Kids Corner


From The Killing Fields Of India To New York’s 9/11 Memorial





On Friday, September 25, 2015, I sat onstage with Pope Francis at a multifaith service at the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York City. I was invited to offer a prayer from the Sikh scripture, with my daughter, Dr. Gunisha Kaur, who provided an English translation.

The occasion led me to reflect on my near-death experience over 30 years ago.

In 1984, I was returning from Hyderabad (in South India), to my home in Amritsar, Punjab, in the north. When we neared Delhi, a mob of vigilantes stormed onto our train and called for the blood of each and every Sikh.

The mob beat me nearly to death. The vigilantes must have thought they had killed me, because when I lost consciousness they threw me off the train and onto the tracks. I was left for dead.

After I came back to consciousness, I realized that another attack was imminent. I believed in that moment that I would never see my family again. I closed my eyes and said goodbye to my wife and children. I prayed for the souls of everyone I knew, including my attackers.

The mob was part of a larger pattern of violence that targeted thousands of Sikhs all over India. Two guards, both Sikhs, had assassinated Prime Minister Indira Gandhi because of her crimes against humanity, and the mob, orchestrated by politicians belonging to her party, sought revenge by attacking innocent Sikh civilians across the country -- as if it were justified to hold an entire community responsible for the actions of two.

When I finally reached my family in Amritsar, we made the painfully hard choice to move to the United States, where I am now working as a professor of pharmacology.

The culture of the U.S. cohered better with my own ideals of justice and religious freedom, and I came to appreciate the value of community-building.

Reflecting on how I barely survived the intense violence produced by religious conflict fuelled by political corruption, I decided to devote myself to making our world a better place. I drew from my Sikh outlook and started to build relationships across religious boundaries.

It is from this lens that I have come to deeply appreciate the leadership of Pope Francis. He embodies the Sikh concept of servant-leadership, which suggests that the best leaders are those who are constantly looking to serve those around them.

Francis’ decision, to take one example, to drive around in a humble Fiat reflects his humility. His act of dining with the impoverished rather than with political leaders illustrates his humanity. And his willingness to speak openly about pivotal social issues shows his commitment to righteousness.

I admire these features in Francis, because each of them represents what my Sikh faith teaches me about living a good life. Many of the values he espouses are the same values to which I aspire as a Sikh.

My Sikh faith teaches me to identify with and serve the most needy among us. In our tradition, service is a way of praying through action and of expressing our gratitude to the Creator for all we have been given. This is an outlook that I see reflected consistently in Francis’ actions.

As a Sikh, I also believe I have a responsibility to stand for justice, even when it is difficult to do so. Francis has shown leadership in this regard as well. In his brief trip to the United States, he has already weighed in on key issues of our times, including climate change, immigration and poverty. I am thankful to Francis for taking such stands and support his sentiments on these issues.

As I sat next to Francis during the ceremony at the 9/11 memorial, I kept thinking to myself: “Never in my life could I have imagined I would be in this position.”

I am honored to have been selected to share the stage with this great man. Although we do not share the same religious tradition, we both share a view on what it means to be a person of faith.

The author is Associate Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University at Buffalo.

[Courtesy: Religion News. Edited for]
September 28, 2015

Conversation about this article

1: Arjan Singh (USA), September 28, 2015, 6:30 PM.

Dr. Satpal Singh ji, the fact that it took you more than 30 years to share this experience is understandable. When an act of such monstrosity is imposed on an individual by a ‘mob’ not only the body but the spirit can go into a state of shock. It may take many years for the wounds to heal and the truth to come out. You have demonstrated yet again the true ‘spirit of the Sikh’ by defying all odds – moving to a new country, educating yourself, not giving in to the will of the majority (by keeping your baana); and you shared the dais with the Pope this last week where the entire world could see you in your humility and grace. This is a fitting reply to the atrocities committed by the Hindu majority in those dark days of the 1980s when the entire countryside was turned into killing fields for innocent citizens. I assure you there have been many in the Sikh community who went through a similar ‘hell on earth’ in the hands of the mob and their stories have not been told yet for many reasons. I share the example of a Nobel laureate, Nelly Sachs. The terror of the Nazis was so great that she would lose her ability to speak for days and go in a state of shock and suffered for many years as a citizen of Germany. With the help of some friends she escaped to Sweden in the nick of time to avoid her sure death in a concentration camp in Germany; and it took her many years to re-build her life in Sweden; and she eventually found the courage to write. Her writings were recognized with a Nobel Prize in literature in 1966. All I am trying to say is: you must write and document your experience for the benefit of others who lack the courage or ability to express themselves in English.

2: Kanwal Prakash Singh (Indianapolis, Indiana, USA), September 29, 2015, 8:32 AM.

For this moment, I want to place my thoughts and prayer on the photograph of Gunisha Kaur, the beautiful daughter of Dr. Satpal Singh, and Pope Francis posted today on In that photograph, Pope Francis greeting, I saw the spontaneous spirit radiating from both seems to transcend time, faiths, religious associations and doctrines. It is two souls and their humanity in a purest and all-embracing spirit greeting and blessing each other. It is beautiful and touching, and a moving image captured for eternity. Such divine encounters and evidence help us to imagine past the memories of barbaric madness and see the divine love and universal brotherhood manifested before us by two blessed children of God. Our spirit is uplifted and reassured by such timeless testimony of God's unexpected Grace and helps us overcome the pain of yesterday. It invites us to rise above the valley of unconscionable shadows and offer the most beautiful divine within and bring honor to our common humanity. This is when one photograph inspires a thousand words, multiple memorable reflections, and becomes a living experience, a testament of Chardi kalaa and a triumph of spirit. May Wahuguru bless you, Gunisha Kaur ji and your father.

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