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Faith Matters

No Singh-King feeling


POLL DANCE: Hillary Clinton was ribbed as a Democrat from Punjab by the Obama campaign during the 2008 electionsbecause of her association with Sikhs, who poured money into her campaign coffers

Sikhs in America are not a helpless, oppressed minority. If anything, they are a subject of envy because of their success.

Several decades back, when Indians began emigrating across the world in large numbers, some irreverent ones would chuckle over the prospect of who would first get to the moon: Sikhs or Malayalees? Both communities were known for their enterprise and outreach, and the joke was that when Neil Armstrong and his crew got to the moon, there was already an auto repair workshop set up by a Sikh and a Malayalee-owned corner store. Later, there were upgrades of the joke involving Gujaratis, who apparently had already opened a motel, a 7/11, and a Dunkin Donuts on the dark side of the moon. We don't have a figurehead explorer such as Christopher Columbus or Vasco da Gama, but when it comes to emigration, Indians are ahead of the pack, with Sikhs, Malayalees, and Gujaratis leading the way.

But what causes the Sikhs, from deep inland, to emigrate far and wide across the world? Their lands are rich and fertile, their faith and togetherness deep and abiding, so why venture out to distant lands where they stand out not just because they are outstanding in their skills and industry?

One explanation for their emigration is that a large number of Sikhs were conscripted into the British Army/Allied forces because of their martial prowess, and from thereon they scattered far and wide. But the first Sikhs to arrive in America were migrant labourers who worked in US Pacific railroads and lumber yards in the Northwest around 1900. The early Sikhs were loosely categorised as "Hindoos" despite their distinctive turbans. In 2007, travelling through a small Washington state town called Bellingham, I came across the local newspaper running a centenary recall of "anti-Hindoo " riots of 1907, showing that Sikhs were at the receiving end of violence more than a century ago. Within a decade they had organised themselves. The first Sikh Gurdwara was built in Stockton, California, in 1912. It was here that the Ghadr Party, founded to promote Indian independence, was born. Because of the intertwining of religion and politics in Sikhism, Sikhs were and continue to be among the most politically active communities in the US.

In fact, for a while in the 1980s, Sikh gurdwaras in America were beehives of political ferment with occasional violence between Indian nationalists and separatists. In 2006, I unwittingly went to a gurdwara in the Pacific Northwest and as I was exiting, I found myself in a large room with portraits celebrating the killers of Indira Gandhi and General Vaidya, with graphic depictions of the attacks. So to this day, there are Sikhs in America who have not gotten over the wounds of Operation Blue Star and continue political activism that is nearly 100 years old. One of the first landmark immigration cases in the US was fought by Bhagat Singh Thind, an Indian Sikh who enlisted in the US Army in the 1920s, because he was not considered a "'white person'" under the US statute governing naturalisation. Thind argued that he was Aryan, and therefore Caucasian. The court rejected his plea, but it set the trend and tone for Sikh political activism and lobbying in the US, which was way ahead of the rest of Indian curve.

Therefore it is no surprise that the first national lawmaker of Indian-origin in the US was a Sikh named Dalip Singh Saund, who served three terms in the House of Representatives in the 1950s. Saund, from a farming background, came to the US in 1920 and earned a PhD in Mathematics from Berkeley. He also worked as a foreman on a cotton farm and later became a farm owner in the Imperial Valley. He was elected as a judge in 1953 and a congressman in 1956.

Saund's legacy in both farming and politics is evident in California and elsewhere today. Nikki (Nimrata) Haley nee Randhawa, current governor of South Carolina, is a Sikhni who converted to Christianity but remains proud of her heritage. Sikh political involvement in Canada is even greater with several Sikh federal cabinet ministers in Ottawa and a province (British Columbia) where they are a significant political force to the extent they even managed to elect a Sikh (Ujjal Dosanjh) as the premier some years back.

There are many other Sikhs in elected office across the US, including in Yuba City, California, where Sikhs are upwards of 10 per cent, some of whom own huge tracts of land and brought their farming expertise and enterprise. For years, Didar Singh Bains was known to be the US's biggest peach farmer, and a man dubbed Harbhajan Singh "Okra" founded Samra Produce, one of the largest growers of bhindi and baingan in the US.

There are also Sikh offshoots in America, including a small group of Hispanic Sikhs (some early Sikh immigrants in California married Mexican women) and White Sikhs (Whites who were converted to Sikhism by Harbhajan Singh Khalsa, a Sikh preacher from India who taught Kundalini Yoga. ) This sect, known as Sikh Dharma, went on to found a security company called Akal Security which has earned billions of dollars in federal funds, screening people and guarding everything from federal courthouses and buildings in Washington DC to NASA facilities.

More recent Sikh immigrants are in high-skilled hi-tech areas, contesting the idea that they are merely martial/agricultural. Many of them proudly keep their beard and turban prescribed by their faith. Chiranjeev Kathuria, one of the pioneers of the space travel industry, ran (unsuccessfully) for the Senate nearly a decade back. Ajay Banga, the turbaned CEO of Mastercard, is a familiar sight in finance circles.
So the idea that Sikhs in America are some kinds of helpless, oppressed minority at the receiving end of hatred and bigotry is arrant nonsense, currently promoted by hyperventilating Indian ultranationalists (mainly to boost ratings). It is true that Sikhs have suffered a significant uptick in violence because of "mistaken identity" arising from the ignorance of some American wingnuts, but to suggest that they are being persecuted across the country only because of their religion or distinct identity is rubbish.

If anything, Sikhs - like many Indians - are a subject of envy, and perhaps resentment, because of their success. Remember how Hillary Clinton was ribbed as a Democrat from Punjab by the Obama campaign during the 2008 elections because of her association with Sikhs, who poured money into her campaign coffers? Obama apologised for the overreach of his campaign managers, and eventually, when he got to the White House, did more to recognise Sikh contribution to the US than any other president, including hosting a Guru Nanak Dev commemoration.

The wonderful thing about Sikhs is they are seldom on the backfoot about what and who they are and where they come from. From the time the first reports of random discrimination and occasional violence occurred post 9/11, Sikh organisations such as United Sikhs and Sikh Coalition have been at the forefront trying to educate the US security leadership about their faith. Unlike some other communities which seldom went beyond whining - or spinning conspiracy theories - Sikhs engaged the Homeland Security folks and won important concessions (like gaining privacy in the event of a turban pat down at airports). There are still occasional transgressions, but by and large their political activism has won them important rights and respect. The Oak Creek shooting, tragic as it is, will see even greater recognition - and admiration - for this peerless and stalwart Indian community.

Reader's opinion (1)

Vinod BajpaiAug 30th, 2012 at 12:20 PM

their position in US confirms that singh really is King.

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