Taha Ghayyur is the executive director of Justice for All Canada, a non-profit human rights and advocacy organization based in Toronto.
Human Rights Watch’s 2022 World Report argued that while there is still hope for the world’s democracies, there remain plenty of threats in the distance. In particular, the report noted that a number of governments around the world are committing atrocities while enjoying the reputational benefits of being a democratic country.
India, the world’s most populous democracy and one that was founded on a secular constitutional order, has become one of the worst offenders among them.
After a 2014 electoral victory for his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – a political wing of the Hindu-nationalist paramilitary group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – Prime Minister Narendra Modi has propelled Hindu nationalism, or Hindutva, into the Indian mainstream. Over the past eight years, the BJP government has adopted policies that discriminate against minority groups, and there has been a surge in violence against those who are not members of the country’s Hindu majority, including attacks on Christian churches and Sikh farmers and abuse of Dalits – all while the government has largely stood idly by.
Muslims have been particularly targeted. In 2019, the Modi government enacted the Citizenship Amendment Act, which allows religious-minority refugees to become citizens unless they are Muslim; it also created a national register of citizens, which threatens to disenfranchise Muslim immigrants or deport others without documentation. High-ranking party officials have vilified Muslims in public remarks. Incidents of mob vigilantism in defence of cows, which are sacred to Hindus, have increased in recent years, with most cases leaving Muslim victims. And in December, a video recording from a conference in northern India attended by party members and religious leaders with ties to the BJP showed militant Hindutva extremists calling for an armed “cleansing” of the country’s more than 200 million Muslims. Mr. Modi has not denounced this incitement of hate and vilification of minority groups, which will only further embolden Hindutva extremists. “We should be crying genocide emergency for India,” declared Dr. Greg Stanton, president of Genocide Watch, a leading human rights watchdog group, at a recent leadership briefing on India.
Even documenting such human rights abuses in Mr. Modi’s India has become dangerous. The BJP and RSS have cracked down on human and civil rights organizations and media in the country. Amnesty International India was forced to shut down its operations in September, 2020, and last year Reporters Without Borders ranked India 142nd on its World Press Freedom Index, which deemed the Indian press less free than Myanmar’s or Uganda’s.
And yet, despite these documented horrific human-rights violations, Canada-India relations continue to improve. Even as India becomes hijacked by an ideology of hatred that aspires to transform the country into an entirely Hindu one, the increasingly authoritarian Modi government continues to hide behind facades of pluralism, democracy and the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violence. And Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has chosen realpolitik above holding the Modi administration accountable for human rights violations in the name of Canada’s economic and security interests.
With Canada’s ties to China deteriorating, the Trudeau government has been looking for partners to help it oppose China’s aggressive international stance. As a result, India is attempting to boost bilateral relations. Canada’s International Trade Minister Mary Ng’s recent meeting with her Indian counterpart, Piyush Goyal, “welcomed a re-engagement on negotiations toward a Canada-India comprehensive economic partnership agreement.”
Although India claims to share Canadian values and interests, its normalizing of Islamophobia and human-rights atrocities demonstrates that this is not the case. Canada must declare human rights a priority and a requirement for any economic or security deals with India.
In the 2022 Human Rights Watch report, executive director Kenneth Roth wonders: Will democratic leaders “act consistently, both at home and abroad, with the democratic and human rights principles they claim to defend?”
This is a question Canadians should ask Mr. Trudeau. Protecting human rights across the world must be a top priority for Canada in 2022. It is past time that Ottawa categorically oppose violence against Muslims and attacks on the religious freedoms of Christian, Dalit, Sikh and Indigenous Adivasi in India. Otherwise, by calling Mr. Modi a friend, Canada makes itself complicit on the international stage.
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