It is time for Canada to stand up and break its silence over growing human rights abuses in India. Honouring the famous Indian novelist and dissident Arundhati Roy would be a concrete way of showing that trade and corporate interests don’t always trump human rights.
Ever since a right-wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, attacks on religious minorities and political dissent have grown in the country known as “the world’s largest democracy.”
Giving honorary citizenship to Roy would add her to a list of other honorary Canadian citizens including Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, and Malala Yusafzai.
These individuals received the honour for standing up for human rights and democracy in their own countries. A Booker Prize winner and international bestselling author, Roy has always supported the rights of poor and marginalized people in India and, at great personal risk, has been outspoken against any form of state violence against minorities. Especially with the current Modi government, under which intolerance has grown, writers like Roy continue to face threats and harassment.
Although attacks on writers and free expression are not new to India — the previous, centrist Congress government once imposed emergency and press censorship across the country to suppress dissent — India is presently witnessing something like McCarthyism, with left-wing activists and thinkers frequently targeted by the police and Hindu vigilante groups. In addition to several high-profile murders of progressive writers by Hindu extremists, who often enjoy the patronage or complicity of the ruling BJP, the police are increasingly being used to detain political critics of the state under the pretext of cracking down on urban sympathizers of left-wing armed groups and extremists.
Roy, who rose to global prominence with her novel The God of Small Things, is also an essayist who has travelled extensively and earned a reputation for challenging power and injustice in the world. She has faced threats for writing in defence of the people of Kashmir fighting for their right to self-determination, and the Adivasis, or Indigenous peoples of India, facing eviction from their territories due to the extractive industries often backed by the Indian establishment.
Roy has pulled no punches in her lectures, media interviews, or writings while criticizing Modi supporters who have been terrorizing minorities. She has been in the forefront of many grassroots-level campaigns for social justice and never shies from speaking at public demonstrations and rallies against the government. And she has been consistent in her criticism of the Indian forces that often kill civilians with impunity and use rape as a weapon in the conflict zones. Her fiction is infused with these themes. Her most recent novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, is a melancholy story of the marginalized sectors of Indian society who are forced to live under constant fear and insecurity.
An online petition asking Canada to give Roy honorary citizenship in recognition of her work continues to gain momentum. Launched by Indians Abroad for Pluralist India in October, it needs 500 signatures by February 2019 to be officially accepted into the parliamentary record.
Canadian citizens and residents should be somewhat familiar with Roy, who has twice spoken in Vancouver in recent years. They should sign this petition and help break the silence over growing right-wing extremism in India. Unfortunately, the Canadian government continues to largely ignore human rights issues in India because of business ties and partly because Indian democracy is taken for granted.
If Canada really cares for human rights, it must stand up for those being persecuted anywhere in the world. Trade relations with India are fine, but they shouldn’t come at the cost of human rights.