April marks the advent of Vaisakhi, celebrated as a Sikh New Year with the birth of the Khalsa. Every year Sikh-Americans take out their large Nagar Kirtans (parades) from Sacramento to San Jose, Selma to Los Angeles, and Stockton to Bakersfield to enjoy a day of food, festivities, and faith.
Sikhs welcome their neighbors, renew their friendships, and make soon-to-be-forgotten resolutions. These celebrations are part of California’s fabric and have been celebrated by Sikhs since their first arrival in the early 1900s.
The early history of Sikhs in California was not always happy. Many white nationalists feared the “turban tide” as they termed the thousands of Sikhs entering the Golden State as students at the University of California, Berkeley, and as farmhands in the San Joaquin and Imperial valleys.
Racism and exclusion were common, and both federal and state legislatures often worked in sync. The Page Act of 1875 prohibited entry for Asian women. The California Alien Land Law of 1913 banned Asian property ownership. Finally, the Asiatic Barred Zone Act of 1917 completely halted Asian and Sikh immigration.
While the California of a bygone era is no longer recognizable, many Sikhs remain excluded from fully participating in electoral and civil life, and receiving the vital resources they need. The reason for this contemporary exclusion is rather tragic.
100 millionPunjabi speakers worldwide
The language of the Sikhs, and all who come from the land of Punjab, is not given proper recognition by the federal and state government. Punjabi is the 10th most spoken language in the world, with over 100 million speakers worldwide, also making it the third most spoken language in Canada and the fourth most spoken in the United Kingdom.
Punjabi is one of only 16 languages in California with over 100,000 speakers, far higher than more well-known languages such as Italian, Hmong and Portuguese.
In numerous Central Valley cities and counties, Punjabi is the third most spoken language, including Bakersfield, Kerman, Selma, Madera, Ceres and Yuba City. However, improper categorization of Punjabi by the U.S. Census and the California Secretary of State hinders language access for matters around health care access, voting rights, and other services.
The U.S. Census and the California Secretary of State bundle Punjabi with Bengali, Marathi, and Romany and names this grouping “Other Indic Languages,” which is then ignored by government officials. Other languages are viewed as individual units, so this clumping by census officials creates a situation where the specific needs of Punjabi-speaking individuals are neglected and overlooked.
In 1975, the federal Voting Rights Act was amended and added Section 203, which calls for voting materials – ballot, voter registration, candidate qualifying, polling place notices, sample ballots, instructional forms, voter information pamphlets, and absentee and regular ballots – to be provided in minority languages, where over 10,000 voting age citizens or over 5 percent of the county speak a single minority-language group.
The improper categorization of Punjabi leads to oversights and omissions. Counties such as Fresno, Sacramento, Los Angeles, Santa Clara, and Alameda each have over 10,000 “Other Indic Language” speakers, who are largely Punjabi. Even San Joaquin County will soon be approaching the threshold.
Punjabi is the 10th most spoken language in the world, also making it the third most spoken language in Canada and the fourth most spoken in the United Kingdom.
In Sutter County, where Sikhs have been elected mayors and make up nearly 10 percent of the county, the improper designation by the census and state has denied the residents Punjabi language materials and deters access for many individuals.
California Elections Code Section 14201, affirms: “It is the intent of the Legislature that non-English speaking citizens, like all other citizens, should be encouraged to vote.” Current state law designates 10 languages as meeting language-access thresholds: Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, Tagalog, Russian, Armenian, Khmer, Arabic, and Hmong.
Despite there being more Punjabi speakers with limited English proficiency than some of these languages, its exclusion limits the access for so many California residents.
The need for California and the federal government to rectify this matter is critical for providing access for all. Punjabi language speakers will continue to grow, as the last census demonstrates that the category to which Punjabi belongs had the fourth largest percentage increase between 2000 and 2011 in the entire nation.
Last week I joined a delegation from California to urge our Washington, D.C., lawmakers to ensure the necessary changes. We met with a positive response from all, especially Congressmen Jim Costa of Fresno, John Garamendi of Walnut Grove and David Valadao of Hanford. However, we hope to see changes at the state level even sooner.
This Vaisakhi, I, along with so many other Punjabi speakers in California, hope that our fellow Californians will strongly urge Secretary of State Alex Padilla and U.S. Census Bureau officials, who are gearing up for 2020, to make the necessary changes to count all citizens.
Deep Singh of Fresno is the executive director of the Jakara Movement, a youth development nonprofit and the largest Sikh volunteer organization in the United States. Connect with him at firstname.lastname@example.org.