Gurminder Singh: Canada Should Not Allow India’s Vaccine Diplomacy Undermine Human Rights Advocacy 

Temporarily it may be profitable to look the other way due to strategic and economic interests, but this comes at the cost of our credibility across the world

Gurminder Singh
February 12, 2021 | 3 min. read

The grandstanding behind Narendra Modi's tweet following a Wednesday conversation with Prime Minister Trudeau did not go unnoticed

Modi framed the conversation via social media, before any official readout was published, by suggesting he “received” a call from Trudeau to secure Indian made vaccines. This language used by Modi is atypical when cross-examining readouts with other world leaders, where it is customary to show that calls were organized on a mutual accord out of due respect. 

By extending support for vaccine supplies to Canada, India is unquestionably trying to negotiate a multitude of issues simultaneously, central of which is a play to turn Canada docile on India's human rights abuses. 

In doing so, Modi has likely overplayed his hand. 

The difference in their official readouts of the exchange, and subsequent efforts from the MEA to reshape the narrative, is telling of this fact (see: India’s readout, Canada’s readout). Trudeau seems to have continued to advocate for 'peaceful protest and commitment to democratic principles' while Modi initially excluded this singular yet significant detail.

This comes as no surprise. 

These past months have seen peaceful farmer protests in India met with human rights violations, repressed dissent, and internet/communication blackouts. Authorities have jailed activists and journalists without cause. As Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch continue to call out India to stop the clampdown on protestors and abuse of civil liberties, India continues its efforts to dismiss such grievances as sensationalism and sweep its violations under the rug. 

The greatest political divide between our nations is our understanding of democratic ideals. It is the freedom of expression that is freely and unequivocally exercised in Canada that bothers India. Anything that is critical of them is contrived as anti-national or funded by its antagonized neighbor Pakistan, among other characterizations. 

The problem gets further complicated for India, as a significant number of its minority communities have settled abroad in democracies that actually live up to their constitutional values. In Canada, Sikhs make up toward 50% of the diasporic Indian population. This is what challenges India the most. Sikhs have been vocal in highlighting their scars of Genocide at the hands of the government in 1984 and other human rights abuses that followed. 

In response, India has chosen to malign Sikhs abroad through whatever means possible to silence dissent and hide its ill regard for human rights. It is a narrative to blindside peaceful dissent and destroy the reputation of the Sikh minority at home and abroad. 

At the intersection of human rights and trade, Indian foreign policy hopes for our silence and amnesia on its atrocious record. This is certainly an unsuitable bargain for Canada. It is also risky behavior on the part of India. 

Self-aggrandizing tweets that play to its public discourse or galvanize its polity against Canada for standing up for peaceful protest is irresponsible on part of the Modi government. Further, it does not foster a relationship of mutual respect that would induce good-faith collaboration in hopes of more trade.  

The politicization of human rights at times can make it hard for Superpowers to respond. Canada however is uniquely positioned in this regard. Through its influence in the world, and at the UN and governing bodies, it can fulfill its historic role as the social conscience and mediator. It can help advance trade interests with India by tying policy to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which both countries are signatories. 

The world needs Canada's leadership and our allies are stronger for it. 

Temporarily it may be profitable to look the other way due to strategic and economic interests, but this comes at the cost of our credibility across the world. By calling out India's ongoing failure of human rights and press freedoms, we win the hearts of the majority of Indians and its diasporic communities throughout the world. There is no better way to earn respect and share prosperity with India than to help it secure its democratic ideals.

Canada needs to play this role and answer the call. 

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Gurminder Singh is a community organizer based out of Brampton. 


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