August 02, 2020
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Collateral Errors

Long battered, now in shock, American Sikhs hope for tolerance

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Collateral Errors
Getty Images (From Outlook 20 August 2012)
Collateral Errors

Barbs, Taunts, Worse

  • The shooting in a Wisconsin gurudwara is only the latest in a continuing series of hate crimes against American Sikhs
  • Such attacks—and discrimination in workplaces, bullying in schools—started as a fallout of the 9/11 attacks, as Americans related articles of the Sikh faith—like the turban and beard—with Osama bin Laden, terrorism and Taliban
  • Since early 2011, a gurudwara in Michigan has been defaced, two Sikh Americans murdered in California, and a man beaten up in New York


The letters started arriving nine years ago; each one more menacing in tone than its predecessor. “You Taliban, go back home,” read one message mailed to Joginder Singh Sodhi’s home outside Washington. As Sodhi’s young family grew, it moved into a new home. Twice. And each time the type-written letters followed. One sent to him in February was laden with dark threats against his family. “The language in this one was vulgar. It said my children would be sold in Cuba and our womenfolk would be tied with our turbans and nasty things would be done to them,” he recalls. “This person has been tracking me, that is the scary part. He knows where I am,” says Sodhi, who preferred to use a pseudonym for this interview out of concern for the safety of his family. FBI investigators have been unable to crack the case of the hatemail.

No motive till now has been ascribed to the killer motives of Wade Michael Page, an army veteran and white supremacist.

Sodhi’s story is not unlike that of many Sikhs in the United States of America who face daily discrimination and prejudice because of their appearance. For some the bias comes in the form of racist taunts of “rag head”, “Taliban” and “Osama”, bullying in the schoolyard and discrimination in the workplace. For others, as was demonstrated this week, the consequences of such ignorance and hate could prove to be fatal.

On August 5, Wade Michael Page, a 40-year-old US army veteran and white supremacist, went on a shooting spree at a gurudwara in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, suburb of Oak Tree, killing six Sikh worshippers, including the gurudwara’s president, who heroically tried to thwart him. Four others, including a police officer who was tending to a fatally wounded man, were injured. The incident shocked the Sikh community. No motive has yet been ascribed to Page’s actions, but details of his role in and support for white supremacist events, websites and rock bands have emerged. The tragedy unleashed a wave of condemnation, including from US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. External affairs minister S.M. Krishna declared: “This is an attitude which does not fit into the proclaimed policies of the United States”.

“The tragedy is a reminder that much needs to be done to humanise Sikhs here, to teach that turban equals friend, neighbour.”
Amardeep Singh, Director, Sikh Coalition

Some Sikhs in the US find the Indian response hypocritical. Many moved to the US after their community became a target of deadly riots following the assassination of former prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984. Successive governments have done little to punish the perpetrators and instigators of that violence, they say.

Gurvinder Singh’s family moved from Haridwar to the US in 1985. He recalls witnessing the carnage of 1984. Friends and relatives were killed by mobs and their businesses looted. “Instead of just giving words of solace to the Sikhs, we’d like (the Indian government) to follow that up with some substantive action to address atrocities committed against minorities in India—not just Sikhs, but Dalits, Christians, Muslims as well,” says Gurvinder, the Ludhiana-born and Dallas, Texas-based director with United Sikhs, a UN-affiliated non-profit, human development, advocacy and relief organisation.

Shaming agents Sikhs in Jammu raise anti-US slogans to protest the Wisconsin shooting. (Photograph by AFP, From Outlook 20 August 2012)

In America, there has been a marked increase in hate crimes against Sikhs ever since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. “If you are an immigrant with brown skin and a turban, it is the worst thing,” says Manjit Singh, co-founder and chairman of the board of the Sikh American Legal Defence and Education Fund (SALDEF). The biggest concern for Sikhs is that many Americans associate their articles of faith—particularly the turban and beard—with terrorism, the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. Balbir Singh Sodhi, a gas station owner in Mesa, Arizona, was shot dead four days after 9/11. He was not the last victim of such senseless crime.

“We would like India to follow up the words of solace for us with action to address atrocities against all minorities.”
Gurvinder Singh, Director, United Sikhs

Since early 2011, a gurudwara in Michigan has been defaced, two Sikh American men have been murdered in Sacramento, California, and a Sikh American man beaten in New York. “9/11 was a pretty seminal event for the entire country...the difference is that for many minority communities, Sikhs included, it had an additional element to it. We saw the beginnings of the festering of a lack of education and intolerance, leading to more direct action that affected people in the workplace, in schools and in how the media treated and covered them,” says Narinder Singh, chairman of the Sikh Coalition’s board of trustees.

“In the past 11 years, this notion of turban-equals-terrorist has solidified in the public’s mind,” says Amardeep Singh, New York-based director of programmes at the Sikh Coalition. “The tragedy in Wisconsin is a shocking reminder that so much more needs to be done to humanise the Sikh community and teach people that turban equals neighbour and friend, not terrorist,” he adds.

Ironically, Sikh Americans have also shot to prominence in recent years. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley’s parents are Sikh immigrants from Punjab. Preet Bharara, the US attorney for the southern district of New York, who is making waves for prosecuting white-collar crime on Wall Street, is the son of a Sikh immigrant too. Only difference: Bharara does not have a beard, nor does he wear a turban.

“We now have to be aware of our environs at all times. If you have brown skin with a turban, it’s the worst thing.”
Manjit Singh, Co-founder, chairman, SALDEF

While 9/11 was a watershed moment in the lives of Sikh Americans, the community was certainly no stranger to prejudice. In November 1979, a group of Islamist students in Iran, fanatical supporters of that year’s Iranian revolution, held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. Some in the US directed their rage at Sikhs, whom they associated with Iran’s newly anointed Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who also sported a beard and wore a turban.

Narinder Singh, who was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, was the only Sikh in his school and often bullied by students who made his distinct appearance a target of their ignorance-fuelled barbs. Even today, as he walks down the street, racist taunts are occasionally slung at him. Last month, a stranger yelled “Osama” at Amardeep Singh as he headed to a meeting in Hoboken, New Jersey. And a group of teenagers outside a grocery store in Washington taunted Manjit Singh by shouting the Al Qaeda leader’s name.

The FBI does not track hate crimes against Sikh Americans. Members of the US Congress and Sikh American advocacy groups want the FBI to collect such data, but the bureau has been reluctant, citing the community’s small size. “The number of incidents is disproportionate to the size of the community. If you don’t know about the extent of a problem how can you solve it,” says Manjit Singh of saldef.

Advocacy groups want the FBI to track anti-Sikh hate crimes, but they are reluctant, citing the community’s small size.

On Capitol Hill, Congressman Joe Crowley, a New York Democrat, has led an effort to press the Obama administration on this matter. In April, he sent a letter, co-signed by 92 other lawmakers, to US attorney general Eric Holder, in which he wrote: “Sikh youth are among the most bullied in the nation, with approximately three out of four boys severely bullied in school”. However, it is difficult to produce statistics that support such claims simply because the Sikh American community, like most recent immigrants, tends to be reluctant to report hate crimes.

The highly charged atmosphere has changed how many Sikhs in America live their lives. “We now have to be constantly aware of our surroundings. Are we putting our families and loved ones in danger? Am I walking down a street in a neighbourhood where I, as a Sikh, would be unsafe?” wonders Manjit Singh. Gurvinder Singh of United Sikhs responds matter-of-factly: “Vigilance is the price of liberty,” he says.

In spite of the hate-laced letters, Sodhi’s faith in the American dream has not been shaken: “There are some people for whom ignorance is bliss. We have to educate them...we have to help them understand.”

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