American Sikh Day – Again

American Sikh Day – Again

Today, hundreds of people gathered on the steps of the California State capitol building for “American Sikh Day.” In the crowd and on the stage, a handful of politicians donned Sikh turbans and others held up signs that read “We are all Sikh.” California Senator Darrell Steinberg called today, April 13*, a day of solidarity with Sikhs in response to the shooting of two elderly Sikh gentlemen in Elk Grove, CA last month.  Surinder Singh, 65, and Gurmej Atwal, 78, were taking their daily afternoon walk in a suburb of Sacramento when a Ford pick-up truck pulled up and gunned them down.  Singh died at the scene.  More than a month later, Atwal remains in critical condition.

Police suspect that hate was the motive, given the climate of rising anti-Muslim sentiment — the shooting took place a few days before the controversial congressional hearings investigating “radicalization” in the Muslim community, a few weeks after Tea Party protesters yelled “Terrorist!” and “Remember 9/11” at Muslim families at a fundraiser, and during a flurry of bills banning sharia in more than a dozen states.  As a Sikh American filmmaker and advocate, I have come to brace for the news of hate violence whenever anti-Muslim rhetoric reaches a fever pitch, as it has since the firestorm around the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” last fall.

“Nothing has changed,” said Atwal’s son, reflecting on the decade since 9/11.  These words have been ringing in my ears.  They reflect a vast despair among Sikh, Muslim, Arab, and South Asian Americans as we approach the ten-year anniversary of 9/11.  This particular shooting makes people feel that way.  Balbir Singh Sodhi, the first person murdered in a hate crime after 9/11, was gunned down in an eerily similar way: someone in a Ford pick-up truck pulled up and fired shots in his back.  And shortly afterward, I remember attending and filming a rally on the steps of the California state capitol where a crowd held signs that read “Sikhs are American.”

Ten years later — the same rally, the same circumstances, and the same message.

Now that politicians use the fear of Islam to win points during election seasons, it’s clear that we will face anti-Muslim bias for a long time to come.  And it means we will have many more rallies like this.  But rather than face despair, I hope that we can look back on past struggles for justice for inspiration to learn how to sustain energy and commitment in the coming decade and for the long haul.

* Note: April 13 was chosen as a day of solidarity, because it is Vaisakhi Day, the Sikh new year.  Four hundred years ago, Guru Gobind Singh Ji, the tenth teacher in the Sikh faith, brought Sikhs together as the “Khalsa,” or a brother-and-sisterhood of saint-soldiers — a community called to stand up against injustice and serve humanity.  Sikhs were to keep articles of faith that mark this commitment, including keeping long uncut hair, which many men and some women wrap in a turban.