For each of five days, I looked at what I considered as the Top 5 Sikh American Stories of 2012:
- The Oak Creek Massacre
- Bhai Balwant Singh Rajoana
- Victories in employment equality
- The inspiring grace of Balpreet Kaur
- Sikh Americans celebrate a century
All of these stories were significant in relation to Sikh Americans during the year. However, there were several events during 2012 that arguably could be considered among the top five stories (and, while the “top five” list is the tradition for this blog, perhaps it was too limiting for 2012). As such, a discussion of these additional stories is certainly warranted and is below.
Jay Leno uses image of Golden Temple in monologue
Very early in 2012, the Sikh American community would find itself on national headlines. During his opening monologue on the nightly television show, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, host Jay Leno would take a swipe at Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s wealth by using a picture of Darbar Sahib (the Sikh faith’s central place of worship in Amritsar, India, also known as the Golden Temple) and calling it Romney’s summer home. This attempt at humor using exaggeration was not met well by some Sikhs in America and around the world, and instead elicited outrage. The Government of India and elected officials in the UK also jumped aboard the bandwagon of dissent for political mileage.
At the time, I felt that the hysteria around the use of the image was out of proportion and did not serve our community well. While others shared my view, one Sikh in California went to the extent to sue Jay Leno for his use of the image, which he would abandon five months later. Nonetheless, for a community not accustomed to being identified in national headlines, the mainstream media had a field day sensationalizing the outrage that came from Sikh communities within and outside of the United States about Leno’s use of the image.
Sikh Coalition releases FlyRights app to combat racial profiling
The US Transportation Security Administration (the TSA) has been the subject of broad public scrutiny (and of many posts on this blog) ever since the organization implemented a more invasive pat-down protocol and security imaging in our nation’s airports in 2010. Even prior to this, Sikh Americans often lamented being “randomly searched” almost all of the time when traveling through airports, and Sikh organizations have historically struggled with the TSA in respecting our articles of faith — most often, the turban.
However, at the end of April 2012, the Sikh Coalition announced the release of a new smartphone app called FlyRights (http://www.fly-rights.org), which put in the palm of the user’s hand a reference source and tips pertaining to a traveler’s rights. More importantly, the app provided a way to immediately file a complaint when a traveler feels that he or she was not treated appropriately by TSA agents. The accessibility of a complaints process via a smartphone is significant because — as the Government Accountability Office discovered in a report in November 2012 — the TSA itself is not particularly transparent and does not consistently receive, track, address nor report complaints through its variety of complaint mechanisms. The use of the app to file complaints would be a way to shed light on the agency’s compliance with procedure.
There were tens of thousands of downloads of the FlyRights app. While I have personally experienced a high rate of “random” searches when traveling, since the release of FlyRights, I and several turban-wearing colleagues have noticed that our rate of secondary pat-downs has decreased. We have also seen the TSA begin to change its policies and procedures, probably in light of the public scrutiny, and perhaps the release of the app has contributed to some of the pressure on the. Certainly, the app was a game-changer in empowering individuals — both Sikh and non-Sikh — to stand up for their rights.
Sikhs increase engagement with the White House
In June, dozens of Sikh community members and advocates participated in the first White House briefing about Sikh American issues. This was a notable moment in which, for the first time, government agencies provided a briefing about issues of concern to the Sikh American community:
There was something symbolic in that moment. Once, a long time ago, Sikhs would have made the jakara call while raising their flag at the Red Fort in Delhi, the symbolic capital of India, as Jassa Singh Ahluwalia was proclaimed Sultan-e-Quam (‘king of the nation’) – a gesture in which Sikhs laid claim to their sovereignty as a people in 19th century India. Now, under certainly different circumstances in a land separated by time and distance, Sikhs were making a similar call to claim to their legitimacy as Americans.
This was not the first time that Sikhs would be found at the White House in years prior, or even in 2012. Earlier in the year, entrepreneur Navroop Mittar appeared next to President Obama during a press conference, famously wearing a pink turban. In December, the White House also hosted a Gurpurab celebration for the birth of Guru Nanak (the founder of Sikhism born in 1469) after offering official congratulations for that anniversary and for Bandi Chhor Diwas in October.
The President also reached out to Sikh Americans in other ways, including after the massacre in Oak Creek in August, after which he issued statements to condemn the murder of Sikhs in their place of worship, issued a proclamation to honor the victims and order that flags in the country fly at half staff. The First Lady would also visit the families of the victims later that August.
California to revise high school curriculum to include information about Sikh Americans (SB 1540)
At the beginning of September, when California’s Governor Jerry Brown signed the Workplace Religious Freedom Act in his state, he also signed legislation authorizing the State Superintendent to revise the California high school curriculum by 2014, opening the door to including content about Sikh Americans.
Of note, the current draft Framework includes seven references to Sikhs including Guru Nanak, Sikh immigrants and their struggles, Dalip Singh Saund, and Bhagat Singh Thind.
Known as bill SB 1540, this legislation was introduced by State Senator Loni Hancock and was championed by Dr. Onkar Singh Bindra, whose yeoman’s effort was largely responsible for seeing this bill pass so that millions of California’s students will learn about the contributions of Sikh Americans.
Sikh political activity during the 2012 election cycle
The 2012 election cycle was full of drama and suspense, but one aspect was particularly notable: the increased engagement of the Sikh American community in the political process.
Of particular note was the nomination in June of Sikh American Ricky Gill as the Republican Party candidate for California’s 9th Congressional District, home to one of the largest and oldest populations of Sikh Americans. As the challenger to Democratic Party incumbent Jerry McNerney, the 25-year-old Gill would undertake a hard fought campaign against the sitting Representative but would eventually fall short in his bid for the seat. His campaign was a point of significant discussion on this blog, particularly in relation to his apparent reluctance to publicize his association with the Sikh American community, one that was both a source of significant support and criticism.
Sikh Americans would make more history during this election cycle. At the end of August, a Sikh leader named Ishwar Singh, from Orlando, Florida, was invited to provide an invocation during the Republican National Convention in Tampa. In Ishwar Singh’s words:
I hope that my presence Wednesday on the national stage will play a small part in helping Sikhs – and people of all races, faiths and orientations – be seen as part of the great American family.
This was the first time a Sikh provided an invocation at a political party’s national convention, and it was an appreciated gesture in the wake of the mass murder in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, earlier that month. Ishwar Singh’s prayer can be viewed here.
The next week, Sikhs were a visible presence at the Democratic National Convention in September, garnering attention in the crowd and in the media. One Sikh attendee, Jusleen Kaur, shared her feelings about attending the Democratic Party convention:
Having had a strong interest in civic engagement from a young age, my week at the DNC reiterated what I’ve known all along: being active is the key to being included. Being an advocate, activist or simply calling your elected government official is crucial in being included when policy decisions are made.
Indeed, it was clear that we saw a much more prominent presence of Sikh Americans during the political process. Certainly, some of this increased activity was related to the tragedy in Oak Creek.
Harpreet Singh Saini testifies at the US Senate Hearing on hate violence
Finally, the testimony of Harpreet Singh Saini at the US Senate hearing “Hate Crimes and the Threat of Domestic Extremism” warrants a mention on this list. Harpreet Singh lost his mother Paramjit Kaur in the Oak Creek massacre less than two months earlier. As I wrote at the time:
One cannot discount the significance of this event, in which hate crimes with a focus on Sikh Americans is addressed at a Congressional hearing, and in which a variety of groups representing different faiths and communities were present. Adding to that significance is the brave testimony of a young Sikh who lost his mother only a few weeks before. Harpreet Singh’s testimony was by far the most salient and still echoes in my mind. I cannot do his words justice here and encourage any to read, or better, watch and listen (at the 55 minute mark) to his testimony in full. His words were powerful, heart-breaking, and touching.
This young Sikh’s testimony was very moving, and it is only appropriate to recognize him and his brother for sharing their story and their grief with the entire country. It is in the memory of the victims who have passed, and those who survived, that Sikh Americans carry forward into 2013 with the hope that such tragedy not befall any community again.