In May of 2017, India slipped
three spots on the World Press Freedom Index to 136th spot – it is an index that reflects press freedom. The report that went along with the ranking pointed to the fact that Hindu-nationalist sentiments are at the helm of quelling alleged "anti-national” ideology. As a result
, self-censorship has grown amongst the major news media outlets. But what does this have to do with the Prime Minister Trudeau’s visit.
The first reports about the visit began brought up the snubbing argument from both Indian and the international media – everyone got engaged. Media was asking why Prime Minister Modi didn’t receive Trudeau at the airport. We need to be reminded that when former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited India in 2012, he wasn’t received at the airport by Manmohan Singh – overall it is a non-issue. National Post here
claimed that Harper visited India in 2014, but on the contrary he was in India for the 2012 around the time
of India Economic Forum held at Gurgaon.
Journalists have been quite callous with fact checking or presenting the facts in their entirety. This visit witnessed a lot of that – narratives were built on top of a crumbling facade. Pageantry and protocol was never supposed to be the same for the Trudeau visit – largely because Canada and India have a different diplomatic relationship, and both have long way to go in terms of their trade relations.
On 22nd February, Hindustan Times reported
about obstruction to initiate talks between Indian government and the radical groups in Canada. The premise of this story raises a lot of questions. The story claims that the radical groups lobbied with the ministers from Trudeau cabinet to stop Jasdev Singh Rai from travelling to Canada. Why would a fringe group go all the way to lobby with ministers to stop a meeting that can anyways be called off through supposed group’s person network. The logical gap in this story is that the writers don’t clarify if the group that stopped meeting from happening was different from the group that was going to join these talks.
Canada’s visa laws are rigorous; and the IRCC (Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada) officer can deny an ETA (Electronic Travel Authorization) without any intervention. I spoke to Hursh Jaswal, the Communications Manager for the Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), who clearly pointed out that there can be many reasons for denying visa to an individual. Hursh added that due to the Canadian privacy laws the government can’t comment on the specifics of an individual case. But it was pointed out that the IRCC officers have full authority over the final decision to grant or deny a visa or an ETA. Therefore, the claim that any such coercion from a certain minister happened doesn’t uphold.
Journalists have been quite callous with fact checking or presenting the facts in their entirety.* Trudeau's visit witnessed a lot of that – narratives were built on top of a crumbling facade.
What is interesting is that the article doesn’t really cite which source or who actually stated that Minister Sajjan or Minister Bains were involved in the denial of the ETA. Further claims
were made that Canada has a black list for alleged individuals who should be stopped from traveling to Canada. In an article about black list
– which is the basis for the Hindustan Times story – was written by someone who claims to be on the blacklist himself – his name is Jasdev Singh Rai.
Writing for the Lokmarg – Rai claims
, that Justin Beiber is on a blacklist in Canada – including the Captain Amarinder Singh. Justin Beiber is a Canadian citizen – he has family in Canada and visits his home country regularly — a Canadian citizen being on a so called black list is rather dubious claim. Again, the claim about black list is being made by someone who was turned down for the ETA (Electronic Travel Authorization) – a document that many foreign travelers are turned down for due to various reasons. (Since Jasdev Rai is a UK citizen, he doesn’t need a visa to travel to Canada - an ETA would suffice). The claim that a Minister from Canadian cabinet could intervene into the visa process or approval of the ETA is farce and doesn’t take into consideration how IRCC operates.
There are lingering elements of Khalistani separatist movement within Indo-Canadian society. But there is even bigger and thriving Indo-Canadian community – Hindu, Sikh, Dalit, and Muslim - that wants to disassociate itself from the movement. The antics of debate about identity are so limited that when the question of equality and justice for the pogrom of 1984 are discussed by a person of Punjabi heritage they get framed as "separatist”.
AamAdmni Party: Enemy No. 1
Aam Admi Party is considered a threat to the BJP’s ambition for the long term political power, and it remains the leading target of the right-wing media machine. The relative success of AAP in Canada wasn’t just a support in spirit - but it was made possible by actual financing of its activities. Therefore, the right-wing media machine constructed a rather interesting narrative that explains the response to Trudeau visit. A writer for right-wing media outlet named Right Log – Ajit Datta wrote,"Despite the insignificance of these clowns (Trudeau et al), India needs to be vigilant. With politicians like Arvind Kejriwal spending the night at the home of a former Khalistani terrorist and accepting funds from people connected to this movement, the government probably realizes that there are enough elements within the country who would side with enemies in their lust for money.” This comment captures the undercurrents of regional and national politics – minority vs. majority – that has given credence arguments such as the one raised by Ajit Datta.
But the story
about AAP gets interesting -- Shekhar Gupta in his op’ed commented about AAP’s alleged ties to Khalistani separatists and the Trudeau visit, "That is my hypothesis, of course in full hindsight. That is the lesson also for Trudeau and his Sikh supporters, many still laden with old radical romance.” Gupta was referring to is hypothesis that AAP took a wrong turn by aligning with some hardline elements - atleast Gupta is honest – it is a hypothesis. But the right-wing media machine considers it a fact, and many journalists who should have looked at the broader picture - such as Shekhar Gupta - decided to throw PM Trudeau under the bus based on a hypothesis. But why are there many hypothesis and not as many facts. The credible reason for that is the gap in knowledge Canada and India have widened about each other due to long held animosity about their past. Many of India’s leading journalists consider Canada as just the heaven for Punjabis, and a very few Canadian journalists have much experience of India – let alone Punjab.
I am not going to shy away from stating certain facts clearly – there are lingering elements of Khalistani separatist movement within Indo-Canadian society. But there is even bigger and thriving Indo-Canadian community – Hindu, Sikh, Dalit, and Muslim - that wants to disassociate itself from the movement. The antics of debate about identity are so limited that when the question of equality and justice for the pogrom of 1984 are discussed by a person of Punjabi heritage they get framed as "separatist”.
It is the same argument that a Muslim individual seeking justice for Godhra gets framed as a terrorist. This is India’s islamophobia moment – Sikhs are the target, and secular media is complicit in supporting the narrative. Though Canada’s Liberal politicians have made the mistake of associating with questionable elements within the Indo-Canadian society. But what we witnessed over past week was described
well by CBC’s Even Dyer as ‘journalistic echo chamber’ – in India, Canada, and elsewhere. An everlouder echo that resonated journalists citing each other based on their assumptions about Punjab, Canada, and India. Many don’t realize the fact that there are financial interests of individuals wanting to keep certain wounds soar – in the name of human rights and funding. Overall this was an evidence of how far both India and Canada need to travel before being able to comprehend each other’s dialect – especially the journalists from both the countries.
In an exclusive interview with Press Secretary to Prime Minister Trudeau, Eleanore Catenaro, I raised questions about the progress made during this trip. Catenaro responded to the question about trade with India, "This trip saw significant outcomes on the business side with one billion dollars in new two-way investment, which will create 5800 good, middle class jobs in Canada.” This was indeed quite a significant move for both countries that have been trying to leave their past behind for a better future – moving together with strengthened trade and investment due to their shared historical ties.
But alas it is the journalistic echo chamber that people will remember – worsening what was on its way to an improved relationship between Punjab, Canada, and India.
Aadil Brar is an international freelance journalist and a National Geographic Young Explorer. This article is exclusive to Punjab Today.
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