Canada's politicians have stayed mostly silent about a wave of anti-Muslim violence in India

Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne called his Indian counterpart this week about a recent wave of sectarian attacks which many blame on the Indian government's anti-Muslim legislation and rhetoric. But the Liberal government, and most other Canadian politicians, have been shy about criticizing the Modi government.

Canada's foreign minister called his Indian counterpart this week following bloody attacks on Delhi's Muslims

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is greeted by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a ceremonial reception in New Delhi, India in 2018. Modi's government has been criticized for new laws that discriminate against Muslims. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

The Trudeau government quietly communicated something to the Indian government this week about that country's latest paroxysm of anti-Muslim violence. But it is hard to know what that message was.

Certainly, an official Canadian government "readout" of the conversation between Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne and his Indian counterpart, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, offers little insight.

After touching on other matters, such as the COVID-19 outbreak and upcoming summits, the readout ends with this short sentence: "Minister Champagne raised recent events in Delhi and expressed concerns over the lives lost."

The statement's wording could have applied to lives lost to a cyclone or mudslide — rather than a wave of mob violence that evidence suggests was fuelled in part by the indifference of the government in Delhi, if not by outright encouragement by members of the governing party.

Nor did the readout give any suggestion that Canada is concerned about the passage of laws that India's 200 million Muslims and opposition parties have said are designed to strip Muslims of their citizenship.

"We aren't hearing much from Trudeau," said Indo-Canadian secularist Gurpreet Singh of British Columbia, co-founder of Indians Abroad for a Pluralist India. "We aren't hearing much even from the south Asian members of his cabinet or his caucus. And it's very unfortunate."

Singh said the Modi government is destroying the democratic, civic vision of an India for all its peoples — the India of Gandhi and Nehru — and "the response from Canada so far has been very weak, very lukewarm and quite meaningless."

Readout delay

It's normal practice for the government of Canada to put out a communique or "readout" of any conversation between the prime minister or foreign minister and their foreign counterparts.

On Tuesday, when CBC News contacted Global Affairs to ask about its silence on events in India, an official speaking on background revealed the conversation had occurred the day before. When asked about a readout, CBC News was told the department had not issued one.

The official said the purpose of the call was to discuss concerns about violence and minority rights in India.

On Wednesday, Global Affairs issued its readout. It mentioned the deaths in India only at the end — and made no reference to new discriminatory laws.

Staffers for the four Indo-Canadian cabinet ministers referred CBC News to that readout as the government's official position.

Global Affairs and the Prime Minister's Office have issued dozens of readouts so far in 2020. A search by CBC found only one that was issued two days after the original conversation it describes.

Citizenship under threat

The latest round of violence in New Delhi began after a Hindu nationalist politician associated with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) issued inflammatory threats against a group of Muslim women staging a sit-in protest against a discriminatory citizenship law brought in by the BJP.

The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), passed in December, opens a pathway to citizenship for any non-Muslim who has illegally immigrated to India in recent times — but explicitly bars Muslims.

A group of men chanting pro-Hindu slogans beat Mohammad Zubair, 37, who is Muslim, during protests sparked by a new citizenship law in New Delhi, India, Feb. 24. Zubair survived the attack. (Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)

Many Muslims and secular Indians see the law as part of a government push to strip native-born Muslims of their citizenship. Already, the Indian government has implemented its National Register of Citizens program in the state of Assam, declaring 1.9 million people to be non-citizens.

Some of those people are Hindus, but they can regain their citizenship through the CAA. Large numbers of those disenfranchised were Muslims, and they are barred from applying under the CAA.

India's powerful home affairs minister, Amit Shah, has referred to Muslims suspected of being in the country illegally as "termites" and "infiltrators" and has promised a BJP government will "throw them into the Bay of Bengal."

Video and photo evidence has appeared to back victims' claims that Delhi police, controlled by the national government, sometimes aided and abetted the mobs.

The ruling BJP party has been mostly silent on India's epidemic of lynchings of Muslims as Hindu mobs rampaged through New Delhi. But it loudly and aggressively calls out "minority appeasement" by other political parties that don't engage in Muslim-baiting or resist discriminatory laws.

Deadly protests

The Citizenship Amendment Act passed India's parliament on Dec. 11, triggering protests around the country that were often met with lethal police violence. On Dec. 19, after about two dozen deaths in disturbances led Canada to issue a travel advisory for northeast India, the situation was serious enough that the government suspended constitutional guarantees in the capital and some other parts of the country, banning all gatherings of more than four people.

Relatives and neighbours stand near the body of Mohammad Mudasir, 31, who was killed in communal violence in New Delhi, India last month, which killed at least 30 people and injured more than 200 as U.S. President Donald Trump was visiting the country. (The Associated Press)

But after Champagne met with Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar on Dec. 20, there was only a general reference to rights concerns in the Canadian readout:

"Minister Champagne also discussed pluralism, human rights and issues of regional concern, including the situation in Jammu and Kashmir. Human rights, diversity and inclusion are at the core of Canada's foreign policy; their importance is reflected in all of our discussions with international partners."

Gurpreet Singh said India is a blind spot in Canada's focus on human rights in South Asia.

"This government clearly has its eyes on that region," he said. "They opened doors for Hindus and Sikhs being persecuted in Afghanistan, which is fair enough. They also opened doors for Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who was facing the death sentence in Pakistan.

"So if they are keeping an eye on that region, how come they are ignoring what is happening in India under Narendra Modi?"

'Silence' of Indo-Canadian MPs

Singh said the government's silence is all the more unusual because it always has had strong representation from a community that knows all about state-sponsored persecution in India: Canada's Sikhs.

A pogrom against Sikhs in New Delhi in 1984 was a watershed event in the history of Canada's Indian diaspora, propelling an exodus of Sikhs from Delhi and the Punjab to Canada.

There are three Sikh ministers in Trudeau's cabinet — Navdeep Bains, Bardish Chagger and Harjit Sajjan — as well as Canada's first Hindu cabinet minister, Anita Anand.

"When it comes to south Asian MPs, they definitely are scared that they'll be denied visas to visit their home country if they annoy Modi and the Indian government," said Singh, who remembers that two prominent Indo-Canadian politicians — NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Liberal MP Sukh Dhaliwal — received that treatment.

"This is the only explanation I can find" to account for their silence, said Singh, citing one exception.

"Jagmeet Singh has done a good job," he said. "He's definitely been very vocal on these issues in the past. He was vocal on the issue of Sikh genocide, he raised the issue of the CAA. He has been vocal about the violence against the so-called Untouchables."

A federal government spokesperson declined to comment on why its ministers have not spoken out publicly.

Courting Modi

Several Canadian politicians have cultivated ties to the BJP and to Modi, and used those ties to boost their support in Canada's Hindu community.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper leveraged his Modi connections when Modi visited Canada during Harper's time in office — flying with the Indian leader to Toronto, where the two appeared together at a rally.

Harper campaigned in 2011 alongside one of Modi's biggest celebrity backers, Bollywood star Akshay Kumar, who was later given a special grant of Canadian citizenship. Harper visited Modi during a visit to India last year, praising his "courageous (and) visionary leadership."

Western governments muted

Canada's government is not the only Western government that is reluctant to call out Indian abuses.

U.S. President Donald Trump was in New Delhi as the riots unfolded — he had little to say about them. But the U.S. government's Commission on International Religious Freedom did condemn the attacks and called on the Indian government to protect all its citizens. Individual British MPs and opposition parties have also spoken out.

The mob violence in India has also led to protests in the diaspora outside Indian consulates and embassies. Gurpreet Singh said Delhi's actions have united people from different traditions in defence of a common ideal of India.

"People who are really Indian at heart, who believe in secularism and diversity, this is something we are all worried about."