The Dropped BatonT. SHER SINGH
Tuesday, August 14, 2012
With two weeks of Olympics under our belt, each of us is now an expert on a variety of sports and athletic events. At least for a few more days, before memory fades and other distractions take over.
We talked yesterday about the passing of the baton.
It’s an intricate and complicated manoeuvre, the relay race. It requires impeccable discipline, peak of fitness, perfect timing, and a razor sharp focus on the task at hand. One slight slip-up and the baton falls to the ground, and the race is lost.
The incoming runner has to transfer the baton into the receiving runner’s hand. Or, more accurately, the receiver has to make sure he’s effected the transfer.
The incoming runner has done his bit, for better or worse. His job is, at this stage, relatively easy: hand over the baton by carefully putting it in the receiver’s hand and not letting it go until you’ve felt that little tug which tells you that the latter has a firm grip on it.
During the transfer, though, the onus is on the receiver.
He needs to be ready. He waits, stationary running, staying warm and taut, arm extended, poised for the moment when he can propel himself forward, the baton firmly in hand.
On Sunday, August 5, when tragedy struck the Sikh-American community, I’m afraid our receiving relay runner - if I may continue the metaphor used by me and our readers yesterday - failed us.
They didn’t just flub the transfer, they just weren’t there to receive the baton.
They weren’t just not ready, they were nowhere in sight.
It meant that the incoming runner kept on running, though tired and exhausted. And the mere fact that the incoming runner had to carry the show meant an instant disqualification.
The incoming runner we have already talked about at great length yesterday.
Today, we need to focus on the absent receiver.
On the morning of Sunday, August 5, 2012, a lone gunman stormed into the gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, at approximately 10:30 in the morning. The police were made aware of the ongoing situation within minutes; so was the media.
Within an hour of the commencement of the tragic series of events, my phone rang in the village I live in, in the remote countryside of Ontario, Canada.
“Turn on CNN. Something terrible going on in a gurdwara in Wisconsin!” said my caller.
Over the next few hours, the reporters on CNN did yeoman service in garnering little bits of information from here and there to put together the complete picture. But it was clear from the very outset that one or more gunmen had stormed into the gurdwara, some people had already been killed, and a possible hostage-taking situation was ongoing.
CNN Anchor Don Lemon and his colleagues - including Rob Marciano - struggled with details about Sikhs and their “temple”, etc. I can imagine what was going on behind the scenes: they were calling around to find a person or more who could throw some light on Sikhs and Sikhism, so that their worldwide viewers could understand the context of the situation.
It took them a few hours. They found, first one, then another, and then another.
None of them could speak English properly, or even complete a sentence. They gave contradicting evidence. They sounded confused and lost. They mumbled and stumbled.
It was apparent from Don Lemon’s face - and Marciano’s too - that he knew that these clowns knew little about their faith, or, at the very least, did not have the capacity to explain anything intelligently.
In desperation, reporters on the ground asked members of the sangat waiting in the nearby parking lots if they could help. They were even less helpful. Understandably: they were in the middle of a developing traumatic series of events. And they weren’t trained or experienced for the role.
Precious minutes ticked by. Then hours. It was afternoon. Then late afternoon. Then evening.
The debacle continued.
You could see the frustration on the faces of Don Lemon and Rob Marciano, sometimes even tinges of disbelief: they simply couldn’t find anyone who could tell them anything about Sikhs that made sense.
They hauled in an internal reporter on Faith issues. Eric Marrapodi. He spoke for several minutes, explaining what Sikhi was all about.
You could hear the crank of jaws dropping around the world.
Finally, somebody who made sense!
Millions of us around the world wondered why any of the Sikh interviewees couldn’t be as articulate? Why couldn’t they find an intelligent or competent Sikh, for heaven’s sake? Were they all dead?
Deborah Feyerick, another reporter with CNN, came on air and did an equally superb job in explaining Sikhs and Sikhism, in the context of the unfolding tragedy.
But where were our spokespersons?
Still only idiots came forward, one by one, quiet oblivious of their shortcomings, unaware of the damage they were doing.
Sikhs around the world watched in horror - and, I’m sure millions of non-Sikhs too, though in their case, in puzzlement.
The tragedy we could handle … after all, bad things happen, often due to no fault of ours. But how did one handle these acts of harakiri, these self-inflicted wounds.
It was evening by now.
My phone started ringing. Followed by frantic e-mails.
News stations in New York wanted to know if I knew of any Sikh spokespersons in New York or vicinity that they could talk to. There were more enquiries … from the length and breadth of the US. And Canada as well.
Sure, I said, we have these perfect people for the job. The Sikh Coalition. Saldef. United Sikhs. SikhRI …
Where are they, they said, we can’t seem to be able to get hold of any.
Several hours past the beginning of the crisis, and they couldn’t find even one intelligent person?
I didn’t have any personal contact info for any of them. So, I began phoning my contacts from coast to coast. Within minutes, I had a few cell numbers.
I called one on the top of my list: someone who worked for one of our esteemed advocacy organizations. He picked up the phone. Yes, he knew of the situation. All’s in control, he said. Can I give you the contact info for the people who have called me, I asked. No, he said, don’t worry, we’ll take care of it.
Are you in New York and on top of things now, I asked.
Well, we’re on our way, but we’ll be there shortly.
No more than two hours. Two of us are driving in separately and as soon as we get in, we’ll take care of things.
I moaned: two more hours? That’s the end of the day’s news cycle. CNN is already wrapping up and moving on to other stories. Have you called your people in the city to look after things until you get there.
Don’t worry, Veerji, as soon as the two of us get in, we’ll take care of everything.
But, but, in the meantime, you’re going to let the idiots rule the roost? Can’t you call somebody in town who can do the job until you get there?
He began to argue with me, telling me that the Sikhs appearing all day hadn’t been doing too bad a job after all. (He’d been watching TV all afternoon?) I could see he was getting into exculpatory mode, so I bade a quick good bye.
I contacted all who had reached out to me and gave them the contact info I had gathered.
I am sorry to say that as far as I can see, The Sikh Coalition or Saldef or United Sikhs or SikhRI or Ensaaf … none of them did any better.
Each dropped the baton.
In a crisis, it’s the first few hours, certainly the first day, that is crucial. Time is of the essence.
Sure, the next day everyone was in full form. The speakers were great. The interviews were superb. There were good Sikh spokespersons coming out of our ears.
But, I’m sorry to say, it was closing the barn door after the horse had bolted.
Yes, we did fine from that point on. But “fine” isn’t good enough anymore.
I know many think that lower standards govern seva. But this wasn’t just seva. These people have been HIRED to do a job. They get paid salaries. They are now accountable - that is part of their job description. They are professionals. They are required to be professional at all times. That is, when a job needs to be done, it has to be done. And done well.
There are no excuses in the world that can get them off the hook on this one.
The fact that it was a Sunday is no excuse.
Remember, the crux of their jobs is to deal with crises: murders and beatings, human rights contravened and freedoms denied, outrages and heartbreaks … none of which follow a Monday to Friday, nine-to-five time line.
They didn’t need to invent a solution for off-hour service. Every institution catering to crises on this continent has at least one person on call 24/7, so that urgent matters do not fall through the cracks.
Paucity of funds is no excuse either.
In an era of I-pads and cell-phones, you don’t need to spend a single extra cent to have the office phone line linked to some designated staff-member or the other at all times.
There is no excuse. Somebody competent - ready, able and willing - should have been available within an hour after the news broke. He/she could then have alerted a whole team around the country, and even the world, by the mere touch of a button on the ipad.
The baton was dropped.
Not a problem. These are good institutions, nevertheless. With good men and women manning them.
We are Sikhs. We learn from our mistakes and we move on, only to be better, stronger.
Conversation about this article
1: Preet Singh (London, England), August 14, 2012, 9:53 AM.
I agreed with much of what you said yesterday, and I agree with much of what you've said today. This is a much needed dialogue that you have initiated - but it also urgently needs well-thought out actions.
2: Dilbagh Singh (New Jersey, USA), August 14, 2012, 10:00 AM.
We have been lacking one crucial element in our community: media which serves as a watchdog, questioning all the goings-on in the community to ensure that things are as they should be. Finally, sikhchic.com has stepped into the role - something that our other media outlets are completely lacking in. I welcome this development. Sure, it'll make our public figures a bit uncomfortable from time to time. But isn't that the intent? To keep them on their toes all the time? I hope other journals too will bring forth similarly intelligently thought-out critiques. Without them, standards will fall, or not rise at all.
3: Jaskiran Kaur (San Jose, California, USA), August 14, 2012, 10:22 AM.
Indeed, critical thinking has been sorely lacking in our dealings with our instutiuons and public figures. I too welcome the role that T. Sher Singh and sikhchic.com are fulfilling. I wish and hope that Sikhs around the world read these pages everyday. It is bound to have a positive impact on our lives.
4: Prabh Singh (Chandigarh, Punjab), August 14, 2012, 10:25 AM.
I would like to hear from the institutions named in this article ... as well as the individuals and groups named yesterday. What do they have to say about what happened ... or didn't happen?
5: Harry (Willowbrook, Illinois, USA), August 14, 2012, 10:31 AM.
I agree with the author. To add to my frustration on Sunday was this email from Sikh Coalition with the statement of their Executive Director that said: "There have been multiple hate crime shootings within the Sikh community in recent years and the natural impulse of our community is to unfortunately assume the same in this case. Let's let law enforcement investigate the case and as new facts emerge the dialogue can change. Americans died today in a senseless act of violence and Americans of all faiths should stand in unified support with their Sikh brothers and sisters," said Sapreet Kaur. I was literally confused and shocked that Sikh Coalition would issue such an irresponsible statement. SikhRI on the other hand later issued a statement to accept it as divine will of God. Its statement said: "Sikhs have a moral imperative to accept the event at Oak Creek as Bhana (Divine Will) no matter how difficult". Are you kidding me? How can we rationalize slaughter as divine will of God? It is no surprise that none of these organizations is telling us how are we going to deal with neo-Nazism and right wing extremists in the U.S.
6: Gurpreet Singh (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), August 14, 2012, 10:41 AM.
Thanks for the follow up article today. This is exactly what I wanted to say yesterday.
7: Simran Singh (United Kingdom), August 14, 2012, 12:40 PM.
Your analysis is very perceptive. The initial media responses were weak in both content and delivery. Sadly there will always be some who will seek to capitalise on any event, no matter how tragic, for their self promotion. I have no issue with that as long as they do the job in hand. Thankfully some of the latter interviews were more considered and informative. These occasions are a way for the community to demonstrate its maturity and socio/religious values and we must realize that at first we failed to do so. We came across as incoherent and vague. There is a parallel tragedy in all this. It is that despite the pain of 9/11 and the recent massacre, we fail to understand the value of organized PR and media relations. For this reason we will always be playing catch up. We aren't a new community in the USA. We have the collective talent and resources to manage these issues but first we must be organized and develop a sense of collective responsibility that will purge us of the idiots to which you refer even though your choice of the word is very mild.
8: Raj Kohli (London, United Kingdom), August 14, 2012, 2:06 PM.
Sorry, but a poorly written article and the baton analogy just did not work. Calling the interviewed Sikhs as 'clowns' and 'idiots' was disrepectful.
9: Morrissey (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), August 14, 2012, 3:06 PM.
We've come a long way, baby ...
10: Jasbir Kaur (Pittsburgh, USA), August 14, 2012, 3:37 PM.
Thank you for calling a spade a spade. Good and solid organizations that these are, they need to correct this recurring slip-up. Now that they have taken on the responsibility of representing us, we rely on them.
11: N. Singh (Canada), August 14, 2012, 4:14 PM.
@Raj: Perhaps you would like to elaborate on how this article was 'poorly written' ... and, pray, what is your assessment of the situation described in the article? And your solutions?
12: Simran Singh (United Kingdom), August 14, 2012, 4:22 PM.
Raj (London): I must disagree. It is not disrespectful to use the terms 'clown' and 'idiots'. If anything, Sher has displayed great restraint. Unless we tackle this malaise with honesty and realism we will continue to repeat these painful and fatal mistakes. There is an acute poverty of leadership within Sikhs everywhere. As a result our institutions are bereft of vision and ability. We cannot expect to be taken seriously by the media and other important institutions whilst we do not redress this issue.
13: James Fyler (New York, USA), August 14, 2012, 4:23 PM.
The News Industry is a hungry monster and its maw needs to be fed quickly when it is aroused from its slumber. Activists in every community learn this fact very quickly - sometimes the hard way. Don't be disheartened; you won't make the same mistake again ... at least, I hope so.
14: S.S.N. (Washington, DC, USA), August 14, 2012, 4:26 PM.
Mr. Raj - Can you explain why it is a poorly written article? And why was the article "disrespectful"? Can you tell me how often you speak of Sikhism and Sikhs in a friendly chat with complete strangers you just met on the flight (etc.)? I am a 20-something Sardar and I can tell you I know of not a single individual within my friend-circle who is effusive about his turbaned presence. It's about time we move beyond lip service and become activists when it comes to generating awareness. Look around your "Sikh" friends' Facebook walls to understand what I am saying. T. Sher Singh - Hope our paths cross soon. Your article is passionate, heartfelt and makes me sit up and think about the subject.
15: Sunny Grewal (Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada), August 14, 2012, 5:55 PM.
In an era of internet communication and Skype, there is no reason why a person from an organization should have to drive half way across the country to be interviewed.
16: T. Sher Singh (Mount Forest, Ontario, Canada), August 14, 2012, 6:56 PM.
A good point, Sunny. I recall a few years ago, I had rushed to New Mexico to attend the funeral bhog of Singh Sahib Harbhajan Singh Yogi. While in Espanola, I was tracked down by a reporter from the CBC (Canada's national TV and Radio network), who wanted to interview me immediately on a certain topic. It was something I couldn't pass on to anybody else, for a number of reasons. But I was thousands of miles away, I said, in another country. Not a problem, they said. They got back to me in less than half-an-hour, having made the necessary arrangements. I hopped into a rental car, made my way to another city, Santa Fe, to be in the studios of a local station/studio by 5 am. I've learnt through a life-time of media work ... when it's got to be done, it's got to be done. Period. No amount of excuses on anybody's part will help, if doesn't get done. It's the first and last rule in the world of the media.
17: Raj Kohli (London, United Kingdom), August 14, 2012, 7:04 PM.
It is not appropriate to call people who were trying to do the right thing 'idiots' and 'clowns'. This article is sadly what Sikhi has become - if a person's view does not 100% reflect your view then it is idiotic and clown-like. Sadly the responses to my opinion are being treated in the same vein. The article appears to link people's inability to converse in a second language as being idiotic - this is plain racist in my opinion. The article is poorly written and the baton analogy was a piece of cleverness that just didn't work.
18: Gurbachan Kaur (Birmingham, United Kingdom), August 14, 2012, 7:14 PM.
But, Raj Kohli ji, the author of the article is not criticizing anybody for their opinions; he is, however, criticizing them for presenting their personal half-baked opinions as the community's opinions, without having any mandate from the community to do so. Also, the author is not criticizing their language skills per se - even though they fully warrant criticism, considering how long these people have lived abroad and remain inarticulate in the language of the land! - but the fact that they purport to speak for the community while making fools of themselves tripping over the most basic of language guidelines. Is it too fine a distinction, or do I need to simplify it even more, sir?
19: Harkirtan Kaur (Santa Barbara, California, USA), August 14, 2012, 7:31 PM.
Dear Mr Kohli: if the baton metaphor is too heavy to handle, just skip the first 13 paragraphs, and go straight into the meat of the article. That should make it easier for you.
20: H. Singh (British Columbia, Canada), August 15, 2012, 12:28 AM.
Just as I feared, the misguided ego-maniacs let us down. I was too embarrassed to watch the disaster happening on the TV, with my son. None of the Sikh spokesmen had come prepared. To the self-appointed spokespersons all I can say is: Good luck and please pray to WaheGuru to give you some humility and hopefully no air time.
21: Dr. Birinder Singh Ahluwalia (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), August 15, 2012, 7:52 AM.
Hmmmmm ... now the controversy seems to be: "The author should not label individuals who (voluntarily and proudly) rushed to be interviewed by the media (despite having deficient knowledge about their religion, having poor and deficient knowledge of the language they are supposed to communicate in, etc.) in the aftermath of the horrendous Wisconsin massacre in a Gurdwara" - I am seriously interested to know how should we describe these individuals ... which words in the English vocabulary are best suited to describe them, instead of labeling them as clowns or idiots?
22: M. Kaur (Maryland, USA), August 15, 2012, 10:47 AM.
@# 21 Dr. Birinder Singh ji: I agree with you. How else do we refer to these self-appointed speakers. In fact, by using words like clowns and idiots, we are actually being kind and gentle with these ego-maniacs who only wish to seek the spotlight. Mr. Kohli, you obviously didn't witness what we all did here in the US and Canada. We are all here reeling from the embarrassment we felt when these guys hopped on the media band-wagon and made fools of themselves. I have traveled and lived in a number of countries and sadly been seeing this for too long. We need to change this juvenile process ... and soon.
23: Kulwant Singh Kang (Oakville, Ontario, Canada), August 15, 2012, 11:52 AM.
Not to beat a dead horse, Mr. Kohli, but I would be interested in you explaining a little better why and how the "baton" analogy didn't suit this artilce. While you are at it, would you be so kind as to point out the mistakes, be they gramamtical or structural, which make this article "poorly written"? Please don't take this remark as any kind of insult to you, I am genuinely interested in seeing your point of view.
24: H.S.W. (USA), August 15, 2012, 11:53 AM.
The author raises a valid point, that if you can't communicate, why represent others and yourself? However, I do feel its inappropriate to address people as idiots or clowns. Our communication needs to become more civil.
25: R. Singh (Canada), August 15, 2012, 1:30 PM.
More often than not we forget to focus on the topic at hand, and go off on a tangent. This is an excellent article, giving voice to our collective frustration at ego-maniacal people who do not realize public display of incompetence for such a visible community is beyond excuses. It is not about someone's personal domain but about collective identity of an entire community. Knowing fully well, anyone at any given time has access to youngsters who can translate or articulate our views, provided they do have some to begin with. It is a pity that someone goes into spluttering and stuttering disjointedly, just to be able to say they were important enough to be on TV. It is even more lamentable that people turn everything into a personal issue, even at a crucial time like this one. If any improvement has to come, it is time to splice and dice our attitudes and fix them now, not tomorrow, as we are prone to doing currently. Thanks, Mr T. Sher Singh, for having the courage to standup and say the right thing. We cannot keep existing in societies without learning to communicate and interact with them as equals, not as a bunch to be patronized and pitied as exotic creatures who know no better.
26: Guldeep Singh Sethi (Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, USA), August 17, 2012, 3:52 PM.
The reality is that the many in the Sikh population in the USA, as in the rest of the diaspora, are not well versed in English. (We are far better than the rest of the Indian communities anywhere, but we need not judge ourselves by their low standards.) By default most of our gurdwara leaders are of the same ilk. Gurdwaras are mostly our community centers and those with fluent English do not make it to important positions. This will change as the next generation takes control of our institutions. It was refreshing to hear leaders of SALDEF and Sikh Coalition on CNN, able to articulate the Sikh view clearly. I think they did quite well. Most of the leaders and volunteers of SALDEF and the Sikh Coalition have made sacrifices in their careers and lives for the benefit of the community. I think they should be commended.
27: Raj Kohli (London, United Kingdom), August 23, 2012, 3:54 PM.
Guldeep Singh - very well said.