By Rubin Paul Singh
Last fall, I went to an NFL game to watch my team face their arch rival on Sunday Night Football. As we were watching the pre-game warm-up, the gentleman next to me asked "So what do they think of football in your country?" I paused, and politely replied "Well, considering my country is America…we think pretty highly of it." He attempted to re-phrase his question and after a few awkward exchanges, I yielded, and answered "Oh…you mean my ancestors, they are from Punjab…I'm not sure what Punjabis think of football." We changed the topic to the upcoming game and ended our conversation.
I run in to these dialogues a lot. As I've gotten older, the occasional taunts and racial slurs I receive due to my articles of faith no longer faze me. I can always blame that on ignorance and lack of education. But the exchange like the one at the football game unsettles me. They are typically with people who are both educated and polite, but it is their perception that is troublesome…their presumption, that because of the way I look…I am not an American.
Perhaps I bring it on myself by proudly wearing my Guru's uniform. But I was born and raised in this country and my parents migrated here in the late 60's. So I ask, how long does it take? How long will it take before the average person realizes that an American is not just black or white?
All these thoughts came to me as I attended the Sikh Coalition's presentation last week, on the eve of their historic press conference at the Iwo Jima Memorial, launching their "Right to Serve" campaign.
For years while giving presentations about the Sikh religion to non-Sikhs, I always mentioned that Sikhs are not allowed to serve in the military, but I really didn’t know much more than that. I learned a lot that night…
I learned that Bhagat Singh Thind, a Turban wearing Sikh was recruited by the US Army to fight in World War I. However, in a 1923 Supreme Court case, he - along with others South Asians - was denied citizenship.
I also learned that in 1981, the U.S. Army banned “conspicuous” religious articles of faith for its service members. However, Sikhs like Col. GB Singh, a dentist, and other soldiers of faith who were part of the army before the 1981 rule change were allowed to stay. Colonel Arjinderpal Singh Sekhon, a physician, was also given a special exemption from the policy. Both Col. Singh and Col. Sekhon have continued to serve in the U.S. Army with their Sikh identity intact for the past twenty-five years. Both men retired within the last two years.
Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi (a physician) and Second Lieutenant Tejdeep Singh Rattan (a dentist) are now being prohibited from taking up the very same positions in the Army today.
During the presentation, the Sikh Coalition legal staff explained how critical this campaign is for Sikhs and our rights in this country. If the Army overturns their 1981 ban, it can serve as a precedent for several cases where Sikhs have been denied to join a uniformed position due to their articles of faith. Many of the existing cases could simply disappear.
I also had a chance to briefly speak with Kamal and Tejdeep about their own experience. They were humbled by the support they've received by the Sikh Coalition, the law firm involved, and the Sikh community itself. What impressed me most is they were not disenchanted or discouraged by the experience, nor were they angry about the Army's stance…they're not "in it for the fight." In fact, their motivation was simple…they are soldiers, and they want to serve their country. Furthermore, they do not see the distinction between being a Sikh and a soldier, and they don’t feel that they…or anyone else...should have to choose.
The circumstances around the case seems promising, especially since Kamal and Tejdeep would serve in the same role Col. Sekhon and Col. Singh did with honor for decades. It almost seems like a "no-brainer." But it will be an uphill battle. There is a lot of culture and tradition in the military. Standards and codes are not something to be taken lightly. There will be a lot of opposition, and this is evident from military websites and forums discussing the issue. Many who support the ban feel that "I keep my religion to myself, so should they" and technical issues like gas masks and helmets will be debated at length. But as Col. Sekhon pointed out at the presentation, "It will ultimately come down to the interpretation of the first amendment." When we say "Freedom of Religion", does that imply "…and the articles of faith that come with it."
This may be a long battle, but I believe the victory will not come just when President Obama signs off on this new policy, but the victory will be in the process getting there. Imagine how many people throughout this country will be educated about Sikhs during this journey. I am thankful the Sikh Coalition will be representing us on this issue, but they will need help from us - in signing petitions, calling our lawmakers, writing op/eds, generous financial support, and of course…our Ardaas.
At some point during the presentation, I looked around and noticed a handful of children in the room. I thought about them...I thought about my own children. Perhaps in all of this, a road will be paved for them. Maybe this effort will set a foundation for the civil rights of a Sikh in this country, where they will truly be recognized as Americans, and become part of the fabric of this great country. Perhaps they will know an America where the Guru's uniform will only open doors for them.
Although I've attended many meetings and dinners over the years where concerned Sikhs had to organize - where a hate incident occurred, or a civil right was denied - where we've been on the defense…but that night, there was something different in the air. I can't describe the feeling. Maybe this is what the Brown family and the NAACP felt the night before they took on the Board of Education or when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott held the first women's suffrage meeting. There were smiles, excitement, optimism, and most of all…hope. Perhaps this is what it feels like...when you’re on the brink of history.