UBC says memorial event was cancelled mainly for pandemic reasons amid student activism against controversial speaker

The abrupt cancellation of the annual Harjit Kaur Sidhu Memorial has renewed debate over the limits of free speech after student activists raised objections to a controversial speaker. However, the university maintains that the event was cancelled primarily due to the pandemic.

The memorial is organized by UBC Asian Studies and was established in 2009. It honours the life of Harjit Sidhu — a Pakistani immigrant and educator who advocated for women’s issues as well as Punjabi culture and language.

The initial speaker’s list included Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor of Caravan Magazine. Following an announcement on the event page that it was to be rescheduled, several outlets reported that the cancellation was due to pressure from student activists over Bal being chosen as a speaker.

One UBC alumnus took to Twitter to protest UBC’s decision, saying that it “is a wrong precedent.”

The SSA wrote in an open letter that their objection to Bal was due to his relation to his uncle, Kanwar Pal Singh Gill, a previous Director General of Police of Punjab. Gill has been referred to as the “butcher of Punjab” by authors and activists for numerous human rights violations during the late 1980s and 1990s.

“Despite Gill’s name being synonymous with terror and brutality, Hartosh Bal has defended his uncle’s legacy on several occasions,” the open letter read.

The SSA claimed that Hartosh Bal has been an “outspoken supporter” of Gill and his legacy, citing an article titled “Lessons not learnt: The Left and Right have distorted KPS Gill’s success against terrorism” that Bal wrote in 2017.

Bal told The Print that he “[fails] to understand what the link is between farm laws and the article [he] wrote years back.”

According to The Print, Bal said that UBC told him the event was being cancelled due to pressure from the Sikh Student Association, but the university did not say this explicitly.

Associate Dean of Equity, Strategy, and Innovation in the Faculty of Arts Janice Stewart said in a statement that the event was postponed “primarily due to the pandemic.”

“Some students who had planned to participate also raised concerns about one of the invited speakers, and expressed their preference to withdraw from the event,” Stewart said. “The decision to postpone this event does not reflect any interest in censorship by the University.”

Basant Sumbal, the incoming co-president of the SSA, said that the club specifically took issue with Bal’s sustained praise of his uncle, which she felt was “quite hurtful to the sentiments of the Sikh community.”

“We didn’t feel that it was proper for a platform as influential as UBC to be giving somebody like that open space,” Sumbal said.

In the open letter, the student association also denounced several “outrageous news articles” that seemed to label their group a “radicalized faction of the Sikh community” as well as their frustration over private communications between them and the event organizers being leaked to the press.

Tajdeep Singh, who is also an incoming co-president of the SSA, said that the club had privately reached out to the event organizers on March 29 to express concern over the invitation of Hartosh Singh Bal.

Singh said they received a response on April 1, when the organizers said that the group’s sentiments were understood and the event was to be cancelled.

Singh took issue with several outlets and tweets labelling the SSA a “radical” group.

“Obviously it’s very hurtful for us because we were advocating for our community and objecting to the invitation of a person who supports such a controversial figure,” Singh said.

He emphasized that their intention was only to remove Bal from the speaker’s list and not to cancel the event entirely. He was also unsure as to why or how these details were publicized, but looks forward to attending the memorial when it is rescheduled.

Singh said it was surprising to him that Stewart cited the pandemic as the main cause for the event cancellation, especially because “[the] SSA has constantly been maligned for putting ‘pressure’ to ‘cancel’ the event.”

Singh added that he was disappointed to see that Hartosh Bal was still invited to speak at an upcoming event organized by the SFU Institute of Humanities, which is being co-sponsored by the UBC Centre for India and South Asia Research.

“Despite the objections we raised about this speaker and him supporting and whitewashing the human rights abuser KPS Gill, UBC CISAR is still going to take part in an event where he will be speaking,” Singh said.

Samir Gandesha, director of the SFU’s Institute for the Humanities, implied in a Facebook post that UBC’s decision to cancel the event was due to “pressure applied by a student group.” He opposed the cancellation and said it was important to “stand up to those who would cancel events such as this.”

SFU cancelled the event on April 23.