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'It’s easier to talk about gun control'
The Sikh Coalition, which was started post 9/11, has just 11 members but is at the forefront of the Sikh civil rights movement in the US. Narinder Singh, who heads the coalition, talks to TOI-Crest about the aftermath of the tragic shooting in Milwaukee and their plans to deal with hate crimes, bullying and religious profiling.
What role has the Coalition played post 9/11?
I remember 9/11 vividly. I was very angry for about 30 seconds. Then, immediately I realised that Sikhs would suffer. I was born and raised in this country and I wanted my time for grief as an American but I didn't get that. The immediate violence stopped a while after 9/11 but the discrimination started.
We worked on the Workplace Religious Freedom Act - people can practice it feely at work whether they are Hindus, Jews or Sikhs.
Last year, two Sikh gentlemen were killed. A Sikh store was fire bombed. Another Michigan gurdwara desecrated. Since 9/11, we have corrected thousands of incidents of discrimination. We suspect that they have been on the rise but there is no available matrix. One of the programmes we are running aggressively is for the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) - to make hate crimes against Sikhs a separate category.
We have established a deep network or advocates, volunteers. The community is more willing to invest now, after 10 years. We want to grow smartly, make sure we are empowering everyone. There is a huge network of gurdwaras and we need to figure out how we can empower them, establish a better communication network.
Once the immediate anger against a hate crime dissipates, what is the kind of sentiment that lingers?
In this case, there has been a massive outcry of support, from the government, from the people. It made a huge difference. There has been such chardi kala (optimistic, positive attitude), the grace was inspiring. The overall notion was to make this better. We need to see this as a hate crime. People turn it into personal political issues and that is fine too. But how do we handle the hate? From TV to schools, to local communities, everyone needs to join the conversation. And that is hard. We need to use this situation to bring about systemic change.
How bad is the bullying in schools?
I was born and raised here. I believe that the opportunities here are second to none. But we have work to do. In the Bay Area survey for instance, 69 per cent of children said they were bullied. More than 30 per cent reported being touched or physically harassed about Sikh articles of faith. These numbers are unacceptable.
Is legal recourse the best way out?
We had great legal outcomes but we do not want to fight cases, we want to eliminate them. But having a legal option makes people more open to advocacy. We fought the New York MTA case for seven years (to allow Sikhs working in the city's Metropolitan Transportation Authority to wear turbans to work without the MTA logo). People have been much more willing to listen after that. Previously they thought this would go away, it is just another group.
Where is most of the discrimination focused?
Most cases reported to us are related to profiling. You don't fight individual cases on this we are working with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to end ethnic and religious profiling at airports. Employment cases though are one-on-one cases. We advocated and helped Sikhs join the US army. That took a substantive amount of effort.
Where should the policy discussion be focused?
It is easier to talk about gun control than how to rid people of hate. Our biggest battle is against inertia. The government is not anti-Sikh at all. But when you work on it, then you get caught in the political system. I believe in the fairness of this country but it gets hard to navigate.
How about the media response? There has been some criticism that TV channels haven't been covering it enough.
We haven't had time to reflect on that really. We have seen incredible response so far but the weeks following will show (the real response). But nothing makes up for the fact that they ignored it the last 10 years. The media can also be smarter. They have over simplified issues and they owe the country more than that.
So, how do you wipe out hate?
There are four parts to that. Local communities - someone makes a racist comment or judgment as a person walks down a street, we need to have conversation. Then the government - every time I walk through an airport, I get pulled aside because of my beard and turban. The media - it needs deeper story and not play to stereotypes. And schools are critical. That is one place where we need to spend time. We need an aggressive way to teach them how to embrace diversity. But it isn't easy.
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