NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh is unapologetic for attending rallies featuring Sikh extremists who extolled political violence to create a homeland separate from India, but says he has no view as a Canadian federal politician on the issue of Sikh independence.
Mr. Singh also acknowledged, for the first time, that he now accepts that Talwinder Singh Parmar was the mastermind of the 1985 Air India bombing that killed 329 people.
The Globe and Mail revealed this week that Mr. Singh spoke at events outside the country in 2015 and 2016, where political violence and Sikh separatism were celebrated and India denounced for the army’s attack on the Golden Temple in Amritsar in 1984. Mr. Singh didn’t explicitly condemn violence at these events.
“I wasn’t consorting. I attended an event,” Mr. Singh said in an interview with The Globe on Thursday. “For me, I can understand the pain that people in the Sikh community felt, a community that suffered a violent attack by the military where thousands of civilians were killed at one of the most important places of prayer. I wanted to use the opportunity to get people, who feel marginalized, to do something that is positive.”
At one of those events, he accused India of “trying to wipe us out” and spoke about the principle of independence. But he maintained in The Globe interview that he’s always opposed acts of terrorism or violence.
The rookie party leader has been under fire for appearing to flirt with Sikh radicalism - actions that could potentially damage the NDP’s electability, including in ridings with large Sikh majorities who oppose extremism. However, the Trudeau Liberals are concerned about Mr. Singh’s potential appeal to voters of his own faith, particularly if he supports a separate Sikh state, which could split the vote in a community where many still feel anger toward India.
On Thursday, Mr. Singh would not say whether he supports or opposes an independent Sikh state. Canada’s long-standing policy is one united India.
“As a leader of a federal party in Canada, it’s not up to me nor should I provide any input on whether people advocate for it or not. That is a decision by the people who are impacted,” he said.
On the Air India bombing, Mr. Singh had said since he became NDP Leader last October that he didn’t know who was responsible. A Canadian judicial commission concluded in 2010 that Mr. Parmar, who was never convicted and died in 1992, had orchestrated the bombing.
“The inquiry redramatized for many people, who had to relive the pain of family members, who were killed. It also was a moment where Sikhs felt they were being collectively punished,” he said. “Talwinder Singh Parmar was identified by the inquiry and I accept the findings of the inquiry.”
He acknowledged that some people in the Sikh community believe the bombing was the work of Indian agents but said he did not share that viewpoint.
When he was deputy leader of the Ontario NDP, Mr. Singh spoke at a Sikh “sovereignty rally” in San Francisco in June, 2015, that venerated violent religious leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. The militant leader stockpiled weapons in the Golden Temple and was killed when Indian troops stormed the complex in 1984. Four months later, anti-Sikh riots erupted across India and thousands were killed after prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards.
Mr. Singh would not condemn Mr. Bhindranwale, who advocated for a theocratic Sikh state and is considered a martyr by many Sikhs.
“Some people believe Jarnial Bhindranwale protected Sikhs who were being killed. Some people don’t agree with that. It is complex,” he said. “Imagine how it would feel in Canada if the Canadian government attacked places of prayers with the full military might of the government?”
Mr. Singh also spoke at a “sovereignty and polity” seminar in 2016 in London, where the co-founder of the British-based National Sikh Youth Federation endorsed the use of political violence as a “legitimate form of resistance” to carve out an independent Sikh state in India.
Mr. Singh said he was not surprised when Sikh youth leader Shamsher Singh advocated for violence but the NDP Leader said he only “spoke about how important it is to critique human-rights violations.”
Video has also surfaced of Mr. Singh at a controversial event in Brampton in March, 2011, two months before he was elected to the Ontario legislature. It was held to denounce then-Liberal MP and former cabinet minister Ujjal Dosanjh, an outspoken opponent of Sikh fanaticism.
The year before, Parliament had unanimously passed a motion condemning death threats against Mr. Dosanjh, also a Sikh. This was not the first time in his life that Mr. Dosanjh was put in danger. In 1985, Sikh extremists badly beat him with a lead pipe.
Like other speakers at the 2011 town hall, Mr. Singh said Mr. Dosanjh had slandered and “attacked the Sikh faith … attacked the Sikh community” with his criticism of extremism.
Mr. Dosanjh, who only recently found out about the video, said in an interview that he found it horrifying to be attacked for advocating non-violence.
“He clearly targeted me. If he had any sense of balance in his mind, he would have said I am not going to participate in anything that denounces and defeat someone who has been fighting extremism and terrorism within the community,” Mr. Dosanjh said.
But Mr. Singh told The Globe that he stands by his criticism of Mr. Dosanjh, who he contends is anti-Sikh.
“He has made allegations, effectively painting a picture that that all Sikhs are extremist, violent … and there is no evidence of that,” he said. “It was very hurtful … and I was concerned by comments made by an elected official that could besmirch the reputation of an entire community.”
Mr. Dosanjh said he doesn’t need to take lessons from Mr. Singh on who is a better Sikh. He said he has always been even-handed in his criticism of Hindu and Sikh violence, especially India’s actions in 1984.