Sikhs have pushed for acceptance since first coming to America in 1899 and continue to do so as evidenced by Friday’s 6th annual Sikh American Awareness Event – billed as an educational format – held at the Ceres Community Center.
The event drew a number of local dignitaries including mayors, city council members, Valley sheriffs and police chiefs, business leaders, Chamber officers and those campaigning for local offices. 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, 25percent live in India and 10 percent outside of India.
Guest speaker was community activist, physician and TV program host Dr. Jasbir Singh Kang of Yuba City. As the co-founder of the Punjabi American Heritage Society and the Punjabi American Festival, Kang speaks regularly to foster cross-cultural understanding and connect young Punjabi Americans to their cultural heritage.
“We want to live in peace like everybody else,” said Kang. “We strongly believe in equality …and we strongly believe in family life.”
He said the basics of Sikh faith are: “We believe in one Creator, work hard and share with fellow human beings, not just Sikhs. If we all just start sharing with fellow human beings, I think we have plenty on this planet. We have plenty in America. We can share with others, we can make life good for everybody. We don’t claim we are the only highway to God. We believe there are different paths – you could be a Christian, you could be a Muslim, you could be a Buddhist, you could be a Hindu, you could be a New Age, whatever you are. There are different paths to getting you to the same purpose, the same place.”
Kang said approximately 600,000 Sikhs live in United States and came here like everyone to seek a better life. He gave a history of the religion and culture and noted that the Sikh community 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.
He noted that while all Sikhs strive to live at peace with all, members of the Sikh community have suffered random attacks in the United States. There were notable slaughters of Sikhs on the West Coast, including one in 1907 in Bellingham, Washington, and a decade later when Sikh farm laborers were attacked in Wheatland, California.
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 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.
The first Sikh in Congress was California Rep. Dalip Singh Saund, elected in 1957.
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.
“The U.S., this time, was very gracious, accepted thousands and thousands of Sikhs and gave them asylum in this country,” said Kang. “Things were going great. Everybody was happy but then 9/11 happened.”
After the terrorist attack of 2001, many Sikhs were mistaken as Muslims and 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.
It was explained that 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.
The event featured a luncheon of Indian foods 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.