CHELSEA, QUE.—Belatedly, tentatively—and after what must have been considerable pressure from within his own party—Jagmeet Singh clarified his position on Talwinder Singh Parmar, named by a commission of inquiry, and others, as mastermind of the 1985 Air India bombing. In an opinion piece in The Globe and Mail last week, and in subsequent interviews, the federal NDP leader said, for the first time, that he accepts the findings of the inquiry and condemns “all responsible for the horror they (Parmar and associates) inflicted.”
He also said he disapproves of posters that glorify Parmar as a martyr in a few Sikh temples and venues in Ontario and B.C., but will not refuse to appear at events where such posters are displayed. He would use the opportunity, instead, to acknowledge the pain of Sikhs who were traumatized by the violent oppression of the Indian government in the 1980s and preach reconciliation and peace.
To which some are asking: what took you so long? For months, Singh refused repeated invitations to condemn the glorification of specific Sikh separatists, notably Parmar. When pushed on the issue by CBC host Terry Milewski last October, shortly after he became the first non-white to lead a federal political party, Singh called the questioning “offensive.” His defenders insisted it was racist to push Singh on the issue, that a white politician would not be held to account in the same way.
But Singh’s non-answers, his continued evasion—along with videos that emerged last week of Singh addressing groups devoted to making the Punjab an independent homeland for India’s Sikh minority—was damaging his electoral prospects and that of his party. The controversy dogged Singh, not because his questioners were racist, but because of his own refusal to answer a straightforward question: should an accused militant—responsible for Canada’s worst terrorist incident—be venerated as a martyr in this country?
The easy answer, for anyone who opposes violence in pursuit of a political goal, is no. The continued questioning sprang naturally from Singh’s own evasiveness on an admittedly complicated and, seemingly, historically and geographically remote controversy.
Singh has repeatedly said he opposes terrorism “regardless of who the perpetrators are or who the victims are.” Yet he refused for months to publicly repudiate the display of posters of Parmar, the Burnaby man who authored the bombing that killed 331 people, most of them Canadian. Parmar, who died in a shoot-out with Indian police in 1992, was never convicted, but the court and two subsequent inquiries, led by former Supreme Court justice John Major and former federal Liberal leader Bob Rae, implicated him as responsible for worst terrorist incident in Canadian history.
Parmar is still venerated as a martyr among a minority of Canadian Sikhs, who remain committed to an independent Punjab state within India, called Khalistan. When Milewski, who covered the 34-year-old bombing exhaustively, first asked Singh about the continued glorification of Parmar the response was troubling.
Singh condemned the Air India bombing and repeated his general opposition to terrorism. But he said of Parmar: “I don’t know who is responsible but I think we need to find out who’s responsible, we need to make sure the investigation results in the conviction of someone who is actually responsible.”
To be excessively charitable, it can be argued that, as a criminal defence lawyer, Singh was giving Parmar a pass because the former leader of a B.C.-based Sikh separatist organization was never actually convicted. This ignores, however, a massive amount of damning circumstantial evidence. To be excessively cynical, it can be argued that Singh was appealing to the small, but forceful, minority within the Sikh community that remains committed to achieving an independent homeland by any means necessary. If so, that would be craven and at odds with Canadian policy and values.
Singh’s unsatisfactory answers to Milewski might have faded from public view were it not for footage that emerged last week of Singh addressing a Sikh sovereignty rally in San Fransisco in 2015, a rally that featured sovereignty banners and photographs of a revered Sikh separatist, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who advocated violent resistance and whom the Indian government regards as a terrorist.
Singh says he was at the rally as “a human rights advocate” and he told the crowd, at the time, to “not fall prey to rage and violence, but embrace your truth and move forward with love and courage.” Other video emerged, as well, depicting Singh speaking to a 2016 seminar in London, England, with the co-founder of the British-based National Sikh Youth Federation who has endorsed the use of political violence to achieve an independent Sikh homeland.
It would be hasty to conclude that Singh’s appearance at both events means he approves the use of violence in the pursuit of a Sikh state. But it made it difficult for him to distance himself from the thorny issues around Sikh independence—and to claim neutrality, as he does. He has said that he supports “self-determination” generally, but that, as a Canadian-born politician, he knows that “India’s future is for Indians to decide.”
Still, as former B.C. premier and federal cabinet minister, Ujjal Dosanjh noted: “If you support one India [the official Canadian government position] why do you associate yourself with parades and temples that glorify those that want to dismember India?” Singh’s forced clarification was welcomed by Dosanjh, himself the victim of a beating at the hands of Sikh extremists, as “better late than never.”
Dosanjh also drew a contrast between himself—raised in India by secular parents—and Singh, born in Scarborough of parents who fled the Indian persecution of the 80s, as did so many Sikh Canadians. In his Globe and Mail article, Singh speaks of the pain suffered by his parents, and others of their generation, at the hands of Indian governments. He sounds deeply aggrieved on their behalf—indeed, he portrays himself as a victim of the same trauma—although he grew up in the relative peace of Canada. And he notes that while the Air Canada bombing was painful for victims families, Sikhs were also “collectively punished for the acts of some individuals.”
If so, surely the answer for the majority of peace-loving Sikhs to is renounce and reject the extremists in their midst, not offer them protective cover as Singh did for many months. Dosanjh, denounced as a traitor to his people for criticizing Khalistan extremists, says that Singh “has obviously grown up in the grievance politics of post-1984. He didn’t grow up in India. I did. I know the realities on the ground”, namely that both Sikh extremists and the government share blame for what happened.
To most Canadians these will sound like remote and irrelevant disagreements. While Canada welcomes refugees from war-torn places, many believe they should leave their ancient hatreds behind. That is easier said than done, but it is certainly expected of a would-be Canadian political leader.
As to charges that Singh has been treated unfairly by the media because he is Sikh, that is a hard case to sustain in light of the trashing Justin Trudeau received when it emerged that a former Sikh extremist, Jaspal Atwal, was part of the prime minister’s official delegation on his recent ill-starred trip to India. The controversy isn’t about skin colour, it is about appearing to be soft on terrorists.
All federal parties must negotiate the minefield of South Asian diaspora politics; Sikhs are a politically active minority, holding 17 seats in the House of Commons. They don’t all agree on the question of Khalistan, and they have all, no doubt, faced racism in their integration into Canadian society. And most federal leaders have, at one time or another, appeared at rallies that feature pro-Khalistan banners and photographs.
But it isn’t true that a white politician who expressed admiration for, or even ambivalence about, the Irish Republican Army and their murderous bombing campaign in England and Northern Ireland, wouldn’t face questions and censure. Nor is it conceivable that a white Canadian politician who refused to condemn an anti-semitic, anti-black rally like the one in Charlottesville, S.C., would get a pass from the media.
There are many more pressing and urgent issues facing the country than a decades-old, bloody territorial war a world away. Singh offers a pleasant, reasonable face to electors and is beginning, tentatively, to roll out potentially attractive policies, like pharmacare.
Now that he has, finally, condemned the authors of the Air India tragedy, he can move on to more universal concerns. And he may find that the media will stop persecuting him, too.