OTTAWA — NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh is sidestepping questions about political violence, saying the issue of whether force can be justified to defend Sikh people from oppression is too complex to be answered “in a simplistic manner.”
Singh made the statement one day after a new video surfaced, showing him at a seminar on Sikh sovereignty where a panellist says violence can help achieve independence. It was the second video to emerge this week showing him at pro-Sikh independence events.
The 2016 video, taken in the United Kingdom, shows a youth activist next to Singh discussing how violence can be a “legitimate form of resistance” for Sikhs in India.
Asked Thursday whether he agrees with that notion, Singh did not denounce the use of political violence. He said the question strikes at the “complexity of the situation” in which a controversial armed leader killed in an infamous clash at the Sikh Golden Temple in 1984 — a Sikh preacher named Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale — is seen by some as a defender of Sikhs at a time when they were being persecuted, while others have called him a terrorist.
“I fall on the position that it is complex, that it is a complex situation that can’t be answered in a simplistic manner,” Singh said.
The NDP leader has been on the defensive this week after videos emerged suggesting his association with advocates of an independent Sikh state called Khalistan.
Singh took part in a “sovereignty rally” in San Francisco in 2015, where a video showed a large banner on stage with an image of Bhindranwale, while a second 2016 video from the U.K. showed him at a seminar where the co-founder of the National Youth Sikh Federation made the comments about political violence.
Singh has repeatedly condemned all forms of terrorism; in a public statement this week, he said “terrorism can never be seen as a way to advance the cause of any one group.” When asked Thursday by the Star about whether political violence can ever be justified in the Sikh context, Singh was not so declarative.
“Well, I think you’re actually on the complexity of the situation,” he said. “Given that it’s complex, it requires that thoughtfulness to proceed forward.”
He added that posters of Bhindranwale are “probably at the majority of gurdwaras (Sikh places of worship) in North America.”
Singh also questioned why he’s being called to discuss the controversial leader when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited the Golden Temple last month, where a memorial for Bhindranwale is on display.
“That should sure raise a concern,” he said, when asked whether he’s being unfairly singled out with questions about Sikh history and extremism.
“Every Sikh knows someone that was killed, or a family (member) or a loved one that was killed as a result of what happened in 1984,” Singh said. “Many Canadians don’t know that history, and I think it’s important for me to explain that.”
Political and religious tensions in the Indian state of Punjab erupted in bloodshed in 1984, when the Indian army stormed the Golden Temple, where Bhindranwale was garrisoned with his group of armed followers and killed in a shootout that lasted several days. Four months later, Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards, a killing that precipitated an explosion of mob violence and anti-Sikh riots where 3,000 people were reportedly killed.
The tensions spilled over into Canada, as well. Khalistani extremists were convicted of trying to kill an Indian cabinet minister on Vancouver Island in 1986 — one of whom was part of an international controversy after he was invited to official events during Trudeau’s recent trip to India — while RCMP and CSIS investigators linked a Sikh extremist group to the 1985 Air India bombing, which killed more than 300 people, many of them Canadians.
During an interview with the CBC last fall, Singh did not denounce the man believed to have planned that bombing, Talwinder Parmar, in the face of repeated questions. But on Thursday, Singh wrote in the Globe and Mail that he accepts the findings of the Air India inquiry that deemed Parmar to be the mastermind of the attack, and that he condemns “all responsible for the horror they inflicted.”
Singh has attended a number of events in recent years that commemorate Sikh victims of the violence in 1984, which he has condemned for years as a state-sponsored genocide in India. The Ontario legislature passed a motion in April 2017 that recognized the anti-Sikh riots in 1984 as genocide.
The NDP leader told the Star Thursday that he is often invited to events like the rally in San Francisco and the seminar in the U.K., and that he always wants to attend so that he can share his views about how to respond to the “pain and trauma” that Sikhs have endured in their history.
“There’s a lot of anger and a lot of pain and frustration that people feel,” he said. “I felt that growing up, knowing that people who look just like me were targeted because of who they are, because of the fact that they believed in a spiritual tradition that I come from as well. And so I know that people feel pain and they feel trauma, and what I’ve done is I’ve channelled that pain and trauma into some positive.
“If I get a chance to talk to a young Jagmeet in a crowd, who’s feeling pain and frustration, to say ‘Hey, you can channel that into something positive and something that actually uplifts you.’ I want to do that.”
Singh, meanwhile, refused to say whether he personally supports Khalistani separatism in India. He told the Star that it’s not up to him to decide, but that he supports the right of people to determine their political future, and speak out in support of separatism.
He said his appearance at pro-sovereignty events for Sikhs in India doesn’t discredit him as a federal leader who believes in Canadian unity. He said his role is to learn about Quebec and offer policies that make people in the province “feel part of a unified Canada.” He pointed to how his party believes its unfair that foreign companies like Netflix aren’t taxed the same as Canadian entertainment services, and how as prime minister he would reopen constitutional talks to get Quebec to sign on.
At the same time, he said he would respect Quebecers decision to hold a referendum and separate from Canada. “People have the democratic right to take those steps,” he said.