Opinion

Jagmeet Singh keeps getting asked about Sikh extremism because he won't give an answer: Robyn Urback

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has long been involved in Sikh causes. But he won't clarify his position on an independent Khalistan; nor will he denounce the glorification of Sikh extremists.

'I condemn all acts of terrorism' is not a clarification

Singh has long been involved in Sikh causes. But he won't clarify his position on an independent Khalistan, nor will he denounce the glorification of Sikh extremists. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh lucked out in a couple of ways when he posted one of his more sophomoric and senseless tweets back in 2016, marking the death of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.

"He saw a country wracked by poverty, illiteracy & disease. So he lead (sic) a revolution that uplifted the lives of millions. RIP #FidelCastro," Singh wrote, along with a picture of a young Castro.

Now, the character limit on Twitter back at the time was 140, so perhaps we should give Singh the benefit of the doubt and assume he would've added, "Oh, but Castro was also a tyrant who committed monstrous crimes against his own people" if only he had the 280 character limit of Twitter today.

Nevertheless, the timing proved fortunate for a couple of reasons. For one, Singh had not yet officially declared himself a candidate in the upcoming NDP leadership race, and thus, wasn't particularly well known outside of Ontario, where he had served as an MPP and deputy leader of the Ontario NDP.

Secondly, Singh's tweet was eclipsed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's own bizarre tribute to the dictator, whom Trudeau dubbed "a larger than life leader who served his people for almost half a century." The statement sparked a series of parodies under the hashtag #trudeaueulogies, leaving Singh's tweet, by contrast, relatively ignored.

It wasn't that Trudeau's ode to Castro was inherently worse than Singh's — quite the opposite, actually — but simply that there are different standards when it comes to messages from federal leaders compared to those of provincial MPPs, the latter of whom generally don't represent Canada on the world stage. Indeed, our tolerance for a little deviation from the script tends to end when elected officials begin representing people beyond their own constituency.     

Singh appears not to have grasped that distinction yet, as evidenced by his inability to clarify his position on Khalistani extremism, which is made up of radical elements of the Sikh separatist movement. Months ago, when interviewed by CBC's Terry Milewski following the NDP leadership convention, Singh failed to denounce the glorification of Talwinder Singh Parmar, for example in posters displayed outside Sikh temples and other public places. Parmar is widely seen as the mastermind behind the 1985 Air India bombing that killed 329 people.

"I don't know who was responsible, but I think we need to find out who's truly responsible," Singh said about the terrorist attack, as if some great mystery still endures.

Many characterized the line of questioning as unfair — racist, even — arguing that Singh was being asked questions about Sikh extremism simply because he is a Sikh himself.

But Singh was being asked about Sikh extremism because he has involved himself in Sikh causes, including speaking out in the Ontario legislature against the death penalty for Balwant Singh Rajoana, a member of a Sikh terrorist group that conspired to kill a Punjabi politician.

Jagmeet Singh, new leader of the federal NDP, sits down with Terry Milewski on his first day on the job 8:22

This week, the Globe and Mail reported that Singh spoke at a Sikh separatist rally in 2015 that included a large poster of extremist leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Bhindranwale was and is perceived by many as a pioneer of the Khalistan movement, but he is also seen as an unrepentant terrorist whose followers stormed public spaces (eventually, the Golden Temple) to assassinate opponents.

Bhindranwale is perhaps the perfect example of how one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter; sort of like Fidel Castro, and Che Guevara, and other revolutionaries whose faces can be found on T-shirts worn by students on university campuses the world over. But Jagmeet Singh isn't in university anymore, and he's no longer a relatively obscure Ontario MPP. If he wants to be a leader for his party — and eventually, the country — he can't just shrug off questions about Sikh separatism and the glorification of extremists.

'All acts of terrorism'

Yet in response to the Globe report, Singh again avoided making any meaningful clarifications: he issued a statement saying he condemns "all acts of terrorism in every part of the world" and went on to describe the trauma of the 1984 Indian army assault on Sikh militants and subsequent anti-Sikh riots that left thousands dead, but he used none of his approximately 500 words to say "I condemn the violent actions of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale." That is generally something one should do if, even by coincidence, one happens to find himself sharing a stage or rally space with a poster of Bhindranwale.

He also chose not to clarify his position on an independent Sikh homeland. That matters for the same reason French President Charles de Gaulle's "Vive le Quebec libre" speech mattered, only amplified umpteen times in the context of a struggle far more fraught, bloody and devastating than anything we could even conceive here in Canada.

This is not about Singh's personal religious beliefs; it is about his politics and the causes to which he has repeatedly offered his voice in the past. If a Catholic political leader happened to be at rally with posters glorifying Irish Republican Army terrorists, he would almost certainly get these questions, too.

Singh keeps getting asked about Sikh extremism and questions of independence because he won't give an answer. That's passable for a provincial MPP, but not for a would-be prime minister.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Robyn Urback

Columnist

Robyn Urback is an opinion columnist with CBC News and a producer with the CBC's Opinion section. She previously worked as a columnist and editorial board member at the National Post. Follow her on Twitter at:

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