For the expat Sikh, the Gurudwara was the sanctuary, the place that connected him to India, the land that he left behind for higher education, a better standard of living and in some cases, for safety, after the Khalistan movement and the riots of 1984. It was a place that connected him to his religion, his community, his mother tongue, his countrymen, cricket, bhangra, parathey and all other memories of his native land. It was a place where arguments with his parents regarding pagdi, beard and arranged marriage subsided when he heard the Gurubani...only to be resumed on the journey back home in the car.
The desecration of a Gurudwara and the massacre of seven Sikhs in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, on August 5 by a white supremacist and US Army veteran Wade M Page is a hate crime that shook the world. Why did he choose a Gurudwara? Why hate a community that had lived peacefully in the area, the region and the country? The neighbours interviewed by television channels said, “He seemed a normal guy”. Because it seems that is how normal guys behave now: angry, filled with hate against people who look, speak and dress differently from them.
All of last week, the survivors have asked “Why us?” They inadvertently echo some reporters who have said that the Sikhs were “mistakenly targeted”, implying that targeting Muslims is somehow expected from white racists. Few care for the facts such as those brought out by Steve Coll in the New Yorker. Coll and a group of researchers collated and analysed cases of domestic terrorism after the 9/11 attacks and found “about a quarter arose from anti-government extremists, white supremacists, or terrorists animated by bias against another religion”, and none from Islamic militancy.
In this age of terror, profiling, whether subtle or blatant, is inevitable. It was a few days after 9/11 that Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot dead in Arizona in a case of hate crime, mistaken for being a Muslim. Islamophopic America had begun turning blind in randomly picking targets. Bloggers wrote that bigots were turning ‘Sikhophobic’ too and it was necessary to inform and educate the ignorant about other religions and cultures. The victim taking it upon himself to correct the ignorant perpetrator!
Sikhs in America, and elsewhere in the world, are conflicted about keeping the five articles of faith of the Khalsa : the kangha, kesh, kirpan, kachcha and kara. Many young Sikhs don’t want to stand out in the West. They want to blend. They want to cut their hair, not keep facial hair, discard the turban and certainly not carry the dagger. Sikh girls rebel against being forced to wear salwar-kameez, against settling for arranged marriages and against braiding their long hair. Blend, blend, blend... as if it will make them the insider.
Cutting her hair or discarding the turban is a lifestyle choice that should be available to every Sikh girl and boy. But it can’t be something they are coerced to do because of the fear of rising crimes against their community.
Many Sikh migrants who left after the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in India now find that hate can spring up anywhere. It is born from ignorance, breeds on wrong information, leads to discrimination and often culminates in some form of violence. ‘The Sikh Coalition’, an organisation formed in the US after the 9/11 attacks to fight bigotry and discrimination, says that 60 per cent of turban-wearing boys are harassed in schools in America. Those wearing turbans are stared at by fellow students, often called names and their turbans yanked. But this isn’t unique to America or the West. This happens everywhere to Sikhs, shockingly even in India. These abhorrent acts, however, are mostly ignored or only mildly rebuked. Bigoted minds exist everywhere. Just like guns and bombs do. When the former have easy access to the latter and no fear of retribution — even believing that it is their divine duty to mete out perverted justice — then it is time for the state and community to get involved on a war footing. When minority communities feel vulnerable after a hate crime, it comes upon the leadership of the country to enforce laws, to express solidarity and to emphasise that fraternity is what makes a society civilised. Mere candle light vigils and soul stirring speeches are not enough.
Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on twitter @smitaprakash