American Sikhs: Caught Between Racial and Religious Holy War

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A Vigil in New York City’s Union Square for the August 2012 Wisconsin Sikh Temple shooting

The shooting at the gurdwara (temple) in Oak Creek, Wisconsin on 5 August 2012, brought to the fore how vulnerable Sikhs were as a minority in America. Because they do not actively proselytise little is known about them by millions of their fellow Americans. From What’s So Great About America (Penguin Books, 2002), conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza writes on page 29:

Reflection was not in evidence when, in the aftermath of the terrorist attack, an Arizona resident named Frank Roque fired three bullets into a Sikh gas station attendant, killing him. When the police arrived, Roque explained his actions: “I am an American.” Actually, so was the man he killed, Balbir Singh Sodhi. Roque apparently though Sodhi was a Muslim from an Arab country. Wrong man, wrong country, wrong religion.

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Just six hours before he was killed, Sodhi telephoned his mother, father, wife and children back in Punjab to assure them that he was safe, far away from the destruction in New York. But he omitted to tell them what he’d told some of his customers, that he’d had at least two threats of violence since 11 September 2001. Having shot Sodhi, Roque  relaxed in a nearby sports bar, announcing loudly, “They’re investigating the murder of a turban-head down the street.” Arrested later that afternoon at his home, Roque allegedly told officers he was seeking to revenge the terrorist assaults. “I stand for America all the way,” he bellowed, complaining that he was being taken in while “those terrorists run wild.” This hate crime was just the beginning. On 18 November, three teenagers burnt down Gobind Sadan, a gurdwara  in New York, because they thought it was named for Osama bin Laden. On 12 December, Surinder Singh Sidhi, a liquor store owner in Los Angeles who took to wearing an American flag turban after 9/11 out of fear of being attacked, is beaten in his store by two men who accuse of him of being Osama bin Laden. On 6 August 2002, the late Sodhi’s surviving brother, Sukhpal Singh was shot while driving his cab. Fifty-two-year-old Sikh immigrant and truck driver Avtar Singh is shot in his 18-wheeler while waiting for his son to pick him up. As he is being shot, he hears someone say: “Go back to where you belong” in Phoenix, on 20 May. In Queens, members of a Sikh family were set upon by drunken yobs shouting “Go back to your country, Bin Laden.” On 5 June 2008 in Albuqurque, a vehicle belonging to a Sikh family is defaced with the message “F*** Allah!” and a picture of male genitalia. And so on.

But these were not all just racial hate crimes or crimes of mistaken identity. In once case the attack was not just religious but driven by the same ideology that drove 9/11 and which Sikhs were subsequently blamed for. on 24 May 2007, at Newtown High School in Queens, Vacher Harpal was approached by another student, Umair Ahmed who stated: “I have to cut your hair”. He  protested to Umair Ahmed saying cutting of his hair is against his religion. But  Ahmed showed him a ring with Arabic inscriptions and said:

This ring is Allah, if you don’t let me cut your hair I will punch you with this ring.

Having threatened him with scissors the Muslim student forcibly cut the hair, hair which had not been cut since birth. Umair Ahmed, a 17-year-old Pakistani high school student from Queens in New York City, was charged with unlawful imprisonment, possession of a weapon, and aggravated harassment. Yet that crime is less well-known. Is it too politically inconvenient to mention jihad in the school corridors in which Sikhs and others are victims? Not just in America but elsewhere? The cruel irony is that long before America experienced 9/11, Sikhs were already prime targets of the Taliban.

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Sikhs along with Jews are completely banend from setting foot in Saudi Arabia, lest they defile the sacred soil of Islam. In Pakistan the miniscule Sikh minority is subject the full crushing weight of Islamic oppression including rape, kidnapping and forcible conversion. Most were expelled from this country when it was formed in 1947, in lands which had actually given rise to Sikh beliefs. Guru Nanak was now born in the village which now bares his name: Nankana Sahib. Yet it is in the hands of the Islamic imperialists. In Afghanistan the Taliban forced Sikhs and Hindus to wear distinctive yellow badges. The comparison with the Third Reich forcing yellow badges onto Jews was not hard to miss. It did not end with the borders of Afghanistan.The order came into force on 23 May 2001. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and a Holocaust survivor, remarked:

One would hope that we have learned from history.

Rep. Tom Lantos, another survivor of the Nazi camps said:

We cannot allow the Taliban to systematically repress its Hindus in such an eerily similar manner.

The U.S. House of Representatives condemned the Taliban and approved 420-0 a nonbinding resolution demanding that the Taliban revoke its order and abide by international civil and human rights standards. Many House members actually wore yellow badges of solidarity with Afghanistan’s Hindus and Sikhs during the debate.

Pakistan has always backed the Taliban. In fact they created the monster. The war on terrorism only let the spores of hatred spread and sprout more widely. on 22 February 2010, three Sikh youths were beheaded by the Taliban in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) region after they  refused to convert to Islam. Jaspal Singh, Sarabjit Singh and Baronat Singh were beheaded and their severed heads were sent to the Bhai Joga Singh Gurudwara in Peshawar. on 9 January 2011 two Sikhs were beheaded by the Pakistan Taliban. The Taliban had demanded Rs 30 million as ransom for their release, and when the deadline passed, the Sikhs were summarily executed by their Islamic terrorist kidnappers. The body of Jaspal Singh was found in the Khyber tribal region, located a short distance from the provincial capital of Peshawar, while the body of Mahal Singh was found in the Aurakzai Agency, sources said on Sunday night

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Most Sikhs fled from the region in the wake of such atrocities and by the imposition of jizya, the poll tax which teh Taliban impose on non-Muslism minorities to remind them of their inferior status as infidel ‘kuffar’. This was the same tax imposed on Hindus and Sikhs when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan.
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Bu the oppression of course actually predated the Taliban. Nushin Arbabzadah was brought up in Kabul during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and is now a research scholar at UCLA’s Centre for the Study of Women. On 6 July 2010 she wrote Afghan Sikh: forgotten victims in the Guardian:

Religious intolerance, especially towards Sikhism and Hinduism, is a deeply ingrained part of Afghan national identity which was formulated in opposition to the Hindus and Sikhs of India. Often, it takes exile and exposure to racism to make mainstream Muslim Afghans realise just how unfair society has been towards the Sikh community. “It was only when I came to England that I realised that our attitude towards our Sikhs had been wrong,” said a young Muslim Afghan whom I met in London’s Southall market recently. With the exception of a restaurant and a music shop, the market is run almost entirely by Afghan Sikhs….”We never had problems with the people in Afghanistan,” said Harpal Singh. That he was not telling the full truth was clear. After all, in my own school in Kabul, our Sikh classmate was regularly pressured to convert to Islam and even in present-day Afghanistan, Sikh children stay at home and are deprived of education because of widespread harassment at schools.

Writing in the Stars and Stripes, Heath Druzin explained the depressing situation in this article dated 8 August 2012:

Now, a community that numbered as many as 20,000 in the early 1990s has dwindled to roughly 3,000, many of whom stay simply because they can’t afford to leave. Many have gone to India, where the majority of the world’s Sikhs live, some of the wealthier ones have made it to Western Europe and the United States…..On a recent Friday night, there was plenty of space on the vast expanse of red carpet in the high-ceilinged prayer room of Kabul’s Dharamsal temple. Rougly 40 worshippers dotted the floor, where hundreds used to gather, as Sikh holy men led them in prayer. Netting now covers the second story windows after they were repeatedly smashed with bricks and rocks. Passers-by often yell “infidel” and other insults.


Sikhs in Britain

In Britain it is a different situation due to past colonial connections where Sikhs formed one of the ‘martial races’ recruited for military service. Immigration from India from the 1950s and the mass expulsion by postcolonial regimes in East Africa in the 1960s and 70s led to Sikhs becoming a familiar feature of the British population. While Gravesend in Kent became the centre of the country’s largest Sikh population it was the west London suburb of Southall which became the centre of Sikh and indeed much of Asian culture in Britain.

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Bringing Freedom to the world – A Sikh soldier of the 11th Sikh Regiment with a captured Nazi flag in Italy at the end of the Second World War.

Japanese "soldiers" using captured Indian Sikhs as target practice, 1942
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Japanese soldiers using captured Indian Sikhs as target practice, 1942

Hostility may have been directed to coloured immigrants in general. But Sikhs with their distinctive headgear attracted especially unwelcome attention, forced to cut their hair in order to gain employment. It was a far cry from when Sikhs in the regiments created in India by the British were actually obliged to keep unshorn hair and turbans as part of the regulation dress code.

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Mukhtiar Singh became the first turbanned bus conductor in Manchester in 1966 after a hard fought battle led by Sundar Singh since 1958

This was not limited to simply refusal in the sphere of employment. As with all forms of racial hatred this turned violent. From 1976 Southall became the focus of unwelcome interest as the crypto-Nazi (and more often openly Nazi) National Front began a series of provocative marches through the area. This followed the murder of schoolboy Gurdip Singh Chaggar which prompted John Kingsley Read, the then leader of the even more extreme British National Party, to comment “one down a million to go”. This cemented his Nazi connections already clear from Read having designed the front cover of the Hoax of the Twentieth Century, written by American Holocaust denier Arthur Butz. On 23 April 1979 the National Front held a meeting for St. George’s Day in Southall Town Hall. Met by 3000 protesters from the local community and Anti-Nazi League. The NF taunted the crowd with Hitler salutes and were protected by a cordon of 2500 police who turned their violence onto the crowd leading to 40 injuries and 300 arrests. Blair Peach, a New Zealand born special-needs teacher and member of the Anti-Nazi League, was knocked unconscious by the police and later died. Parminder Atwal and other residents had helped an injured Peach after the police left him lying on the pavement with his eyes rolled up and tongue stuck up. Peach’s death sparked an outcry, and national outpouring of grief. Days after Peach’s death, 10,000 marched past the place where he had collapsed.  The night before his funeral 8,000 Sikhs attended his open coffin that lay in state at the now-demolished Dominion Cinema, Southall, where his body was lying in repose.

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Sikhs and other Southall residents pay their respects to anti-racist activist Blair Peach as his coffin is carried.

10,000 people attended his funeral, which took place 51 days after 23 April.

As the 1970s ended being Asian in Britain could literally be a life-threatening experience. Stabbings, assaults, murders, petrol-bombings through letter boxes were common as the violent skinhead culture (ironically emerging over a decade earlier from working-class whites listening to soul, ska, rocksteady and reggae) took on a distinctive racist and Nazi character. On 3 July 1981, the ‘Oi’ skin bands 4-Skins, The Last Resort and The Business were set to play a gig  at the Hambrough Tavern. As 200 skinheads converged on the area local Asians were racially abused, windows were smashed, racist graffiti daubed on walls and Nazi slogans were shouted leading local youths to take to the streets to protect the community where they were attacked with bricks and clubs. The police formed a cordon around the pub, and deployed riot shields. But once again clashes only intensified as the police attempted to disperse the crowd. Petrol bombs were thrown and the pub was incinerated.

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The People reports on the Southall Riot of 1981

America First

Despite a well-known presence in Britain there were at one point more Sikhs in the United States and Canada, even as a proportion of the population. At the end of the nineteenth century Sikhs arrived in British Columbia finding employment in laying the tracks of the Canadian Pacific Railway, in lumber mills and mines. By 1906 they numbered 1500. Whites were already enraged at the presence of Chinese and Japanese immigrants but were even more averse to Sikhs with their distinctive beards and turbans. By 1907 there were almost 5000 ‘Hindus’ in Canada, of which the Sikhs were mostly retired British Army veterans. But loyalty to the empire was of no help as racial hatred turned ugly with attacks on Asian immigrants and accusations that Sikhs were unhygienic. By 1914 their influx had been almost halted by the Canadian government.

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Sikh immigrant lumber workers in Oregon from the early twentieth century

In 1907 some 1072 Sikhs left for California to work as farmhands. Others found work in lumber mills of Oregon or on the railways. But racism here was to prove far worse thna anything in Canada. One particularly well documented Indian work group was led by Tuly Singh Johl and helped build the Marysville railway station in California. Hundreds of ‘Hindus’  settled in the Sacramento, Imperial and San Joaquin valleys. The Imperial valley in particular was considered so hard to farm that it was usually pronounced “unfit for the white man” so “handing it over to Indians” was acceptable. The Indians in these valleys thrived. They worked so hard and did so well in farming that they developed reputations as being “a safe bet” when it came to banks lending money. According to the 1919 census of land in the state of California, Indians owned 88,000 acres of land in California. 52% of this land was in the Sacramento valley.

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In the Imperial valley they owned 32,000 acres. However, most of these Indians were destined to lose their land under the 1913 California Alien Land law. The supreme court of the USA, in November 1923, upheld this law and claimed that it did not violate the fourteenth amendment. A few months later California strengthened the law, disallowing Indians from even leasing land.  Hence Sikhs and other Indians could only work as agricultural labourers. Racism could also turn violent. On September 5, 1907 in Bellingham, a frontier town in Washington State, mob of over 500 angry racist white men kicked open the doors to the waterfront barracks. Some of them grabbed all the “hindoos'” belongings and threw them onto the street. If they found any money or jewelry they pocketed it. The others went after the “rag-heads” themselves. They dragged the Indians from their beds and punched and kicked them. The ones that jumped out of the buildings to escape injured themselves in the process or were caught and beaten outside. Other rioters attacked a tenement on Forest Street. Once they were done beating the “hindoos” they burnt the bunkhouses. The police just stood and watched. police chief turned over City Hall to the mob so the mob could collect the Indians and hold them there. He claimed it was to protect the Indians! Earlier, at the insistence of the mob, his policemen had released two youths who had been caught stoning Indians. They didn’t interfere with the mob’s rampage after that. As all the ‘Hindoos’ left town nobody was prosecuted. But history repeated itself in other towns. On November 5th, 1907, in Everett, Washington ,over five hundred armed men attacked and beat the Indians and robbed and destroyed their belongings. Most newspapers editorials in the west including the San Francisco Chronicle condemned the violence but proclaimed that they understood and supported the intentions of the mobs for a “white west coast”. These racist aspirations coalesced into groups such as the Asiatic Exclusion League. Thousands of Indian immigrants who had been naturalised lost their citizenship as they were deemed to be ‘non-Aryan’.For example Bhagat Singh Thind had his citizenship revoked twice, finally becoming a naturalised American only in 1935, almost 20 years after arriving in the country. This was by virtue of the fact that he had served in the military.

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Bhagat Singh Thind

Not until 1946 was naturalisation of Sikhs and other Indians allowed. Much of this was due to the activism of Dalip Singh Saund, an immigrant from Chhajulwadi in Punjab. Saund himself took up American citizenship and in 1955 became the only Sikh to date to serve as a member of the House of Representatives. His political career sadly ended in1 962 when he suffered a stroke.