In a statement posted to the NDP website, Singh defends his decision to attend a June 2015 rally in California, an event billed as a commemoration of Sikhs who died during an invasion of the Golden Temple in Amritsar in 1984, but which was also a show of support for Sikh separatism.
Singh says he has long been an advocate for human rights and while he believes in allowing the Sikh community the opportunity to process the feelings inflicted by the trauma of the 1984 invasion, which he calls a genocide, he does not condone violence as a response.
Many Indian-Canadian families immigrated to Canada in the years following the temple attack, fleeing tension and anti-Sikh rioting that followed it. In his statement, Singh says many Sikhs continue to process the fact their relatives were attacked for who they were and that they need the space to be able to express their feelings. He says he has dedicated much of his work around helping a community answer how it can move through pain and trauma in order to reach acceptance so that it can arrive peacefully at reconciliation?
“I encourage all those facing these tough questions not to fall prey to rage and violence, but rather to embrace your truth and move forward with love and courage,” he wrote.
Singh’s statement, which follows a report about the 2015 rally in the Globe and Mail, comes at a time of strained Canada-India relations, in part because of lingering Indian concerns that Canadian governments tolerate Sikh separatism and extremism by not speaking out against it.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent visit to India became more of a diplomatic embarrassment than a peace-building exercise, although Trudeau did manage to make some headway, publicly condemning extremism and signing a joint security framework with India to counter terrorism and violent extremism.
Balpreet Singh, legal counsel for the World Sikh Organization in Canada, said the demand that all Sikhs constantly condemn violence in general is not only tiring, it’s offensive.
“I’ve had conversations with a journalist where the first question I’ve had is do you condemn violence,” he said. “It’s a little bit awkward for us because there is no violence for us to condemn.”
Balpreet Singh says the only violence people can point to happened decades ago and it is unfair to continually accuse Sikhs today of condoning violence because of the actions of others more than 30 years ago.
“There are voices in India who call anyone who criticizes the Indian government as a radical or an extremist,” he said. “But in 20-plus years there is no actual examples of violence.”
Balpreet Singh said Trudeau’s recent trip was “a massive disaster for the Sikh community” that set the community back decades in Canada.
He said there are many Canadian Sikhs who felt let down by Trudeau on the trip for not standing up for them against Indian allegations that violence and extremism was coming into India from Canada’s Sikh community.
At a news conference during the trip, Trudeau did not answer when asked by reporters if he felt there was a Sikh separatist problem rising in Canada, saying only Canada would address those issues “wherever they arise.”
The Liberals won a number of seats in the last election largely with the support of the Sikh community. There are more than half a dozen seats around Toronto and Vancouver where the Indian community accounts for more than one-third of the population and in two it makes up more than half. The Liberals won all of these and many felt the trip to India was designed, at least in part, as a political reach out to those voters.
Trudeau spent much of the trip expressing Canada’s official support for a united India and condemning violence to quiet allegations within India that Canada supported Sikh separatism and that his cabinet included Sikh separatists.
The government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also expressed concern in the past about Trudeau attending Sikh parades and celebrations where there have been floats or events honouring people known to have been behind the 1984 Air India bombing. Some said Modi snubbed Trudeau in India by sending a junior minister to greet him at the airport, ignoring his visit for several days and only meeting him for part of one day near the end of the week-long trip.
Modi appeared warm during that day and offered Trudeau his signature bear hug, but the idea that he was sending Trudeau and Canada a message was rejuvenated last weekend when Modi did go to the airport to meet French President Emmanuel Macron, which is out of step with official Indian protocol.
By Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press