Why Canada's PM hopeful Jagmeet Singh is a bitter critic of Modi government

The Sikh leader has repeatedly spoken out against attacks on minorities in India.

 |  4-minute read |   03-10-2017
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With international politics increasingly dominated by news of hardliners gaining ground and the far right creeping into the mainstream, the election of a practising Sikh, Jagmeet Singh, as the leader of the third largest political party in Canada shines as bright as his famously colourful turbans.

Singh is now officially in the race to become Canada's prime minister, in the elections to be held in October 2019.

The 38-year-old lawyer is the son of Indian immigrants from Punjab. However, the success and soaring popularity of this migrant son may not draw the approving whoop it could have from the Indian establishment.

The elected leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP) has been a vocal critic of the Narendra Modi government, and was even denied a visa to India in 2013, because of his stand that the 1984 anti-Sikh riots were a "state-sponsored massacre".

Outwardly, Singh and Modi have certain similarities. Both have gained popularity by positioning themselves as "outsiders" to the entrenched system. The sartorial choices of both leaders have been much analysed and appreciated.

And of course, Modi too was denied a visa to the US, which had to be lifted after he was elected prime minister of India.

However, Singh and Modi could not be wider apart in their ideology, with the Canadian leader deriving his politics from his championing of the rights of the minorities and the marginalised. It is this stand that has often put him on the wrong side of the Indian establishment.

Jagmeet Singh prefers a bike to commute and sports brightly coloured turbans. Jagmeet Singh/FacebookJagmeet Singh prefers a bike to commute and sports brightly coloured turbans. Jagmeet Singh/Facebook

In 2016, Singh had moved a motion in the Ontario Assembly to declare the 1984 riots "genocide". That motion was defeated, but a similar one moved by a Liberal Party lawmaker and supported by Singh was carried this April.

While the Sikh riots broke out under the Congress government's watch, Singh has repeatedly raised the issue of rising intolerance and attacks on minorities ever since the Narendra Modi government came to power. In 2015, ahead of Modi's visit to Canada, Singh had urged his government to address the "escalating attacks on minority communities in India."

According to reports, Singh's statements did not go unnoticed by India, and as his campaign progressed, he accused Indian diplomats of sabotage attempts. The leader was quoted as saying that people interested in contributing to his campaign backed out after "some kind of pressure".

Whether or not Singh is elected as Canada's PM, and how India deals with that development can only be answered by time. But the fact today remains that a popular leader in a country, which has emerged as a champion of liberal values, especially when compared with Donald Trump's America, and one that has a sizeable Indian diaspora, is a vocal critic of the Indian PM.

Singh's credentials make his message harder to ignore. According to reports, he does not use his surname of Dhaliwal so as not to identify himself as belonging to an affluent land-owning caste in Punjab.

In a campaign video that went viral, he was accused of being in "bed with the Muslim Brotherhood" by a white woman. While he was praised for not losing his cool, many also pointed out that not once did he clarify he was not a Muslim. Singh later said the response to Islamophobia is not "I'm not a Muslim", but that "hate is wrong".

At a time when India is roiling with caste and communal tensions, Singh's sane voice will find an audience. In Punjab, his village still remembers his ancestor Sewa Singh as a martyr who died fasting against the British rule.

As his campaign for prime ministership advances, he is bound to face questions on India. What he says about the country can have consequences for India's image abroad.

Also read: What we can learn from Sikh Canadian politician who responds to racism with 'love and courage'

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