NDP leader Jagmeet Singh during a meet and greet in Nanaimo earlier in March. Photo: Jagmeet Singh/Twitter

After laying low for two days, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh decided to go public on Thursday and respond to the flurry of stories about his supposed association with Sikh extremists.

The NDP leader gave a number of interviews in which he emphasized the fact that back in the 1980s thousands of Sikhs in India were slaughtered in an outbreak of what he considers to be state-sponsored violence. Singh calls these massacres genocide, with good reason, and argues that they angered and embittered a great many in the Sikh community.  

In his own case, the NDP leader told interviewers, he has learned to channel his anger in a positive way. Still, the fact of the genocide, the need to recognize the trauma it engendered and understand its political and psychological impact, informs everything Singh has to say on Sikh activism.

Singh’s two favourite words in all of his interviews were complex and complexity.  

Complexity, for instance, informs his view on violence.

He is clear that he believes violence is wrong when it takes the form of terrorism. Singh unequivocally condemns terrorism — without, however, defining it. As to the recourse to violence when it might plausibly be construed as an act of self-defence — well, it’s a complex issue, in the view of the NDP leader. 

Straightforward answers on a number of issues

Interviewers wanted clear answers from the NDP leader and on some points they got them.

Singh, for the first time, said he accepts the conclusion of the Air India commission of inquiry that Talwinder Singh Parmar was the mastermind of the 1985 bombing that killed more than 300 people. Singh characterized that event as the worst terrorism incident in Canadian history. And he did not equivocate on Parmar, as he did in an earlier, now notorious, interview with CBC’s Terry Milewski.

Singh also gave a clear, if highly nuanced, answer as to how he views Sikh separatism. The NDP leader said he does not presume to tell the Sikh people — or the Catalans or the Scots — what is best for them, and only hopes they can make their own choice, peacefully and democratically.

As NDP leader, he supports a united Canada, Singh said, but he does not seek to dictate to people in other countries what political arrangement they should have.  (Singh left unspoken the fact that in many countries — including India and Spain — there is no legal, democratic way to accomplish the separation of one part from the whole.  Not every country follows the Canadian or British model.)

Singh was also unambiguous in saying he does not approve of Sikh activists holding up posters bearing Talwinder Singh Parmar’s likeness. The NDP leader recognizes that many in his community do not accept the official view of Air India and believe Parmar to be a martyr rather than a murderer; but he does not share that view. Further, Singh believes that waving around such posters is a malicious act that re-victimizes those who lost loved ones in the Air India bombing.

It surprised at least one interviewer when Singh insisted he would continue to attend events where others promote Sikh separatism and lionize Sikh activists who advocate violence. The NDP leader says he would do so in order to communicate a contrary view, to talk about his own journey from inchoate anger to a positive approach rooted in the pursuit of social justice.

Refuses to categorically condemn violence

The real sticking point in most of Singh’s interviews, and most notably the one he did with Carol Off on CBC radio’s As It Happens, was on the question of violence.

CBC’s Off repeatedly asked Singh if he would say yes or no as to whether or not he approved of violence in the furtherance of Sikh goals. Singh simply refused to answer. He kept returning to the phrase: “It’s complex.” 

Non-violence is not the only way to further the liberation of peoples denied their rights and self-determination, of course. While Mahatma Gandhi practiced non-violence, not all of his admirers and supporters did; and others whom we now see as heroes of peaceful transition, such as Nelson Mandela, never foreswore recourse to armed struggle.

Still, one has to wonder what possible good could come out of violence in support of an independent Sikh country, Kalistan, or of the more modest goal of greater autonomy for India’s predominantly Sikh region.

Many Canadians listening to Jagmeet Singh on Thursday would have liked to hear the leader of a party that has throughout its history favoured peaceful and non-violent solutions make a stronger statement against any use of violence in furtherance of Sikh goals.

Nobody wins when blood, often the blood of innocents, is shed. Jagmeet Singh could have said at least that much without arousing the ire of key elements in the large Canadian Sikh community.  

And even if he did anger some, the current NDP leader probably should have found a way to say what every one of his predecessors would have said without a moment’s hesitation. 

Image: Jagmeet Singh/Twitter

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Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...