For Canadian politicians visiting India, it is a rite of passage: Circumambulating the Golden Temple to honour the holiest site in Sikhdom.
Prime ministers, cabinet ministers, premiers — and anyone aspiring to those jobs — knows the importance to voters back in Canada of being photographed on the temple grounds in Amritsar, wearing a head-covering out of respect for the faithful.
But it won’t be happening anytime soon for Jagmeet Singh — neither praying, nor paying his respects. That’s because the new NDP leader, who could one day be Canada’s first turbaned prime minister, was refused a visa when trying to visit India in 2013.
Back then, as an Ontario MPP, Singh was told (unofficially) that he’d been turned down after criticizing India’s treatment of minority groups. Four years later, fresh from winning this month’s NDP leadership convention, he is once again a controversial figure in India — and here at home among some Indo-Canadians.
Singh’s pointed comments about a Sikh right to self-determination sparked protests from Indian politicians leery of local separatists who still dream of carving out an independent Khalistan in the Punjab.
“It is better you confine your political views to Canada and don’t create any problem for Sikhs in India,” former Punjabi parliamentarian Tarlochan Singh told the Hindustan Times.
Singh’s equivocations about the perpetrators of the 1985 Air India bombing have also raised eyebrows among the families of passengers who perished in the deadliest terrorist incident in Canadian history.
Asked in a CBC interview if he condemned those who still honour the accused mastermind as a martyr — images of the late Talwinder Singh Parmar still pop up in some Sikh temples and commemorations — the NDP leader chose his words carefully. Or perhaps carelessly.
While condemning the “heinous” violence, he hedged: “I don’t know who’s responsible (for the attack) but I think we need to find out who’s responsible.”
Given that most of the 329 on board were Canadian citizens, and that Parmar was identified in court and by an inquiry as the instigator of the attack, the analogy has been drawn to an American politician withholding judgment against Osama bin Laden for the 9/11 attacks.
Bal Gulpta, chair of the Air India 182 Families’ Association, complained that Singh “should have disowned the glorification of terrorism, even suspected terrorism or promoters of terrorism.”
Supriya Dwivedi, a morning talk radio host who had family friends aboard the ill-fated flight, commented that Singh “needs to be able to better answer these sorts of questions.”
No Canadian politician wants to be seen as soft on terrorism, given the current climate. Nor does any leader want to be seen as excessively hard on self-determination, given Quebec’s historical environment.
Politics is always a balancing act and some have suggested Singh is being unfairly singled out because he is Sikh. But that doesn’t mean a national leader can dodge sensitive questions about public positions he has — or hasn’t — taken in the past.
During his time in the Ontario legislature, MPPs passed frequent resolutions marking historical massacres and expressing solidarity with victims around the world. Singh proposed a resolution in 2016 condemning an Indian “genocide” during anti-Sikh riots in 1984 (it was defeated, but a similar resolution passed the next year).
World history isn’t part of the legislature’s provincial mandate, but it pays off with domestic voters. MPPs can pronounce on foreign affairs with impunity.
Now that Singh has moved from the relative obscurity of Queen’s Park to the rarefied atmosphere of Parliament Hill, he can expect more scrutiny.
The Air India disaster never got the attention it deserved because of a double standard that downplayed the deaths of so many Indo-Canadians. It would be unfair to apply another double standard — making Singh pay a special price for that collective inattention — but the more equivocal his answers, the more persistent the questions will become.
Similarly, the self-determination issue will remain a perennial in Canadian politics given Quebec’s sovereignty movement, just as Catalonia has returned to the Spanish agenda, and Khalistan is still a sore point in India, which has spent decades fending off separatist movements all along its northeastern and northwestern borders.
Like any politician who tries to avoid giving offence, Singh may only end up offending more people along the way. That said — and no matter what he leaves unsaid — if the NDP leader ever becomes prime minister, he may yet get that Indian visa.
Martin Regg Cohn’s political column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. [email protected], Twitter: @reggcohn