OTTAWA—NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh condemned “all acts of terrorism” on Wednesday, after a newspaper report revealed he addressed a rally in San Francisco where a controversial Sikh preacher who was killed during religious violence in India in the 1980s was celebrated on stage.
In a statement emailed to the Star and posted online, Singh said he was invited to speak at an annual event in 2015 that “commemorates the Sikh Genocide of 1984,” a reference to violence in India after government forces raided the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar in June of that year.
The Globe and Mail reported Wednesday that Singh addressed the Sikh “sovereignty rally,” where a banner featuring Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was set up on stage. Bhindranwale, the leader of an armed Sikh group that occupied the Golden Temple, was killed in the army raid in 1984 and is considered a martyr by some members of the religion.
Singh did not address Bhindranwale in his statement, but condemned terrorism “in every part of the world, regardless of who the perpetrators are or who the victims are.”
He said that he spoke to the San Francisco rally “about the pain in the community and my own path to learning about my heritage.”
A YouTube video of Singh’s speech at the 2015 “March for Freedom” in San Francisco shows him speaking about the need to teach youth about what happened in 1984, and to respond to “genocide” by learning more about what it means to be Sikh.
Last year, the Ontario legislature passed a motion that deemed anti-Sikh riots in India in 1984 to be “genocide.”
Thousands of Sikhs were reportedly killed during mob violence that broke out after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her own Sikh guards in October of that year, three months after the Indian army raided the Golden Temple in Amritsar.
In his statement Wednesday, Singh said: “When faced with the knowledge that your relatives were targeted for who they were, you are faced with the question of how to respond. My response was to embrace my identity and work harder to stand up for human rights …. 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.”
This isn’t the only time in recent weeks that questions of Sikh extremism have entered Canadian politics; last month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s trip to India was derailed by news that a former member of a Sikh extremist group, who tried to kill an Indian cabinet minister in 1986, was invited to official Canadian events and photographed with the prime minister’s wife and Canada’s infrastructure minister. The photos emerged just after Trudeau had told the chief minister of Punjab, who has accused Ottawa of harbouring sympathy for proponents of an independent Sikh state called Khalistan, that he supports a “united India.”
Singh was barred from entering India to accept a “Sikh of the Year” award in 2013, which , he said at the time, was because the Indian government did not like him “raising a voice for justice for victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh pogroms.”
Singh said in his statement Wednesday that he supports the right to self-determination, but does not take a position on an independent Khalistan.
“Questions regarding the future of India are not for me to decide,” said Singh, who pointed out that he’s not an Indian citizen or politician in that country.
“I am focused on building a stronger Canada, a country where we tackle growing inequality, where we unlock the full potential of our citizens and where no one is left behind,” he said.