"if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen
the side of the oppressor." - Desmond Tutu.

Stop blaming Jagmeet Singh for Air India bombings Featured

Gurpreet Singh 

The troubles for the newly elected federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh aren’t over yet. His critics have now found a new weapon to beat him with. This time he has come under attack for not denouncing the alleged mastermind in the Air India bombings.  

The late Talwinder Singh Parmar was the leader of the banned Sikh extremist group Babbar Khalsa that is blamed for the June 23, 1985, Air India bombings that left 331 people dead. The incident followed ugly political events in India in 1984.

In June of that year, the Indian government ordered a military invasion of the Golden Temple Complex, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs in Amritsar in the northwestern Indian state of Punjab. "Operation Blue Star" was intended to flush out militants who had stockpiled weapons inside the place of worship.

The Indian army operation resulted in the loss of many innocent lives and damage to many important buildings inside the complex. The entire exercise was avoidable and alienated the Sikh community from the Indian mainstream.

There were angry protests in Vancouver. These developments culminated in the assassination of then Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi at her residence in New Delhi by her Sikh bodyguards. Following her murder, her Congress party organized an anti-Sikh pogrom across the country. Thousands of Sikhs were slaughtered and Sikh women were gang raped as police remained mute spectators.  

A year later Air India Flight 182 was blown up above the Irish Sea, killing all 329 people aboard. Around the same time a blast at the Narita Airport in Tokyo left two baggage handlers dead. The investigators later found that the bombs used in the crime had originated from Vancouver International Airport. Police believed that these bombings were planned and executed by Babbar Khalsa to avenge the repression of Sikhs in India.

Babbar Khalsa wanted to create Khalistan—a separate Sikh homeland in Punjab. Parmar was a potential suspect in the conspiracy but was never convicted. A resident of Burnaby, he returned to India to continue his struggle for Khalistan when he died at the hands of Indian police in 1992 under mysterious circumstances.

It's believed that he was captured and tortured before being killed in a staged shootout. Two former suspects in the conspiracy, Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri, were charged but later acquitted. This came when the judge ruled that several Crown witnesses weren't credible and therefore the accused could not be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The bomb maker, Inderjit Singh Reyat, was the only one convicted and who has served time for Air India Flight 182 tragedy and the Narita episode.

Jagmeet Singh, who is a baptised Sikh MPP from Ontario, has raised the issue of 1984 Sikh genocide in the Ontario legislature. As a social justice activist in the past he has also been raising the issue of Sikh political prisoners. For his outspokenness on these inconvenient matters, the Indian government denied him a visitor's visa. Later during Singh's leadership campaign, those owing allegiance to the pro-India lobby had reportedly tried to discourage people within the South Asian community from donating money to his team or voting for him. 

Now that he has been elected NDP leader with a huge mandate, he is being attacked for something he is not even remotely associated with. It all started with his interview with CBC journalist Terry Milewski, who asked him whether he denounces Parmar, who is often glorified by the supporters of Khalistan as “martyr”.

Singh only said that he denounces violence against ordinary people and that he doesn’t know who is responsible for the bombings. He added, “I think we need to find out who’s responsible, we need to make sure that the investigation results in a conviction of someone who is actually responsible.”

Based on this conversation Milewski tweeted that the NDP leader declines to denounce the displaying of “martyr” posters of Air India bombers. Several pro-India commentators promptly picked up the issue and began accusing Singh of not being honest.

Throughout the leadership campaign, these commentators tried to force Singh to clarify his position on Khalistan. An India-based daily—Hindustan Times—published a misleading headline suggesting that Singh had in fact glorified Parmar, although he never did that. This was despite the fact that the HT story was based on his interview with Milewski.

Like it or not, a Sikh is being targeted mainly because of his race and religious belief.

He is a turbaned Sikh who has made a history after being elected as leader of a federal party of Canada. He was under constant attack from right-wing forces both in India and Canada. India is currently under a right-wing Hindu nationalist government whose supporters have been targeting him on social media. Similarly, white supremacists in Canada too have been targeting him. In one particular case, he was verbally attacked by a white woman.

It is completely unfair to drag him into the Air India story. This is obviously being done to silence him for raising the genuine issue of the 1984 massacres in India. Let’s face it, no justice was delivered to the sufferers of state-sponsored violence against the Sikhs.

On the contrary, those involved have enjoyed ministerial positions in India for several years. As against the 1984 tragedy, the alleged Air India mastermind was killed in a cold-blooded murder by the police. There has never been an instant justice for the victims of 1984. Hopefully, this stops the media commentators from equating the two different tragedies without going into the complexities of the Indian state and its justice system.

Besides, what many are not trying to understand is that Singh is a lawyer by profession and activist because of his strong belief in social justice. How can you expect a person like him to brand Parmar as somebody responsible for the Air India when he died without conviction and long before the Air India trial started?

Going by Singh's conversation with Milewski, it is very clear that he never glorified anyone. Rather, he denounced the Air India tragedy. Just because he did not answer a close-ended question of Milewski with a yes or no, does not make him guilty.

Also, there is a section of Sikh activists that strongly believes that the Air India bombings were part of a much larger conspiracy involving Indian intelligence agencies that wanted to discredit the Khalistan movement in Canada. Until now, the investigation remains inconclusive and there are no complete answers.

The killing of Parmar by the Indian police despite knowing about his alleged hand in the Air India bombings is seen as a cover-up by many. So it is understandable that Singh may not like to accept the version of the Air India story that is frequently offered by the governments of India and Canada. 

What we need to recognize is that there is a pattern behind tarnishing exceptional political figures like Singh, who stand up for human rights. Also we need to question the media industry in Canada and its commentators.

How many times are white politicians asked to clarify their position on white supremacy that continues to grow after the emergence of Donald Trump in U.S.? Why are only men like Singh are expected to prove all the time that they are good Canadians and could be better politicians than others?  

Yes, the glorification of Parmar or anyone involved in acts of violence against innocent people is wrong, but then what about the continued glorification of Nathuram Godse—a Hindu extremist who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in India? What about the mainstream Canadian and American politicians who remain silent to the acts of terrorism committed by white nationalists?

The whole situation reveals that the entire Sikh community remains under the microscope for an unholy act committed by a few people. Several years ago, a Sikh former MP, Gurmant Grewal, was also unfairly targeted by the mainstream media for handing over a personal package to a passenger boarding a flight at the airport. The Air India story and flight safety was dragged into the story merely because of his heritage.

The practice of trying to paint the whole community with one brush is offensive and racist and must stop. Politics over the Air India tragedy is completely unacceptable. If anyone owes answers for the tragedy, it's the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service for botched investigations or the Indian establishment that created the circumstances leading up to the incident. And, of course, those who were actually involved rather than Singh or Grewal. 

Let Singh focus on things that matter. There will be time when he will be held accountable if he fails to deliver on issues such as homelessness, economic inequality, climate change, electoral reform, health care and of course human rights and racism. After all, he is not going to represent only the Sikhs and other South Asian communities but the whole country. Instead of dragging him into unwanted controversies, he should be given a chance to fulfill his promises.

Gurpreet Singh is cofounder of Radical Desi magazine.
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Cofounder and Director of Radical Desi


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