Ottawa: The leader of Canada's third party in parliament, who will challenge Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in elections next year, faced backlash on Thursday over his affiliations with Sikh separatists.
Jagmeet Singh, leader of the New Democratic Party, was a keynote speaker at a rally in San Francisco in 2015 for an independent Khalistan, Canadian media reported.
Behind him on stage was a large poster of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the leader of an armed extremist group who died in a shootout with Indian forces.
In his speech, translated from Punjabi for the daily Globe and Mail, Singh accused India of "genocide" against Sikhs in the Golden Temple operation. The National Post also reported on Singh's attendance at another event in 2016 organised by the British-based National Sikh Youth Federation, which advocates for an independent Khalistan.
Singh has said he does not condone terrorism or acts of violence. "Terrorism can never be seen as a way to advance the cause of any one group. It only leads to suffering, pain and death," he said in a statement.
In February, Singh defended Sikh Liberal government ministers who were photographed with a Canadian man convicted of attempting to assassinate a visiting Indian official in 1986 in retaliation for the Golden Temple operation. "I reject the baseless attacks against Canadian cabinet ministers, and we should be wary of any international interference in our political affairs especially when it's targeted at minorities such as members of the Sikh community," he said.
"The Indian government has a troubling record of conflating human rights advocacy with extremism for their own political benefit."
The photo taken at a Mumbai mixer and an invitation to dinner in New Delhi with Trudeau, which was rescinded, caused embarrassment for Trudeau during his recent trip to India — which was already dogged by suspicions that Canada was soft on Sikh separatists.
Canadian Sikhs number nearly 500,000 and account for roughly 1.4 percent of Canada's population, according to a 2016 census, and hold sway in some key electoral districts.