Opinion: Singh’s nuanced position on Sikh violence didn’t work

Opinion: Singh’s nuanced position on Sikh violence didn’t work

Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh says the question of whether violence should ever be used to effect political change is a complex one. He’s right, of course. But his nuanced position may not be enough to satisfy the voters.

Singh’s views on violence have been in the news since his election as NDP leader. In a devastating interview with CBC in October, he refused to denounce those who glorify Talwinder Singh Parmar, a Sikh separatist and reputed mastermind of the 1985 Air India bombing that killed 329.

Two inquiries, including one led by a former Supreme Court judge, fingered Parmar as the man behind the worst terrorist outrage in Canadian history. But Parmar, who was shot dead by Indian police in 1992, was never formally convicted of the crime.

So in a sense, Singh was technically correct when he told CBC in that interview that the architect of the Air India bombing was unknown.

But politically, he left himself open to charges of playing footsie with violent extremists. His troubles only intensified after a video surfaced last week that showed Singh speaking at a 2015 San Francisco rally for Sikh separatism.

A second video showed him taking part in a 2016 London seminar in which the use of violence to create an independent Sikh state in India’s Punjab region was discussed.

In neither of the videos did Singh advocate violence. But neither did he denounce it. And in today’s terror-obsessed world, that was enough to get him in trouble.

Which is why the NDP chief submitted himself to a round of media interviews Thursday to lay out exactly where he stands on the issue of Sikh separatism and the use of violence to attain that goal.

He didn’t entirely succeed.

On the fraught issue of whether a separate Sikh state should be carved out of India, he refused to tell my Star colleague Alex Ballingall what his position is, saying that it’s not up to a Canadian politician to decide that question.

He denounced the use of terrorism by anyone for any aim and said that he now accepts that Parmar was behind the Air India attack.

He said he does not personally believe Parmar should be idolized in Sikh houses of worship. But he also said he would not boycott those that take a different position.

And on the fundamental question about the use of violence to effect political change in the Punjab, he said this:

“I fall on the position that it is complex, that it is a complex situation that can’t be answered in a simplistic manner.”

Singh’s wording is clumsy, but he is essentially correct. The question is complex. Sometimes violence is justified. The American colonists thought so when they rebelled violently against England in 1776.

Many would argue that the violence of the American Civil War was necessary to end slavery in the U.S.

A young Nelson Mandela embraced armed struggle as the way to fight apartheid in South Africa and changed his strategy later when a peaceful road to the same end emerged.

Is violence necessary to solve the grievances of Sikhs in India? Singh won’t say.

The NDP leader’s approach is a subtle one that could help him navigate the difficult waters of Sikh politics in Canada.

However, the nuances may be lost on those in the wider community.

Singh has some interesting policy positions. During the NDP leadership race, he promised to axe Old Age Security and use the money to fund an expanded means-tested seniors’ benefit. He has also promised universal pharmacare.

But I suspect most Canadians, if they think about him at all, know only three things about Singh.

First, he dresses well.

Second, he’s getting married.

Third, he can’t be pinned down on this violence thing.

Thomas Walkom is a national affairs reporter.

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