I have two reactions to the “We are Sikhs” television ads.
How sad it is that Sikhs, who have been in the United States since the 19th century, still have to tell their story. And how smart it is for Sikh leaders to mount this extensive effort to get the word out about their values and positive contributions to communities across our land.
The hope is that the campaign will reduce discrimination, bullying and hate crimes against Sikhs – all of which surged after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and continue to this day.
Even here in the Central Valley – where they long ago established themselves as hardworking farmers and entrepreneurs and families that highly prize education – Sikhs have been the victims of hate crimes, often by attackers who mistake them for Muslims or are put off by their beards and turbans.
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The fact that Sikhs remain a mystery to most Americans is startling in light of their numbers. There are believed to be between 500,000 and 700,000 Sikhs in the United States, roughly half of them in California, and 27 million worldwide. Sikhism is one of the largest organized religions in the world, with 20 million members living in India.
Here are 10 things to know about Sikhs:
1. Sikhs fought valiantly alongside the British in World War I and World War II, earning the admiration of Winston Churchill.
“(The) British people are highly indebted and obliged to Sikhs for a long time,” Churchill said. “I know that within this century we needed their help twice and they did help us very well. As a result of their timely help, we today able to live with honour, dignity, and independence.”
Sikhs have served in the U.S. military in every war since World War I. When the military rescinded permission to wear beards in 1981, that became a hurdle for enlistment by Sikhs. However, under pressure from Congress and faced with a lawsuit, the Army in January of this year made it easier for Sikhs to serve by simplifying the religious appearance accommodation.
2. Sikhism’s founder, Guru Nanak (1469-1539), taught that men and women, rich and poor, and people of all races and faiths are equal under God. The religion is monotheistic and stresses service to others and honesty. Its members don’t proselytize.
3. It’s a Sikh custom is to give “Singh” as a middle or last name for men and “Kaur” for women. These translate into “Lion” and “Princess,” respectively.
4. The largest Sikh event outside of India took place Nov. 6, 2016, in Yuba City when more than 100,000 people attended the 37th annual Sikh Parade Festival. Sikhs came from as far away as Australia for the festivities. Yuba City, which is north of Sacramento, is home to 15,000 Sikhs. That’s city’s first Sikh immigrants helped build the Southern Pacific Railroad.
5. The United States does not recognize “Sikh” as an ethnic group on census forms, although many other countries do. This has made it difficult to know exactly how many Sikhs reside in the United States.
6. Alexi Singh Grewal, a Sikh born in Aspen, Colorado, was the first U.S. man to win an Olympic gold medal in road cycling. He captured the gold at the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles.
7. Dalip Singh Saund broke many barriers after immigrating through Ellis Island from Punjab, India. Although he received a doctorate in mathematics at UC Berkeley, Saund made his mark as a lettuce farmer, author, social activist and member of the House of Representatives.
He was among those who convinced Congress to pass the Luce-Cellar Act, which granted naturalization rights to Indian immigrants in 1946. Ten years later, he won election to the House from California’s 29th District (Riverside and Imperial counties) as a Democrat and served three terms. With his victory, he became the first Sikh American, Asian American and Indian American elected to Congress.
Saund suffered a stroke during his campaign for a fourth term and remained an invalid until his death in 1973.
Riverside Historical Society Member Tom Patterson wrote of the influences that shaped Saund:
“Like many others of his status, Saund was inspired by British promises of independence for India to follow World War I and was chagrined when that promise was abandoned. He was inspired by the writings of Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. He was favorably impressed by the preachments of Mohandas K. Gandhi, the great Hindu exponent of non-violent struggle for independence.”
Though Saund had promised his family that he would return to India after completing college, he found the opportunities in America impossible to resist. “Even though life for me did not seem very easy, it had become impossible to think of life separated from the United States,” Saund said.
8. The 5 Ks are symbols of discipline and spirituality. They demonstrate that the Sikh who wears them has committed to a life of devotion. They are: Kesh (uncut hair covered by a turban), Kara (steel bracelet), Kanga (wooden comb), Kaccha (undergarment) and Kirpan (steel sword).
Most Sikhs wear one or more of the articles, but only Sikhs who have been through the Amrit Ceremony of public baptism wear all five.
The BBC-Religions website explains: “Every Sikh remembers that every Sikh warrior, saint, or martyr since 1699, and every living member of the Khalsa (community of the baptized) is united with them in having adopted the same 5 Ks.”
You can learn the significance of each of the 5 Ks at sikhismguide.org.
9. Sikhs stand for equality. They challenged India’s caste system and placed women in positions of authority. This dedication to equality is exemplified by the langar. It is a free community meal provided at the Gurdwara, the Sikh house of worship.
Here is what the Sikh Institute of Fresno says about the meal: “Langar is, by definition, simple. It is there for everyone to partake. Needy people know where to go to satisfy their hunger if they can not provide for their family. And, it brings the entire community together. Let us make our Gurdwara (an) exemplary model that anchors the community, revives our physical, mental and spiritual bodies, and caters to the needy – with eco-friendly, nutritious and simple meals.”
10. State Sen. Andy Vidak of Hanford said it best in the commentary he wrote this week for The Bee:
“Most of all, remember that Sikhs are just like you and me. They worry about paying for their children’s college; they sometimes wear mismatched socks, and despite what may appear to be superficial differences, their values are just as American as baseball and apple pie.”