Gurpreet Singh: Jaspal Atwal episode reveals why Canadian political establishment should look hard at itself
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.
Mar 4, 2012 at 6:22pm
Gurpreet is at it again trying to serve his paymasters and criticize Sikhs who believe in freedom, human rights and justice. Atwal's problems or his past associations should not be used to criticize the reverence Sikhs have for their martyrs. it is rather strange that Gurpreet has NEVER called Indian politicians who murdered tens of thousands of innocent Sikhs as terrorists, but continues his silly and motivated Jihad against imaginary so called Sikh extremists.
Mar 4, 2012 at 6:40pm
The floats at the Surrey Vasaikhi parade that celebrate Bhindrawale and his ilk tend to be few and far between, and are not representative of the beliefs of most of the attendees. Both the Surrey and Vancouver Vasaikhi parades are the largest gatherings of Sikhs in BC and many of the people who attend do not agree with the messages of these floats. So I think it's acceptable for politicians to show up to these events without being accused of condoning those specific floats.
Mar 4, 2012 at 8:21pm
You know what ? I wish you people would forget the bull#**t you came from and adopt even a modicum of the Canadian lifestyle.
Mar 4, 2012 at 8:23pm
Sikhs do have to realize that mistakes were made on both sides in 1984. Fortification of Harmandir Sahib should not have been done. The sheep nation of India and their so called democratic Government is continuing to make mistakes by being arrogant and not delivering justice to 1984 victims, discriminating against Sikhs since 1947 and breaking every single promise, and allowing deterioration of Punjab in the name of disturbed state. This will haunt India for a long time to come.
Mar 4, 2012 at 11:21pm
I think people that disagree with the floats are bunch of hypocrites. Jarnail Singh just followed the rules of the panth and people like you have become so moderate. That you are self-forgetting about your cultural values. You can not use the label "Singh" if you don't follow the views. India is full of corruption, you people are lucky that you are in a great country right now and small things as Christy Clark not knowing the past is not very significant. The significant thing is that you have forget cultural pluralism and have adopted universal culturalism. Thus, leads to you being hypocrites.
Mar 5, 2012 at 1:39am
Those of us who lost family members who died while in police custody would like to see justice, but all-inclusive justice—not divisive tribalistic warfare.
Sikhism is a religion, not an ethnic identity. People in Northern India are the descendents of many immigrants and invaders: Bactrians, Scythians, Huns, Mongolians, Persians, Turks, Afghanis, Ethiopian slaves, and of course, indigenous foremothers carried off as war prizes, etc.
The Indian elite who claim to be the “pure” descendents of mythological Aryan tribes—and sneer down at those of us with “mongrel” blood—are really annoying and scary, but Punjabi mouth-breathers who pose for pictures with Stephen Harper should read up on their Tacitus and Machiavelli.
Mar 5, 2012 at 3:02am
When people move to Canada, it should be with the intent of becoming Canadian. This entails leaving your political strife behind you. If people felt so strongly about a "sikh" homeland, they should have returned to the Punjabi and fought for it, not conducted the war in Canada.
To live in Canada is to adapt to a Canadian way of life. This is not to mean people should forget their religion, language, customs, etc. but to continue to fight a battle which is the business of another country, not on. Like get over it. You live in Canada. As to Canadian politicians who continue to cater to extremists, get over it, develop some "balls" and do what is right.
Mar 5, 2012 at 4:17am
The so called moderate Sikhs is an term 'invented' by the likes of the author of this article. They are the ones who are afraid to speak out against injustice or sellouts to Hindus. I call them Anti-Sikh.
Mar 5, 2012 at 8:14am
I would hope that Gurpreet Singh would add the great terrorist Bhagat Singh in the same lineup who killed an innocent British officer in India. I wonder if Canadians realize that the Communist Sikhs in Canada celebrate such people. Oh wait, Bhagat Singh was a Arya Samaji liked by the Indian gov't, hence, people like Gurpreet Singh have received permission to hail him as a martyr.
As for Arshy Mann's comment, all I have to say is, most people who attend the parades have not read a single page of Guru Granth Sahib Ji as well. Should we get Guru sahib out of the parade too? I bet most Punjabis would not agree with many parts of gurbani too. Like the pointless rituals they do like wearing taveets and sacred threads. We all know that most Punjabis do not even do vichaar on gurbaani and just do matha tek and perform blind rituals.
The event is just a gathering spot for many. Just because most Punjabis are ignorant of their history doesn't make the martyrs irrelevant.
How many Punjabis know about the Punjabi suba movement? I have many relatives that live in Punjab that are clueless about basic facts about Punjab. So please, if there are only a handful of people who are aware of their history and current situation, don't mock them. People who are aware are always in a minority.
Mar 5, 2012 at 12:05pm
Absolutely, we should take a hardline against terrorists. But I'd like to see the media actually go after ALL terrorists instead of picking and choosing to suit their agenda.
For example, when Wai Young allegedly went to Khalsa school and Malik was there, there was a huge uproar. Maybe it's because she's a Conservative and we know how much the media loathes them. Hmm... but let's see. Gregor Robertson and a bunch of local politicians also went to that school with Malik present -- and not a squeak from the media!
Now that both provincial and federal Liberals allegedly have "ties" to Atwal, the news has barely been trickling in on this issue. Another sad double standard. That's why no one can take the media seriously anymore.