On the 40th anniversary of the Marathon of Hope, Canada could do a huge service by speaking out for a disabled scholar incarcerated in an Indian jail for merely advocating for the rights of poor and marginalized people.
This weekend we remember our hero Terry Fox, a resident of Port Coquitlam, B.C., who started a cross-Canada marathon to raise funds for cancer research after losing his right leg to the disease. After having covered more than 5,000 kilometres, he had to stop on Sept. 1, 1980 after the cancer spread to his lungs. He died in 1981.
Fox remains popular worldwide. Annual runs in his memory are held in countries worldwide, including India, where the Terry Fox India Committee raises funds for cancer treatment.
It would be a fitting tribute to Fox for the Canadian government to join the call to release Professor G.N. Saibaba, a former Delhi University lecturer who is 90 per cent disabled below the waist and currently locked up in jail under brutal conditions. Saibaba is serving a life sentence after being convicted for being a supporter of Maoist insurgents active in the tribal areas.
Saibaba had mobilized public opinion against growing state repression of Adivasis, the Indigenous peoples who are being displaced from their traditional lands by extractive industries with the backing of the Indian government. Guided by capital greed, the resource industries are eyeing these mineral-rich lands and taking them into their possession without informed consent.
This, in turn, has led many to join the Maoist movement.
Saibaba's family and friends believe that he has been framed to silence any voice of dissent from civil society. His life is in danger, they say, as he has multiple health issues.
A petition asking for the release of Saibaba has received more than 1,000 signatures in Canada. Though it was submitted to two MPs, Sukh Dhaliwal and Peter Julian, the Canadian government has chosen to remain neutral.
New Democratic Leader Jagmeet Singh and former B.C. Federation of Labour president Irene Lanzinger also issued statements in support of Saibaba.
Even though UN human-rights experts have urged his immediate release, Indian authorities continue to oppose any attempt to bail him out. This is despite concerns about his deteriorating health, particularly in the midst of the growing threat of COVID-19 in overcrowded Indian jails.
Recently, the Indian authorities refused to release him to attend the last rites of his mother, who died of cancer. Earlier, his lawyer unsuccessfully tried to get him released to see her on her death bed. Even the lawyer's attempt to get Saibaba to see her through video-conferencing was refused.
Canada, which claims to be a global human rights leader, has an obligation to tell India loudly and clearly to release Saibaba on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. Considering the growing support he is receiving coast to coast, Canada must recognize the urgency of the issue without delay.