The Undeterred Sikhs of AmericaKHUSHWANT SINGH, Chandigarh
I cannot take my mind off the tragedy in the US.
If 9/11 changed the way the world would exist in the years to follow, its fiercest tremor took place on August 5, 2012, its epicentre being a gurdwara in Wisconsin.
As we all know, a racist gunman killed six persons at a Sunday gurdwara congregation. But besides snuffing out the lives of innocent worshppers, the reverberating sound of his gun assured that life will never be the same for Sikh-Americans.
In which direction is the Sikh-American dream headed? To understand this, I posed a set of questions to Manjit Singh, Chair and co-founder of one of America's finest Sikh advocacy groups - Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF).
Khushwant Singh (“KS“): As an advocacy group, you have been dealing with incidents regarding hate crimes. Did you ever think a tragedy of such magnitude could also strike Sikh-Americans?
Manjit Singh (“MS“): Unfortunately, we did fear that an incident like the Wisconsin shooting might happen against the Sikhs. Especially in the past two-three years, there has been an increase in the general racist rhetoric in the US. Many Sikh-Americans are troubled by the anti-immigration rhetoric of the Tea Party, and of some on the far right in the Republican party and their antagonism towards immigration, and also the ways in which they seem to define America as 'white America'.
KS: Do you think the Sikh-American dream is headed for a nightmare? Yes or no, and your reasons.
MS: Absolutely not! This is an isolated incident and not representative of America! The vast Americans reject the ideology of hate, white supremacy and violence.
KS: After the August 5 incident, will the US be the same for the Sikhs or are drastic changes expected in the Sikh-American story?
MS: Well, there will be changes for Sikhs in the US, but it will be for the best! More Americans now know about Sikhs than before this incident. Rather than be fearful, the community has rallied together, and is more resolute to double its efforts of outreach and awareness about Sikhs and Sikhism. After this incident, Sikhs have finally arrived in America!
We are in the homes of Americans now (thanks to CNN)! We are not going
KS: The hate crimes against Sikhs kept growing since 9/11 even though the incident is 11 years old. In your opinion, what could be the reasons that allowed hate to grow?
MS: Actually, the number of hate incidents have trended downwards in the past six-seven years. So, this incident is not a reflection of an increase in violence against Sikh-Americans. This incident is an outgrowth of the dramatic increase in white supremacy and militias in the US post-9/11; these groups profess hatred and violence against all who do not fit their worldview of the white race being the supreme race.
KS: What are the challenges and limitations you face while educating the American community about Sikhism?
MS: The primary challenge is the sheer geographical size of the country and the large population.
KS: What are you proposing to the law enforcement agencies to help prevent future incidents of hate?
MS: The Sikh organisations in the US have been working tirelessly since 9/11/2001 to increase awareness about Sikhs and Sikhism; our interactions with the US law enforcement agencies are related to issues which include putting in place measures to track hate/bias crimes against Sikhs, remove barriers against Sikhs from serving in the US Military with our turban and beard, etc. The community will be pressing the US government to increase surveillance of hate and white supremacy groups, and to be more aggressive in prosecuting such crimes.
KS: What are your reflections about this incident? Since it does not appear that the killer was led by mistaken identity, does it worry you, given that Sikhs earlier were targets because of mistaken identity only?
MS: I truly believe the shooter in Wisconsin was motivated due to his membership in the white supremacy movement. As to why he chose the Sikhs, we can only speculate. It is apparent though, that as a very visible community it is easy to target us. And, I feel that's exactly what it was.
KS: In view of the August 5 incident, what major changes do you see taking place in Sikh advocacy? Any new plans to deal with, and open a dialogue with white supremacist groups?
MS: For SALDEF, our main focus will be on creating awareness about Sikhs and Sikhism through education, training, outreach and public advocacy around issues affecting Sikh-Americans.
No, we have no intention of opening dialogue with the white supremacist groups.
KS: How has the Sikh-American community responded to this challenge - what is its mood and its resolve?
MS: The community has responded remarkably well, with poise, dignity and peace! The mood is one of resilience and chardi kala - a spirit of perpetual optimism.
KS: How can Sikhs who are sitting outside help?
MS: Sikhs outside the US can help us by not denouncing America or holding marches against the US while waving kirpans, as it makes us falsely look like we are a violent people. They should instead denounce hate against people of all religions and background.
KS: Out of adversity comes hope. Do you think the death of six persons will not go waste and a new awareness about the Sikh community is taking place?
MS: The death of the six Sikh-Americans in Wisconsin will not be for nothing. Their death has led to more Americans knowing and learning about Sikhs in these days since the tragedy, compared to the past 100 years since Sikhs first came to the United States. There is truly a new awareness about the Sikh community unfolding in America today.
The Sikh-American community has taken this tragedy and converted it into one of national solidarity against hate, unity and self-empowerment.
[The author/interviewer, Khushwant Singh, has a fortnightly column, “Punjabi by Nature,” in the Hindustan Times. He is a Punjab-based author and journalist.]
August 18, 2012
Conversation about this article
1: Ari Singh (Sofia, Bulgaria), August 19, 2012, 8:14 AM.
S. Manjit Singh ji, if you expected such an attack, why weren't any provisions made to forewarn and protect the gurdwaras and their sangats? At the very least, they could have been more vigilant. A plain clothed armed guard at every gurdwara could easily be afforded. How about now?
2: R. Singh (Sacramento, California, U.S.A.), August 19, 2012, 2:23 PM.
@ Ari Singh ji: Having an armed guard is both impractical and unnecessary. Gurdwaras in the United States are often big places. If the 'guard' is in the divan hall and an attacker starts in the langar hall, there could easily be just as many causalities. This tragedy is an aberration in the 110 years of Sikh-American history.
3: Ari Singh (Sofia, Bulgaria), August 20, 2012, 1:07 AM.
Dear R.Singh ji: The very presence of an armed guard will deter many an attacker. The guard should preferably be near the entrance where we should install metal detecting machines. I am sure it is cheaper to invest in such technology, than sacrificing lives.
4: Aryeh Leib (Israel), August 20, 2012, 6:19 AM.
Metal detecting machines? In a place where everyone wears a kirpan? Sounds most impractical to me ...
5: Jaspreet (Surrey, British Columbia, Canada), October 06, 2012, 6:18 PM.
Even though this attack has happened, I don't think the likelihood of it recurring is that great. Sikhs in India have been attacked in a lot of gurdwaras with thousands of innocent Sikhs massacred. Something like 70 Gurdwaras were attacked in Delhi in 1984 by mobs. I haven't heard of any security measures there where this kind of violence has been led by the state and its machinery such as the police and army helping the mobs. In America, the state and all its machinery were totally against this violence and supported Sikhs in a huge way. Indeed, even the supremacists on some web sites were trying to distance themselves from the killer and thinking of what a negative impact this would have on their movement. Sikhs aren't cowards that they will lock themselves in and try to lock the world out due to one event.