By Meenakshi Iyer
New Delhi: A high profile art exhibit in the US kick started on September 25 to spread awareness about the Sikh identity. On the same day, 41 year-old Sikh-American techie Maan Singh Khalsa was attacked by a group of five to six “white men”, who “cut a fistful of his hair with a knife and assaulted him”.
“Mr Khalsa was driving on the night of September 25 when a man in a truck threw a beer can at his car wholly unprovoked. At an intersection further up the road, three men got out of the truck and assaulted him through his open car window, knocking off his Sikh turban and hitting his face repeatedly. They shouted, “Cut his fu****g hair,” pulled his head out of the window, and cut a fistful of his religiously-mandated unshorn hair with a knife,” a press statement released recently by The Sikh Coalition, a Sikh American advocacy and community development organisation, read.
A few days back in Canada – whose Prime Minister Justin Trudeau boasts of having more Sikhs in his cabinet than Indian PM Narendra Modi’s – posters titled, ‘F*** your turban’ were pasted all across the University of Alberta campus.
Released by the Immigration Watch Canada, the posters featured a face of a Sikh man and stated: “If you’re so obsessed with your third-world culture, go the f*** back to where you came from!”
Ballads of praises have been sung on the achievements of 105 year-old British Sikh runner Fauja Singh, 9/11 Sikh hero Sat Hari Singh, Canadian Sikh defence minister and combat veteran Harjit Sajjan and many more.
But at the same time, horror stories galore on the sufferings of gas station owner Balbir Singh Sodhi, actor Waris Singh Ahluwalia and US Navy veteran Kuldip Singh Nag – all attacked, targeted and shamed for their Sikh faith and identity.
According to reports, a Sikh abroad remains hundred times more likely to be targeted in cases of profiling, bigotry and backlash than the average American, Britain or Canadian, and this despite the fact that Sikhism is the fifth largest religion with more than 25 million followers across the world.
The Sikh diaspora
Sikhs, predominantly from the Punjab, have their presence in countries all across the world, especially the English-speaking and East Asian nations. While emigrating, the Sikhs have retained their distinctive cultural and religious identity.
Sikh migration from India began in the second half of the 19th century when the Britishers had annexed the whole of Punjab. The British Raj preferred Sikhs in the Indian Civil Service, particularly, in the British Indian Army, which led to migration of Sikhs to different parts of British India and the British Empire.
During this era, semiskilled Sikh workers were also transported from the Punjab to British East Africa to help in the building of railways. After World War II, most Sikhs from India and Pakistan emigrated to the United Kingdom and North America due to economic reasons.
Significant Sikh population now resides in United Kingdom, Canada, the United States, Malaysia, East Africa, Australia and Thailand.
9/11 and the Sikhs
Prior to 9/11, the Sikh diaspora faced racial discrimination and a legal system that denied them citizenship on the basis of their skin color.
But the terror attacks ushered in a new reality where the Sikhs, mostly in the US, were targeted because of their looks and their articles of faith – their turban, their long, flowing beard and kirpan, or dagger, which they carry to protect themselves.
[su_pullquote]Sikhs have lived and worked in the United States for more than 150 years, but 60 percent Americans “admit to knowing nothing” about them, according to a survey by Hart Research Associates. Most of them confuse Sikhs with the Muslims.[/su_pullquote]
“… 9/11 has been a wake-up call for Sikhs deepening self perceptions as a perpetual minority group under siege… The response to 9/11 has served as a painful reminder for many Sikhs that they can never truly be ‘home’ within North America…,” says an extract from the book, Religious radicalization and securitization in Canada and beyond.
The book, edited by Paul Bramadat and Lorne Dawson, further states that post 9/11, “racist violence has spread beyond the borders of America into Canada”.
It further says, “Increased incidents (both reported and unreported) of Sikhs facing overt discrimination at airports and other public spaces since 9/11 have made Sikh community critically aware of public perception of Sikhs having a connection with Muslim extremists”.
So, it comes as no surprise when Canadian Sikh journalist Veerender Jubbal was wrongly named on social media as involved in a series of coordinated attacks that killed 130 people in Paris. This was after an innocent selfie Jubbal took in front of the mirror was edited to show him wearing a suicide vest and holding the Quran.
‘Terrorists’ ‘Khomeinis’, ‘Talibans’ and ‘Osama’ are just few of the adjectives used by the local communities abroad to shame Sikhs, and the most vulnerable targets of bullying and racial profiling are the Sikh elderly and the children.
A 2014 report by The Sikh Coalition found that in the US 50 percent of Sikh students aged 12 to 18 experience bullying, compared with the national average of 32 percent of all schoolchildren who report bullying. That number rises to 67 percent if a Sikh student wears a turban.
Kirpans, turbans, unshorn hair and beards have a deep spiritual significance for Sikh men. They represent a commitment to service and justice. Sikh men have worn turbans since 1699, when the last living guru bestowed on the clothing item a unique Sikh identity.
Fifteen years after 9/11, the Sikh diaspora still struggles to explain the essence of their distinct religion, completely separate from Hinduism and Islam. The Sikhs believe in one god, equality of men and women, freedom of religion and community service.
“Due to our appearance, especially our turban, we are often associated with groups indulging in violence. Despite out best efforts to explain our separate identity there has been no let-up in hate crime cases,” SGPC president Avtar Singh Makkar was quoted as saying in the media.
The Sikhs have often been characterized as a ‘model minority group’ and they have contributed immensely to the societies where they have lived – be it India, Canada, US or the Europe.
They need to develop a culture of reporting all discrimination and hate violence to avoid incidents of escalation. Reliable documentation of everyday discrimination can enable Sikhs to reach the root of the problem.