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Sikh Awareness Month
Frequently the Victims of Mistaken Identity, California Sikhs Work
to Build Greater Public Awareness of Their Love for America


Rand Green 
Yosemite Valley


A SHEEPMAN who had lost several of his sheep to a wolf offered to pay a handsome bounty to anyone who would bring him the wolf's hide. Hoping to earn the bounty, a young man from the city who, although he was a crack shot, had never actually seen a wolf except in story book illustrations, took his rifle and ventured out to the sheep ranch. There, at dusk he hid himself in a wooded area bordering the sheep enclosure to wait for his quarry, and by and by he saw an animal resembling a wolf move from the shadows on the far side of the clearing out into the moonlight. The young man took aim and fired, only to discover that he had killed not a wolf but the sheepman's dog whose job it was to help protect the sheep.

In theatrical productions, mistaken identity is a device often used to create comedy. But in real life, mistaken identity can lead to unfortunate and sometimes tragic consequences. That has often been the case with members of the Sikh religion in the United States. Because many of them wear turbans, they have often been mistaken -- by uninformed individuals -- for Islamist terrorists or terrorist sympathizers. Yet in reality, they are as different from the terrorists as a loyal sheepdog is from a predatory wolf.

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As part of an effort to build greater public understanding of who they are and what they believe, and to make their fellow Americans aware that their beliefs are in full harmony with the core principles on which the United States was founded, Sikhs in Central California held a function on Sunday, November 14, 2010, at the Selma Sikh Temple in conjunction with California Sikh Awareness and Appreciation Month. California Assembly Member Dan Logue, a Republican from Yuba County who authored Assembly Concurrent Resolution 181 designating November as Sikh Awareness and Appreciation Month in California, was honored at the event. Numerous other dignitaries, among them U.S. Representative Jim Costa, a Democrat representing California's 20th Congressional District, were also present.

"I have many Sikh members in my district" and many Sikh friends, and "have always greatly respected the Sikh religion," Mr. Logue told the gathering. "You are the best of what America has to offer. You are a great religion and a great people."

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Mr. Logue's district includes Yuba and Sutter counties which have a significant Sikh population. "Being able to live … among the Sikh community," he said, "I have always been greatly impressed with your values and the message that you have for our country." The Sikh community is "the perfect example of a wonderful place in America where freedom thrives," and "you represent the [embodiment of] the American dream, to me."

Continuing, Mr. Logue said, "What you have brought to this nation has been something that is good for our country. So it is my greatest honor to be able to bring to you a resolution today" acknowledging that contribution. He then read a portion of the resolution, after which he presented a framed copy of the document to the leaders of the Sikh Council of Central California which hosted the event.

The resolution states, in part, that "the Legislature recognizes and acknowledges the significant contributions made by Californians of Sikh heritage to our state, and by adoption of this resolution, seeks to afford all Californians the opportunity to better understand, recognize and appreciate the rich history and shared principles of Sikh Americans, their monotheistic religion and the tenets of their faith, and the important role that Sikh Americans play in furthering mutual understanding and respect among all peoples."

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Founded in Punjab, India, around 500 years ago, largely to counter the caste system and gender inequality that pervaded much of traditional Indian culture, Sikhism is based on "the tenet that all human beings are created with equal measures of dignity and divinity regardless of race, religion, caste or gender," said the introductory speaker on behalf of the Sikh Council. "The Sikh believes in universal equality," and the Sikh faith, now the world's fifth largest religion, "established civil rights and women's rights centuries ago."

For Sikhs, "the turban distinguishes its wearer as an ambassador of our faith, and it reminds us to abide by the core values of the Sikh religion including the importance of standing up for anyone who is oppressed," he said. "These same principles are what the United States of America was founded on."

Not all Sikh men choose to wear a turban, and those who do not are still fully accepted as a member of the Sikh community. But for those who do make the choice, it is symbolic of a deep commitment to the faith. Uncut hair, beards, and the wearing of a characteristic slender steel bracelet called a Kara are among other symbols of that commitment.

Sikh men generally have the middle name (or sometimes the surname) of Singh, which means "tiger."

Upon entering the Sikh temple, which in the Punjabi language is called the Gurdwara, everyone is requested to remove shoes and wear head coverings to show respect for the Sikh book of scripture, the Guru Garth Sahib, which occupies an honored place on a palanquin under a canopy at one end of the hall. Women wear scarves, and men who are not wearing turbans -- including non-Sikhs -- tie a triangle-shaped kerchief-type scarf over their heads.

The women's scarves are often exquisitely beautiful. The women do not try to hide their hair under the scarves, and they do not cover their faces. The men's turbans are distinctively different from any of the turbans worn by various Muslim groups.

Inside the Gurdwara, there is no special seating behind the podium for the speakers or dignitaries. Everyone, regardless of status, sits together on the floor, as a symbol of universal equality. (A bench on the back wall is provided for those who have difficulty sitting on the floor.)

During the November 14 event, a series of speakers, both Sikh and non-Sikh, talked about the history of Sikhism, its principles, its commitment to freedom and equality, and efforts of various groups and organizations to educate the general public about who they are and what they believe, so that they will not be inaccurately stereotyped because of their attire.

"You can't blame average Americans for misunderstanding us," said Dr. Jasbir Singh Kang, M.D., who lives in Yuba City, CA. "Some of it is our responsibility, too. If we don't educate them [about] who we are, people are going to judge you from your outside appearance. People need to judge you from your values … and our values are American values," so "we need to share that" with other Americans.

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Dr. Kang recounted some of the challenges that Sikhs have had living in the United States and some of the injustices to which they have been subjected over the years. Early in the last century, Sikhs were not allowed to become U.S. citizens, were not allowed to marry whites, and were not allowed to buy property. But rather than criticize America for those injustices, he said, instead: "The beauty of this country is despite all of these challenges, there is a way to get justice. So our people didn't give up. They kept trying." Eventually, in 1946, a bill was signed into law which allowed the Sikhs who were already in America to become U.S. citizens. Over time, some of the other racial and cultural barriers they had encountered were also overcome.

Most of the Sikh who have migrated from Punjab to the United States came seeking freedom from oppression, particularly religious freedom, as well as economic opportunities, and many of them have become highly successful in many fields such as farming, engineering, business and medicine, said Dr. Kang. Some in the second generation "became even more successful than their parents." Things were good for the Sikh community, he said, until after 9/11.

Subsequent to the events of that date, many Sikhs, including children in school, have been subjected to everything from bullying to violence at the hands of some people who mistakenly took them for terrorists, or thought them to share the same hateful anti-American ideology as the 9/11 terrorists.

Dr. Kang mentioned the case of a Sikh man who had two brothers that were murdered by "some American [who] thought that he was doing a great service to America by killing a terrorist." Such tragedies, he said, have happened "again and again because of lack of education, lack of awareness." But "we can't blame all Americans for some bad things that happened," he said, and "this country is so accepting" that the President of the United States invited the man to the White House "just to tell him, 'We are sorry what happened to your brother.'"

The Sikhs do have many friends in the United States, he said. "This is our home. This is our country. but we need to keep educating our fellow American brothers and sisters." America is "the best country in the world to live," he added, "and we can make it even better by educating other people" and making them aware that "Sikh values and American values have no contradictions. They are one and the same."

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There is great irony in that misidentification, not only because American Sikhs love this country and its freedoms but also because the Sikh people themselves have been the targets of Islamist terrorism in India from dating back to long before there was a United States of America for the terrorists to hate. In 1675, more than 100 years before the American Declaration of Independence, Guru Teg Bahadur, the ninth guru of the Sikh religion, was arrested at the order of the Mughal emperor Badshah Aurangzeb Alamgir I, taken to Delhi, placed in chains in an iron cage, and tortured in an effort to force him to convert to Islam. When he refused to abandon his Sikh faith, Guru Teg Bahadur was beheaded in public.

Recounting that history, Dr. Ranjit Singh Rajpal, general secretary of the Sikh Council of Central California, observed that Guru Teg Bahadur "gave his life for the protection of freedom of religion." In fact, all of the Sikh Gurus have "stood for freedom of religion, social justice, and justice for all."

The first guru of Sikhism and the religion's founder, Guru Nanak Dev, in the year 1499, began traveling throughout India and China "to spread the message of equality of mankind and one God and one humanity," said Dr. Rajpal.

Pashaura Singh Dhillon, poet and singer and education coordinator for the Sikh Council of Central California, added that at a time when throughout much of the world "people were burned alive who believed differently than someone in authority," Guru Nanak Dev, born in 1469, was "the first human rights activist fighting to rid the world of … inequality and other forms of injustices, tyrannies and intolerance." From that time to the present, Sikhs are enjoined to "enthusiastically join the fight for justice for everyone … principles also embodied" in America's founding documents "calling for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Sikhs have been living in the United States, "and especially in California, for more than a century now," Mr. Dhillon said. About 200,000 Sikhs currently live in California, "and they have made significant contributions to the economy and culture of this state…. Together with fellow Americans, we have helped make this Golden State shine even better."

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Dr. Onkar Singh Bindra, PhD, a retired professor who has been a leader in the movement to get inclusion of Sikh history and culture in school textbooks and curricula, and who helped produce a PBS video called "Meet the Sikhs," said that 85 percent of the 37 million people in California still "do not know who the Sikhs are … so we have a big job to do." He encouraged those in the audience to more actively discharge their "responsibility as good citizens" and participate in community activities and community service.

Representatives of several organizations that have been formed in recent years to increase Sikh awareness among non-Sikhs spoke at the November 14 event, presenting overviews of their outreach activities. Among them were students representing JAKARA, a national student organization that was started in Fresno in 2000.

"As it has been said by previous speakers, unfortunately there is much misunderstanding around the world as it relates to Sikhism," said Rep. Jim Costa. He thanked his colleagues in the California Assembly "for recognizing the importance of the Sikh religion, one of the major religions of the world" through the passage of ACR 181, and added that it is "important that we dedicate ourselves this month to Sikh awareness and to educating all Americans … of the importance of the Sikh religion, the traditions, the customs, and the important contributions" that Sikhs make to California and the United States. "I am proud as your representative to join you in commemorating … the vibrant diversity that Sikh Americans bring to our community."

The "traditions of basic freedoms" that are "part of our Constitution of the United States," he said, "have always been a part of the Sikh religion." Such cherished American principles as "the pursuit of liberty and freedom and happiness, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and equality of all" that are enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are also "enshrined in the Sikh religion," predating the American Constitution by centuries.

Over the past 100 years, the Central Valley of California has been home to "a concentration of Sikh Americans" who have enriched the state and the nation with "their rich history, mutual understanding and shared principles of the freedoms that we hold most dear," Rep. Costa concluded. "I trust that this valuable partnership will only continue to grow."

Source: Copyright © 2010 Rand Green Communications.
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*This article was originally published on Online Community Magazine,
a publication of Rand Green Communications, on November 22, 2010.


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