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The Undeterred Sikhs of America

Has the massacre at a gurdwara in Wisconsin, shaken the Sikh American dream for good? Khushwant Singh seeks the opinion of Manjit Singh, chairman of an American Sikh advocacy group.

chandigarh Updated: Aug 17, 2012 17:25 IST

Sorry, I am unable to offer you the standard dose of humour this Sunday, for 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 5/8, its epicentre being a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.

As we all know, a gunman suspected to be a white supremacist, killed six persons at a Sunday congregation at a Sikh temple. But besides sniffing out life of innocent devotees, 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, chairman and co-founder of America's finest Sikh Advocacy group - Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF).

HT: 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 the American Sikhs?

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 racist rhetoric in the US. Many Sikh Americans are troubled by the anti-immigration rhetoric of the Tea Party, and some on the right in the Republican party and their antagonism towards immigration, and also the ways in which they seem to define America as 'white America'.

HT: Do you think the Sikh American dream is headed for a nightmare? Yes or no and your
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.

HT: After the 8/5 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

HT: The hate crime 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.

HT: 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.

HT: What are you proposing to the law enforcement agencies to avoid future incidents of hate?
MS: The Sikh organisations in the US have been working tirelessly since 9/11/2001 to increase awareness about Sikhs/Sikhism; our interactions with the US law enforcement agencies is related to: 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.
The community will be pressing the US government to increase surveillance of hate and white supremacy groups, and be more aggressive in prosecuting such crimes.

HT: 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, Mr Page, 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.

HT: In view of the 8/5 incident, what major changes do you see taking place in Sikh
advocacy? Any new plans to deal 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.

HT: How has the American Sikh community responded to this challenge - its mood and its resolve?
MS: The community has responded remarkably well, with poise, dignity and peace! The mood is one of resilience and Chardhi Kalaa - Perpetual High Spirit of Optimistism.

HT: 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 look like we are violent people. They should instead denounce hate against people of all religions and background.

HT: 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 Sikhs in Wisconsin will not be for nothing. Their death has led to more Americans knowing and learning about Sikhs in the past five days compared to the past 100 years since Sikhs first come 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.

Punjabi by nature is a fortnightly column. The columnist is a Punjab-based author and journalist.

First Published: Aug 17, 2012 17:19 IST