Unfair questions

Media attacks on Jagmeet Singh remind us of the right-wing forces he’s up against

Politicians from visible minority communities continue to be held to different standards
Photo: Province of BC

There seems to be no halt to the media attacks against the newly elected leader of the federal NDP.

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Ontario MPP Jagmeet Singh was recently elected as the leader of the NDP, one of the three major political parties in the country. As a practising Sikh, he wears a turban and sports a long beard. In the past he has raised several inconvenient political issues related to the Sikh community in the Ontario legislature. Perhaps, for these reasons, his critics have targeted him since he joined the leadership race.

Singh, who was a lawyer by profession and a human rights activist before entering politics, had brought a motion seeking justice for the victims of the Sikh genocide of 1984. Thousands of Sikhs were slaughtered across India that year in the aftermath of the assassination of the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. The top-level politicians involved in the violence remain unpunished. Singh had also raised his voice for Sikh political prisoners struggling for the right to self-determination in India. These included an assassin of a Punjab chief minister, Beant Singh. As a result, he was denied an Indian visa, and he believes there were attempts to dissuade people in his community from donating money to his campaign and vote for him by people associated with the Indian state.

As soon as Singh announced his candidacy, a section of the Indian media pointed out that he was denied a visa by the Indian government. Several right-wing commentators tried to portray him as a sympathizer of the terrorists.

The Milewski interview

Things turned ugly immediately after he was interviewed by Terry Milewski on CBC. Milewski has followed the Air India case for many years now. Air India Flight 182 was bombed mid-air on June 23, 1984, killing all 329 people aboard. The crime was blamed on Babbar Khalsa, a banned terror group seeking revenge for the repression of Sikhs in 1984. One of its leaders, the late Talwinder Singh Parmar, was the alleged mastermind of the crime. He died at the hands of the Indian police in 1992, much before the Air India trial started, and was never convicted. A resident of Vancouver, he had returned to India to pursue armed struggle for a sovereign Sikh homeland. Several Sikh temples owing allegiance to the movement in Canada continue to glorify him as a martyr.

Milewski repeatedly asked Singh to answer yes or no in regard to whether he denounces people who glorify Parmar. To this, Singh gave a very measured response and pointed out that nobody really knows who was responsible. For the record, two former suspects, Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri, were acquitted, while Inderjit Singh Reyat — the bomb maker — remains the only convict. Thus, the investigation, which is still open, remains inconclusive.

An Indian newspaper even ran a damaging headline falsely suggesting Singh had actually glorified Parmar.

Milewski took to social media to attack Singh, saying he “decline[d] to denounce display of ‘martyr’ posters of Air India bomber.” Others also picked up on the story and tried to malign Singh. Some went as far as saying that he had failed in his first test. An Indian newspaper even ran a damaging headline falsely suggesting Singh had actually glorified Parmar.

Unfair attacks

Though the Air India victims’ families deserve justice, and we all want a dignified closure of the Air India episode, it was highly unfair on the part of the media and commentators to attack Singh for something he is not responsible for. To ask him such a question was fundamentally wrong in the first place when he has no stakes in the story. As a lawyer by profession and human rights activist by conviction, he cannot be expected to rationalize the extrajudicial killing of Parmar by the Indian police or blame a dead man who was never given a fair trial. Further, a section of Sikh activists believe that the Air India conspiracy was planned and executed by Indian agencies to discredit the Sikh struggle for a separate state.

The whole controversy has fuelled hatred for Singh, who was verbally attacked by a white woman at a public event during his campaign. Such questioning that has bracketed him with the Sikh separatists only reflects how racial stereotypes are still very strong in the media. These attacks on Singh illustrate how the entire Sikh community continues to be painted with the same brush for an act by a few hot-headed individuals.

How often does the media try to make white politicians accountable for aggravating the threat of white supremacy in North America?

I myself, who has authored a book on the Air India victims’ families and have been critical of Babbar Khalsa, came under attack for questioning the media and commentators for wrongly dragging Singh into the controversy. Some of the media colleagues and those who follow me on social media have gone to the level of accusing me of defending Parmar and Babbar Khalsa, whereas I only tried to defend Singh against racial profiling and never tried to defend anyone else.

Singh is a well-deserving politician who does not merely represent his own community. He has also advocated for the rights of the so-called untouchables in India, Muslims, the Indigenous peoples, and the LGBT population. Raising some genuine human rights issues for Sikhs does not mean he is a sympathizer of Sikh militants. Such an assumption only reminds us how hard it is for politicians from visible minority communities to prove themselves. How often does the media try to make white politicians accountable for aggravating the threat of white supremacy in North America? In that context, how appropriate it is to cross-examine Singh over Air India?

Let’s face it: Singh has never been liked by the white nationalists in Canada or by the supporters of the right-wing Hindu nationalist government in India. With Donald Trump in the United States and Narendra Modi in India, bigotry has grown, and Singh must ready himself for more challenges ahead.

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