Jagmeet Singh, the leader of Canada’s NDP, and the crack in his carefully managed image

When asked if he supports an independent Sikh state, Jagmeet Singh has spoken in broad terms about his enthusiastic support for the right to self-determination. MARK BLICH/REUTERS
25 October, 2019

On 22 October, Canada reelected Justin Trudeau from the Liberal Party as its prime minister. The party fell short of the 170 seats needed for a majority in Canada’s 338-seat House of Commons. It is now looking to form a minority government, with the support of other parties. Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the New Democratic Party who was also a contender to be the country’s prime minister, might lend his party’s support to Trudeau.

Over the years, Singh has emerged as a poster boy of Canada’s multiculturalism. But in an interview that Singh gave shortly after being elected as the leader of the NDP in October 2017, he revealed a crack in his carefully managed image. The following excerpt from the journalist Daniel Block’s “Model Minority,” the cover story of The Caravan’s February 2018 issue, explores Singh’s identity politics with respect to the Indian context.

Less than 24 hours after winning the race to lead the NDP, Jagmeet sat down for an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation journalist Terry Milewski. Aired on “Power & Politics,” CBC’s prominent evening news show, the conversation was arguably Jagmeet’s most important to date. It did not go as planned.

To begin with, Jagmeet’s campaign tried to get hold of the list of questions beforehand. “Jagmeet Singh soon on @pnpcbcafter threatening to cancel if not told the questions first,” Milewski tweeted out hours before the programme. “He reconsidered on being told no.”

It was an embarrassing moment for Jagmeet, whose public persona was thus far largely built on his own team’s astute use of social media and on flattering press coverage (the writer who conducted Singh’s fawning GQ interview later joined his campaign). Another CBC correspondent replied to Milewski’s tweet, noting that it is “against CBC’s journalistic standards to give questions. Party comms ppl know that.”

As the interview unfolded, it became clear why Jagmeet’s team preferred staged interviews with Jus Reign to professional journalistic questioning. In general, news stories discussing Jagmeet’s mixing of Sikh identity and politics had depicted it as an uncomplicated good. But during the conversation with Milewski, it became evident that there were some dark elements of Sikh politics that Singh would rather not discuss.

“Do you think that some Canadian Sikhs go too far when they honour Talwinder Singh Parmar as a martyr of the Sikh nation?” Milewski asked.

Parmar was once the leader of Babbar Khalsa International—a Sikh militant group dedicated to carving out an independent Khalistan. Babbar Khalsa orchestrated the bomb attack on Air India Flight 182 in 1985 to retaliate against the 1984 massacre. The bombing, Canada’s deadliest terror attack, killed 329 people—mostly Canadian citizens. Police in Punjab killed Parmar, a naturalised Canadian citizen, while he was on a visit to India in 1992. His portrait is displayed in certain Canadian gurdwaras and, occasionally, during Canadian Sikh parades.

Jagmeet responded somewhat tangentially to Milewski’s question, saying he was offended by the idea there was any conflict between Hindus and Sikhs, something he has repeated many times. “I grew up with a lot of close friends and dear family friends that were from the Hindu faith,” he said. “One of my goals was to erase this narrative of a false Hindu-Sikh conflict, and what I really believe in—”

“Forgive me,” Milewski interrupted. “You could do that right now by saying, ‘No, it isn’t appropriate to put up posters of Canada’s worst-ever mass murderer.’”

“Well let me just clarify a point here,” Jagmeet replied. “We’ve been living in existence as neighbours, as—”

“Third time I’m asking,” Milewski interjected. “It’s not a hard question.”

In the following 60 seconds, Singh tried awkwardly to shift the subject to 1984 and Hindu-Sikh relations. But Milewski kept pressing.

“What about putting up posters of Parmar, the architect of the Air India bombing, as a martyr,” Milewski said. “Is that appropriate, yes or no?”

Jagmeet demurred, criticising “the heinous massacre that was committed.”

“So you won’t denounce those posters of Parmar?” Milewski asked, for the fifth and final time.

“I don’t know who was responsible,” Jagmeet said. “I think we need to find out who was truly responsible and make sure the investigation actually results in a conviction of someone who was actually responsible.”

Though Parmar was never convicted, a government inquiry—overseen by a retired justice of the Canadian supreme court—had determined that he masterminded the attack.

The exchange caused outrage. Some journalists, activists and academics criticised Milewski, arguing his line of inquiry was racist, unnecessary and betrayed the Western media’s double standards around politicians of colour. “Why is he being put in that position?” Chandrima Chakraborty, a professor at McMaster Universityin Ontario who studies memories of Air India Flight 182, said. “Why is he not being questioned about the decriminalisation of marijuana?”—one of Jagmeet’s policy proposals. “Why is it always about Sikhism?”

But others found Jagmeet’s response, or lack thereof, equally troubling. The Toronto-based writer Jonathan Kay said Jagmeet’s failure to assign blame for the bombing was tantamount to “an American politician saying he had no idea who was responsible for Sept. 11.” Bal Gupta, the chairman of the Air India 182 Victims Families Association, was similarly critical. “He should have disowned the glorification of terrorism, even suspected terrorism or promoters of terrorism,” he said.

In response to the controversy, the CBC’s ombudsman, Esther Enkin, launched an inquiry into Milewski’s questioning. She concluded that while the questions could have been better structured, they were journalistically appropriate given Jagmeet’s longstanding relationship to Sikh activism and identity politics. “He was asked this question because he is a national leader who has taken positions on issues related to the Sikh community and its on-going grievances against the Indian government,” she said.

While the Western media probed this controversy as one of implied racism against an elected official from Canada’s visible minorities, it largely missed the underlying contradictions regarding Sikh identity politics. Milewski alluded to the “Sikh nation” in the course of the interview, without qualification, as if it were an existing entity, and not a deeply contested idea—with relatively strong currency in the West but practically anachronistic in present-day Punjab.

Jagmeet Singh’s meteoric rise in Canadian politics is seen as a triumph of multiculturalism and an advertisement for Canada’s much touted tolerance and celebration of difference, which stands in contrast to the rising xenophobia in the United States and many other Western countries. Jagmeet knows how to play the part of poster boy. Over the past years, his stylish appearance and progressive activism, combined with formidable social-media savvy, have won him numerous accolades from the media. A 2015 BuzzFeed article took readers on a tour of his Instagram account and proclaimed him “the most stylish politician in Canada by like a million kilometres.” The men’s magazine GQ praised his outreach to young voters, his support for a bevy of liberal causes and his “sharp as hell” suits, describing Jagmeet as “the incredibly well-dressed rising star in Canadian politics.”

Canada is home to the world’s largest Sikh population outside of India. Its 454,965 Sikhs comprise roughly 1.5 percent of the country’s population. On the face of it, they constitute a “model minority”—hard working, peaceful and politically well represented. There are currently four Sikhs in the federal cabinet. The community can boast of several cultural celebrities, such as the comedian Jasmeet Singh, or “Jus Reign,” and the Instagram poet Rupi Kaur. Jagmeet’s elevation to the leadership of a federal party is another confirmation of the community’s achievements.

But Canada has a chequered history with its Sikh diaspora, replete with racist policies and actions. The relationship between Canadian Sikhs and Punjabi Sikhs is also fraught. Salman Rushdie, who moved from India to the United Kingdom as a teenager, famously wrote that emigrants’ “physical alienation from India almost inevitably means that we will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost: that we will, in short, create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands.” Canadian Sikhs are no exception.

Canada was a hotbed for Sikh religious separatism during the 1980s and 1990s, when a number of Sikhs advocated for the creation of an independent Sikh homeland in the Punjab called Khalistan. The movement for a “Sikh nation” was violent, as was the Indian government’s clampdown against it. The differences it sowed—between Sikhs and the Indian government, but also among Sikhs themselves—have never been fully reconciled. Many Sikhs in Canada, especially younger ones, remember those years very differently from Sikhs in Punjab, who had to contend directly with the violence.

Jagmeet has brought many of these divisions back to the fore with his statements and acts. A sharp critic of the Indian government, he advocated for many years to declare the 1984 massacre—thousands of Sikhs were murdered following the assassination of the Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi—a genocide. And when asked if he supports an independent Sikh state, he has spoken in broad terms about his enthusiastic support for the right to self-determination.

Jagmeet’s activism around 1984 has helped make him popular among left-leaning Canadian Sikhs, who see his stance as illustrative of his—and their—broader embrace of human-rights and social justice. Jagmeet’s public outreach to marginalised groups, particularly the LGBT community, and his strong positions on labour laws and tax reforms, are also part of his project: creating a broad coalition that includes social-justice activists, young progressives and what Canada calls its “visible minorities”—non-white, non-aboriginal citizens—that will, if all goes according to plan, deliver him to the post of prime minister.

This is an extract from “Model Minority,” the cover story of The Caravan’s February 2018 issue, by the journalist Daniel Block. It has been edited and condensed.