OTTAWA – NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh says his participation in Sikh nationalist events is not because he is necessarily sympathetic to an Indian separatist movement, but rather because he views the gatherings as an opportunity to share his beliefs, and he won’t hesitate attending events in the future.

Singh said that because of his experience dealing personally with the discrimination and marginalization as a member of the Sikh community, he views invitations to speak at these events as opportunities to speak about how he’s personally overcome that adversity.

"When I have an opportunity to speak at events, I speak from that position, where I can take that opportunity to share my beliefs and my ideas, and if I don’t, the other side is I could leave those opportunities vacant and someone else can talk and share other ideas that maybe I don’t agree with," Singh said in an interview for CTV’s Question Period with guest host and Ottawa Bureau Chief Joyce Napier.

Singh downplayed whether his attendance might equate to sympathy for the movement, saying he chooses to participate because he wants to reach fellow Sikhs who might be dealing with shame over who they are as a result of past persecution, because Singh says he’s “been there.”

"People, when they feel that pain and suffering, it can go to negative places; people can feel shame about who they are… I always want to take the opportunity to speak to those people, because I’ve been there before, I know what that journey is like," Singh said.

His response was prompted by stories emerging over the last number of days, reporting on Singh’s participation in pro-Sikh separatist events in recent years.

Singh attended and spoke at a pro-Sikh independence rally in San Francisco in 2015, as first reported by The Globe and Mail. There, Singh spoke in front of a poster of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who some consider an extremist, while others view him as martyr. He was killed during the 1984 Indian army clash with Sikhs at the Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest religious site.

As well, Singh participated in a seminar in 2016 on Sikh sovereignty that was also attended by a youth leader who discussed violence as a “legitimate form of resistance” for those who advocate for a separate Khalistan state.

There are approximately 500,000 Sikhs in Canada. The Sikh nationalist movement is focused on creating a separate country called Khalistan within India's Punjab region.

Going forward Singh said he will "always go to spaces where I can share my values and beliefs to transform that pain into something positive."

In an interview with Don Martin, host of CTV’s Power Play Singh said he doesn’t regret attending.

"No, I would go in the future," he said.

Won't take position on Sikh separatism

Asked several times what his position is on Sikh independence, Singh said it is not his place to pick a side.

"I believe that I actually don’t have a place to inform a decision on that," Singh said. "I believe that people should be allowed to talk about it." He said he supports the right for people to have that conversation, peacefully and democratically.

Successive Canadian governments have taken the position that Canada is supportive of a united India, a stance the federal Liberals attempted to reinforce during Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s official visit in February, while dispelling beliefs in India that members of the federal cabinet are Sikh separatists.

While there, and in the weeks following the Canada-India diplomatic relationship took a hit as a result of the controversy around attempted murderer Jaspal Atwal’s attendance at an event in Mumbai where he was photographed with Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, and the subsequent blowback from Trudeau’s national security adviser suggesting to media that factions in the Indian government may have tried to damage Trudeau’s trip. The Indian government rebuffed this allegation.

Air India condemnation

When asked if he would condemn Talwinder Singh Parmar, the alleged mastermind behind the Air India bombings in 1985, Singh said he accepts the findings of the Canadian federal inquiry into the terrorist incident that killed 329 people, including 268 Canadians, and said he condemns those responsible.

"I condemn all those responsible, unequivocally," Singh said.

Subsequently on Power Play, Singh was asked if he condemns Parmar specifically, he said: "yes."

As well, Singh called the displaying of photos of figures like Parmar or Bhindranwale as "hurtful" and "re-traumatizing" to the families of the victims.

With files from the Canadian Press