Friday, February 23

Why Did Jagmeet Singh Avoid a Loaded Question About Sikh Nationalism?

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Jagmeet Singh just got engaged and the hype is making me go back to one very telling conversation.

“Just think about this,” my dad told me, as he texted me the link to Jagmeet Singh’s bizarre interview with Terry Milewski.

I am Canadian by birth, Punjabi Sikh by ethnicity, American by naturalization, and socialist by conviction. I identified with Singh’s political leanings and his cultural background. As I followed his campaign and watched America fall apart, I started googling how to transfer my nursing license to Canada, where I’ve always felt a strong pull towards regardless of what was happening around my American home.

“This is your guy, Jagmeet Singh,” my dad said to me sardonically. At first, I brushed him off, even resisted with a dozen eye-rolls. “A politician is a politician,” he went on. “You’ll see. Just watch the video.”

Milewski asks Singh over and over to condemn the veneration of Sikh extremist Talwinder Singh Parmar, considered to be behind, but never convicted for, the 1985 Air India bombings. While Singh does denounce violent acts, he doggedly avoids the question. He provides a calm, round-a-bout discourse; he says something about Sikhs and Hindus getting along, a tangent on another sphere.

Most people can take an implicit sentiment for what it is. You do not need to be an astute viewer to gather that Singh may well be a Khalistan sympathizer. This does not undermine Singh’s competence as a leader, but it does lend itself to some probing on what this guy is all about. You just need to know a little history.

There are two subjects I’ve discovered my dad to rigidly forbid in our home: snakes (yes, like, the reptile) and Khalistan. Media consumption and glorification of these topics is unwelcome and heretic. It is difficult for me to even mention those words without my father’s eyeballs bulging out of his head and the outburst of his quick demands, to clear any snake photographs off our phones and his reprimanding “Don’t ever talk about that. Very dangerous.”

Khalistan is the adopted name for a potentially independent Sikh state. It is a dangerous and nonviable idea. Not only does it uphold ethno-centrism and nationalism, but there is a high likelihood of a Sikh statehood being ruled by violent extremists and becoming war-mongered, much like the neighboring Kashmir and Pakistan. An independent Sikh statehood could not survive socio-economically, as Sikhs are dispersed throughout the Indian sub-continent and have many racial identities all over the world. There is no body of water surrounding the Punjab region for trade. Just the rest of India.

While Khalistan supporters are not necessarily violent, the sentiment and rhetoric of this minority group of Sikhs often is. It is akin to supporting the American confederate flag for the sake of a warped sense of history and healing inner powerlessness projected through shaky politics.

In 1984, after the Indian army invaded the Golden Temple and Indira Gandhi was then assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards, the Indian government committed genocide against thousands of Sikhs in retaliation. Pain begets pain, and animosity between Sikhs and Hindus remains to this day because of this year in history. The following year, Sikh terrorists bombed Air India Flight 182. In Canada and around the world, a small number of Sikhs took up extremism in vein of becoming more orthodox in their faith.

After 1985, the Khalistani movement began to take a dark shape in Sikh communities. Khalistan is an idea assuring Sikhs the special rights they were promised, but never given, by Jawaharlal Nehru before India gained independence. But in India, a Hindu-nationalist country, Sikhs are now not the only ones who continually face religious disparities and injustice. I grew up amidst family members and peers who regularly disparaged and bullied Hindus no matter if they shared a Punjabi ancestry or not. The projection of pain was not innocuous. It was overtly and intentionally hurtful, confusing, and terrifying.

I grew up going to the Gurudwara Singh Sabha in Washington state. From 1994 to 1997, when I was four to seven years old, my stomach would turn when it was time to walk downstairs to eat langar. There were pictures and paintings of bloody Sikh martyrs, of heads being chopped off, people starving. The injustices that the Sikh community had faced even before the 1984 genocide were invigorated and alive for over a decade later. Eventually, the photos were taken down in concern for the children and elderly, but the trauma around genocide still lives today.

Singh’s avoidance of a targeted, albeit revealing question, may also be telling of his own early history. He is in his thirties, not much older than I or most millennials. The question remains what kind of politics he grew up with. In a follow-up interview with Huffington Post, Singh claims he did not understand the specifics of Milewski’s question because he was only five years old when the bombing happened. That doesn’t matter. The aftermath is thick and palpable. It always has been in our communities. In the follow-up, he still does not denounce those who venerate Parmar. Singh continues to utilize his gift of diplomacy, which is wearing thin in front of my eyes.

He also is for the peaceful self-determination of nations and peoples. But to transpose that logic on Punjabi people in spite of a violent past is again divisive and nonviable. In the HuffPost interview, he says:

“Whether it is in Punjab, for the people of Punjab, or whether it is in Catalonia, for the people of that region, whether it is in Basque, wherever that is, whether it is in Quebec, [self-determination is] a basic right. Everyone should be able to do that.”

Khalistan may be a seductive way to sympathize with the injustices Singh undoubtedly understands. He is a human rights activist, advocate for religious minorities, and challenges the flaws of the Indian government. But his sympathy here is misplaced. Singh’s complicit acceptance of people who view Parmar as a shahid may be understandable. But it is not totally justified or logical.

Singh’s defenders make three points: he was asked a racially-motivated question, he wasn’t prepared to answer Milewski’s question, and his representation as a visible minority in a leadership position overrides his strange inner politics.

It is true that Milewski asked Singh a question in light of his faith. For example, Arshy Mann for Maclean’s writes, “No one would dare ask Andrew Scheer, an observant Catholic, to denounce the IRA.” But it was also in Milewski’s political interest. Milewski was the producer for CBC’s 2007 documentary “Samosa Politics,” alleging that the World Sikh Organization, which supports the peaceful formation of Khalistan, also gives rise to terrorist sympathizers.

Milewski, like a lot of reporters outside of their culture, makes a corny mistake in the ridiculously titled documentary. To our chagrin, we are used to those kind of slips by now. But he is not entirely wrong in his criticisms against an independent Sikh state, which are shared by the majority of, and the largely peaceful, Sikh community.

Secondly, to argue that Singh was not prepared to answer the question and should have talking points ready before interviews is just to inject more pretense into politics. Singh knew what he was being asked and he chose not to answer the question. It doesn’t take a psychologist to see the dynamic that unfolded here.

And finally, I thought we were done excusing problematic behavior in light of seeing more people who look like us on TV. Holding each other accountable is not so simple in minority communities because it is not always safe. But to be progressive we mustn’t neglect using a critical lens. It may be uncomfortable but it is necessary.

It’s possible that Singh espouses problematic political sympathies. It is also presumptuous and false to say he is an extremist. But it is clear that he carries an unpopular opinion that not everyone is capable of embracing or understanding. Singh has shown that he has an open heart, but there might also be a pain that exists there.

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2 Comments

  1. Bold piece. Actually surprised I would read it on this magazine, as most progressive South Asian media generally tend to be fawning over him. I felt the same way as the article when I first saw the interview being aired. Just in terms of being a bit more skeptical of what his internal politics and allegiances are. Which actually matters of course (could end up shaping foreign policy). Perhaps those allegiances are justified, I would have to learn more about the issue, but he is definitely not transparent about it.

    I really like when you said “I thought we were done excusing problematic behavior in light of seeing more people who look like us on TV. Holding each other accountable is not so simple in minority communities because it is not always safe. But to be progressive we mustn’t neglect using a critical lens. It may be uncomfortable but it is necessary.” This interplay between representation and accountability is something we need to hash out more I think.

  2. I am Canadian, Liberal Party activist, Socialist but I don’t get your point in your article. I found Jagmeet Singh extremely polite in this interview. First, you should have mentioned that Milewski is very biased and well-known for his lack of ethics in journalism. You should mention complaints about him to the Office of the Ombudsman.

    Secondly, the question he asked to Jagmeet Singh had nothing to do with him. You wrote: ”Milewski asks Singh over and over to condemn the veneration of Sikh extremist Talwinder Singh Parmar, considered to be behind, but never convicted for, the 1985 Air India bombings. While Singh does denounce violent acts, he doggedly avoids the question. Jagmeet Singh did condemn the bombing. But the question on posters in Sikh temples was totally racist and unappropriate.

    Secondly, I am from Quebec and I find you very naive when you write: ”He also is for the peaceful self-determination of nations and peoples. But to transpose that logic on Punjabi people in spite of a violent past is again divisive and nonviable.” My country is Canada, and it would be very unfair to seperate from Canada with only 50% + 1. The fact that Jagmeet Singh talks about Quebec in the same sentence than Catalogne, shows how he does not understand at all Quebec. That’s not Catalogne here and in fact, people don’t even care about seperation.
    Also, the New Democratic Party has nothing in its plateform for Quebec. We don’t want seperation, but we do want to take our own decisions towards arts, immigration, children, education etc.

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