The close-knit Sikh community in Indianapolis is rocked by the deaths of four of its members, who were killed in a mass shooting that killed eight people last week. Although the murderer’s motive is still being investigated, Sikhs across the country fear for their safety as they have often been victims of racist attacks.
Here in Denver, Lakhwant Singh, a small business owner, was brutally attacked a year ago by a white supremacist who walked into Singh’s store shouting swearwords and shouting, “Go back to your country.” When Singh went outside to view the attacker’s license plate number received, he rammed Singh with his vehicle and threw him several feet across the parking lot. Singh was seriously injured and the perpetrator was charged with a hate crime.
Unfortunately, this harassment has gone back a long way since the Sikhs first immigrated to the United States in the 1890s. The first hate crime against them occurred in Bellingham, Washington in 1907, when an angry crowd of white men beat up hundreds of Sikhs who worked in the wood mills and forced them to leave the city. After the hostage crisis in Iran in 1979, Sikhs were again exposed to racist insults such as “ayatollah” and “rag head” because of their brown skin and beards, long hair and turbans. After September 11th, there was a spate of such attacks.
Sikhism (“Sikhi”) is a peaceful, loving and committed tradition. Colorado is home to a large Sikh community with two main gurudwaras (places of worship) in Denver. Every Sunday, in every Gurudwara in the US and around the world, Sikhs follow the tradition of “langar” – a traditional vegetarian meal that is served free to anyone who wants to join. Globally, Sikhs have served around six million free meals a day (pre-COVID figures). Everyone, regardless of skin color, age, gender, social status, political, religious or sexual orientation, is greeted and served cheerfully.
In Denver, Colorado Sikhs sponsors the largest annual interfaith event, Langar in the Park, between 5,000 and 10,000 people in a day. Dilpreet Singh Jammu, chairman of the organization and past president of the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, is the driving force behind this initiative. When I asked him about the Indianapolis tragedy, he commented, “I remember my first vigil for Sikhs, who was killed by a white supremacist in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, in August 2012. I find it really disheartening that years later we are still attending vigils for our brothers and sisters. This is not acceptable in a civil society. “
Tejwant Mangat, a well-known Sikh leader in the state, told me, “We need to stop making assault rifles accessible, especially to young children. Our elected officials must show the political will to enact stricter gun laws to contain this deadly epidemic. “When asked for comment, Mr. Kamaljeet Singh, an officer of a Gurudwara in Denver, complained,” We are hardworking and peaceful people. We are loyal to this country and contribute to its well-being. Why should we face such hatred? “
The Sikh religion was founded in the 15th century in the Punjab region of northwest India, which is currently divided between India and Pakistan. Since the partition of India in 1947, the Indian side of the border has been home to a majority of the global Sikh population estimated at more than 25 million people. And the Sikh diaspora is common all over the world, with roughly 500,000 in the United States.
The Sikh religion, whose tenets include divine unity and selfless service, is often misunderstood. My mother came from a Sikh family and when we were young when we lived in the Punjab region that is now part of Pakistan, she took me to visit most of the Sikh shrines and holy places there. At the 2012 Denver Vigil for Sikh Victims of Hate Violence in Wisconsin, I was one of the speakers calling for an end to hate crimes against Sikhs. I also spoke at the Denver Gurudwara about the birthdays of the founder of the Sikh religion, Guru Nanak Dev Ji.
Sikhs are indeed an asset to America. Harassment and racial attacks against them are reprehensible and must stop.
Ved Nanda is a distinguished university professor and director of the Ved Nanda Center for International Law at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law. His column appears every last Sunday of the month and he welcomes comments at [email protected]
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