A coalition of rights and faith groups in Canada is calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to condemn what it describes as “escalating human-rights violations” in India and to make any trade or investment agreements with New Delhi contingent upon the protection of vulnerable communities in the South Asian country.
In a letter, it warned Ottawa to start paying more attention to the influence wielded in Canada by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist group from which India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) once emerged.
Signatories, which include Justice For All Canada, a non-profit that advocates for persecuted Muslim minority communities, and the South Asian Diaspora Action Collective, note that the federal government recently unveiled an Indo-Pacific strategy espousing the promotion of human rights.
The term Indo-Pacific reflects the way in which many Western countries have reframed their engagement with the Asia-Pacific region. These governments are now working to build common cause between India and neighbouring countries that have burgeoning middle-class populations and a shared interest in addressing China’s growing influence in the region.
The BJP’s “discriminatory agenda,” the letter said, is “profoundly troubling and starkly contrasts” with the human-rights principles touted in Canada’s Indo-Pacific strategy.
India and Canada have been negotiating a trade agreement and, this past May, International Trade Minister Mary Ng and her Indian counterpart said they aim to strike an initial deal this year.
International human-rights groups such as Human Rights Watch have flagged increasing problems in India. Its 2023 country report said the BJP-led national government “continued its systematic discrimination and stigmatization of religious and other minorities, particularly Muslims” in 2022.
The report said, “BJP supporters increasingly committed violent attacks against targeted groups” and that the Indian government’s “Hindu majoritarian ideology was reflected in bias in institutions, including the justice system and constitutional authorities like the National Human Rights Commission.”
In a news release that explained the coalition’s missive to Mr. Trudeau, letter writers accused Ottawa of staying quiet about India.
“Despite these unsettling reports, the Canadian government has been increasing its bilateral ties with India, while remaining silent on human-rights violations.”
The Prime Minister’s Office, when asked for comment on Tuesday, referred questions to the office of Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly.
Her office did not say whether it would agree to the requests outlined in the letter.
“Promoting human rights has always been at the core of our foreign policy, and it will continue to be,” Emily Williams, director of communications for Ms. Joly, said in a statement.
“Canada and India have a shared tradition of democracy and pluralism and a common commitment to a rules-based international system and multilateralism,” she wrote.
“As stated in Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, Canada will continue to engage with India on issues related to security, democracy, pluralism and human rights, particularly as it presides over the G20 meetings this year.”
In an August report, Human Rights Watch said the “continued vilification of Muslims“ in India has resulted in an increase in hate crimes.
It said religious violence is “the unfortunate and obvious outcome of the BJP government’s Hindu majoritarian politics, including the adoption of laws and policies that systematically discriminate against minorities and stigmatize critics of the government.”
In its 2023 report on India, U.S.-based Freedom House, another civil-rights monitor, highlighted New Delhi’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act of 2019, which grants special access to Indian citizenship to non-Muslim immigrants and refugees from neighbouring Muslim-majority states. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2019 called the law “fundamentally discriminatory.”
The coalition letter urges Mr. Trudeau to issue “a categorical public condemnation of the systematic discrimination, genocide incitement, harassment, and violence faced by religious and other minorities in India,” including Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and Kashmiris.
It said Canada should convey the “urgent need for the Indian government to take concrete actions to protect the rights of these marginalized communities and hold perpetrators of violence accountable.”
It also called on Canada to link any trade deals with New Delhi to human rights in India. “This should include strengthening oversight mechanisms, consultations with human-rights organizations, conducting thorough human-rights impact assessments prior to entering into new agreements, and implementing human-rights chapters in the agreements.”
The letter urged Canada to identify and investigate organizations affiliated with and funding the RSS, “particularly those operating as charitable organizations in Canada. Any organizations found to be promoting hate speech, discrimination or violence should be immediately banned and their charitable status revoked.”
India’s High Commission in Canada did not immediately respond to a request for comment.