The Shiromani Akali Dal in India rushes in where Sikh leaders in America do not want to tread.
After the gurdwara attack in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, many television channels in the US tried to helpfully clarify to their viewers that it probably was a case of mistaken identity. The killer must have confused Sikhs and their beards and turbans with the Osama bin laden types. The Chinese had to prove they were not Japanese after Pearl Harbour. And the Sikhs had to prove they were not Arabs after 9/11. Sikh American leaders who had already gone through this post 9/11 were quick to react and not get trapped in this right-victim, wrong-victim dialectic.
“No community ‘deserves’ this type of hostility,” wrote Amardeep Singh, an associate professor of English at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, in the New York Times. “Would it be any less tragic if the victims in Wisconsin had been Muslims gathering for Friday prayers?” Osama bin Laden was a terrorist. But the turban and the beard are not the markers of a terrorist. Sometimes terrorists also look like bald, tattooed, white men as we found out in Wisconsin.
But Harsimrat Kaur, MP for the Shiromani Akali Dal, seems to have far less qualms than her counterparts in the US. She ranted in the Lok Sabha yesterday that “just because there is some resemblance in attire, they are targeted.” “How much longer will it take for innocent and peace-loving Sikhs to give up their lives or live in terror before the Indian government wakes up to take some corrective steps to stop these senseless killings?” she demanded. Parkash Singh Badal, the Punjab CM, has said “There is a growing feeling in the minds of Punjabis in general and Sikhs in particular that the Union government must get more actively and vigorously involved in getting the US administration address the issue of safety in right earnest.”
What exactly do Badal and Kaur want the Indian government to do in a case that is clearly one of domestic terrorism in the US? Has the Oak Creek gurdwara asked for their help? Six days after the shooting the gurdwara has reopened for the public with a special service for peace.
The local authorities there have pursued the case with vigour. They just arrested the shooter’s ex-girlfriend as well. President Obama ordered flags to fly at half mast until 10 August and called up Manmohan Singh. Even before the Wisconsin tragedy, Rep. Joseph Crowley from New York has been calling on the FBI to collect data on hate crimes against Sikhs. One could say that the Americans have shown more alacrity and responsiveness than authorities in India often do when such terrible things happen here.
Sure, there is a larger debate to be had about the gun culture in the United States and the power of its gun lobby. But that’s a debate for Americans to have in America. New Delhi cannot impose that debate on Washington DC any more than Washington can tell Delhi how it needs to fix its own constitution.
And yes, there is soul-searching to be done about how the mainstream American media treated the Batman shootings versus this one but again, that’s hardly a debate the Indian government should get involved in.
Ms Kaur seems so hell-bent on scoring domestic political points here she is ignoring the inconvenient fact that the Sikhs in America are actually quite well-organised, and have been since Sikh gas station owner Balbir Singh Sodhi was killed days after 9/11 in Arizona.
As Amardeep Singh explains:
To its credit, the Sikh community realized very quickly that it wouldn’t do to simply say, “Don’t hate me, I’m not a Muslim.” Sikhs got organized shortly after 9/11, forming advocacy organizations, chief among them the Sikh Coalition. These groups were emphatic that they opposed hate crimes directed against any group based on religious hostility. To spread awareness, Sikh groups also distributed educational materials and bought advertisements to try to reduce ignorance about the Sikh turban.
The difference between 2001 and 2012 is clear. Filmmaker Valarie Kaur made the documentary Divided We Fall about the aftermath of 9/11 on Sikhs and Muslims in the United States. After the Wisconsin shooting she wrote in an email:
(O)n September 15, 2001, a Sikh man was gunned down in front of his gas station in Mesa, Arizona. Aside from a few quick clips on the local news, the coverage was sparse.
But this time, something new is happening. Social media were flooded with messages of support and solidarity for Sikh Americans. They knew that the Sikh community gathered to pray on a Sunday morning, just like in millions of churches around the country. They knew that the terrible loss of life so recently after the shootings in Aurora shocks the conscience and violates our deepest values. And they know that this is not just a Sikh tragedy but an American tragedy.
If 9/11’s terrible legacy has had any silver lining, it is this – it mobilized the Sikh community into action. The Sikh Coalition has carefully catalogued all instances of hate crimes and harassment and issued reports so that they would not be dismissed as isolated cases. The coalition says its has received thousands of requests for help since 9/11 for everything from school bullying to employment discrimination.
And Sikhs realise quite clearly that the solution is neither to dump the turban and shave. Nor is it to just keep your head low and stay quiet, hoping that this too shall pass. In an essay she wrote for Hyphen Magazine and Firstpost, Meeta Kaur explains:
Sikhs have an outward identity that does not allow us to hide, so our only choice is to be vocal and act on a firm resolve as Americans who have a long-term stake in this country… I do not have the luxury of being scared or silent as I was during 9/11. I have to shift to a place of action so (my children) Benanti and Sidak know their fate is in their own hands, so they know they have voices they can use to stop discrimination.
Those Sikhs know quite well how to stand up for themselves without Harsimrat Kaur or Manmohan Singh’s help all the way from India. The best thing well-wishers in India can do for their emigrants brothers and sisters is to allow them to respond to this tragedy as an American tragedy.