The Times of India: Why Canada should not have backed off on visa

"Friends, I am honored by this opportunity to speak to such a distinguished audience, including so many MPs and diplomats." Manoj Mitta

Friends, I am honored by this opportunity to speak to such a distinguished audience, including so many MPs and diplomats. I am also honored to be speaking at this historic venue of the Canadian Parliament. Since my visit to Canada comes close on the heels of a controversy over the denial of visas to security personnel from India, I cannot help starting my address with a reference to it. This unforeseen controversy had served to highlight the seamy side of the Indian democracy. It was a rare opportunity to internationalize a major and long standing issue of impunity: the appalling record of excesses committed by Indian security personnel, especially in the many conflict affected areas of India. As a journalist tracking legal and human rights issues, as an independent observer of the Indian state’s record in these areas, I was delighted to discover the civilizing potential of your rules forbidding entry to those involved in attacks on civilians or terrorism, systematic or gross human rights violations or genocide. I was hoping that the enforcement of such rules by more advanced democracies like Canada would shame the Indian state into adopting methods that are more compliant with international standards of acceptable behavior for security forces.

I was therefore deeply disappointed to see that, far from standing by its officials for upholding human rights, the Steve Harper government buckled under the Manmohan Singh government’s pressure. The implication of immigration minister Jason Kenney’s apology is that Canada has allowed its economic interests to yield to its commitment to human rights. It’s a pity that the Harper administration seemed to have been taken in by the suggestion that security personnel were beyond criticism because they were discharging a sovereign function. Had the George Bush administration gone by such logic, it would not have denied visa to Narendra Modi for his alleged complicity in the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. After all, it is arguable that, as a democratically elected chief minister of Gujarat and a Constitution office holder, Modi was entitled to greater deference from the US than the security personnel who had been denied visas by Canada. In retrospect, the much maligned Bush administration proved firmer than the Harper administration in its adherence to human rights.

Having observed the conduct of security forces in India over two and half decades, I can vouch that the concerns raised by Canadian immigration officers while denying visas to security personnel are not misplaced. In fact, since I owe this invitation to a book I co-authored on the 1984 massacre of Sikhs in Delhi, I can say with a degree of authority that the carnage could not have taken place without the complicity of the police and Army personnel. And I am not saying this merely on the basis of my own investigations. Official inquiries too have admitted that there was pattern to the dereliction of duty displayed by security personnel across the nation’s capital: they either looked the other way when armed mobs attacked Sikhs or they aided and abetted the miscreants by disarming the victims. And what happened in 1984 was by no means an isolated instance of excesses committed by security personnel at the instance of the powers that be. The instances cited by your immigration officials of Kashmir and Indo-Bangladesh border relate to chronically disturbed areas, which are notoriously prone to abuses by security personnel. A group of women in the North East not so long ago stripped themselves naked in a dramatic attempt to convey the extent of atrocities suffered by them at the hands of armed forces.

As an independent journalist, I cannot help expressing disappointment at your government’s retraction on the visa issue. If you instead had somebody from the Indian high commission addressing you now, he would of course have commended the Harper administration for the sense of responsibility displayed by it. He would also have harped on those rhetorical claims about India being the world’s largest democracy. And since economic ties are the driving force, he would even have mouthed the tourism department’s catch phrase: Incredible India. But that is one expression on which I would find myself in agreement with the Indian government’s perception. India is indeed incredible – though not necessarily in the feel-good sense in which the tourism department uses that phrase. There are many incredible ways in which India commits human rights violations on its citizens and can be blasé about them. Let me cite a few examples from my own area of research, the 1984 carnage.

1. Can you imagine 3,000 people being massacred in three days in the capital of any other country that claims to be a liberal democracy? That is exactly what happened in New Delhi in 1984 when about that many Sikhs were officially admitted to have been killed in the wake of the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

2. Yet, all the people who were arrested or detained during those three fateful days in 1984 were Sikhs themselves. It was a pincer attack on Sikhs: If rioters didn’t get them, cops would.

3. Within a fortnight of the massacre, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, rather than expressing remorse, justified the mass killings by saying that when a big tree falls, the earth is bound to shake. Can you imagine the leader of any other democracy getting away with such callousness?

4. In keeping with his policy of brazening out the massacre, Rajiv Gandhi stonewalled all demands for an inquiry for several months. His incredible excuse for not wanting to find out the truth was that it would reopen old wounds.

5. When he finally ordered the inquiry six months later, all the proceedings was held in camera and the media was barred from reporting anything about them. Yes, the media, succumbing to nationalist fervor, tamely obeyed the gag order although it had no sanction in law.

6. The report that came out of such a secretive inquiry turned out to be so completely lacking in credence that the Rajiv Gandhi government did not allow any discussion on it in Parliament.

7. When the first ever debate on the 1984 massacre finally took place in 2005, i.e. after 21 long years, it was thanks to a fresh inquiry ordered by the government run by another political party.

8. The government headed by a Sikh, Manmohan Singh, rejected the report of the fresh inquiry which had for the first time in 2005 confirmed the complicity of Congress party leaders such as H K L Bhagat, Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar.

9. The outrage in the media and civil society over the rejection of the inquiry report’s findings forced the government two days later to take a U turn and promise criminal action against indicted leaders. Though this promise was made in 2005, no leader has so far been convicted.

10. One symbolic gain the victims however made in 2005 was that the government for the first time in 21 years apologized in Parliament for the massacre. That was the least Manmohan Singh could do after having originally rejected the findings of the fresh inquiry.

11. Last November, on the 25th anniversary of the massacre, the government remembered only Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Despite having a Sikh Prime Minister, it could not get itself to make even a token gesture to commemorate the massacre.

The reason I went into these incredible details about the 1984 massacre is to give you a sense of how that episode in our history has become a benchmark of impunity. Nobody can be faulted for believing that if India had rendered justice to the victims of 1984, it would have perhaps been spared the trauma of further sectarian violence in 1992, 2002 and 2008. The casualties of these subsequent events were largely Muslims and Christians, a fact underlying the common interest that lies in grappling with this monster of impunity.

Since I began my address my urging the Canadian government to keep up the pressure on India on human rights, I would like to end by making a similar appeal to Sikhs living in Canada. Your interest in the human rights situation in India will not seen by civil society as an unwarranted interference. On the contrary, we welcome any interaction that helps India raise its standards in this globalised world, not only in economic terms but also in civilisational terms. Your vigilance might also have a salutary effect on elements within the Sikh community who have been subverting the cause of justice. So, do keep up your engagement with human rights across the world. Thank you.

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