It may go down as the world’s easiest question for a young, charismatic party leader. All he had to do was answer it.
Newly crowned NDP leader Jagmeet Singh did not do himself any favours when he seemingly refused to disavow supporters of the alleged Sikh terrorist widely believed to be responsible for the largest terrorist attack in Canadian history.
He also managed to sound frustratingly similar to one U.S. President Donald Trump.
It was a softball question. Veteran journalist Terry Milewski repeatedly asked Singh to condemn those who praise Talwinder Singh Parmar, the architect of the Air India Bombing that killed 329 people, including 286 Canadians. Singh evaded the question three times, deflecting to the historical and present-day strife between Sikhs, Hindus and the government of India.
But for some reason he just couldn’t bring himself to condemn Parmar by name or condemn those who hang posters of this martyr, and some Canadians are understandably wondering why.
Singh now seems incapable of saying things that will upset a segment of the very people who helped him attain power.
After all, what is the difference between President Trump not being able to directly denounce the KKK and Singh’s inability to denounce supporters of an alleged Sikh terrorist? I submit that there is no difference, as Singh now seems incapable of saying things that will upset a segment of the very people who helped him attain power.
Before I unpack this theory, it would be prudent to explore how Singh was chosen as leader of the NDP, a party not known for resonating across the country (with the obvious exception of Jack Layton in 2011). Singh worked tirelessly, signing up 47,000 new party members, helping to triple the overall memberships of the party. Part of his overall support came directly from the Sikh communities in Brampton and other places in Ontario, and while that speaks well for inclusiveness and diversity, it also means Singh wants his community to appear united. The best way to spotlight unity is to make sure you do not alienate anybody, including a small, old-fashioned group of hardliners who still hold extremist views.
Singh’s habit of subliminally ingratiating himself towards small groups of hardliners is not new, by the way. In 2012, when Singh was an Ontario MPP, he openly called for the Canadian government to pressure India into sparing the life of Balwant Singh Rajoana, a convicted Sikh terrorist and the chief architect of a suicide bombing that claimed the lives of 18 people, including a Punjab chief minister. Singh even suggested Ontario use its trade relationship with India as leverage to force India into sparing Rajoana’s life. Singh said his motivation was his opposition to the death penalty, but the optics were clear: Singh was, as he is now, cognizant of the complex generational sensitivities within the Sikh community. He, like other Sikh politicians, seems determined not to inflame tensions, even if by doing so he appears to be sympathizing with convicted terrorists.
At the time, like he did with Milewski, Singh refused to answer direct questions about whether he thought a man who had used terrorism to kill civilians was, in fact, a terrorist. This means that even in 2012, Singh’s loyalty to not stirring Sikh tensions was more important than being principled enough to denounce people responsible for killing the innocent.
Not a good look. Not even close.
This is a self-inflicted wound, a gaffe that could haunt Singh for years to come.
Let’s be clear — Jagmeet Singh seems like a nice guy, and there is zero evidence to suggest he personally supports any form of terrorism or violence as a political tool. But this tendency to submit to a fear of sectarian strife within the Sikh community is an outdated strategy. It is one thing to not want to sow divisions among your own people; it is quite another to do so while leading a national party.
To some, asking a Sikh politician to denounce the supporters of an alleged Sikh terrorist seems like a loaded question, but evading the question actually worked to legitimize it. Knowing there are still extremists in Canada who sympathize with the Air India bombers while not taking the opportunity to disown them is not just a missed opportunity, it is a fundamental failure of leadership.
This is a self-inflicted wound, a gaffe that could haunt Singh for years to come. The worst-kept secret in the Sikh community is the grudge between hardliners and moderates. With more than 300,000 Sikhs in Canada, the existence of extremism, while much lower than in decades past, is still an issue that lays quietly below the surface.
Jagmeet Singh not only has the charisma to rise above those divisions, he now has the responsibility to show all of Canada that religious grudges are best solved through direct condemnation of the terrorist who helped carve those divisions in the first place.
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Author: James Di Fiore