“MY NAME IS JAGMEET SINGH, a member of provincial parliament for Bramalea-Gore-Malton. I want to thank all the organisers and all the volunteers who made this event possible.”
It was December 2013, and Jagmeet Singh was addressing an award ceremony taking place in Punjab, hosted by the Social Educational Welfare Association, in association with International Fateh Academy. A legislator in Ontario—Canada’s largest province—Jagmeet was receiving SEWA’s “Sikh of the Year” award, given to a Sikh who has “overcome challenges to restore the honour and pride of Sikhism and to spread its fragrance in the entire world.” He made it clear why he was, quite literally, an attractive choice.
“The largest daily newspaper in Canada, the Toronto Star, recognised me as one of 2012’s top 12 people or 12 personalities for the year,” Jagmeet said. “I was also recognised and put on the front page of the largest Canadian fashion magazine as Toronto’s most stylish.” The catalogue of accolades went on. “I was recognised in the list of Toronto’s 50 most influential people as one of the five rising stars on the verge of greatness,” he said, “and all of this I have to attribute to my principles and beliefs in Sikhi. I want to make sure that’s very clear.”
Jagmeet was speaking in a mix of English and Punjabi. He emphasised how, as an elected official, he had promoted “Sikhi values,” spearheaded efforts to get the massacre of Sikhs in India in 1984 recognised as a genocide, campaigned to have kirpans allowed inside courthouses and have April designated as Sikh Heritage Month in his province.
Though he was indeed on “the verge of greatness,” Singh’s address to SEWA seemed somewhat muted. “I had prepared to be there in person,” Jagmeet, impeccably dressed in a three-piece suit and a yellow turban, explained. “But it is very sad that the Indian government did not give me permission to reach you.” He was delivering his address from behind a desk cluttered with papers, books and files, via videoconference, while thousands of kilometres away in Canada.
The Indian government’s decision to bar Jagmeet’s entry in 2013 was historic—he became the first Western legislator ever to be denied a visa to the country—and made news in both Canada and India. It was particularly surprising because Jagmeet had visited the country earlier that same year. In an op-ed for the Ottawa Citizen, Jagmeet argued that, by this act of exclusion, India had jeopardised its ties with Canada. “It is my belief that the relationship is now in question and the international community must defend Canada’s place as a country whose law-abiding citizens are welcomed by the world.”
When asked to explain why Jagmeet’s visa application was denied, India’s consul-general in Canada at the time tersely told reporters that people “who seek to undermine” Indian political institutions and “foment contempt to the country” were only “misusing the pretext of human rights to pursue their insidious agenda of disrupting the social fabric of India.” Although there was no official statement on why Jagmeet was suddenly persona non grata with the Indian government, many concluded that it had to do with his activism around the 1984 Sikh massacre and his perceived ties with Sikh separatists.
To the likely consternation of Indian officials, less than four years later, in October 2017, Jagmeet was elected to head Canada’s New Democratic Party—becoming the first non-white, non-aboriginal member of a minority to lead one of Canada’s three main political parties. His achievement made international headlines, and prompted celebration from socially conscious Canadians in general and the country’s young, progressive Sikhs in particular.
JAGMEET SINGH’S METEORIC RISE in Canadian politics is seen as a triumph of multiculturalism and an advertisement for Canada’s much touted tolerance and celebration of difference, which stands in contrast to the rising xenophobia in the United States and many other Western countries. Jagmeet knows how to play the part of poster boy. Over the past years, his stylish appearance and progressive activism, combined with formidable social-media savvy, have won him numerous accolades from the media. A 2015 BuzzFeed article took readers on a tour of his Instagram account and proclaimed him “the most stylish politician in Canada by like a million kilometres.” The men’s magazine GQ praised his outreach to young voters, his support for a bevy of liberal causes and his “sharp as hell” suits, describing Jagmeet as “the incredibly well-dressed rising star in Canadian politics.”
Canada is home to the world’s largest Sikh population outside of India. Its 454,965 Sikhs comprise roughly 1.5 percent of the country’s population. On the face of it, they constitute a “model minority”—hard working, peaceful and politically well represented. There are currently four Sikhs in the federal cabinet. The community can boast of several cultural celebrities, such as the comedian Jasmeet Singh, or “Jus Reign,” and the Instagram poet Rupi Kaur. Jagmeet’s elevation to the leadership of a federal party is another confirmation of the community’s achievements.
But Canada has a chequered history with its Sikh diaspora, replete with racist policies and actions. The relationship between Canadian Sikhs and Punjabi Sikhs is also fraught. Salman Rushdie, who moved from India to the United Kingdom as a teenager, famously wrote that emigrants’ “physical alienation from India almost inevitably means that we will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost: that we will, in short, create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands.” Canadian Sikhs are no exception.
Canada was a hotbed for Sikh religious separatism during the 1980s and 1990s, when a number of Sikhs advocated for the creation of an independent Sikh homeland in the Punjab called Khalistan. The movement for a “Sikh nation” was violent, as was the Indian government’s clampdown against it. The differences it sowed—between Sikhs and the Indian government, but also among Sikhs themselves—have never been fully reconciled. Many Sikhs in Canada, especially younger ones, remember those years very differently from Sikhs in Punjab, who had to contend directly with the violence.
Jagmeet has brought many of these divisions back to the fore with his statements and acts. A sharp critic of the Indian government, he advocated for many years to declare the 1984 massacre—thousands of Sikhs were murdered following the assassination of the Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi—a genocide. In a controversial interview, he revealed a crack in his carefully managed image when he declined the chance to denounce the Canadian Sikh widely considered responsible for the bombing of Air India Flight 182, the world’s second deadliest plane attack, behind only 9/11. And when asked if he supports an independent Sikh state, he has spoken in broad terms about his enthusiastic support for the right to self-determination.
Jagmeet’s activism around 1984 has helped make him popular among left-leaning Canadian Sikhs, who see his stance as illustrative of his—and their—broader embrace of human-rights and social justice. Jagmeet’s public outreach to marginalised groups, particularly the LGBT community, and his strong positions on labour laws and tax reforms, are also part of his project: creating a broad coalition that includes social-justice activists, young progressives and what Canada calls its “visible minorities”—non-white, non-aboriginal citizens—that will, if all goes according to plan, deliver him to the post of prime minister.
It will not be easy. To become Canada’s first leader from a visible minority, Jagmeet will need to defeat the Liberal Party’s Justin Trudeau—the popular current prime minister—and win over voters still sceptical about open displays of religious identity. Although he has turned the difficult history of Sikhs in both Canada and India into a rallying point for a politics that declares itself against discrimination of all forms, his stances have alienated certain older Sikhs and sharpened differences between Sikhs in the two countries. These, taken with his icy relations with the Indian government, have troubling implications for both states. The representation of Jagmeet as a youthful, exciting social-justice activist has made him into an international icon. But his positions have also dredged up painful elements of Canada’s past and shown that, despite its progressive Western reputation, identity politics can have a dark side.
THE FIRST SIKHS TO VISIT CANADA were Punjabi soldiers travelling across North America after Queen Victoria’s 1897 Diamond Jubilee. They returned home impressed—particularly by the province of British Columbia, on Canada’s Pacific coast, with its fertile lands and generally mild climate. Word spread quickly. Around 5,000 East Indians, almost all Sikh men, moved to Canada between 1904 and 1908. There, they found ready work as unskilled and (from their employers’ perspective) cheap labourers in the railway, forestry and lumber industries.
But life was difficult. White Canadians depicted Sikhs in alarmist and derisive terms, which was reflected in unflattering coverage from the local press. One newspaper ran a front-page headline declaring that Sikhs “cover dead bodies with butter.” Authorities tried to funnel new arrivals out of Vancouver, the largest city in British Columbia, and into jobs in the province’s interior. Isolated from their families, communities and culture, most of the immigrants planned to eventually return home with their savings.
For the Canadian government, this was preferable. Canada was already denigrating its other Asian communities—particularly Chinese immigrants—and it soon extended its unwelcoming attitude towards South Asians. As British subjects, Sikhs had the right to vote in Canadian elections. But, in 1907, British Columbia passed a law disenfranchising all Indians not born to Anglo-Saxon parents.
Disenfranchisement was only one of multiple techniques employed to make it clear that Sikhs were considered transient workers—not part of Canada’s nascent national fabric. The government made it nearly impossible for people pejoratively called “Hindoos” to bring their families into the country, and immigration officers were known to harass Sikh-Canadian residents who had temporarily left Canada and were trying to return. The Canadian federal government even paid for a delegation to travel to British Honduras and explore the possibility of relocating all British Columbian Sikhs to Central America. Local Sikhs unanimously rejected this plan.
Canada was also searching for ways to stop Sikhs from entering what the early-twentieth-century British Columbia Premier Richard McBride called “a white man’s country.” Sikhs were subjects of the British empire and Canada was part of the Commonwealth, meaning that the government could not simply ban Sikhs from entry. On 8 January 1908, the federal government passed a series of ordinances requiring that Indian immigrants entering the country each have 200 Canadian dollars in their possession (as opposed to 25 dollars for immigrants from Europe) and that they arrive in Canada by continuous journey—in other words, with through-tickets from the state of their birth or their nationality. Between India and Canada, no direct route existed.
The legislation led to perhaps the most infamous incident in Canada’s Sikh history. In 1914, a Sikh businessman chartered a Japanese ship called the Komagata Maru to sail from Hong Kong to Vancouver, with occasional stops along the way. But the Maru—with 376 passengers on board, of whom 340 were Sikhs—was not allowed to dock when it reached its final port of call. Instead, it spent over two months parked offshore, during which time only around 20 passengers were allowed to disembark, all of them former Canadian residents.
The Vancouver Sikh community organised around the issue, spending thousands of dollars trying to get their compatriots clearance. The city’s Khalsa Diwan Society—founded in 1907 to manage the affairs of Vancouver’s gurdwara—became heavily involved. The community even offered to pay every passenger’s 200-dollar admittance fee, but to no avail. Eventually, the Canadian navy forced the Maru and its despondent tenants to sail for India. When it reached Calcutta, British officers attempted to arrest many of the ship’s passengers, and a scuffle broke out. Ensuing gunfire from a nearby British boat killed multiple passengers. Others were sent to jail.
The incident demoralised Canada’s Sikhs, many of whom went back to India in disgust. But it galvanised those who remained into organising for more rights. In 1919, the government finally allowed the wives and young children of Sikh Canadians to migrate to join them, and, gradually, Canada’s Sikh population began to increase. The year before that, there were only 700 Sikhs left in British Columbia. By 1920, the slow trickle of Indians into Canada resumed.
Indo-Canadians—including Sikhs—gained political rights in the middle of the twentieth century. In 1947, the government granted Indians the franchise, several months after India itself was granted independence. The NDP’s predecessor—the labour-oriented Cooperative Commonwealth Federation—endorsed and aided Indians in their quest for the right to vote. It was a significant shift. Previously, the CCF leader JS Woodsworth had referred to Sikhs as “profoundly grotesque.”
Despite gaining voting rights, discrimination against Sikhs persisted. The same year that Sikhs got the right to vote, the Canadian prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, declared that it was “clearly recognised with regard to emigration from India to Canada, that the native of India is not a person suited to this country.”
Canada’s immigration laws were eventually liberalised, and, during the 1960s and 1970s, Canada’s Sikh population began to grow dramatically. In 1962, new regulations allowed all Canadian citizens and permanent residents to sponsor close relatives and non-adult children for immigration. A few years later, the government adopted a points-based system to help determine immigration eligibility. Points were assigned on the basis of such things as educational attainment, occupational skills, employment prospects and age. Anyone who received 50 points or more out of a possible 100 was allowed to enter the country, irrespective of race or national origin. By 1969, over 5,000 Sikhs a year were moving to Canada—a 67-percent increase over arrivals in 1968, and a 650-percent one over arrivals a decade before.
The country’s official attitude towards its minorities soon changed radically. On 8 October 1971, Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau—the father of the current prime minister—announced that the government would adopt a policy of multiculturalism. In 1976, Trudeau appointed the aboriginal Canadian Len Marchand as his minister of small businesses, making Marchand the first non-white federal minister in Canada’s history. Two years later, Trudeau selected the Palestinian-born MP Pierre De Bané to serve as the minister of supply and services. Bané became the first visible-minority member of the country’s cabinet.
“Cultural pluralism is the very essence of Canadian identity,” Trudeau declared, and no ethnic group should “take precedence over any other.”
The policy was largely symbolic at first, with few financial resources flowing towards helping minorities promote their identities and participate more fully in society. But it has since gathered strength to form the basis of Canada’s reputation as a progressive stalwart, even as right-wing populism has gradually overtaken the country’s southern neighbour, the United States. Canada’s federal government now spends roughly a billion Canadian dollars a year—about $800 million—on ethnic heritage festivals, immigration-friendly television programmes and other celebrations of diversity.
It is not driven by just good ethics. “They desperately need these immigrants,” Papia Sengupta, a professor of political science at Jawaharal Nehru University and a student of Canadian multiculturalism, told me. The influx of new residents has helped Canada avoid the kind of demographic ageing crisis that now confronts much of the developed world. Even the spectre of indefinite economic stagnation caused by an ageing population has not done much to convince some other countries, such as Japan, to rethink their longstanding aversion to immigrants. Canada, by contrast, continues to have some of the world’s most open borders.
In 1993, Gurbax Singh Malhi became the first turbaned Sikh to sit in any federal legislature in the Western world. He was elected to represent a federal constituency that closely maps on to the district Jagmeet represented in Ontario’s provincial parliament. Two other, non-turbaned Sikhs were simultaneously becoming visible figures. One, Herbance Dhaliwal, became Canada’s first Indian-origin cabinet minister, in 1997. The other, Ujjal Dosanjh, a Sikh born in Punjab, became the country’s first Indo-Canadian provincial leader, in 2000.
Few groups, if any, have as effectively capitalised on Canada’s relative accessibility as have Sikhs. The Canadian Sikh community nearly doubled in size between 2001 and 2011, and its members are concentrated in important electoral districts. All three major parties—the Conservatives, the Liberals and the NDP—actively try to win over Sikh voters, giving them significant influence. Parties make a point of fielding Sikh candidates, and provinces have been attentive to Sikh rights. In 2008, the British Columbia provincial government formally apologised for the Komagata Maru incident, and the province unveiled a monument to its victims in 2012.
“I think they’ve been really smart about understanding the way that the Canadian electoral system operates,” Erin Tolley, a political scientist at the University of Toronto, said. Their success is evident in the composition of Canada’s parliament. Out of 338 seats, 17 are occupied by Sikhs—forming a share that outstrips the corresponding percentage of Sikhs in Canada’s overall population. Within three generations, Canadian Sikhs have gone from disenfranchisement to disproportionate representation.
Rachna Singh, an NDP legislator for British Columbia, chalked up the community’s relative success to its experience fighting adversity. “When people came here on the Komagata Maru, they were not political activists. They were just trying to make a good living,” she said. “But what happened to them—the sheer black-and-white racism—it really did affect them. It taught them that they have to fight for their rights.”
JAGMEET SINGH JIMMY DHALIWAL was born on 2 January 1979, in Scarborough, Ontario—60 years after the Komagata Maru incident and five before India’s 1984 Sikh massacre. His mother, Harmeet, moved to Canada in the 1970s, sponsored by her sister. She married Jagmeet’s father, Jagtaran Singh Dhaliwal, in Punjab, and he followed her to Canada.
Though born in Ontario, Jagmeet spent his earliest years living with his grandmother in Punjab. He returned to Canada after his father was admitted to medical school, in Canada’s easternmost province. When Jagmeet was seven years old, the family moved back to Ontario, where Jagtaran worked as a psychiatrist and Harmeet as a teacher.
“He was always very outgoing, very friendly, very social, and he cared a lot,” Balpreet Singh, Jagmeet’s cousin and a spokesperson and legal representative for the World Sikh Organisation, said. “Even throughout his childhood, he was always someone who cared a lot about the people around him.”
Like others who knew Jagmeet at a young age, Balpreet said that the future NDP leader was something of a mentor when it came to embracing Sikh identity. “He was like an older brother to me,” Balpreet said. “He definitely gave me a lot of advice on turban-tying.”
Jagmeet’s appearance made him a frequent target for teasing, even bullying, in his childhood. To escape it, his parents sent him to Detroit Country Day School—an elite private school just across the US border. Later, he studied biology at the University of Western Ontario. Jagmeet has said his style—the custom-designed suits, the colourful turbans—came about as a response to unfriendly gawking. “If people are going to stare at me, I might as well give them something to look at,” he told GQ. Dressing up is an anti-discrimination tactic that dates back to Canada’s first Sikhs, many of who donned three-piece suits at the instruction of Vancouver’s Khalsa Diwan Society. This might have done little back then to head off incidents such as that of the Komagata Maru, but it appears to have worked better for Jagmeet, now an Instagram phenomenon.
Yet, his style has not fully exempted him from North America’s general suspicion of brown men. Jagmeet was 22 years old on 11 September 2001, when members of the extremist outfit Al Qaeda hijacked and crashed four planes in the United States, killing 2,996 people. The event caused massive grief and expanded state surveillance, and played a role in provoking two wars. It also ushered in a new era of Islamophobia in the West. Jagmeet, of course, is Sikh, but white chauvinists typically do not distinguish between brown people with religious headwear. One of the first retaliatory killings to follow the hijackings was of a Sikh man in the US state of Arizona. Across the world, Sikhs were subjected to acts of discrimination large and small. Jagmeet—who has spoken of having been needlessly stopped by the police multiple times—was no exception.
“9/11 resulted in a whole new wave of extreme racism and hatred,” Jagmeet told Macleans, a Canadian weekly magazine. “People driving by yelling ‘Osama,’ physical confrontations. I was able to stand up for myself. But it created a lot of tension, a lot of negativity. People would be afraid—literally—and walk away in fear.”
The attacks helped orient Jagmeet’s understanding of politics. Soon, his education gave him the tools to act. He had originally planned on becoming a doctor, but went to law school instead when his father became ill (Jagtaran eventually recovered). Jagmeet’s decision to switch paths propelled him into activism. One of his earliest political forays was a campaign against tuition hikes at Osgoode Law School, where he was studying. After graduating, he worked at a prominent Toronto law firm before creating his own practice.
“The groups I worked with—fighting against poverty, against tuition fees, and for immigrants and refugees—felt unsupported,” his website says. “They didn’t have an ally they could turn to in government.” This, the website continues, is part of what drew him into politics.
Events overseas were also critical to Jagmeet’s growing activism.
“People have asked me the story about how I got into politics. Let me tell you the real story,” Jagmeet said in a speech at his campaign advisor and close friend’s Sikh wedding in 2017, before describing his political awakening and the 1984 Sikh massacre.
His awareness of the event deeply impacted his and his friends’ political outlook. Jagmeet became loosely involved in the Sikh Activist Network, a social-justice group founded by his younger brother, Gurratan, and Gurratan’s best friend. The group organised around a variety of issues, but 1984 was central to their work. When Kamal Nath—a prominent Indian politician from the Congress party, who allegedly helped organise the anti-Sikh violence—visited Ontario in March 2010, Gurratan organised a protest. Speaking over the phone this January, he told me that he and Jagmeet saw Nath’s invitation as “an affront to us as Canadians.”
“We pride ourselves on standing up for human rights and speaking out against injustice,” Gurratan said. “Seeing complacency by our elected officials in that respect really prompted us to say we need politicians who are not afraid to speak truth to power.” The Sikh Activist Network decided it needed an ally in government. Jagmeet, with his legal background and charisma, was a natural choice.
For many of Canada’s young, second-generation Sikhs, awareness of the violence in India has been politically and religiously transformational. “They are growing up in the legacy of 1984,” Michael Nijhawan, a York University sociologist who studies Canada’s Punjabi diaspora, said. “This looms in the background.” Anger over the atrocities and the subsequent lack of justice—none of the high-level politicians purportedly involved in organising the massacre have been convicted—also became a vehicle for other, Canada-specific concerns, including disproportionate targeting by police, hate crimes and unflattering racial stereotypes.
“They reframe it more in terms of the grievances they have as second-generation immigrants in a Canadian society where they’re racialised by the mainstream,” Nijhawan said.
These issues are hardly unique to Sikhs, and have been central to the rise of identity politics across a much broader spectrum. “They’re connected to other movements, around Palestinian issues or what have you,” Nijhawan said.
Mo Dhaliwal, a strategist for Singh’s campaign, argued that the rise in minority activism in Canada in recent years stems from people of colour, born and raised in the country, demanding equal recognition. “What you’re seeing is a broad-based decolonising of people,” Dhaliwal told me. “I think this is prevalent across all cultures in Canada.” He was heartened by the current trajectory of Canadian politics, with the historically disadvantaged finding increasing success. Naheed Kurban Nenshi, a Muslim, presently governs the city of Calgary. Kathleen Wynne, the premier of Ontario, is gay. And now Jagmeet Singh, a turbaned Sikh, heads Canada’s third-largest party.
Jagmeet became the leader of the New Democratic Party in part by signing up new members from minority groups. But his decision to launch his political career under the NDP’s auspices also relates to Indian politics. When Kamal Nath visited Ontario, the leader of the NDP at the time, Jack Layton, was one of the few Canadian politicians to endorse Gurratan’s protest. “The voices of a great many Indo-Canadians from all across the country have been very clear,” Layton said of Nath’s invitation. “They are especially hurt by the presence in Canada of a man who allegedly organised anti-Sikh pogroms.”
Jagmeet mounted his first political campaign the year after Nath’s visit, in 2011, narrowly losing a vote to represent a federal parliamentary district that no New Democrat had ever won. Soon after that, he triumphed in a provincial legislative election.
In many ways, Jagmeet and the NDP are a natural fit. It was, after all, the CCF—the NDP’s main predecessor—that helped Sikhs gain the right to vote. The party is further to the left than Canada’s other two major parties—the governing, centre-left Liberals and the nominally right-wing Conservatives. The NDP’s constitution describes it as coming from “democratic socialist traditions,” working through “farmer, labour, co-operative, feminist, human rights and environmental movements, and with First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples”—the country’s indigenous population—“to build a more just, equal, and sustainable Canada.”
At the same time, Jagmeet is something of an outlier in the history of the party, which was founded in 1961 when the CCF merged with Canada’s largest trade union. The NDP has traditionally been focussed on working-class economic issues, and it has never performed as well among South Asians as the Liberals or Conservatives. Singh’s focus on identity politics is in many ways a departure from this history. “Institutionally, it is a big step for Canadian Sikhs,” Balpreet said.
This was evident in Jagmeet’s campaign for the NDP leadership, largely managed by younger, progressive activists who were nonetheless electoral neophytes. Jagmeet was said to have turned down help from more experienced party hands. Jus Reign, whose comedy has made him a YouTube sensation, made Jagmeet’s earliest campaign videos. In one of these, Jus Reign conducts an interview with Singh that is part satire, part serious—complete with references to the iconic Canadian donut chain Tim Horton’s and the all-white 1990s American television sitcom “Full House.”
Since winning his seat in provincial parliament, Jagmeet has made outreach to traditionally disadvantaged constituencies a hallmark of his strategy. Jagmeet refers to the queer community as “LGBTQIA2S+”—a sprawling acronym preferred by many left-leaning queer-rights activists. He has pledged to let individuals self-identify their gender on all government forms, and has said he plans on “uprooting systemic discrimination within the criminal-justice system.” The policy section of Jagmeet’s website is a laundry list of Canadian social-justice causes—investing in indigenous languages, publishing data on the quantity of sexual assault complaints against Canadian law-enforcement agencies, opposing fossil-fuel pipelines.
Young Sikh activists such as Balpreet argue that Jagmeet’s embrace of intersectionality is not a tactic but part of his identity. “Reaching out to others, standing up for others—it’s not a strategy,” Balpreet told me. “It’s who we are as Sikhs.”
But Jagmeet’s political approach is notable for how closely it mirrors the path forged by Justin Trudeau. Like his new challenger, Trudeau is known for his stylish outfits, youthful charisma and embrace of progressive identity politics—all of which helped him win Canada’s 2015 federal election. Trudeau’s cabinet, designed to “look like Canada,” is half female, and has numerous members who are minorities. Trudeau is fond of boasting that there are more Sikhs in his cabinet than of India’s current prime minister, Narendra Modi. Trudeau has won praise for increasing the country’s intake of Syrian refugees and has even issued a formal apology for Canada turning away the Komagata Maru. “For the laws that discriminated against you so senselessly, and for not apologising sooner,” he told Canada’s parliament in 2016, “for all these things, we are truly sorry.”
“It’s Trudeauism,” Naveen Girn, the community-relations director for the mayor of Vancouver, told me. The task before Jagmeet, he said, is “how to respond to Justin Trudeau and frame himself in comparison to that.”
Separating his politics from Trudeau’s is tricky, but Jagmeet’s skin colour and appearance do create a clear contrast. Indeed, Jagmeet’s most famous moment of progressivism came from a misreading of his appearance and religious identity.
During his campaign for the NDP leadership, Jagmeet was interrupted by an Islamophobe accusing him of being part of the Muslim Brotherhood and wanting to implement Sharia law. As his supporters jeered the protestor, Jagmeet preached tolerance.
“What do we believe in?” Jagmeet asked the crowd. “We believe in love and courage.”
The crowd responded by chanting “love and courage,” Jagmeet’s campaign slogan. A video recording of the event went viral. The politician was widely praised for the way he handled the situation—and also for the way he did not.
“Many people have commented that I could have just said I’m not Muslim. In fact, many have clarified that I’m actually Sikh,” he later explained. “While I’m proud of who I am, I purposely did not go down that road because it suggests their hate would be OK if I was Muslim.”
Jagmeet went on to win the election handily.
“I’ve got other friends and relations that work in politics or in the political arena in some capacity,” Dhaliwal said. “Jagmeet is the first candidate for whom I’ve come out in a really vocal way.”
LESS THAN 24 hours after winning the race to lead the NDP, Jagmeet sat down for an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation journalist Terry Milewski. Aired on “Power & Politics,” CBC’s prominent evening news show, the conversation was arguably Jagmeet’s most important to date. It did not go as planned.
To begin with, Jagmeet’s campaign tried to get hold of the list of questions beforehand. “Jagmeet Singh soon on @PnPCBC after threatening to cancel if not told the questions first,” Milewski tweeted out hours before the programme. “He reconsidered on being told no.”
It was an embarrassing moment for Jagmeet, whose public persona was thus far largely built on his own team’s astute use of social media and on flattering press coverage (the writer who conducted Singh’s fawning GQ interview later joined his campaign). Another CBC correspondent replied to Milewski’s tweet, noting that it is “against CBC’s journalistic standards to give questions. Party comms ppl know that.”
As the interview unfolded, it became clear why Jagmeet’s team preferred staged interviews with Jus Reign to professional journalistic questioning. In general, news stories discussing Jagmeet’s mixing of Sikh identity and politics had depicted it as an uncomplicated good. But during the conversation with Milewski, it became evident that there were some dark elements of Sikh politics that Singh would rather not discuss.
“Do you think that some Canadian Sikhs go too far when they honour Talwinder Singh Parmar as a martyr of the Sikh nation?” Milewski asked.
Parmar was once the leader of Babbar Khalsa International—a Sikh militant group dedicated to carving out an independent Khalistan. Babbar Khalsa orchestrated the bomb attack on Air India Flight 182 in 1985 to retaliate against the 1984 massacre. The bombing, Canada’s deadliest terror attack, killed 329 people—mostly Canadian citizens. Police in Punjab killed Parmar, a naturalised Canadian citizen, while he was on a visit to India in 1992. His portrait is displayed in certain Canadian gurdwaras and, occasionally, during Canadian Sikh parades.
Jagmeet responded somewhat tangentially to Milewski’s question, saying he was offended by the idea there was any conflict between Hindus and Sikhs, something he has repeated many times. “I grew up with a lot of close friends and dear family friends that were from the Hindu faith,” he said. “One of my goals was to erase this narrative of a false Hindu-Sikh conflict, and what I really believe in—”
“Forgive me,” Milewski interrupted. “You could do that right now by saying, ‘No, it isn’t appropriate to put up posters of Canada’s worst-ever mass murderer.’”
“Well let me just clarify a point here,” Jagmeet replied. “We’ve been living in existence as neighbours, as—”
“Third time I’m asking,” Milewski interjected. “It’s not a hard question.”
In the following 60 seconds, Singh tried awkwardly to shift the subject to 1984 and Hindu-Sikh relations. But Milewski kept pressing.
“What about putting up posters of Parmar, the architect of the Air India bombing, as a martyr,” Milewski said. “Is that appropriate, yes or no?”
Jagmeet demurred, criticising “the heinous massacre that was committed.”
“So you won’t denounce those posters of Parmar?” Milewski asked, for the fifth and final time.
“I don’t know who was responsible,” Jagmeet said. “I think we need to find out who was truly responsible and make sure the investigation actually results in a conviction of someone who was actually responsible.”
Though Parmar was never convicted, a government inquiry—overseen by a retired justice of the Canadian supreme court—had determined that he masterminded the attack.
The exchange caused outrage. Some journalists, activists and academics criticised Milewski, arguing his line of inquiry was racist, unnecessary and betrayed the Western media’s double standards around politicians of colour. “Why is he being put in that position?” Chandrima Chakraborty, a professor at McMaster University in Ontario who studies memories of Air India Flight 182, said. “Why is he not being questioned about the decriminalisation of marijuana?”—one of Jagmeet’s policy proposals. “Why is it always about Sikhism?”
But others found Jagmeet’s response, or lack thereof, equally troubling. The Toronto-based writer Jonathan Kay said Jagmeet’s failure to assign blame for the bombing was tantamount to “an American politician saying he had no idea who was responsible for Sept. 11.” Bal Gupta, the chairman of the Air India 182 Victims Families Association, was similarly critical. “He should have disowned the glorification of terrorism, even suspected terrorism or promoters of terrorism,” he said.
In response to the controversy, the CBC’s ombudsman, Esther Enkin, launched an inquiry into Milewski’s questioning. She concluded that while the questions could have been better structured, they were journalistically appropriate given Jagmeet’s longstanding relationship to Sikh activism and identity politics. “He was asked this question because he is a national leader who has taken positions on issues related to the Sikh community and its on-going grievances against the Indian government,” she said.
While the Western media probed this controversy as one of implied racism against an elected official from Canada’s visible minorities, it largely missed the underlying contradictions regarding Sikh identity politics. Milewski alluded to the “Sikh nation” in the course of the interview, without qualification, as if it were an existing entity, and not a deeply contested idea—with relatively strong currency in the West but practically anachronistic in present-day Punjab.
“Numbers had always been the chief problem of the Sikh community,” the Indian journalist Khushwant Singh wrote in his essay “Genesis of the Hindu-Sikh divide.” Punjab is home to more than 16 million Sikhs—the largest Sikh population in the world, around 35 times the size of Canada’s. Sikhs form the majority of the state’s population, but roughly 38 percent of Punjab’s residents are Hindus. And the story of how Punjab became majority-Sikh is complex. “Sikh politics has always had a bit of an identity crisis,” Kanwar Sandhu, an MLA in Punjab and an erstwhile journalist who covered India’s conflict zones, said. “I don’t think this area has enjoyed comparative peace for too long, ever.”
Many of Punjab’s present-day scars trace back to Partition. In 1947, the unified, Muslim-majority Punjab province of British India was split in half, with the western part joining the newly created state of Pakistan and the eastern part joining an independent India. The new border separated the birthplace and burial site of Sikhism’s founder, Guru Nanak, from the religion’s holiest site, the Golden Temple, in the Indian city of Amritsar. The vast majority of Sikhs living in Pakistani Punjab migrated to Indian Punjab, and most Muslims in Indian Punjab embarked on the opposite journey. Both migrations were accompanied by a spiral of communal bloodletting that left millions dead. It was these events that left Indian Punjab with a Sikh majority.
The idea of an autonomous Sikh state took shape as part of fierce battles over linguistic identity that swept across India in the 1950s. Faced with the task of nation-building and demarcating state boundaries, the Indian government announced a reorganisation of states according to language demographics. But Punjabi was not considered for a state of its own. In response, the Akali Dal, a regional political party, launched the Punjabi Suba. A key demand of this two-decade movement was that regions of Punjab with Punjabi-speaking and other language majorities be divided into separate states.
By and large, the Punjabi Suba was centred around creating a majority Punjabi-speaking state, not a Sikh state. But the Akali Dal, in its manifesto, wrote, “The Shiromani Akali Dal has reason to believe that a Punjabi-speaking province may give the Sikhs the needful security.” Punjabi Hindus interpreted this as a bid for a Sikh-majority state. In response, many Hindus rejected Punjabi as their mother tongue in a census, and Hindu groups aggressively promoted Hindi as their vernacular language. The divide was reflected in local media and politics, as various sides tried to exploit it to their advantage.
By 1966, Punjab was split into Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and the Punjab we know today, with a majority-Sikh population. Punjabi was recognised, finally, as the official language of Punjab. But it was not until the Akalis adopted the Anandpur Sahib Resolution in 1973—six years after modern Punjab came into existence—that the idea of an autonomous Sikh state received any formal articulation. Although there are at least three versions of the resolution, with rival factions adopting different interpretations of it, one signed in 1982 emphasised, among other things, the constitution of a “single administrative unit where the interests of Sikh and Sikhism are specially protected.”
The Akali Dal president Harchand Singh Longowal stated, “Let us make it clear once and for all that the Sikhs have no designs to get away from India in any manner.” But the central government remained wary. In its “White paper on the Punjab agitation,” an official document on the lead-up to 1984, the central government declared, “The Anandpur Sahib Resolution is at total variance with the basic concept of the unity and integrity of the nation as expressed in our constitution. It cannot be accepted as a basis for discussion.”
Even while the Akali Dal was at the forefront of the Punjabi Suba movement and central in pushing Sikh interests—and even providing formidable resistance to Indira Gandhi’s draconian Emergency in the preceding decade—the party’s electoral success was not guaranteed. Punjabi Sikhs did not vote as a block, and the dominant Congress, under Gandhi, courted and sometimes won Sikh votes. In its confrontation with the Akalis, the central government, under the Congress, shored up a figure who was proving to be a deft navigator of the tensions of this era—a charismatic, incendiary preacher named Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.
An orthodox Sikh with a substantial following, Bhindranwale openly preached violence in pursuit of his desired ends. His followers are thought to have assassinated two of his ideological opponents, and his organisation contributed to Punjab’s escalating pre-1984 militancy. When asked if he supported Khalistan, Bhindranwale said, “We are not in favour of Khalistan nor are we against it.” He often used the term “qaum” to refer to the religious characteristics of Sikhs, marking them out as a distinct and homogenous entity. His rhetoric emboldened Khalistani separatists. “Sikhs are living like slaves in independent India,” he claimed. “Today every Sikh considers himself as a second-rate citizen.” The scholar Harnik Deol has written that Bhindranwale was “able to convey a specific definition of a Sikh” that “led to the dissemination and consolidation of a puritanical Sikh identity to a large section of the population for the very first time.”
Bhindranwale’s allegiances shifted between the Congress and the Akalis depending on what was most expedient to his survival. As he grew increasingly powerful, he began making demands of the Congress that Gandhi would not accept. Bhindranwale and the Congress fell out. The preacher and his increasingly militant followers moved into the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar, from where Bhindranwale issued commands and ordered assassinations. The stage was set for one of the most infamous incidents in Sikh—and Indian—history.
On the evening of 5 June 1984, the Indian military stormed Sikhism’s holiest site, hoping to kill Bhindranwale and flush out his backers. Gandhi was told that the raid—named Operation Blue Star—would be quick and relatively devoid of violence. Haphazardly planned and hastily executed, it instead took all night and killed scores of civilians. Government troops succeeded in killing Bhindranwale—a deeply divisive figure among Sikhs to this day—but also caused serious damage to the Akal Takht, or “timeless throne,” which stands across from the Golden Temple itself. Tank guns blew a hole in the structure’s iconic central dome.
Operation Blue Star further polarised India along religious and ideological lines. In the aftermath, some Sikh military troops mutinied, and support for Khalistan grew. On 31 October 1984, two of Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards killed her as she was walking out of her residence. The anti-Sikh pogrom—perpetrated by organised Hindu mobs and led mostly by Congress politicians—occurred in the three days immediately afterwards. According to reports made available by one of several subsequent enquiry commissions, public buses were used to transport the mobs, voters’ lists were used to identify Sikh homes and the police disarmed Sikhs who were trying to defend themselves.
THE AIR INDIA FLIGHT 182 bombing was just one instance of the use of lethal methods by Khalistani separatists to retaliate for 1984 and advance their cause. According to Human Rights Watch, “Sikh separatists in Punjab committed serious human rights abuses, including the massacre of civilians, attacks upon Hindu minorities in the state, and indiscriminate bomb attacks in crowded places.” The Indian government carried out a brutal counter-insurgency, led by the police officer KPS Gill. Through the 1980s and 1990s, militancy in Punjab was stamped out. The methods used by Gill, himself Sikh, were vicious and inhumane, and included the torture and extrajudicial killing of thousands.
On his website, Jagmeet Singh refers to this as part of a 20-year “genocidal campaign” in which “Sikh youth disappeared, torture was rampant, and Sikhs endured relentless state-sanctioned terrorism.” He has been openly critical of the excesses of the Indian state, both under the Congress and under the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party. But when pressed to denounce Talwinder Singh Parmar, he did not.
To some long-time observers of Canadian politics, Jagmeet’s difficulty in condemning Sikh violence has troubling communal connotations.
“Identity politics is very attractive if you feel oppressed,” Ujjal Dosanjh, the former Liberal Party politician who served as the premier of British Columbia, told me. “But it’s not really a means of dealing with that oppression. It sort of walls you in and walls the other out, and in the end we all suffer.”
He spoke from personal experience. Dosanjh always identified as a politician who “happened to be Sikh” rather than as a Sikh politician. He was staunchly critical of Sikh separatism in Punjab, and the logistical and moral support it received from its backers, including a number of overseas Sikhs. His outspokenness put him in their crosshairs. In February 1985, a Khalistani sympathiser jumped Dosanjh in a parking lot outside his law office and beat him with an iron rod.
Jagmeet has faced tough questions on his view of the Khalistan movement beyond just Parmar. When asked by another CBC interviewer, David Common, whether he supports secessionism, the NDP leader was vague, saying he supports “self-determination” and “the right for every human being to have that ability to determine their future.” In an interview with the Huffington Post, Jagmeet elaborated, “So 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, it’s a basic right. I support that right.”
Balpreet, speaking of the World Sikh Organisation’s position on Khalistan, told me, “We support the right for Sikhs within Punjab to take whatever political positions they want so long as they do so peacefully. That’s really the extent of our involvement in this issue.”
“Where are they going to have a Sikh state? In Canada? In Alberta?” Dosanjh asked. “If you are a Sikh sovereignitist, you can’t be for self-determination for Punjab, because Punjab has Hindus too.”
There is some evidence that Jagmeet is sympathetic to those who want an independent Sikh state. In 2016, when he was deputy leader of the Ontario NDP, Jagmeet spoke at an event on “Sovereignty and Polity” organised in London by the British-based National Sikh Youth Federation. He shared the stage with the NSYF’s British Sikh co-founder, Shamsher Singh. Speaking after Jagmeet, Shamsher advocated advancing Sikh sovereignty, which he defined in fairly supremacist terms. “It endorses the superiority of our culture, our language and our ideal. It is about Sikh spaces and Sikh institutions,” Shamsher said. “And it endorses violence as a legitimate form of resistance and survival.”
It was not the first time the NSYF expressed these views. One year before Jagmeet’s visit, the group ran a pro-separatist online series entitled “Khalistan: Origins of a Nation.” In the videos, NSYF leaders argue that the separatist violence in Punjab in the 1980s had “immense support from all sections of the Punjabi population.” They reject peaceful human-rights protests by Sikhs in the West as being “futile,” “not effective,” and “undermining Sikh sovereignty.”
I spoke to Shamsher over the phone in January. He animatedly laid out his vision for an independent Khalistan that would incorporate both Indian Punjab and parts of Pakistan. In his telling, this “Sikh raj” would be firmly committed to uplifting oppressed communities. “It’s like the Punjab of my dreams,” he said. I sent Jagmeet and his staff multiple interview requests over several months, but received no response. When I sent specific questions to his press office on Jagmeet’s association with the NSYF, his press secretary responded, “Jagmeet Singh denounces violence in all its forms. Mr. Singh has spent his entire career working towards peace and reconciliation.”
When I asked Gurratan why Jagmeet would share a stage with someone who endorses political violence, he said his and his brother’s position was clear. “Our record in regards to any form of violence is that we’ve rejected any sort of violence,” he said. “I’m not really familiar with who is within the NSYF. But if there is anyone who had any of those comments or any of those positions … we don’t support that position.” Harwinder Singh Mander, the British web editor of Naujawani.com, who was the third speaker at the event, told me he found Jagmeet’s event remarks guarded. When Mander argued that the way ahead for the Sikh movement relied on being able to see Bhindranwale as a “man who was actually a great humanitarian,” Jagmeet apparently said, “People could have different opinions and we could still move forward and evolve.” Although Mander himself does not identify with the term Khalistani, he said, “I am in favour of Sikh statehood and sovereignty.”
Later in our conversation, Gurratan circled back to the NSYF to add that it was important to create spaces for people impacted by oppression to express their views freely. “When we talk about issues of Punjab and we talk about people and their experiences in regards to anything around human-rights abuses in Punjab, you deal with people who have a lot of hurt,” he said. “My brother has never shied away from going to a place where people are hurt and where people are feeling hurt, and though he may disagree with the positions around violence—which has been very clear—I think that around the process of healing and reconciliation we need to be able to have a dialogue with all individuals.”
Shamsher said that Jagmeet reached out to the NSYF as part of an effort to network with diaspora Sikhs outside Canada. The co-founder’s own opinions on Jagmeet were decidedly mixed. On the one hand, Shamsher criticised Jagmeet for embracing a “Western” political outlook and being “selective” in his engagement with Sikh politics. “I’ve met Jagmeet multiple times, he doesn’t know jack about Sikhi,” he said. On the other hand, Shamsher praised the NDP leader for engaging with his group and for his refusal to denounce Parmar during the Milewski interview. “I have immense respect for Jagmeet Singh,” he wrote in a Facebook post, “because not only did he take a position, he took a Sikh political one, he did not throw Shaheed Bhai Talwinder Singh ‘under the bus.’”
Jagmeet’s routine criticisms of the Indian government and his statements on self-determination have attracted the attention of major Indian news outlets. These have put out a fair share of flattering articles about the NDP leader’s personal celebrity, but they have also highlighted the controversies surrounding him. “Jagmeet Singh criticised for glorifying Khalsa chief accused of 1985 AI bombing,” read a headline in the Hindustan Times following the Milewski interview. “Sikh hijacker among others to congratulate Jagmeet Singh on being elected leader of Canada’s NDP,” the Times of India titled a story on Jagmeet’s elevation to the party’s leadership. An opinion piece on the website Newslaundry asked, “Why doesn’t India like Jagmeet Singh?”
Distaste for Jagmeet runs especially high among politicians in Punjab. The state’s chief minister, the 75-year-old Amarinder Singh, has been outspoken in his aversion. Amarinder is no stranger to criticising Canadian Sikhs—he made international headlines by calling Canada’s current defence minister, Harjit Singh Sajjan, a “Khalistani sympathiser.” Raveen Thukral, Amarinder’s media advisor, told me in text messages that Jagmeet “is echoing the sentiments of those out to destroy the state’s peace and tranquillity. Naturally, this is a matter of concern, as his statements smack of an anti-India sentiment, indicating a strong radical mind-set.”
This is an especially forceful example of the general distrust that Punjab’s old-guard political elite has of second-generation Canadian Sikhs, whom they view as dangerous at worst and misinformed at best. Tript Rajinder Singh Bajwa, a minister in the Punjab cabinet, argued that relatively younger members of the Sikh diaspora were too far removed from India to understand “the real situation in Punjab.” He noted that their parents had, in many cases, immigrated to Canada almost half a century ago. “They are misinformed,” Bajwa said. “There’s more than a generation gap.”
Canadian activists I spoke to bristled at the notion that they should not comment on Punjabi politics. “If one of us raises our voice and says, ‘India is making human-rights violations,’ then a finger gets pointed and it’s like, ‘Oh, well, you know, no one in India—no one in Punjab—has a problem with it,’” Dhaliwal said. “The reality is it’s only foreigners that can speak up about it, because if locals speak up about it, there’s this very serious threat of being killed or attacked.”
Dhaliwal argued there is little daylight between Indian and Canadian Sikhs, including on attitudes towards India and Khalistan. “The notion that this is a Canadian sentiment is false,” he said. “This is a sentiment of people that are oppressed. These are people who have the boot on their throat that are suffering, that once they escape the suffering, they speak out about it. This is a ground reality of people in Punjab.”
THE VILLAGE OF THIKRIWALA—Jagmeet Singh’s ancestral home—lies roughly 165 kilometres east of Chandigarh, inside Punjab’s Barnala district. The family is related to Seva Singh Thikriwala—an early-twentieth-century resident of the village who became famous for fighting against the British.
Thikriwala has taken pride in Jagmeet’s success. Posters of the NDP leader adorn various buildings, and after he won the party election, villagers gathered in the town’s gurdwara to hear the news and be congratulated by local leaders. “We are very happy to know that Jagmeet Singh is an elected member of parliament. Jagmeet Singh is respected here,” Jagdit Singh Aulakh, an 89-year-old who has lived his entire life in Thikriwala, said. “We hope in one or two years he will take the place of prime ministership.”
Excitement around Jagmeet has not been limited to Thikriwala. Though Punjab’s government is critical of Jagmeet, some of the state’s citizens celebrate his success just as they do that of many Sikhs who live abroad. “What I hear about him is in a positive sense, that he is doing well for the people of Canada,” Karanbir Singh Randhawa, a 22-year-old student at Panjab University, told me. “It’s very powerful for us.”
When I asked Sikhs in Punjab about 1984, it was clear they do share many opinions with their counterparts in Canada. The violence still haunts many, and locals were anguished by the state’s failure to punish many of its perpetrators. Sandhu, the journalist turned legislator, said he was impressed with how states such as Canada and the United Kingdom were handling internal dissension, including threats of secession. Aulakh, whose grandson lives in Toronto, praised Canada’s relative harmony when compared to India’s own history of internal conflicts. “We want more harmony—Hindu, Sikh, Muslim,” he said. “We are all Indians. We should be like brothers.”
Despite its turbulent past, Punjab is now one of India’s most affluent regions. The state has the second-highest human development index of any Indian state. Most of the people I spoke with in Punjab listed unemployment and the state’s ongoing struggles with drug addiction and suicide as their main concerns. None brought up Operation Blue Star or the 1984 pogrom until I specifically asked. No one expressed any desire—on the record or otherwise—for an independent Sikh state. “Sikh separatism was always stronger in the diaspora, and specifically in Canada, than it was in India itself,” Narendra Subramanian, a political-science professor at McGill University who studies India, said. He added that most estimates suggest separatism did not enjoy majority support among Sikhs at any point.
In India, communal violence is unfortunately routine and its perpetrators usually go scot-free. Expending energy on 1984 thus makes little strategic sense. “When you are living in India, every day there are new issues,” Gurpreet Singh, a 47-year-old journalist who moved from Punjab to Canada in 2001, explained. “It’s like a roller coaster. So 1984 wasn’t the first black mark, and it wasn’t the last.”
Sandhu argued that Indian Sikhs talk less about 1984 and human rights than Canadian Sikhs do, not because of fear but out of practicality. “Here, the element of pragmatism sets in. After all, if you are living in Punjab, there is local politics, you have work, you have business, you have relationships, you have normal life to carry on,” he said. “It does kind of come up again and again, but not very prominently.”
Rachna, who migrated to Canada in 2001 along with Gurpreet, her husband, told me she was caught off guard by the intensity with which second-generation Canadian Sikhs focus on 1984. This was especially true with her son, who grew up in Vancouver. “We had never talked to him about 1984 and what had happened to Sikhs. But he goes to school—I think he was in grade seven—and he says, ‘Oh, you know what happened in 1984 to Sikhs and how they were killed,’” she said. “Gurpreet and I were very surprised by this. Kids are talking about this in school.”
Rachna attributed the comparative prominence of the discussion on 1984 within Canada to differences in Indian and Canadian politics. She said that for children reared in Canada, a state with strong rule of law and a reputation for peaceful accommodation, it is “beyond their comprehension that nothing was done.” She added that though the 1984 pogrom was a horrible human-rights violation, many Sikhs born and raised in Canada—a group that includes Jagmeet—do not fully appreciate the communal context from which the atrocity arose. “There’s no way I rationalise 1984, but I have another perspective of what was happening in the 1980s,” she told me. “I know what kind of terrorism was there.”
The political discrepancies between Canada and India are part of why Jagmeet Singh’s language, while innocuous to most Canadians, sounds far more threatening in Delhi and Chandigarh. Jagmeet “is emphasising all of the positives of multiculturalism,” Karen Bird, a political scientist at McMaster University in Toronto, said. “And we know there is a dark underside. I think that in India there’s much more familiarity with that dark underside and much less so in Canada.”
It is in this context that the Indian government’s decision to deny Jagmeet a visa became a flashpoint. Balpreet Singh compared India’s stance towards Jagmeet with Canada’s willingness to let Indians accused of crimes, such as Kamal Nath, into the country. “Alleged human-rights violators—alleged murders—can get Canadian visas,” he said. “Canadian Sikhs are regularly threatened with and denied visas exclusively on their freedom of speech. I think it’s kind of ironic.”
Jagmeet’s relationship with the Indian officialdom has not thawed since 2013. During the NDP leadership election, he told a major Canadian daily, the Globe and Mail, that someone with links to the Indian high commission in Ottawa was telling Indo-Canadians not to support or contribute to his campaign. Neither the Indian high commission nor its Toronto consular office responded to my calls and emails. The office of Akhilesh Mishra, the former consul-general in Toronto and now India’s ambassador to the Maldives, told me, “It would not be appropriate for him to comment on issues relating to India-Canada relations.”
More recently, Jagmeet has angered Indian officials with his statements on the arrest and alleged mistreatment of Jagtar Singh Johal. A Scotland-born British citizen, Johal was arrested while visiting Punjab in November 2017. Prosecutors and police said he was involved in the targeted killings of Hindu nationalists. His lawyer dismissed this, and said he has been subjected to police torture. The UK prime minister Theresa May told reporters her government was “pursuing the case and watching what is happening with concern.” Jagmeet tweeted that the torture allegations against “Indian authorities” are “deeply chilling & requires immediate attention.” Thukral, of Amarinder’s office, told me, “Jagmeet has also unleashed a baseless campaign against us with his open support for Johal.”
Canada’s next general election is scheduled for the latter half of 2019. The Indian government would likely prefer a Canadian leader who does not have Jagmeet’s critical stances. But, Subramanian told me, “I don’t think the Indian government will interfere in a major way in the Canadian election.” Canada is not a major world power, and receives only so much Indian attention, and the two countries’ relationship is now much more focussed on trade and commerce than the diaspora.
Yet, for many Punjabis, discord between Canadian Sikhs and Indian officials is of major concern. Punjab receives a good chunk of India’s overseas remittances, which have been especially beneficial for rural communities. In Thikriwala, residents proudly showed me a large new house financed in part, they said, by the emigrant son of the family who owned it. Sandhu—who has a child in Canada and hosts a radio show for the diaspora—worried that the Punjab government’s failure to understand Canadians’ concerns about 1984 could drive a wedge between Sikh populations. This lack of cohesion is “leading to a very new kind of mini-Punjab emerging abroad which is alienated from their home country and their home state,” he said. “A stage may come when the twain may not meet.”
There is already evidence of a breach. In January, 96 gurdwaras in the United States announced that they were banning Indian officials from entering their premises. They joined a dozen or so Ontario gurdwaras that had just issued a similar ban.
A press release from the Sikh Coordination Committee East Coast, one of several US groups involved in the ban, said that the decision had been driven by the Indian government’s failure to reckon with 1984 and the rise of Hindu nationalism. “There’s been a lot of injustices that have been done to Sikhs, and the Indian government has done nothing,” Harjinder Singh, a spokesperson for the SCCEC, told me. “This is one way to convey the message to the Indian government.”
In follow-up interviews with me, the group also said that India’s attitude towards politicians such as Jagmeet had been an important factor. “The concern is Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh, he’s blamed Mr Jagmeet Singh, he said that he’s a Khalistani,” Himmat Singh, one of the SCCEC’s coordinators, said. Harjinder told me that North American Sikhs were frustrated by “false propaganda” from India against Jagmeet.
But even in Canada, not all Sikhs are as protective of Jagmeet. He has alienated many older Sikh Canadians with memories of the 1980s. Intra-Sikh divisions exist within North America itself, and the concerns of Punjab’s politicians get vocalised by Sikh Canadians too. “I see people who I know are of the older generation who are focussed on the issue of Khalistan and—particularly in Vancouver—the Air India bombing,” Naveen Girn, who works in the office of Vancouver’s mayor, said. “It’s easy for people outside of Vancouver to be romanticising about Khalistan and the freedom movement. It’s not romantic here. It’s real.”
Yet for the 37-year-old Girn and many younger, politically involved Canadian Sikhs, the question of whether Jagmeet himself is a “Khalistani” is at best an aside.
“I don’t know if he is or not,” Girn told me. “It doesn’t really matter to me.” What does matter, he said, was Jagmeet’s outreach to different groups, his charisma and his insistence—in both his positions and his appearance—that he can be many things at once: an LGBTQ ally and a person of colour, a labour-rights activist and an environmentalist, a Canadian and a Sikh.
“He challenges people to look at him as a multi-faceted person, a person who can have different points of view, a person who can be a South Asian and not just care about freedom issues in India,” Girn said. “That’s what the issue is.”
“HE GOT ELECTED in the NDP pool,” Nijhawan, the York University sociologist, told me. “That in and of itself is quite a powerful statement.”
Jagmeet’s victory was historic not just because he is from a visible minority. He was the first NDP leader elected on the first ballot in a leadership vote since the party’s founder—an impressive feat, especially considering his initial polling was weak. But that victory alone will not be enough. “Whenever I’ve met Jagmeet or met some of his team, there’s a confidence that they’re ready to win,” Girn said. “That group wants him to be prime minister, and that’s how they define success.”
Winning the next federal election will be extremely challenging for Jagmeet—and not just for reasons related to identity politics. The NDP came in second in the 2011 national election and third in 2015, in which the party was leading for much of the campaign. It has formed governments in six of Canada’s ten provinces, and it currently controls Alberta and British Columbia. But the party, often called “the conscience of Canada,” has never won federally. Jagmeet is thus looking to be two “firsts”—the country’s first prime minister from a visible minority, and its first prime minister from the NDP.
“The NDP is kind of behind the liberals and the conservatives in organisation building,” Subramanian said. “In the next election, chances are against an NDP prime minister or Jagmeet Singh as prime minister.” Most experts I talked to were similarly sceptical about Jagmeet’s odds. To win, they said, he would have to combine unprecedented youth turnout with both a strong showing from Canada’s visible minorities and the NDP’s traditional working-class base. There are reasons to doubt things will all come together. Bird, an expert on voting patterns among Canada’s visible minorities, predicted that having a person of colour as party head would lead to an uptick in support for the NDP among these groups. But she cautioned against automatically assuming that most Indo-Canadians, or even most Canadian Sikhs, would support Jagmeet. His economic progressivism, for example, may dissuade wealthier Indo-Canadians who prefer lower taxes and fewer regulations. “These are divisions and confrontations within any community,” she said. “No one leader is going to be able to satisfy everybody.”
It is also unclear if Jagmeet’s efforts to open the party to new constituencies while preserving its roots will succeed. Canada’s unions and minority groups have long had close ties, but there are early reports of Jagmeet rankling his own party’s union over working hours. Similarly, he has been criticised for a progressivism that has, at times, seemed uncritical.
But what is perhaps most concerning is his party’s underwhelming recent track record. Though the NDP leader himself has favourable approval ratings, according to the CBC’s poll tracker, the party’s polling numbers have worsened since he took charge. A 23 January estimate projected that the NDP would win 15.6 percent of the vote and 19 out of 338 parliamentary seats, far less than the 44 it currently has. Were that to happen, it is likely Jagmeet would suffer a fate similar to that of his predecessor, Thomas Mulcair, who was forced resign after losing more than half of the record high 103 seats the party won in 2011.
It is not just polls that are concerning. The NDP has performed poorly in all six of the special parliamentary by-elections that have occurred after his elevation. Even Jagmeet’s supporters, such as Gurpreet, were worried. “Jagmeet, who won the leadership this year, couldn’t make an impact in these elections,” Gurpreet said. “He never even came once for door-knocking.”
Trudeau’s Liberals performed best in the by-elections, and the current prime minister may be the most formidable obstacle to Jagmeet’s ambitions. Though not as popular as he once was, Trudeau retains substantial support, and polls suggest his Liberal Party would win again were the election held today.
Jagbir Singh, who runs the Social Educational Welfare Association and was responsible for Jagmeet’s selection as “Sikh of the Year” in 2013, was effusive in his praise of the politician when we spoke. But when asked whom he would support in the federal election, Jagbir—a naturalised Canadian and a liberal satisfied by Trudeau’s performance—was not ready to commit.
“I can’t really decide right now,” he said.
AND THEN THERE IS JAGMEET’S IDENTITY. For all its protestations as a progressive nation, for all the immigrants and visible minorities in government cabinets, is Canada ready for a turbaned Sikh prime minister?
“Put me in front of people, and I’ll win them over,” Singh told a crowd at an NDP debate. A poll in October found that nearly 70 percent of Canadians would vote for a national party leader who wears a turban and carries a kirpan. But half of the respondents said that some or most among their family and friends would not vote for someone who looks like Jagmeet.
Jagmeet is often likened to Barack Obama, who inspired millions of young voters and became the first black president of the United States. It is a comparison many, including some of Jagmeet’s supporters, reject. “Obama didn’t come from a civil-rights kind of movement or from a history of slavery,” Girn said. He noted that Obama, raised by a single, white mother, was both deeply familiar with the history of race in the United States and able to “speak as someone who understands a Caucasian’s perspective.”
Jagmeet’s activism, by contrast, is firmly rooted in his understanding of Sikhism. “With Jagmeet, the difference is that when he speaks about issues of civil rights or things like that, he comes from a tradition—religiously—of calling for social-justice change,” Girn said.
Furthermore, Obama never tried to be an identity politician, and he oriented himself firmly within the United States’ self-professed integrationist ideology. His most significant achievement, dramatically expanding the US healthcare system, was designed to benefit all middle-class and poor Americans equally, irrespective of race, religion or ethnicity.
And yet, Obama’s aspirations for “change you can believe in” did not stop him from becoming bogged down in issues of identity and belonging. His successor, Donald Trump, got his political start by vigorously promoting the lie that Obama was not born in the United States—a lie that a substantial percentage of Americans still believe.
Trump himself is a case study in the downsides of ethnicity-oriented politics. An identity politician to the core, he won the 2016 US election by appealing to disgruntled white Americans. Part of this involved pledging to crack down on immigration—particularly Muslims and Mexicans, the latter of whom he branded as “drug dealers,” “criminals” and “rapists.” Since taking office, Trump has stepped up deportations and curtailed immigration—including by attempting to stop wholesale the entry of people from a number of Muslim-majority countries. He has singled minorities out for attack, and once stated that a federal judge hearing a fraud complaint against his businesses should not be allowed on the case because of his “Mexican” heritage.
The rise of Trumpism and the general upsurge in majoritarian identity movements across the world have some worried that the rise of identity politics in Canada could lead the country down a similar path. “If you engage in minority identity politics, it leads to its exact opposite—majority identity politics—and that’s dangerous,” Dosanjh said. “I’m worried a majoritarian backlash is coming in Canada.”
He is not alone. Virtually every person I interviewed, regardless of her or his opinion on Jagmeet, agreed that Canada’s multicultural reputation was not by itself enough to protect the country from majoritarian exclusion. “Canada is given a little too much credit because of its brand,” Dhaliwal said.
These fears are particularly salient in the province of Quebec, where the majority of residents speak French and view themselves as culturally distinct from all other Canadians. The province has had two referendums on whether it should secede from the country, both of which have failed. But its political values often clash with those of Anglophone provinces. Most Quebec residents subscribe to the French concept of secularism, called laïcité. Unlike in Indian secularism, in laïcité the state enforces religious neutrality by banning the open display of faith in public spaces. The Quebec provincial government recently passed a law that restricts the use of religious headwear while receiving a government service. It’s currently being challenged in court.
Quebec poses a problem for Jagmeet electorally. “You don’t become the governing party without winning lots of seats in Quebec,” Bird told me. “It’s a forgone conclusion.” Doing so will be difficult for Jagmeet, whose public display of religious identity is openly in conflict with the spirit of the province’s highly popular new law. A number of the NDP’s own Quebec legislators have declared that they are not comfortable with their new leader’s appearance.
“Jagmeet Singh’s politics will not sell as easily in Quebec,” Subramanian said. “He’s a brown guy with a turban who is not Christian.”
The province also poses a problem for Jagmeet philosophically. His stance on self-determination makes it far easier for Quebec to leave Canada should it make another attempt to secede, in turn making it easier for Quebec to pass the kinds of discriminatory measures against religious clothing that Jagmeet opposes (the ultimate backstop against religiously discriminatory bills in Quebec is Canada’s supreme court). His statements on self-determination have raised eyebrows within Canada, including from the editorial board of the country’s most prominent newspaper.
More fundamentally, Quebec presents a challenge for Jagmeet’s inclusive political project. The province has seen a recent upsurge in right-wing activism, particularly in response to the influx of refugees. It is no stranger to majoritarian extremism either. Last year, a white college student shot up a mosque in the provincial capital, killing six.
NDP activists are aware of the shooting and the province’s history of non-accommodation. But they remain ever optimistic, believing that Jagmeet can persuade racially conservative Canadians to change. To help his cause, Jagmeet has released a video in French where he explains how to properly don a turban—complete with a demonstration. And his supporters cite his calm and tolerant handling of the Islamophobic heckler as evidence that he can handle racism with political grace.
“It’s the type of radical empathy that only he is capable of,” Dhaliwal said.
Given Jagmeet’s party and his appearance, winning will be an uphill fight. But his very presence in politics has younger progressives excited.
“If Jagmeet were to run in the next election and lose, I don’t think you can call the movement a failure,” Girn said.
But if he won?
“It would be incredible.”
Daniel Block is a Delhi-based 2017-2018 Luce scholar working for The Caravan.