I was nine years old when I first heard someone tell my nanaji, “Go back to your country!”
That incident happened a few months after 9/11. At the time, I remember feeling an instant mix of emotions: confusion, anger, fear, and helplessness. Eighteen years later, I still feel this way every time I hear of an attack targeting a Sikh.
Just last month, an elderly Sikh man named Parmjit Singh was stabbed to death while taking a walk in his neighborhood in Tracy, California. While the motive, in this case, continues to be investigated, the incident is part of a growing trend of attacks targeting Sikhs in America.
Background on Anti-Sikh Hate Crimes
In the aftermath of 9/11, the murder of Sikh American Balbir Singh Sodhi was the first deadly hate crime reported. On Sept. 15, Sodhi was shot and killed outside his gas station in Mesa, Arizona. In just the first month after 9/11, the Sikh Coalition–the nation’s largest Sikh civil rights organization–documented more than 300 cases of violence and discrimination targeting Sikhs.
Since then, dozens of Sikhs have experienced violence and incidents of hate and bias.
- In 2011, two Sikh grandfathers were shot and killed during their daily afternoon walk in Elk Grove, California. To date, this case remains unsolved.
- On August 5, 2012, a neo-Nazi gunman walked into a gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and opened fire, killing six worshippers and injuring several more. At the time, it was the largest mass shooting in a house of worship in America.
- In 2013, 82-year-old Piara Singh was brutally attacked while leaving a gurdwara.
- In 2015, 68-year-old Amrik Singh Bal was punched in the face several times and run over by a car while on his way to work. In California, 78-year-old Gian Singh was assaulted while he waited to pick up his grandson from middle school. In Chicago, Illinois, Inderjit Singh Mukker was brutally attacked while driving to the grocery store. The assailant repeatedly cut him off with his car and when Mukker pulled over to the side of the road to let the vehicle pass, the assailant pulled in front of his car, got out, reached into his car, and repeatedly punched him in the face, causing him to lose consciousness.
- In 2016, a group of men severely beat Mann Singh Khalsa and forcefully cut his hair (which Sikhs maintain unshorn as part of their faith) in Richmond, California.
- In 2017, Harkirat Singh, a New York Sikh taxi driver was attacked when his assailant ripped his turban off his head. In Washington, Sikh taxi driver Swarn Singh was attacked by a man with a hammer who repeatedly targeted his turban. Also in Washington, Deep Rai was shot in his driveway by a man who shouted: “Go back to your own country!”
- In August 2018, two teenagers brutally attacked an elderly Sikh man taking a neighborhood walk-in Manteca, California.
Unfortunately, these are only a few of the high-profile offenses targeting Sikhs as many incidents are never reported.
Sikh Coalition Leading Efforts to Tackle Anti-Sikh Hate
In order to combat hate targeting Sikhs in America, the Sikh Coalition is leading a multi-pronged approach to educate policymakers about anti-Sikh hate crimes and collect hate crime data.
In 2013, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) announced it would begin tracking anti-Sikh hate crimes, after years of successful campaigning spearheaded by the Sikh Coalition. For the first time ever, the FBI also began tracking hate crime statistics for the Hindu, Arab-American, Buddhist, Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness and Orthodox Christian communities. Official tracking began in 2015, and data is released every year in the FBI’s annual report.
According to the FBI’s most recent hate crime report, hate crimes have increased by 16.7 percent and anti-Sikh hate crimes by more than 243 percent between 2016-2017 (data for 2018 will be released in November 2019). But the offenses included in the FBI’s report are just the tip of the iceberg.
The FBI’s annual statistics, unfortunately, underreport the scale of hate violence targeting Sikhs and other minority communities. Due to a lack of adequate training and resources, law enforcement often does not identify or misidentifies bias as a factor when a hate crime or bias incident occurs.
Additionally, because there is no mandatory requirement for law enforcement agencies to report hate crimes to the FBI–even when bias is identified as a factor–they often do not report it to the FBI, so the data never shows up in the statistics. Moreover, many individuals impacted by hate do not report the incidents due to fear or inadequate responses from law enforcement or other reasons. As a result of all these factors, there continues to be an enormous gap between the FBI’s reported data and the true scope of hate violence targeting Sikhs and other communities.
What You Can Do
As the Sikh Coalition continues to fight for Sikh civil rights, there are also steps that you can take to fight hate and raise awareness.
- Contact your state elected officials and ask them to implement inclusive hate crime legislation. This is especially important if you live in Wyoming, South Carolina, Arkansas, or Georgia–the last remaining states where there are no hate crime protections. In Georgia, you can ask your state senators to support HB 426, which would implement a state hate crime law. In South Carolina, Wyoming, and Arkansas, you can ask your state elected officials to introduce and support bills that provide hate crime protections for all vulnerable communities based on race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability and age. To find your representatives, you can use this non-partisan search tool from Common Cause, and to learn more about hate crime laws in your state, you can use this map from the Stop Hate Project.
- Encourage community members to document all hate incidents—including hate speech. Report incidents of hate and bias through the Sikh Coatlion’s Report Hate tool, which helps law enforcement better understand the full magnitude of the problem. The Sikh Coalition provides free legal assistance for Sikhs who have been discriminated against or subject to bias based upon their religious beliefs.
- Help raise Sikh awareness in your school district. Share the Back to School Toolkit and Sikhism Educator’s Guide with teachers and school administrators. The collection includes elementary, middle and high school lesson plans, a discussion guide for CNN’s United Shades of America episode about the Sikh community, ancillary background materials about Sikhism and the Sikh community for educators, and more.
- Encourage your local house of worship to conduct a free security assessment. The Sikh Coalition works with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and local law enforcement to provide a free assessment and provide suggestions on how to increase security and safety at gurdwaras — these services are available to other houses of worship as well.
- Conduct a Sikh awareness presentation for elected officials, law enforcement and others. The Sikh Coalition can provide contact information for law enforcement and elected officials and can also provide you with training on how to conduct the presentations. If interested, reach out to the Sikh Coalition at [email protected].
- Register to vote, host a voter registration drive, stay informed on where candidates stand on important issues, and make sure you and your community are informed on when and where to vote within your state. Some issue areas and questions you can take into consideration when voting for candidates include:
- Does the candidate support stronger hate-crime legislation and responses by law enforcement through better training, tracking and prosecutions?
- Does the candidate support anti-bullying initiatives that can better protect Sikh and other youth?
- Will the candidate work to end police profiling by legislation or law enforcement training?
- Does the candidate support equal employment opportunities, including supporting Sikhs and other religious minorities to serve with full religious accommodations in the armed services, law enforcement, and all other workplaces?
At nine years old, all I understood was the fear that incidents of hate and bias create. Now, while the fear for Sikhs and other vulnerable communities still exists, I no longer feel helpless. It is the resilience of the Sikh community and the work of organizations like the Sikh Coalition that inspire me to take action and encourage others to take a stand against hate.
Nikki Singh is the Policy and Advocacy Manager at the Sikh Coalition, the largest Sikh civil rights organization in the United States. To learn more about the Sikh Coalition, visit their website and access their free online resources. Or follow their Instagram or Twitter page to stay up to date.