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Jagmeet Singh and the rise of a new brand of Sikh politics

Opinion: Why questions about the alleged mastermind of the Air India bombing ignore a new generation’s politics—and reveal a double standard
Arshy Mann
Jagmeet Singh celebrates with supporters after winning the first ballot in the NDP leadership race to be elected the leader of the federal New Democrats in Toronto on Sunday, October 1, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Arshy Mann is a reporter at Xtra.

“Kiddha, kive ho dosto!”

It was one of the first phrases out of newly elected NDP leader Jagmeet Singh’s mouth when he mounted the stage to accept the NDP leadership last week. And the crowd, full of of Punjabi speakers, responded enthusiastically; they knew what it meant.

“How’s it going, fam?”

Much has been made of the fact that Singh is Canada’s first non-white federal leader. But to reduce his exceptionalism to race misses one of the most important aspects of his ascendence: his religion. Singh is the first Sikh to lead a federal party. And his unique brand of political Sikhism is central to his rise.

That fact became inescapable when the day after his election, the CBC’s Terry Milewski repeatedly asked Singh to denounce Sikhs who glorify Talwinder Singh Parmar, widely considered to be the mastermind behind the 1985 Air India bombings.

Singh strongly denounced the attacks and said that though he doesn’t know who is responsible, they should be brought to justice. But he didn’t say anything about Parmar.

For many viewers, it must have seemed like a strange interaction. Why was a federal party leader being asked to denounce people celebrating a long-dead terrorist? And why didn’t Singh just out-and-out condemn it?

For those of us who grew up in the shadow of the Khalistani movement—which sought an independent Sikh homeland in India—the only surprise was that these questions didn’t come sooner. Not because it’s appropriate for a journalist to demand a politician denounce the actions of people who are of the same faith; no one would dare ask Andrew Scheer, an observant Catholic, to denounce the IRA, for example. It’s a surprise because Singh has long been the embodiment of a new kind of Sikh politics that challenges the conventions of the past.

To fully grasp how unique Singh’s position in Canadian politics is, you have to go back to 1984. The Indian army had invaded the Golden Temple, killing Khalistani insurgents and civilians alike. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. And in retaliation, thousands of Sikhs were killed in pogroms orchestrated by the government.

When Sikh terrorists bombed Air India Flight 182 the following year, the Sikh community in Canada was already fracturing. Many became more orthodox in their faith, with a small number embracing extremism. On the other side, a moderate, secular faction, which included future B.C. premier Ujjal Dosanjh, made their political careers by publicly battling radicalism.

Most Sikhs lived in between these two poles. Angry and grieving over what was being done to their kin in India, they were also uncomfortable with the growing power of radical elements at home.

In the years since, as the prospect of an independent Khalistan receded into the distance, a younger generation of politically engaged Sikhs became frustrated with the politics of the past. Elements of Sikh extremism remained—the unsolved murder of journalist Tara Singh Hayer 19 years ago is particularly bitter—but people of Singh’s generation came of age where those battles were less urgent.

Some gurdwaras—places of Sikh worship—continue to glorify terrorists like Parmar as martyrs, especially at Surrey’s Dashmesh Darbar gurdwara. But most young Sikh Canadians have different concerns—namely, racial and religious discrimination in Canada and the continuing persecution of Sikhs in India. They synthesize the religious fidelity of the orthodox Sikhs with the commitment to democratic institutions and progressivism embodied by the secular moderates.

For them, vigorously opposing the Indian government’s genocidal actions and speaking openly about the racism of Canadian society doesn’t require a flirtation with extremism. They find inspiration in Black Lives Matter and Idle No More, not terrorist groups like Babbar Khalsa or the International Sikh Youth Federation.

It’s the emergence of this new kind of Sikh politics that helps explain Singh’s rise. The NDP leader first decided to run for office when Kamal Nath, accused of leading genocidal mobs in 1984, was received by Ontario’s then-premier Dalton McGuinty in 2010. Singh’s been denied visas to visit India because he speaks out against the Indian government. In the Ontario legislature, he recently pushed through a motion to declare the 1984 massacres a genocide.

His campaign was staffed with like-minded young Sikhs and his outspokenness on the Indian government endeared him to older generations. But it’s for exactly those reasons that Singh will continue to be dogged by the old, divisive politics of Khalistani nationalism. Liberal Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, another turbaned Sikh, has similarly been branded an extremist by both Canadian Sikhs and Indian authorities.

Which brings us back to that strange CBC interview. Singh was asked to condemn Sikhs venerating Parmar not just because he’s a Sikh politician, but because he represents a kind of Sikh politics that Canadians like Milewski, who were enmeshed in the dramas of the Air India aftermath, are unfamiliar with. Milewski noted that Singh has long identified with the grievances of the Sikh community against India; to him, that alone is cause for suspicion.

There is no doubt that this is a double standard that a white, non-Sikh politician would never have to face. Patrick Brown, leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives, is a personal friend of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But during his first interview on the CBC after becoming leader, he wasn’t asked to defend Modi over accusations that he was responsible for the massacre of thousands of Muslims in the 2002 Gujarat riots. In fact, Brown’s association with Modi has been played up in the media as an asset.

This isn’t to say that Singh’s answer wasn’t lacking. It should be easy for anyone to condemn the veneration of the worst mass murderer in Canadian history, though there’s no evidence in Singh’s words or actions that indicate he feels any differently. But when he does talk about the history of the conflict, it’s not Parmar that he brings up. He glorifies Jaswant Singh Khalra, a human rights activist who uncovered mass killings of Sikh youth by the Punjab police.

For his own good, Singh will have to find a way to talk about the injustices some Sikhs have perpetrated with the same passion and precision he uses when articulating injustices Sikhs have suffered. After all, unlike Brown, Singh won’t be given the benefit of the doubt. He will have to learn the same lesson that many other non-white leaders have learned before him: because of what he looks like, what he believes in, and who he is, he has to be twice as good.