NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh issued a blanket condemnation of terrorist acts Wednesday following media reports about his attendance at a California rally three years ago that sang the praises of Sikh separatism and a violent religious leader killed during the 1984 invasion of India’s Golden Temple.
Singh issued a statement in which he condemned all acts of terrorism, regardless of who is responsible, after the Globe and Mail disclosed that he attended and spoke at the 2015 rally in San Francisco, an event billed as a commemoration of Sikhs who died during the bloody 1984 invasion in Amritsar.
Billing himself an advocate for human rights, Singh said while he believes in allowing the Sikh community the opportunity to process the feelings inflicted by the trauma of the 1984 invasion, which he calls a genocide, he does not condone violence as a response.
Many Indian-Canadian families immigrated to Canada in the years following the temple attack, fleeing the tension and anti-Sikh rioting that followed it. Singh said he has dedicated much of his work to helping the community answer how it can “move through pain and trauma in order to reach acceptance so that it can arrive peacefully” at reconciliation.
“I encourage all those facing these tough questions not to fall prey to rage and violence, but rather to embrace your truth and move forward with love and courage,” he wrote.
The statement comes at a time of strained Canada-India relations, in part because of lingering Indian concerns that Canadian governments tolerate Sikh separatism and extremism by not speaking out against it.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent visit to India became more of a diplomatic embarrassment than a peace-building exercise, although Trudeau did manage to make some headway, publicly condemning extremism and signing a joint security framework with India to counter terrorism and violent extremism.
The demand that all Sikhs constantly condemn violence in general is not only tiring, it’s offensive, said Balpreet Singh, legal counsel for the World Sikh Organization in Canada.
“It’s a little bit awkward for us because there is no violence for us to condemn,” he said.
The only violence people can point to happened decades ago, and it is unfair to continually accuse Sikhs of condoning violence because of the actions of others more than 30 years ago, he continued.
“There are voices in India who call anyone who criticizes the Indian government as a radical or an extremist,” he said. “But in 20-plus years there is no actual examples of violence.”
Balpreet Singh called Trudeau’s recent trip “a massive disaster for the Sikh community” that set the community back decades in Canada.
He said there are many Canadian Sikhs who felt let down by Trudeau on the trip for not defending them against Indian allegations that violence and extremism was coming into India from Canada’s Sikh community.
At one particular news conference during the trip, Trudeau did not answer when asked if he felt there was a Sikh separatist problem in Canada, saying only that Canada would address those issues “wherever they arise.”
A spokeswoman for Trudeau said Wednesday the government believes freedom of speech and expression are “at the core of democracy.”
“These rights are universal,” Eleanore Catenaro said in email. “The prime minister would never equate the Sikh community or any one community with extremism. However, our government’s position is clear — we condemn all forms of terrorism and extremism.”
The Liberals won a number of seats in the last election largely with the support of the Sikh community. There are more than half a dozen seats around Toronto and Vancouver where the Indian community accounts for more than one-third of the population; in two of them, it makes up more than half. The Liberals won them all, and many felt the trip to India was designed — at least in part — as a form of political outreach.
Trudeau spent much of the trip expressing Canada’s official support for a united India and condemning violence in order to quiet allegations within India that Canada supported Sikh separatism and that his cabinet included Sikh separatists.
The government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also expressed concern in the past about Trudeau attending Sikh parades and celebrations alongside floats or events honouring those linked to the 1984 Air India bombing. Some said Modi snubbed Trudeau in India by sending a junior minister to greet him at the airport, ignoring his visit for several days and only meeting him for part of one day near the end of the week-long trip.
Modi appeared warm during that day and offered Trudeau his signature bear hug, but the idea that he was sending Trudeau and Canada a message was rejuvenated last weekend when Modi did go to the airport to meet French President Emmanuel Macron, which is out of step with official Indian protocol.