(Note: This story includes a correction notice.)

In an embarrassing blow to Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, a large group of Sikh Liberals in British Columbia is quitting the party, saying Trudeau is being "manipulated" by Sikhs under the banner of the World Sikh Organization.

"We think this Liberal Party's been hijacked by the WSO," said Rajinder Singh Bhela, a longtime Liberal and former general secretary of the Ross Street Temple, Vancouver's largest Sikh temple.

"The Liberal Party, especially Justin, is in bed with extremist and fundamental groups. That's why I decided to leave the Liberal Party," said Kashmir Dhaliwal, ex-president of the powerful Khalsa Diwan Society, founded by Sikh pioneers in 1902.

The walkout was provoked by the party's selection of a WSO-backed candidate, Harjit Singh Sajjan, over a prominent businessman, Barj Dhahan. Dhahan is a moderate ally of Ujjal Dosanjh, the previous Liberal MP.

Vancouver South, wrested from the Liberals in 2011 by Conservative Wai Young, is one of several swing ridings the Liberals hope to regain in the next election.

The party-preferred candidate, Sajjan, is a decorated soldier and was a featured speaker at the last Liberal convention. He now stands to win by acclamation after Dhahan was persuaded by the party leadership to withdraw.

Dhahan declined to discuss his reasons with CBC News, except to confirm that he withdrew reluctantly.

'Star' candidate a decorated veteran

Echoes of old battles between militants and moderates linger in the riding.

Harjit Sajjan and Gov. Gen. David Johnston

Harjit Sajjan, left, is congratulated by Gov. Gen. David Johnston after receiving the Meritorious Service Medal in March 2013. Sajjan twice served as a special adviser in Afghanistan and was the first Sikh to head a Canadian army regiment. (Office of the Governor General)

Harjit Sajjan is the son of a veteran WSO board member, Kundan Sajjan, who led fundamentalists in a losing battle with moderates over control of the Ross Street Temple.

Dosanjh, the former MP, often clashed with so-called Khalistanis fighting for an independent Sikh state called Khalistan.

The younger Sajjan is billed as a "star" candidate because he is the first Sikh to command a Canadian army regiment — a reserve B.C. regiment known as the Duke of Connaught's Own. Sajjan was also decorated for his service in Bosnia and Afghanistan.

Sajjan told CBC News, "I'm not a member of the WSO." He expressed the hope that he would win back his critics and said the issue is for voters to decide.

"Ultimately, it's up to the people of south Vancouver."

Sajjan said he saw little impact from the walkout in his travels around the riding.

"I've had no negative vibes from anybody."

Even so, the fact that he will not face a vote leads some party stalwarts to allege a violation of Trudeau's promise to hold open nominations.

"We want democratic values in this country," said Dhaliwal.

"Any party that does not respect democratic values, we will not support that party."

'4,000 will tear up their memberships'

Some 30 Sikh Liberals spoke to CBC News last Tuesday at the Sunset Community Centre in south Vancouver.

Many said they were leaving the party because the nomination process was undemocratic and because they feel Trudeau made a strategic blunder by taking advice from a militant minority in the Sikh community.

They say the resulting discontent will damage Liberal chances in the key battlegrounds of B.C. and Ontario, where half a million Canadians of Sikh origin are politically active.

Jagdeep Sanghera, twice chairman of the Liberal executive in Vancouver South, told CBC "the democratic process was ignored."

World Sikh Organization president Prem Vinning

Some blame World Sikh Organization past-president Prem Vinning, centre, for pushing out a more moderate candidate. Vinning is seen with Conservative MP Tim Uppal, in the blue turban, at a 2013 event in Montreal to support the right of soccer players to wear turbans. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Sanghera said Dhahan, a well-known business leader who accompanied Prime Minister Stephen Harper's last trade mission to India, was a popular candidate who signed up some 4,000 new members — but was pushed out at the urging of the WSO's past president, Prem Vinning, a veteran Liberal power broker in B.C. 

By contrast, he added, Sajjan had only 1,000 new members and would have lost the nomination had the party leadership not persuaded Dhahan to step aside.

The WSO, said Sanghera, is not representative of Canada's Sikhs, but has prevailed upon Trudeau to pick its favoured candidate.

Many of the disaffected Liberals say Trudeau is under the influence of Vinning and of Navdeep Bains, a former Liberal MP from Brampton.

"The majority of the Sikhs are not part of the WSO," Sanghera added.

"As a group we have decided we will not support the Liberal team in the next election. The group of over 4,000 from Vancouver South will tear up their memberships and walk away."

'Third World politics'

Founded in 1984 to fight for a Sikh state, the World Sikh Organization continues to defend that cause and has tried to distance Khalistani extremists from involvement in the 1985 Air India bombing, which killed 331 people.

Barj Dhahan

B.C. businessman Barj Dhahan is a longtime Liberal and was seeking the party's nomination in Vancouver South. He says he reluctantly stepped aside in the race. (barjdhahan.ca)

A Khalistani militant from Duncan, B.C., Inderjit Singh Reyat, was convicted in the case and remains in prison.

The WSO says it's a human rights organization that does not advocate violence. But over its 30-year history, and into this century, it has been controversial because of extremist positions taken by some of its leaders and supporters. That includes the glorification of terrorists, such as the assassins of Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi, and casting doubt on the proven role of Sikh separatists in the Air India bombing. One WSO leader said, in 1991, that Air India bomb-maker Inderjit Reyat was a good friend.

Despite the three convictions of Inderjit Reyat, the WSO told the Air India Inquiry in 2008 that the inquiry failed to take seriously the possibility that the Indian government was to blame for blowing up its own plane.

"It is the WSO’s position that inadequate attention was paid to the question of whether the Indian Government was, itself, involved in the bombing of Air India Flight 182," the WSO's submission said.

"Numerous credible individuals outside of this Inquiry, have suggested that Indian officials may have been involved in the bombing and that the threat of Sikh terrorism may have been a manufactured, and manipulated, threat fabricated by the Indian Government for its own political gains."

RCMP witnesses told the inquiry that there was no credible evidence of any Indian involvement. The four-year Air India trial heard no such evidence, either.

Among those now quitting the Liberals in Vancouver South is Majar Sidhu, who lost three family members in the Air India bombing. Sidhu told CBC, "The Liberal Party is encouraging terrorist people. I'm supporting Harper."

Another departing Liberal, Ranbir Manj, said of the nomination process: "I feel ashamed. This is similar to politics going on in Third World countries."

Of the WSO, he added, "These are the people who are supporting people who are fighting for separatism in India." Manj said his extended family had all decided to quit the Liberals.

"Brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, about 25 people — we decided last night we are leaving right away."

'There are people who don't win'

The WSO said in a statement it does not endorse parties or candidates.

Justin Trudeau said he was satisfied with the nomination process in Vancouver South.

"In various situations across the country," Trudeau said, "there have been issues with different candidates and some people have chosen to withdraw."

​"There are winners and there are people who don't win. And, from time to time, the people who didn't succeed through the process will have complaints, and that's just part and parcel of it. But the open nominations — letting the communities have the final word on who will be their next Liberal candidate — have been a tremendous success and I'm very proud of it."

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story made reference to Mr. Balwinder Bains. We accept that this reference was incorrect and have removed it from the story.
    Dec 21, 2014 9:32 AM ET