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SIKH COMMUNITY BEARS THE BRUNT OF RACIAL ATTACKS


A few days back America celebrated the 14th anniversary of the brutal 9/11 terror attacks. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, Americans emerged with a deeper and painful sense of patriotism and empathy. The 9/11 attacks also impacted the psychological perceptions of Americans. People started panicking or becoming aggressive when they saw a Muslim or someone they thought looked similar to the perpetrators of the attack.

One of the biggest victims of this ‘mistaken identity’ has been the Sikh Community in the Western world. Within 3 months of the 9/11 attacks, 300 documented cases of attacks against the Sikh Community were recorded according to the Sikh Coalition. The Sikh Coalition is is a community-based organization that works towards the realization of civil and human rights for all people. The group was born on the night of September 11, 2001, when an elderly Sikh and two teenagers were violently attacked in Richmond Hill, Queens in “reprisal” attacks by fellow Americans.

Last week a normal evening commute to the grocery store ended in the brutal attack of 53-year-old Inderjit Singh Mukker in Darien, Illinois, a suburb just outside of Chicago. The Sikh American and father of two became the victim of a brutal racial crime.

Mukker was driving, when the driver of the car next to him started yelling obscenities and racial slurs, including "Bin Laden," "Terrorist", "Go back to your country." Mukker pulled over to let the other car pass, only to get punched in the face by the other driver. Mukker lost consciousness and was rushed to the hospital where he received stitches and treatment.

Image Courtesy: nbcnews.com

Despite clear evidence of a hate crime, the DuPage County State’s Attorney’s Office initially declined to file hate crime charges against the juvenile offender. The assault prompted the outraged Sikh Community to hold a rally at the scene of the incident in support of the hate crime victim.

Following immense pressure from the community, the DuPage State’s Attorney’s Office personally decided to intervene in the case. Harsimran Kaur, Legal Director of the Sikh Coalition said, “We had a 2 hour-long meeting where we reviewed the evidence which showed the primary motivation behind the crime.” Mr Mukker underwent an extensive interview following which the Attorney’s office decided to prosecute the assault as a hate crime. The Sikh Coalition is the legal representative for Mr Mukker.

A statement released by the DuPage County State Attorney’s office says, “Crimes based on hatred or prejudices have no place in our society. Any physical attack motivated, in whole or in part, by an offender's pre-conceived bias against another individual based on race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation is a crime not only against the victim but against society as a whole."

SIKHS AND MISTAKEN IDENTITY

According to the Sikh Coalition, there are around 500,000 followers of the Sikh religion in the United States.

Gurjot Kaur, Senior Staff Attorney, The Sikh Coalition remarked, “Since the 9/11 attacks, turbans have been associated with terrorism. There is absolutely no relation between Sikhs and the Al Qaeda.” Thanks to the unfair perception, the Sikh community is having trouble finding employment opportunities in the country. Kaur adds that 60% of Sikh students in schools are bullied; double the national average. According to Kaur, “Racism is alive in America and we cannot refuse to acknowledge its existence.”

According to activists, Sikhs are being targeted for wearing their articles of faith. According to Parveen Kaur Dhillon, an American-born Sikh Author, "99% of the people who wear turbans in the western world are Punjabis."

In 2013, a Stanford University study found that 70% of the American public cannot identify a picture of a Sikh man as a Sikh. The study also found that about half of the public believes that Sikhism is a sect of Islam.

FACETS OF THE SIKH RELIGION

The Sikh religion very clearly dictates that Sikhs are not supposed to cut or shave their hair. Sikhism is the only religion in the world which requires its followers to tie a turban. The Sikh turban is thus an article of faith. Sikhs also carry with them a Kirpan, a sword 3-9 inches long. According to The Sikh Coalition, the Kirpan serves as a reminder for the community to fight against injustice and oppression.

HELPING THE SIKH COMMUNITY

The Sikh Coalition on its part, is trying its best to provide resources and support for the community. According to Kaur, the group has partnered with the New York Police Department (NYPD) earlier to raise awareness about the community. The group has been actively giving Sikh Awareness presentations in schools, workplaces and inter-faith meetings over the past few years.

Parveen Kaur Dhillon has authored a series of multicultural books for young Sikh children titled My First Sikh Books. The books come with a glossary and insert titled 'About Sikhs' for young children. According to Dhillon, she felt the need to author such books so that Sikh children can explain to their friends and the communities how their core values are the same as those of the communities they live in. According to her, it is a tough task for parents of the younger generation Sikhs, to educate them about the religion and culture. Hence the idea producing and distributing Sikh content came about. Dhillon is an active participant in multiple Sikh community awareness activities.

THE FUTURE

The juvenile who attacked Mr Mukker, faces one count of Hate Crime, a Class 4 felony in addition to felony aggravated battery charges. The juvenile will have to perform 200 hours of community service and most likely undergo counselling.

According to Kaur, “It has been a difficult week for Mr Mukker. His vision has been impacted due to the assault and he has not been able to resume work.” Mr Mukker has been a U.S. citizen for 27 years and has always found Darien to be a safe suburb. At a press conference this morning Mr Mukker said, “The United States is my country. I am an American and no American should be judged or attacked because of the color of their skin or their religion.”

Even as the Sikh Community in America continues to grow it remains in a constant state of vigilance. It is about time that a proactive effort be made, and a concerted one at that, with the media, the education system and the Government to educate the American people about the religious diversity that populates this great nation and is supposed to flourish without the fear of persecution by anyone. After all as they say, ‘We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.’

(News Desk : Neha Raghunath and Kavita S)


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