Jagmeet Singh defends appearance at Sikh independence rally

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh went on the defensive Wednesday, saying his appearance at a 2015 rally in San Francisco should not be read as lending support to extreme elements of the Sikh community calling for independence for their homeland.

Some members of the crowd can be seen holding ceremonial swords and chanting 'Khalistan'

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh seen giving a speech at a pro-independence Sikh rally in San Francisco, CA, in 2015. (Sikh Roots/YouTube)

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh went on the defensive Wednesday, saying his appearance at a 2015 rally in San Francisco should not be read as lending support to extreme elements of the Sikh community calling for independence for their homeland.

Singh — who spent much of his early political life lobbying the Ontario government to recognize the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in India as an act of genocide — said he attended the rally to foster peace in a community still grieving three decades later over the violent events that left thousands dead. The riots erupted after Sikh bodyguards assassinated Indira Gandhi, India's prime minister.

"While there [at the San Francisco rally], I spoke directly about the pain in the community and my own path to learning about my heritage," Singh said.

"When faced with the knowledge that your relatives were targeted for who they were, you are faced with the question of how to respond. My response was to embrace my identity and work harder to stand up for human rights and not allow the voices of the marginalized to be made silent."

There can be little doubt about the sympathies of many who attended that 10,000-strong rally in 2015. Some members of the crowd can be seen holding ceremonial swords and chanting "Khalistan, Khalistan," while others carried signs that read "Sikhs demand independence."

Members of the crowd at a Sikh "sovereignty" rally in San Francisco are seen holding swords and chanting "Khalistan. Khalistan," the name of a Sikh-dominated homeland separate from India that independence activists have long demanded. (Sikh Roots/YouTube)

The rally stage featured a large poster of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a militant leader regarded by the Indian government as a terrorist but celebrated by some Sikhs who want a state separate from India.

Bhindranwale was killed in an Indian military raid targeting the Golden Temple, a sacred site then regarded as a hotbed of the Khalistan independence movement. His death in the raid made him a martyr to many Sikhs who were appalled that an Indian prime minister would approve armed action against a revered religious site.

Others Sikhs revile Bhindranwale's memory, as he is believed to be responsible for numerous deaths — including those of Sikhs who opposed the partition of India.

In his speech, Singh again accused India of genocide for attacks on Sikhs after the Golden Temple incident. At the time of the rally, Singh was serving as a member of Ontario's provincial legislature and had sponsored a motion calling on Ontario to recognize the anti-Sikh riots as an act of genocide.

Talwinder Parmar

In a statement sent Wednesday after the Globe and Mail first reported his presence at the rally, Singh said he does not support terrorist acts.

"I condemn all acts of terrorism in every part of the world, regardless of who the perpetrators are or who the victims are," Singh said. "Terrorism can never be seen as a way to advance the cause of any one group. It only leads to suffering, pain and death."

In an interview with CBC's Terry Milewski last October, Singh refused to denounce extremists within Canada's Sikh community who glorify Talwinder Singh Parmar, widely recognized as the mastermind behind the Air India bombing that left 329 people dead — 268 of them Canadians.

When Milewski asked him specifically about Parmar, Singh said this: "I don't know who's responsible [for the bombing] but I think we need to find out who's responsible, we need to make sure that the investigation results in a conviction of someone who is actually responsible."

Two inquiries have concluded Parmar was the chief terrorist behind the bombing.

It sends a message that Mr. Singh can't distinguish between whether or not the use of violence is appropriate in political matters.- Ujjal Dosanjh

Ujjal Dosanjh, a former B.C. NDP premier and federal Liberal cabinet minister, said Singh's presence at a march that so prominently displayed a portrait of Bhindranwale is troubling.

"It sends a message that Mr. Singh can't distinguish between whether or not the use of violence is appropriate in political matters," Dosanjh said in an interview with CBC News.

Dosanjh — who has himself faced death threats from extremists who have branded him a "Sikh traitor" for his opposition to separatism — noted Bhindranwale had amassed a trove of weapons at the Golden Temple before it was stormed by Indian troops.

Dosanjh said Singh has a history of associating with those friendly to the idea of Sikh separatism.

"This is not an isolated incident for Mr. Singh, if you put it alongside his refusal to condemn Parmar, a Canadian terrorist who killed Canadians, and him being honoured at temples that have portraits of Parmar and others on the wall," he said.

"I just think there's absolutely no doubt, in anyone's mind, that Mr. Singh may harbour sympathies for those who want to dismember India."

Singh refuted such a suggestion in his statement Wednesday, saying he has long been an advocate for peace and human rights and would never "condone acts of violence."

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

This is the latest recent instance of the internal politics of India becoming an issue for a Canadian federal leader.

The Indian government has long accused Canada of being soft on extremists who advocate for a Sikh homeland carved out of parts of Punjab state.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau found himself embroiled in a diplomatic incident in India when Jaspal Atwal, a Sikh-Canadian man convicted of attempted murder for his role in an attack on an Indian politician, was invited to an official function at the Canadian High Commission in New Delhi.

When photographs surfaced of Atwal posing with Canadian officials in Mumbai, media in India and Canada asked how the convicted criminal was able to obtain a travel visa and secure invitations to formal events linked to Trudeau's official tour.

Invitation to B.C.'s Jaspal Atwal — who was convicted of the attempted murder of an Indian cabinet minister in 1986 — was rescinded after controversy erupted this week 11:18

Trudeau sought to reassure Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that Canada supports a united India — and does not endorse any form of extremism — while explaining away Atwal's invitation as an error by Liberal backbench MP Randeep Sarai.

At the time, Singh defended Liberals who were facing criticism.

"We should be wary of any international interference in our political affairs, especially when it's targeted at minorities such as members of the Sikh community," Mr. Singh said in a statement on Feb. 22.

"The Indian government has a troubling record of conflating human rights advocacy with extremism for their own political benefit."

With files from the CBC's David Cochrane