On Monday this week, Indian-origin politician Jagmeet Singh made history by entering Canada’s Parliament as the first non-White leader of a major political party.
Having already expressed his desire to run for Prime Minister, Singh will be leading the New Democratic Party, the country’s third largest, which has ruled several provinces but has not yet been elected to power at the federal level. Singh’s rise has invited both admiration and anxiety. Here’s why.
Rise to success
40-year-old Jagmeet Singh Dhaliwal practised criminal law before entering politics. Canada’s Sikh community is 2 per cent of the country’s population, but politically influential. Singh was elected to Ontario’s Provincial Parliament in 2011.
In September 2017, Singh achieved worldwide popularity after a video of him trying to pacify a heckler at one of his rallies went viral. Many were impressed by Singh’s calm handling of the episode, and some even called him “Trudeau’s worst nightmare”. Singh, who wears a kirpan, became the leader of the NDP in October 2017, despite opposition in the French-speaking Quebec province, where a display of religious identity in politics is frowned upon.
Almost a year and a half later, Singh has now entered Parliament, having been elected in a by-election from Burnaby South, a constituency with a large Sikh population. He will lead his party to the general election in October this year, taking on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party, which is currently mired in controversy over the SNC-Lavalin episode.
Described as a leftist, Singh has campaigned against rising college tuition fees and income inequality, while advocating rights for the LGBT community and Canada’s indigenous people.
In 2012, while he was a member of its Provincial Parliament, Singh tried to get Ontario to leverage its strong trade ties with India in order to force New Delhi to go soft on Balwant Singh Rajoana, one of the principal accused in the assassination of former Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh.
In 2013, India declined a visa to Singh, a rare instance in which a sitting member of a Western legislature was denied entry.
In 2016, Singh introduced a resolution in Ontario’s Assembly to describe the 1984 anti-Sikh riots as a “genocide”. Although defeated then, the same resolution was passed by Trudeau’s Liberal Party the following year.
While running for the NDP leadership, Singh accused Indian intelligence agencies of trying to subvert his campaign. Soon after getting elected, Singh refused to denounce Talwinder Singh Parmar, the terrorist mastermind behind the Air India Flight 182 bombing which killed 329 people, mostly Canadians.
Around the same time, Singh said that he considered self-determination to be a “basic right” in Punjab and in Quebec, inviting scathing criticism from India as well as from within Canada.
Singh has attended pro-Khalistan rallies in London and San Francisco, and has accused the Indian government of “initiating a genocidal campaign against the Sikh minority”. He has described the events following Operation Bluestar as an “attempt to extinguish the Sikh community”.
Although criticized by both moderate Sikhs and Indian officials, his supporters insist that Singh’s advocacy for seeking justice for victims of 1984 should not be equated with making a demand for a separate state.