Sikhs have pushed for acceptance since 1899 coming to America and continue to do so as evidenced by the 7th annual Sikh American Awareness Event – billed as an educational format – held at the Ceres Community Center on Friday, June 7.
The event drew a number of local dignitaries including mayors, city council members, Valley sheriffs and police chiefs, business leaders, Chamber officers, and office seekers. The intent was to spread a greater understanding of the Sikh faith and dispel some common misconceptions that have made them the targets of bigotry.
The word “Sikh” in the Punjabi language means “disciple,” thus Sikhs are the disciples of God who follow the writings and teachings of the Ten Sikh Gurus. Worldwide there are about 25 million Sikhs, making it the fifth largest faith in the world. About 65 percent live in Punjab or neighboring areas, 25 percent live in India and 10 percent outside of India.
Guest speaker was Jaspreet Kaur, a community organizer who works for the Jakara Movement, the largest nonprofit organization for Sikh youth. Its purpose is to focus on leadership development, social justice and increasing relationships with local school boards. It operates on Central Valley, Pitman, Livingston, Manteca, Tracy and Mountain House high school campuses. She spoke about combatting bullying in schools and the community.
“Standing up against bullying is all of our responsibility as a whole,” said Kaur. She suggested bullying takes on many forms, such as physical and verbal abuse by “saying mean and hurtful things on purpose.” Kaur said cyberbullying is on the rise and often can cause interference with academic performance and enjoying all opportunities offered in school.
Ekta Singh spoke about helping to foster understanding on her son Nack’s school campus by speaking and offering a PowerPoint presentation on cultural differences.
“Talking about cyber-bullying, I think if we start early and point out that we are different and it’s not a big deal, that’s how the world is, the kids will be more aware in the classroom, the less likely kids will be picked on,” said Singh.
Kaur said all persons should be working together to seek understanding to reduce bullying rather than “throw everything on the schools’ plate.”
She asked school officials to ask parents what can be done to help.
Jaspreet then called up Central Valley High School student Sejal Kaur to address cyberbullying in social media.
“Don’t be a bystander,” advised Sejal, who said adults and students should speak out and “intervene, explain how it’s not okay for anyone to discriminate. Just let people be themselves. Just let people express themselves.”
She also recommended reporting it to school officials or police.
Congressman Josh Harder spoke to the group, noting how hate crimes have been inflicted on local Sikhs, including one outside of Keyes.
“These are not isolated incidences,” said Harder. “Sikhs are hundreds of times more likely to face discrimination than the average American. I think what we need to think about here is what is at the root of this problem. I think the root of hate is fear. People fear what they don’t understand. Folks sometimes associate falsely beards and turbans with terrorism. And what is at the root of fear? It’s ignorance. It’s a lack of education of the tradition of the Sikh community and the contribution that they have made to our country and to our community right here in the Valley.”
He said the solution is educating the community.
Approximately 400,000 Sikhs live in California with most living in the Valley.
The Sikh faith is among the oldest on the planet. The teaching started with founder Guru Nanak (1469-1539). The concept was that “God has no religion, God doesn’t have a shape and form, God existed all the creation of humanity and all life in all form.” Nanak became a champion for the downtrodden and was persecuted for it.
While Sikhs strive to live at peace with all, members have suffered random attacks in the United States. There were notable slaughters of Sikhs on the West Coast, including one in 1907 in Bellingham, Wash., and a decade later when Sikh farm laborers were attacked in Wheatland, Calif.
For many decades, Sikhs were not allowed to own property in the United States because in 1913, the Alien Land Act restricted land ownership to American citizens and those who came from India, Siam, Indo-China, Afghanistan, Arabia and parts of Siberia could not become citizens, said Dr. Kang, because of the 1917 Immigration Act. Also at that time, interracial marriages were illegal.
Because Sikhs could own property for worship purposes, the first Sikh-held property was a Sikh Temple in Stockton in 1915. Many Sikhs returned to India under British rule while others stayed and fought for rights in America. Through vigorous lobbying by Sikhs, the Luce-Celler Act was signed by President Harry Truman in 1946 which opened the door for citizenship for people from India.
In 1965 the Immigration and Nationality Act signed by President Lyndon Johnson abolished an earlier quota system based on national origin and established a new immigration policy based on reuniting immigrant families and attracting skilled labor to the United States. More Sikhs came here as a result. That influx increased in 1984 when the Indian Army attacked the Golden Temple which led to mass exodus.
When the terrorist attacks occurred on Sept. 11, 2011 in New York City and Washington, D.C., many Sikhs were mistaken as Muslims and were attacked on the streets. Attacks even occurred in the Valley as recently as December 2015 when Amrik Singh Bal, a 68-year-old Fresno Sikh was assaulted by perpetrators who asked him, “Why are you here?”
Sikh taxi cab drivers have traditionally faced the worst cases of discrimination.
Sikhs hold customs unfamiliar to those outside the faith. Sikhs do not cut their hair for religious reasons and wear turbans, or chunnis, to cover their head. Hair must be well groomed. A kirpan, a knife-shaped object, is carried not as a weapon but as a symbol of self-defense and protection of human rights. Sikhs also wear a bracelet to remind members of the omnipotent existence of God and wear Katchera, an underwear that represents modesty and self-restraint.
Food was catered by Sunlight Indian Cuisine of Ceres.
Scholarships were given out to local middle school students who were able to overcome obstacles in pursuit of a good education.
Among those who were present at the Ceres forum were District Attorney Birgit Fladager, Sheriff Jeff Dirkse, Ceres Police Chief Rick Collins, and congressional candidates Ted Howse and Bob Elliott.