American Turban

The Top 5 Sikh American Stories of 2011

Happy New Year!

As I did last year around this time, I’d like to reflect on what were some of the bigger stories for Sikhs living in America during this past year in terms of their implications on us as a community, or their impact on our collective psyche. It was an up-and-down year for Sikhs.

For many, it was a year that reminded our visible minority of the hate crimes and 9/11 backlash that apparently still continue to plague Sikhs, Muslims and other South Asians based on the misunderstanding of our physical appearances.  On the other hand, there were some inspirational stories where Sikhs broke through barriers, representing themselves as Sikhs (and Americans) with distinction complete with their Sikh identities intact.  So, in no particular order, here are (in my opinion) the top five stories for/about Sikhs in America that occurred during 2011:

1. Centenarian Fauja Singh, the “Turbaned Tornado”, completes marathon

In October, 100-year-old Fauja Singh completed the Toronto Waterfront Marathon in under nine hours, and despite Guinness World Records not acknowledging this achievement, he is widely believed to be the oldest person to complete such a race of 26.2 miles. While the “Turbaned Tornado” is a British citizen and the race took place in Canada, Fauja Singh has become an inspiration and hero to Sikhs in the United States and beyond, so much so that have Sikhs lined up to meet him at his public appearances.

2. Murders of elderly Sikhs in California; suspected hate crimes plague Sikh community

Surinder Singh and Gurmej Atwal (photo: cbslocal.com)

In March, two elderly Sikhs – Surinder Singh and Gurmej Atwal – were out for their daily walk in suburban Elk Grove, California, when they were shot down on the street by an unknown assailant.  Surinder Singh died at the scene and Gurmej Atwal died in hospital shortly after. The cold-blooded murders of these innocent men were without any discernible motive and it is suspected that their killings were a hate crime.  These shocking murders inspired American Sikh Day at California’s state capitol in April, and the community at large has rallied in support of justice for the killings, but to date, the killer(s) has not been identified nor arrested.

Sikhs were attacked in other noteworthy incidents as well.  In June, a Sikh man was attacked while on his commute in New York, accused by his assailant of being related to Osama bin Laden.  In late 2011, another elderly turbaned Sikh man was stabbed without provocation at the Fresno International Airport while he was preparing to board his flight.  The attacker was arrested, but hate crime charges have not been filed.  These and other incidents have reinforced the vulnerability that Sikhs in this country have felt in relation to hate crimes.

3. Sikh Coalition’s Amardeep Singh serves as Commissioner on the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders

Amardeep Singh (photo: sikhadvocates.org)

Amardeep Singh, one of the founders of the Sikh Coalition (a Sikh American advocacy organization), was appointed by President Obama to the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, a project to help meet the unmet needs of this community in America. Amardeep Singh’s appointment as a Commissioner lends a Sikh voice to this initiative about the issues faced by this community in this country, and it has especially complemented the Sikh Coalition’s work on the ground in combating the bullying of school-aged Sikh children. Many of the issues Sikhs are facing in the country are also shared by those from other communities.  To have a Sikh representative at such a high and visible level will certainly be of great benefit and bring awareness about who Sikhs are.

4. Ravinder Singh Bhalla becomes head of Hoboken, New Jersey’s city council

Ravinder Singh Bhalla (photo: hoboken.patch.com)

I am open to being corrected, but to my knowledge, Ravinder Singh has broken through a glass ceiling and is the first turbaned Sikh to head a city council in any city in America.  His example demonstrates the acceptance of Sikhs in the United States, and it is a laudable accomplishment for which he should be congratulated.  I hope many Sikhs in this country will take his example and become more involved in their communities and political process.

UPDATE – January 11, 2012: Commenter A_itoj Singh brought to my attention that Harvinder “Harry” Singh Anand, another turbaned Sikh actually pre-dated Ravinder Singh as a turbaned Sikh who headed a city council.  Harvinder Singh was elected Mayor of Laurel Hollow (an affluent village in New York) back in 2007, and still holds this position. More information about Harvinder Singh is available on wikipedia, as well as in a 2007 article appearing in the New York Times, and in an interview with with Nikki Rattan in 2008.

5. Religious rights defended in New York

(photo: sikhcoalition.org)

(photo: sikhcoalition.org)

Both the City and State of New York each took steps to protect religious rights of their citizens during the 2011.

In August, the Mayor of New York city, Michael Bloomberg, signed into law the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, to legally require employers to reasonably accommodate the religious requirements/practices of employees.  This act is a valuable precedent for Sikhs who often times face challenges in employment due to turban, uncut hair and other religious articles of faith.

The State of New York followed this in November with its Religious Rights Initiative to help combat discrimination and educate communities about the state’s legal requirements around religious rights. For New York’s sizable Sikh population, this focus by the State’s Attorney General will certainly help to bring down barriers and provide a platform on which Sikhs can defend themselves against discrimination based on religion.

There could certainly be other stories that could make the list of the top Sikh American stories of 2011. I followed the pursuit of justice in US civil court by Sikhs for Justice against Kamal Nath, accused of organizing anti-Sikh pogroms in India in 1984.  Many of the conspirators of this massacre have escaped with impunity in India, so how this case has proceeded under US law to achieve justice has been significant.

Also, the protection of the tribute to Balbir Singh Sodhi by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer (and the story of how that was achieved with grace by his brother Rana Singh Sodhi and other Sikh groups) was one of significance, as we saw that ignorance about the impact of 9/11 on Sikhs and other minorities still rears its head at high levels. We also saw how important and fruitful it is to take the initiative to educate our neighbors and public officials about who we are.

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