Last month’s launch of the American Sikh Congressional Caucus represents a new chapter in the Sikh American story. Much in the way the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama marked a turning point for the American civil rights movement, the August 5, 2012 murder of six Sikh worshippers at a Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin underscored the urgent need for Sikh Americans to create awareness about Sikh American civil rights issues at the highest levels of our government.
The Sikh American community faces serious challenges. According to Sikh Coalition surveys in New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area, approximately 10 percent of Sikhs believe they have experienced hate crimes. (Statistically speaking, this means that Sikhs are potentially hundreds of times more likely than their fellow Americans to experience hate crimes.) Just this past weekend, a Sikh grandfather—Piara Singh—sustained facial fractures, broken ribs, and a punctured lung after being viciously beaten in Fresno, California by an assailant armed with a steel rod. Other attacks remain unsolved. This past February, a Sikh father and business owner—Kanwaljit Singh—was shot and seriously wounded in Port Orange, Florida in a suspected hate crime, and two Sikh grandfathers—Surinder Singh and Gurmej Singh Atwal—were shot and killed in Elk Grove, California in 2011 in yet another suspected hate crime.
Bias against Sikhs manifests itself in other ways. According to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a majority of turbaned Sikh American students experience bullying and harassment in American public schools, and school administrators often display a lackadaisical attitude toward implementing anti-bullying laws. Loopholes in federal law make Sikhs susceptible to segregation in the workplace, thwarting their professional development, and loopholes in federal law make Sikhs vulnerable to racial and religious profiling at American airports. On top of it all, turbaned and bearded Sikh Americans are not presumptively permitted to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces, even though devout Sikhs are presumptively permitted to serve with their religious articles in the Armed Forces of Canada, India, and the United Kingdom.
If these challenges are not addressed, their cumulative effect will be to have a chilling effect on religious expression. In the United States—a nation founded on the promise of religious freedom—Sikh Americans, who often feel the brunt of religious discrimination, feel a special responsibility to vindicate their civil rights and the rights of all Americans. If Sikh Americans lose, all Americans lose. In this context, the American Sikh Congressional Caucus is a momentous step forward, and the Sikh Coalition looks forward to working with Congress to ensure that America remains a land of equal opportunity, where all people are free to live and worship in peace.
It has been more than a century since Sikhs began calling America their home. Several generations of Sikh Americans now regard the United States as their homeland and consider themselves to be proud and patriotic Americans. Sikh American civil rights issues can only be addressed through improvements to American laws and public policies, and the American Sikh Congressional Caucus is well-suited to give these issues the attention they deserve.