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110 years after racial riots against early Sikh immigrants, an Arch of Healing in US city

Sikh historian Seema Sohi, who got her doctorate from the University of Washington and wrote a book about these riots, ‘Echoes of Mutiny’, says there are uncanny parallels between then and now.

punjab Updated: Sep 01, 2017 20:44 IST
Nirupama Dutt
Nirupama Dutt
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
Echoes of Mutiny,Seema Sohi,racial riots

Bellingham in Whatcom County of Washington State in the US saw racial riots on September 4, 1907, when early Indian, Japanese and Chinese workers were forced to leave. A mob of some 500 local White people attacked them, scattered their belongings, and forced them out.

Sikh historian Seema Sohi, who got her doctorate from the University of Washington and wrote a book about these riots, ‘Echoes of Mutiny’, says there are uncanny parallels between then and now. However, the citizens of Bellingham are making amends for the misdeeds of the past by erecting a red-stone ‘Arch of Healing and Reconciliation’ and honouring the immigrants — the Indians were mostly Sikhs — in their persistence to defy racism in the US. The stone has been brought from India and the arch will come up in April next year on the lawns of the Bellingham Public Library.

This has been reported by the Bellingham Herald newspaper which incidentally had also reported the 1907 riots. At that time the early Sikh immigrants were termed Hindus and the banner headline of the daily on September 5, 1907, cried out, ‘Hindus hounded from city’, with the subhead saying, ‘Mob drives foreigners from lodging houses and mills’.

A committee has been set up in Bellingham to build the arch, and deep research went into the study of these riots.

The tempo for the riots then had been built within the local white community with the coming of Sikh immigrants, which was described as ‘the turban tide’ and the ‘dusky peril’ with one news-sheet screaming, ‘Hindu hordes invading the state’.

However, over a century later comes the healing project in which all communities have participated. It is backed by deep research by white American scholars such as Paul Englesberg and Johanna Ogden. Welcoming the project, political analyst and chronicler of the Ghadar Party, Harish Puri says, “This is a heartwarming endeavour. The 1907 riots at Bellingham and the 1910 riots against early Sikh immigrants paved the way a few years later for the formation of the Ghadar Party. The 1907 riots by white hoodlums were the first brush of Punjabi immigrants with racial hatred.”

Puri adds that such efforts should be made in India too to heal the wounds of Partition violence of 1947 and the killings of Sikhs in November 1984. “If this is not done, wounds fester and result in continuing violence and hatred.”

The Bellingham Herald quotes Satpal Sidhu, a Whatcom County member and chairperson of the Arch Committee, thus: “We are celebrating that these people did persevere, and look where we are today.”

Englesberg adds, “We are hoping it makes people think and reflect on the past.”

The Arch Committee is working to raise about $2 million. Most of that money will go towards a scholarship fund to help the children of first-generation immigrants go to college.

(Photo sourced from Arch of Healing archives)

First Published: Sep 01, 2017 20:44 IST