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No stranger to hate crimes, he consoles victims’ kin

world Updated: Aug 09, 2012 01:40 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
Hindustan Times
Yashwant Raj

When Harjit Singh Sodhi said he could feel the pain experienced by relatives of the Wisconsin gurdwara shootings, he wasn’t kidding. He had been through it before. Twice.

Sodhi’s brother, Balbir Singh, was the first victim of the violent backlash following the September 11, 2001, attacks. He was shot dead four days after the twin towers collapsed, allegedly by a man who sought vengeance.

On August 4, 2002, Sodhi lost another brother – Sukhpal Singh Sodhi – in a San Francisco shooting. A bullet through his head at a traffic signal.

When Sodhi first heard about the gurdwara shooting, Sodhi decided that he wanted to be with the victims’ relatives. At the house of Satwant Singh Kakela, where he arrived straight from the airport on Tuesday, nobody seemed to recognise him at first. However, he soon became the voice of experience, treated with deference by anyone who heard his story, and thrust forward to face visiting dignitaries.

His was a compelling story, repeated for Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, who visited the Kakela family, and then for Indian ambassador Nirupama Rao.

While Balbir was killed at a gas station run by his family in Mesa, Arizona, Sukhpal – a taxi driver – was shot at a crossing while he was waiting for the light to turn green.

Shortly after Sukhpal’s death, Sodhi remembered wanting to sell all his belongings in the US and returning to India. “How many more brothers was I to lose here?”

Much as he liked the US – and still does – the deaths had shaken him up completely.

The death of his second brother remains an unsolved case. Worse still, the authorities have refused to describe Sukhpal’s murder as a case of hate crime.

But this oversight of the US authorities, according to Sodhi, cannot even compare to the atrocity that was the 1984 riots. “No one has been punished for the riots yet,” he said, adding, “Compare that to death sentence given to the man who killed my brother, Balbir.”

It was this very fact that made Sodhi remain in the US. The country was his home, and would remain so, despite all his frustrations. But, try as he may, the man can’t understand why his people are being targeted.

“What is our fault? That we have a beard? Or a turban?” he asks. And like the others from the community, he holds a realistic view of the entire situation.

It will happen again, and they have to be prepared.