The controversy stirred by the presence in the legislature of Jaspal Atwal—convicted in the attempted murder of a visiting foreign dignitary—during the budget speech is not shocking. It's part of the continued appeasement of extremist groups within the Sikh community by the Canadian politicians.
Atwal is a former activist of the now-banned terrorist group, the International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF). The organization is believed to be in an armed struggle for the establishment of a separate Sikh homeland.
Atwal was convicted for the attempted murder of Malkiat Singh Sidhu in 1986. Sidhu, a moderate Sikh politician belonging to the Akali Dal, a mainstream political party in Punjab, was visiting B.C. when he was shot.
Though he survived the attack, Sidhu was later murdered in India. Ironically, Atwal, who has already served time for the crime, is now a supporter of the Akali Dal.
His presence in the legislature as a guest invitee caused embarrassment to the B.C. Liberal government and a complaint was made to the speaker. As a result Tariq Ghuman, a Liberal official, resigned, taking moral responsibility for the goof-up.
Finding her government under attack for the mistake, Premier Christy Clark claimed that she did not know Atwal's background. It is a separate matter that Atwal backed her leadership race and was among prominent Indo-Canadian supporters who accorded her a welcome in Surrey in 2011.
The reaction of Clark is similar to that of Canada’s ruling Conservative party after its candidate in Vancouver South, Wai Young, reportedly received help in the last federal election from Ripudaman Singh Malik, who was acquitted in the Air India bombing.
The party claimed that Young was not aware of Malik’s background, even though he had been charged in connection with a plane bomb that killed all 329 people aboard in 1985.
Both the Liberals and the Conservatives have tried to distance themselves from these two men despite the fact that one has already served his time and the other one was acquitted. So does that mean that these parties still treat them as criminals? If the answer is yes, then why were these men roped in for support in the first place?
The parties' explanation that they were not aware of their backgrounds is ridiculous as both men were associated with high-profile cases and their names and pictures had appeared in the press a number of times.
Besides, the two parties also have supporters among moderate Sikhs, who have issues with these controversial individuals. It is reasonable to believe that they might have raised red flags, but these parties may not have bothered paying attention. The political leadership should either be honest about accepting help from these men or should strictly keep people with suspicious pasts away.
Instead two-faced parties have tried to put the entire blame on these individuals or found scapegoats like Ghumman as a part of a damage-control exercise.
Atwal or Malik have every right to move around in the society—Atwal has served his sentence and Malik was acquitted. It is for the political parties to decide if they want to maintain a distance from those formerly or currently associated with controversial groups.
Past experiences show that most political parties in Canada have relied on separatist groups for support, especially in ridings with large Sikh populations. Even a vocal critic of extremism, former Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh, once tried to help Atwal in getting visa for India, even though Atwal was acquitted in the notorious Dosanjh beating case in the mid-1980s. Dosanjh was physically assaulted at the time for his moderate views.
Dosanjh’s former party, the NDP, which is now in opposition in B.C., has not shown much excitement about cornering Clark over Atwal's visit to the legislature. It is not surprising that the NDP did not raise a question in the house, given the association of some of its MLAs with fundamentalist groups over the years.
Political parties can get away with this by saying that they cannot annoy a particular segment of the voting public. Meanwhile, police and the Canadian Armed Forces have also sent conflicting signals at different times by participating in a Sikh parade in Surrey, where pictures of the separatist militants are displayed.
The Canadian armed forces officials attended Remembrance Day prayers at the Dashmesh Darbar Gurdwara in Surrey, whose management openly support separate Sikh state and glorifies militants who died during the armed conflict in Punjab.
Political parties should know that these groups and the individuals associated with them do not represent the entire Sikh community. By rubbing shoulders with such elements, politicians are actually taking the support of the moderate Sikhs for granted and making them weaker.
The Atwal episode is just a small incident and another reminder of the political opportunism that contributed to the growth of Sikh fundamentalism in Canada.
Gurpreet Singh is Georgia Straight contributor, and the host of a program on Radio India. He's working on a book tentatively titled Canada's 9/11: Lessons from the Air India Bombings.