Raji Aujla knows there’s a chance she won’t be allowed to enter India again.
Even though this is the country where her parents were born, and the country in which she found her start in her media career and lived for six months, she has come to accept this reality.
Aujla has been vocal lately about something close to her heart, and something that the Indian government has actively tried to discredit: the farmers’ protests.
Aujla is a writer and creative director based out of Toronto and the Okanagan, who wrote her first piece touching on the farmers protests for CBC in December.
“I mentioned the farmers' protest, but it was about why land is important to Sikhs,” she says in an interview with 5X Press.
Just five days later, after writing another opinion piece for the Globe and Mail, Aujla knew she was giving up the possibility of going to her homeland ever again.
“I knew the cost was that I won’t have permission to go to India again, and I was okay with that,” she says.
Currently, Indian farmers are protesting three agricultural bills that will work to strip them of their autonomy and make them vulnerable to big corporations. You can read an explainer about these laws here.
Since the protests picked up momentum two months ago, farmers from predominantly Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh have continued to protest, and have been met with increasingly hostile treatment by Indian authorities.
The reality is that while India is supposed to be one of the largest democracies, it has become evident that it has a clear issue with freedom of expression, in and outside of the country. During a time like the farmer’s protests, freedom of the press is also being threatened under that umbrella.
In fact, on their 2020 rank of countries in terms of freedom of the press, Reporters Without Borders placed India as 142 out of 180 countries.
Freedom of expression is something Aujla says she cares very much about, but it’s the reality of speaking out critically against the Indian government -- one that has historically silenced those voices -- that has confronted her.
As the founder of Willendorf culture and The Newest Magazine, Aujla has dedicated much of her career to creating space for BIPOC experiences and giving voices to the voiceless.
Understanding the parameters of freedom of press
Although freedom of the press and freedom of expression are strongly protected in Canada, legal counsel and spokesperson for the World Sikh Organization Balpreet Singh says, it is very different in India.
“India has a big issue with freedom of press. There’s a shift toward authoritarianism that the world is either turning a blind-eye to, or is just not noticing, because India is glossed over as with being the largest democracy in the world,” Singh says in an interview with 5X Press.
Singh has been doing work related to the relationship between the Indian government and the media for over 10 years.
He says it’s difficult to articulate how wide the issue of freedom of press spans.
“You have journalists that toe the government line because either they are afraid or they have economic interest in it,” he adds.
He adds that the freedom of expression and press in India is seriously lacking, with journalists being coerced or bought into reporting certain narratives, or simply being too scared to tell the truth.
Singh recently authored the report titled “India’s disinformation against Sikh Canadians,” which dissects the ways in which the Indian government has increasingly tried to harm the images of Sikh Canadians through the media.
The report includes a close look at many Indian media organizations such as Zee Network and Asian News International (ANI) and their existing biases and ties to the BJP.
Singh reflects on how the freedom of press has been a long running issue in India, but we are just seeing new manifestations of an old problem.
Recently, the government has cut internet access in several districts in Haryana.
This internet blackout is something that Singh says raises alarms, as he reflects on internet and media blackouts of India’s past, such as the media blackout during the 1984 genocide of Sikhs in India, as well as the internet shutdown that happened recently in Kashmir.
“Anytime they want to do something really bad, they make sure they do it in the dark,” he said.
“So when the internet was shut down at the Delhi border, it led many in the Sikh community to fear that things were going to go bad very quickly, and we have a very big diasporic community, and it was our responsibility to raise the alarm, [and] that’s what we’ve done,” Singh adds.
He also notes that this kind of behaviour is apart of a pattern.
“It looks like the internet blackout is the final step before the violence starts to happen, and I think the fact that others have noticed, even these celebrities have noticed, is going to make India rethink any plans they had of cracking down on the farmers' protest.”
Aujla recognizes this same pattern, having lived in India and having worked in the Indian news media industry.
She knows that while her ability to go to India is threatened, it is so much worse for the journalists and activists that are continuously working and reporting on the protests in India.
“We’re so lucky being here. At times I feel like I’m participating in a voyeuristic experience,” she says.
She knows she speaks from a place of privilege, and that there are people in India facing struggles one can’t begin to fathom.
It’s already become evident to many that Aujla’s feelings of concern are warranted.
“As an advocate, she wasn’t even a journalist, she was someone who was a knowledgeable source who could add commentary and context to the issues surrounding the farmers,” Aujla says, speaking of Nodeep Kaur.
While not taking down the plight of men being arrested and tortured, Aujla feels for the gendered experience Nodeep Kaur is enduring.
“The experience that’s felt for any woman to go through advocacy on the farmer’s protest is incredibly different than the men.”
There are also some other ways in which the Indian government has played its part in gatekeeping freedom of expression.
For instance, it was reported just a few days ago that Twitter India employees could be faced with a fine or jail time for up to seven years for failing to comply with the governments requests to block certain accounts that were seen as spreading misinformation about protests and inciting violence.
However, Modi's BJP government didn’t stop there while trying to control the existing narrative.
Just last week, Indian government and media were caught off-guard when Rihanna took to Twitter to ask: “why aren't we talking about this?! #FarmersProtest.”
The tweet alone brought much more attention to the ongoing protests, and triggered others such as Greta Thunberg, Meena Harris and Mia Khalifa to speak openly in support of farmers.
The Indian media quickly pounced, insisting that these figures had been bribed and had “Khalistani links.”
A quick Google search of the terms ‘Rihanna’ and ‘Khalistan,’ produces a long list of media platforms hoping to push the narrative.
Aujla says this is all part of Modi’s ability to create a powerful and sophisticated regime. She has long studied Modi, his politics, and his ability to maintain his public relations.
“We’re experiencing a sophisticated engine that he’s been rolling out since the day he was elected as the chief minister in Gujarat,” she says.
“You look at it from that level of all the influence he’s garnered around him as a political leader, he’s created the best system to push information and disinformation and misinformation. He’s created the best, most oiled engine to do that at such ease.”
Aujla hopes that others from around the world are able to hear the noise that the diaspora is making.
Platforms such as Baaz news and the Trolly Times newsletter are both actively working at putting out reporting that is not rooted in propaganda, and she also commends the work of influential figures in the community such as Rupi Kaur -- someone Aujla says is taking on a leadership role through these trying times.
Aujla remembers how she felt immediately after she published the Globe and Mail piece.
She wanted to take off and fly to Amritsar. After all, it could have been the last chance she could get to go back.
But Aujla wants to continue fighting for her right to freedom of expression and hopes to continue shedding light on the farmer’s protests in the best way she knows how.
“I’m going to keep on writing.”
About the author: Monika Sidhu is a freelance multimedia journalist based out of Brampton,ON. She loves covering all things arts and culture and enjoys telling untold stories coming out of her community. Monika recently graduated from Western University receiving a Master’s of Media in Journalism and Communication. In her off-time, you can find her discovering new music, spending time with her dogs or hiding the fact that she is binging reality tv shows.
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