I’m trying to figure out Jagmeet Singh.
Full disclosure, I like the guy. I’ve interviewed him for a current affairs program I hosted. I’ve met him at public events. We even spoke on the phone once. I’m not immune to his youthful charm, his debonair style and earnest manner. And even though I am, by origin, a Hindu Punjabi and he’s a Sikh Punjabi (a distinction that doesn’t matter to me), I’ve been proud of his meteoric rise in Canadian politics. It’s especially striking since he did it all – not by hiding his identity but – by boldly embracing it. Jagmeet is by all accounts an all around Sikh-Canadian.
So it was doubly disappointing when, just after his decisive win in the federal NDP leadership race, he was evasive and non-committal in condemning the glorification of Sikh terrorists who were responsible for the worst act of terrorism in Canadian history.
I remember the shock of that 1985 Air India bombing vividly. I was a young girl and lived with my family in Montreal back then. My parents had sent my sister and I to Toronto one week ahead of them so that we could enjoy our cousin’s pre-wedding festivities. The morning after we arrived, we woke up early to the surreal sounds of shock and grief and knew that something was horribly wrong. The wedding was postponed and we were sent back to Montreal with family friends. We lost many personal friends that day. The loss for our Montreal and Toronto Indo-Canadian communities was staggering.
Wrong is wrong, irrespective of the faith, ethnicity, nationality or whatever, of the people who did it, right? So why did Jagmeet Singh have such a hard time saying it? Jagmeet seems like a decent guy with good values. He clearly cares for his family, community and fellow man. He believes in equality, social programs and human rights. And, really, he just doesn’t strike me as the “worship a terrorist-martyr” type.
But his refusal, until only very recently, to publicly denounce those responsible has perplexed and bothered me. It cost him votes in my family. I’m sure it has cost him many more across Canada. I just can’t understand why he would allow himself to be aligned with evil-doers, when he works so hard to do good.
Was it just to pander for the votes of hardliner Sikhs in Canada who hold on to bitterness and struggles from the old country? Was it political strategy? Aside from this seemingly being at odds with his values, it also doesn’t make sense to conflate all Sikhs with the more militant factions. I’ve known Sikhs my whole life. My best friend growing up was a Sikh. Even as young girls, she and I had agreed that wrong was wrong, whether committed by Hindus or Sikhs. In all the years of knowing her entire extended family, I never heard so much as a whisper of violence or anger about Indian politics from any of them. These were honorable people who believed that service towards others, in gurudwaras (Sikh temples) and in life generally, is the ultimate form of godliness. So if it was for votes, shouldn’t these votes count too? Such a strategy would gain him some votes to be sure, but the political costs could also be huge.
So if that doesn’t explain it, then what does?
Could it be about a deep sense of family loyalty? Where western cultures are more individualistic, eastern cultures are all about the family and, by extension, our communities. What hurts our parents, our families, our communities hurts us too. In his recent Globe and Mail piece, Jagmeet gave a glimpse into his inner turmoil for the pain his parents suffered from the horrible 1984 anti-Sikh riots in India.
“As a child, I remember noticing how my parents changed when certain topics of conversation came up: They became more quiet, uncomfortable … There was a pain I felt, but I didn’t understand it. My parents were loving, caring, generous and thoughtful. But they were also suffering.”
It can sometimes be a process to separate these kinds of emotional ties from the inner compass of what’s right and wrong. I should know…I’ve experienced it firsthand. In 1998, I worked with a senior lawyer in Delhi who was leading the Wrongful Detention, Execution and Cremation of Persons in Punjab in the 1980s. It was, ironically, an examination of atrocities committed against Sikhs. I was an idealistic young lawyer. I believed in human rights and justice, and I felt it was right to put the actions of state agents under a microscope to see if their use of power was lawful and justified.
My extended family, who are truly an extension of my nuclear family here in Canada, could not understand why I was involved in this public inquiry. They had lived through those dark years when it wasn’t at all certain that once they left their homes in the morning that they would return at night. The threat of violence was the only constant, and they were caught between those people committing unlawful acts of terror and those trying to quash them. All that my family (and most ordinary citizens) wanted was for peace to be restored. Working for the commission felt like a betrayal of their experience, and I felt a deep sense of compassion, confusion and shame. I didn’t know if I was doing the right thing. It took me a long time to understand that I could love them and feel their pain, but also answer to my own notions of justice.
If family influences us, so might history…particularly a version of events from which balance and context are missing, and where bias is present. And often, we don’t think to question it. For instance, in my early days in Toronto, I visited a few gurudwaras and remember feeling shocked by the conspicuous framed photos glorifying pro-Punjab independence militants. Their very presence appeared to normalize the notion of violence…in a place of worship! If Jagmeet Singh grew up seeing or hearing only one version of events, is it any surprise that he would describe the invasion of the Golden Temple like this?:
“I also learned that in 1984, the Golden Temple – the most revered Sikh place of prayer –was demolished. Those who had taken up arms to defend it, along with thousands of innocent civilians, were killed.”
Another view would describe events in this way: The government acted against the threat of pro-Khalistan militants who were terrorizing the population by assassinating those who opposed their views, and claiming the protection of the Golden Temple while boldly stockpiling weapons in it and transforming it into an armed fortress.
We may never know what took Jagmeet Singh so long to forthrightly condemn the “martyr posters” of the Air India masterminds. Whatever his reasons, as an experienced politician and a newly elected leader of a federal political party he should have anticipated being asked tough questions about his values, which voter interests he represents, and which he might be beholden to.
It took Jagmeet Singh months to do what is right by decisively calling out those who were wrong.
Now he’s going to have to work really hard to show Canadians that he has finally figured himself out.