On August 10th this scribe took the opportunity to attend a vigil in Sacramento at the footsteps of the California State Capitol building to remember the Sikh victims of a recent shooting in Wisconsin. Only the brave had ventured out that day as the mercury had already touched 105 degrees a few hours earlier than the 7:30 start time. But several hundred were not deterred.
Sikhs in their traditional attire, many with long beards and turbans, along with the colorful clothes of the women and children congregated to pay their respects to the victims gunned down at a Gurudwara (Sikh Temple/Place of worship) in Oak Creek near Milwaukee.
From the oldest members of the community to young children, they were there to both ask questions and to seek answers since this is not the first time that Sikhs have been targeted in post 9/11 America.
And the question always remains on everyone’s mind each time something happens to Sikhs: Was this a case of mistaken identity? Or in other words was the person or persons doing the shooting actually wanting to target Muslims and made a mistake? And if the answer to that is “Yes”, is that still any excuse?
Like the rest of America, Sikh-Americans, many with origins in the state of Punjab in India were horrified at what they saw on their TV screens on 9/11/2001. Soon after, a tall individual with brown skin and wearing something resembling a turban on his head was identified as the man behind the worst attack that the US has had to face since Pearl Harbor.
Understandably, Americans of all colors, races, ethnicities and origins were mad as hell and they vented their anger at anyone that remotely resembled their new enemy. And the Sikhs unfortunately fit that description because they are brown skinned, often tall and are required by their religious tradition to wear a turban, to conceal their long uncut hair within it.
It has now been over a decade since 9/11 and Osama is dead. So why are the Sikhs still suffering for something they had no part in? That was one question amongst others that was on the minds of the people who attended this vigil in Sacramento and many others like it all over North America. And they were not just the people wearing turbans and the traditional Punjabi Shalwar Kameez. Many were in T-shirts, shorts and baseball caps and people of many races and religions.
South-Asians (Indians, Pakistanis along with others) especially Sikhs who have now made the whole world their home were in majority here. Sikhs have been in California for over a century now. Their history has been one of struggle and success here.
Their Diaspora expanded everywhere since the partition of British India in the year 1947 during which the Punjab was divided and suffered the most violence. They are often in a minority wherever they live outside Indian Punjab.
They look different and stand out as instructed by their Gurus due to their turbans. Otherwise like over 1/3rds of the over 6 billion people on this planet they have brown skin!
Local attorney and activist Amar Shergill from the Sikh American Political Action Committee was addressing the audience when this scribe arrived. He reminded everyone that this kind of violence can happen to any religious group. It could be a deranged, evil unbalanced person in our own community.
He said that some of his own relatives lived in Wisconsin and were late that day to the temple where the shooting occurred. He said that they were turned back by law enforcement from entering the Gurudwara so they asked some in the neighborhood what was going on.
The neighbor said that “There was a shooting at the mosque.” “Imagine. That is a neighbor from the community who thinks that they live next to a mosque! ” He said that the problem is not unique to temples, mosques, mandirs or churches and it highlights the challenges for the community.
“We know that ignorance leads to violence, and we have to do a better job at battling that ignorance.” He said that last year we had gathered here to highlight the murder of two Sikh grandfathers in nearby Elk Grove and that attack still remains unsolved. He said that in the Sacramento area, the Sikh community has done a lot of outreach work since then, but it is still not enough.
“As long as children are being bullied, it is not enough. As long as elders are being attacked, it is not enough. As lives are being lost, it is not enough.” He said that we all still need to do a better job representing ourselves and not just Sikhs but South-Asians. “Do your neighbors know who you are?”
He said that the solution is within our reach and starting tomorrow you should introduce yourselves to your neighbors to dispel ignorance about our community. He also stressed the need for participation in the American political process. “Do something!” “Make a difference. Stop ignorance.
Stop violence.” He ended his speech with: “May God bless us all and may God Bless the United States of America.”
The next speaker Harjit Kaur Grewal from the Sikh Coalition spoke her heart out and brought some to tears. She said that she has already attended too many vigils like this one, including one for her own brother who was shot to death while delivering a pizza in the town of Vallejo.
She spoke out against the hate and violence which is consuming the lives of our brothers and sisters. She added that we continue to pray that their souls rest in peace and that for her this comes with added responsibility. “I was reminded of this responsibility earlier this week.” She said that she was praying at the local Gurudwara and a little Sikh girl came up to her and said the she has seen her (Harjit) do her work (mourning) and that when she grows up will she have to do the same kind of work?
She added that the work we need is to create awareness of religious tolerance so that our brothers and sisters aren’t shot. And she hoped that little girl that came up to her would not have to do this when she grew up. She said that if the truth be told we have failed that little girl. She added that we cannot afford to be inactive.
We can write articles and talk to our neighbors (amongst other things) to spread awareness and counter hate. We can explain what we are all about. “You can be the next person who stops discrimination,” she said. “At school you can stand up to those who are bullies.” “The next time a mosque is burned down, a synagogue is vandalized or a Sikh is attacked, we should stand together.”
A number of other speakers used the opportunity to speak their minds but space constraints limit this report. Muslim civil rights activist Basim Elkarra said since 9/11 the Sikh community has borne the brunt of hate crimes. Parabhjeet Kaur Dhanda thanked everyone for taking the time out to come here today. She said that it was important that we show unity in times of distress. “Sikhism is a humanitarian religion which believes in one God and peace for all,” she added. “It is important that we take a stand against hate and violence together. Not as a separate community but as one strong community.” She said that we all call America our home and want the best for this country.
Linda Ng of the OCA organization also made a strong speech against hate crimes. “Any attack on the Sikh community is an attack on America,” she said. She asked for a fund to be established to help the families of this hate crime in Wisconsin. Darshan Mundy from the Sacramento Sikh Temple added his words of wisdom on this solemn occasion.
In conclusion there is plenty of blame that can go around for this sad incident and we can start with Osama Bin Laden as the main culprit. But we now need to look further and deeper. Nobody can really always protect us from a person with mental problems and a gun. But the targeting and victimization of the Sikh community in particular should be a matter of concern for all Americans. We all need to help to stop violence or the distant thunder like this one from Wisconsin will put more lives in jeopardy.