJP activists as the police either remained spectators or helped the goons who carried out the bloodshed.
Though Modi was never charged, human rights activists and survivors continue to allege his complicity in the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat. Notably, Modi was denied entry into U.S. and other countries until he was elected as the prime minister.
Toronto-based South Asian activist Arun Gautam is encouraging his compatriots to send letters to Trudeau through their MPs asking him to take up the issue with Modi on behalf of the Indian diaspora in Canada.
Gautam, who represents the Dr. Ambedkar International Mission in Canada, has succeeded in approaching Indian immigrants from minority communities especially in areas with sizable South Asian populations across Canada. His organization is named after Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, a towering Indian scholar and an architect of the Indian constitution that guarantees religious freedom and protection to minorities.
Ambedkar was born in an ostracized Dalit community and had to endure caste-based oppression from so-called upper caste people. He had long predicted that if ever Hindu nationalists came to power it would have catastrophic impacts on Indian society. Gautam believes the BJP government is trying to change the constitution of India to transform the country into a Hindu state, and he’s urging all minorities to join hands and fight back against any such attempts.
Not surprisingly, Gautam is also facing indirect challenges from Indian officials through diplomatic channels and pro-India special interest groups who are allegedly encouraging people to stay away from such initiatives. Gautam does not blame those in Canada who are reluctant to take action, since there is always a fear that the Indian government could deny visa applications. He says he’s noticed that some Sikh activists who are generally vocal against atrocities in India have not come forward to support his campaign.
According to Gautam, under Modi’s outright Hindu nationalist government there is an atmosphere of fear among all minority communities — particularly in the light of recent public lynchings of Muslims by Hindu fanatics. Gautam believes the Modi government has failed to deliver on basic issues, and plays divisive politics in the name of religion in order to hide its weaknesses and divert public attention.
Gautam notes that the human rights record of Canada isn’t perfect either, pointing to the structural violence against indigenous peoples here in North America, but says he hopes Trudeau, as the leader of a nation claiming to be a human rights leader in the world, won’t miss an opportunity to have an honest discussion with Modi on these inconvenient issues.
Gautam points out that when the former U.S. President Barack Obama visited India in 2015, he spoke his mind on growing religious intolerance. If Obama can raise human rights issues with Modi, so can Trudeau.
It remains to be seen whether Trudeau will raise these questions with Modi. Expectations remain high among the South Asian activists who have been keeping these issues alive with a section of the community remaining loyal to Trudeau’s Liberal Party for its pro minority rights approach. With Trudeau and Modi’s meeting set for Thursday, we’ll find out soon enough.