Monday, April 27, 2009

This We'll Defend

Recently published on

This We’ll Defend
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.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Moment Of Pause

In my desire to churn out thoughts as quickly as possible, I came across this audio essay that gave me a moment of pause. I think this is a good reminder for all of us - bloggers, writers, poets, MCs, and other story-tellers, why we do it...and how we can be better.

It's a 5 minute piece from my favorite series, "This I Believe" in their final episode on NPR titled, "Life Is An Act Of Literary Creation." It's definitely worth a listen. After all, how can you turn down a piece that starts off with "I believe God is a poet." I mean, really?


Sunday, April 19, 2009

Somewhere Out There

It's happened enough times to cause concern.

Whether it's through a group discussion at a Gurmat camp or a talk with a concerned parent, I'm finding more and more Sikh youth questioning their faith. Not as much about the articles of faith, but faith itself - to simply put it...they don't believe in God.

I consider myself a very liberal-minded Sikh and see a lot of grey where others might see black and white. But neither I, nor anyone else, can stretch the definition of a Sikh to include one who does not believe in God. In my dialogue with these youth, there are all kinds of reasons for their uncertainty. Some use their "atheism" as an excuse for the real issue - their disinterest in the keeping the Sikh uniform and discipline. And well, saying you don't believe in God is a shorter and less emotional argument to have. With others, the doubt is more genuine. Some are students of science and base their principles on quantifiable and verifiable evidence, while others have been raised in a technology culture where everything is so here, so now, and so in your face - that contemplating the un-seen is so foreign to them.

I recall having my own doubts about the existence of God in my teenage years. I rejected the concept of "blind faith" and the dogmatic approach to Sikhi that I was familiar with, and I couldn't understand how people I respected so much believed so strongly. That is, until, I stumbled upon Guru Nanak. No, not a "vision" of him...but a history book. I read extensively about his life, his work, and his travels - and I was amazed! At that age, I idolized social and political revolutionaries like Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, and Che Guevara - but I learned that none of them could compare to my Guru.

It wasn't the story of how he stopped a boulder from falling on him that fascinated me, nor was it how the kabba moved the direction of Guru Sahib's feet; it was how he challenged the caste-based society, how he challenged devotees of meaningless rituals in their own holy places, and how - through his powerful words - he challenged the tyrannical ruler, Babur. He believed in truth and justice...and was completely fearless in defending it. This was the magic of Guru Nanak!

Although I had my doubts about God, one thing I knew for sure... I believed in Guru Nanak - with all my heart. And well, he surely believed in maybe there was something more for me to learn.

After some further study, contemplation and discourse with my sangat - my faith became firm.

Questioning can be healthy, and the journey in finding out answers can actually do more good and strengthen one's faith long-term.

To some, faith and belief come easy. To others, it takes a little work. Some youth are skeptical and are not really willing to put in the effort - to learn, reflect and discuss. To them, I offer a quotation from Dr. King:
"Take the first step in faith. You don't have to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step."

Or in Bhai Gurdas Ji's words:
"If you take one step towards the Guru, then the Guru will take a thousand steps towards you."

As a community, I think we focus so much of our spiritual development on ceremonies, competitions and other public displays of faith...but very little on the internal - simran, reflection and vichaar. Perhaps I need to find more creative ways to engage children on these aspects of Sikhi at a younger age, so their foundation is solid and not easily swayed by peer pressure or doubt as they get older.

After a lengthy discussion with an unconvinced youth, he turned the tables on me and asked, "How can you believe?"

I had to could I?

How could I close my eyes and fall back on something I've never seen or touched?
How can I look out in to the darkness and pour my heart into something...somewhere out there...into the oblivion, and trust that He has heard me?

How can I believe?

Although I dabble in writing and poetry, I still have a tough time articulating my belief.

I don't have the words to express myself when I hear the elderly man next to me at the gurdwara, who is moved to tears every time he hears the hukamnama.  I cannot explain how I feel when I see a Sikh mother rock her child to sleep, deep in simran, with gurbani on her lips.  I cannot explain how I feel when, for every hundred times I rattle through my nitnem, I connect with a line somewhere that touches my soul. I cannot explain what comes over me when I've looked straight up in the sky at twilight, and see the sun and clouds arranged in a way, where such a masterpiece could only be designed by the Almighty. I cannot explain what it's like to hold a newborn baby in my arms, knowing that only a few minutes before...He was holding her in His own.  I am overwhelmed by his Grace...and to those who doubt it; all I can ask is...

"How can you not?"

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Never Broken

Rajdeep Singh Jolly's Letter To The Editor struck a cord with me. In particular, his statement:

Throughout history, oppressors have persecuted Sikhs by targeting their identity; during the 1984 anti-Sikh pogroms in India, when thousands of Sikhs were massacred, their turbans were stripped from their heads and their unshorn hair was forcibly cut before they were murdered. If the Sikh articles of faith truly had no value, our oppressors would not have subjected them to systematic destruction.

...As a Sikh, I reject the notion that wearing a turban or maintaining uncut hair is prohibitively wearisome or any more tedious than, say, shaving a beard or waxing one's legs. The case for what the article called "daily tedium" is often a smoke screen for loss of faith, lack of pride, susceptibility to peer pressure or all of the above. Young Sikhs are merely accelerating the work that their oppressors could not finish.

As a teen in the early 1990's, I rememeber receiving a California-based newspaper called the World Sikh News every month at home. Each month it would provide the latest news in Punjab politics and an update on the on-going violence. What always struck me was the front page, which month after month would show an image of a Singh on the front, who had been killed in the violence, and in every case his hair forcibly cut. I just couldn’t understand why. Even if he was a militant and was killed in a fire-fight, why cutting of the hair?

Many Sikhs buy the Indian Government's story of attacking the Darbar Sahib for the purpose of "flushing out terrorists." If that was in fact the case, why was the Sikh Reference Library ransacked and set afire? Why were precious artifacts from our history stolen and destroyed?

It is reminiscent of Hitler's famous question to his chief of staff , "Is Paris Burning?" as he ordered Dietrich von Choltitz to level Paris in the last days of the war - destroying not only bridges and key military positions, but anything of value, including the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, and the Louvre - historical and cultural landmarks. To erase a people, you must first destroy their history and culture. von Cholititz would ultimately disobey him.

Truth is, the 1984 attacks were not designed to just kill Sikhs. They were designed to kill Sikhi. To attack our history, our break our spirit.

Over the last few days, Sikhs have spoken...

They have protested outside of the courthouses of New Delhi, they have stopped rail traffic in Punjab, and the whole world watched Jarnail Singh chuck a shoe at the Home Minister, while the Sikh Nation roared a jakaara!

But as we reflect on different ways to remember and protest 1984, let us not forget...if it was our Sikhi they tried to destroy...if it was our spirit they tried to break…than it is our spirit we must preserve, it is our Sikhi that we must strengthen. Now is the time to re-inforce our relationship with the Guru.

There is nothing a tyrant fears more than a Guru-inspired Sikh.

Friday, April 10, 2009

A State of Denial

I recently stumbled on a report from the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHC), titled Torture in India 2008: A State of Denial. This document claims to be “the first nationwide assessment of the use of torture in India.”

ACHC is a Delhi-based organization focused on protecting human rights throughout Asia, with what appears to be a specific focus on South Asia. I’m not familiar with this organization, so I’d be curious to hear if others can support or disprove their work.

The report focuses on the use of torture by police and security forces from routine arrests to counter-insurgency operations. Although it is clearly a preliminary analysis, it’s findings are quite alarming. The report notes:

The statistics of NHRC imply that in the last five years 7,468 persons at an average of 1,494 persons per year or four persons in a day died in police and prison custody in India. However, these figures represent only a fraction of the actual cases of torture. Cases of torture not resulting in death are not recorded.
Particularly troublesome was the section on custodial torture of women and children.

Some of you may be rolling your eyes thinking this is “just another Punjab Human Rights post.” However, the interesting thing in this 109 page report, is there is very little mention of Sikhs or Punjab. But the challenges facing the ACHC are very similar to what I’ve read in Ensaaf’s material about disappearances in Punjab - namely the dismissive nature by the Central Government, denying the there is a problem altogether:

The Home Minister attributes custodial deaths to “illness/natural death, escaping from custody, suicides, attacks by other criminals, riots, due to accidents and during treatment or hospitalisation”
Other similarities include the shortcomings of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and it’s inability to deploy it’s powers toward investigating torture. The report also states:

NHRC’s preference for interim monetary compensation over recommending prosecution is a cause for further concern.
Sound familiar?

This report proves (yet again) that abuse of power by police and security forces are not an “aberration” or a result of isolated incidents - it is a systemic problem throughout India. And unfortunately, India’s failure to bring perpetrators of human rights violations to justice and overall poor human rights record does not seem to impact it’s relations with its allies.

To me, this report serves as a reminder that Sikhs are not alone in suffering human rights violations at the hands of the Indian State. Perhaps if we spoke with a collective voice, there could be a greater impact. After the Godhra pogrom in 2002, where nearly 1000 Muslims were massacred in Gujarat, a handful of Sikh Youth worked with the Gurdwara in Chicago to organize a “Rally Against Injustice In India” at Grant Park. Bus loads of people arrived from the local Gurdwaras and mosques all throughout Illinois and speakers from several religious communities addressed the crowd. The press coverage it received was far greater than previous protests done independently. Maybe something to consider as planning is in the works for the “25th anniversary” events…

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Marketing History

Recently pulished on under the title 1984 & I: Ever Strong & Ready

Marketing History
by Rubin Paul Singh

I remember a time when having a T-shirt with a Khanda on it was a novelty. I used to wait all year until the Sikh Day Parade or camp to get the latest design. Now the options are plenty.

Recently, I was T-shirt shopping on-line for my toddler, and I was impressed with the creative designs in bright colors with words like "Kaur" and "Punjaban" beautifully scripted. But that day I was looking for something different...something "Panthic." I wanted a T-shirt that would connect my daughter with recent Sikh history and the struggles we as a community have overcome. But as I entered the "Panthic" section, narrowly labeled "1984", it was as though a grey cloud had cast over my monitor. There was a complete change in style and design. Instead of the colorful images with decorative script, I instead saw images of our beloved Shaheeds in a backdrop of fire, or the number "1984" dripping in blood, or the word "Khalistan" in between two AK-47s with bullet-holes all around it. I thought to myself, "What happened?"

Truth is - I understand the sentiment behind the designs. I take great inspiration from the events and personalities of the Sikh struggle, regardless of how it is expressed. I probably have several "blood and fire" T-shirts in my closet right now. So maybe I’m just getting older, or maybe I was just having a reflective moment while finding an appropriate T-shirt for a 2-year old...or perhaps this is telling of a much larger issue...bigger than just T-shirts. In 25 years, our portrayal of 1984 has not evolved.

Of course, the events of 1984 were both horrific and tragic. Over the last 25 years, we've expressed anger, frustration, and sadness - and all of this is necessary. It essential we share our pain and commiserate as a community in order for us to heal. Human rights organizations must also document the graphic realities in order to expose the truth and pursue justice.

But, for us as a community to move forward, we must shift our paradigm and find more positive and inspiring way to present our recent history. If not, we will simply continue "preaching to the choir" while the rest roll their eyes. And in the end, the majority of our youth will remain unaware and apathetic about our struggle. This may seem contradictory to the message in a previous post This Is Who We Are, but there is a subtle difference. There is one segment of our community who refuse to acknowledge the "blood and fire" of 1984, while the other segment of our community cannot seem to look beyond it. Either extreme is unlikely to change their mind. But if we intend to unite our community on this issue, especially amongst the youth, we must market to those who sit in the middle - the indifferent. They are the ones who make up the majority and can make a difference in what direction this movement moves. I am convinced that this must be done through positive and inspirational messaging.

Creating an inspiring message around 1984 is not hard to do. When I tell my children saakhis of recent history, we talk about the bravery of the Sikh soldiers who held the might of the Indian army for four days in the Battle of Amritsar. We discuss the spiritual revolution that took place shortly thereafter as masses of Sikhs took Amrit, and joined the path of the Guru. And most of all, we reflect on all the current day activists who have been inspired by the "Heroes of 1984" and have channeled their energy in to great contributions to the Panth, and to the world.

One of my favorite quotations is from a classic movie Lion of the Desert - Omar Mukhtar about the Libyan resistance movement against the Italians in the early 1900's. After a war scene, Mukhtar returns to the village and informs one of the women that her husband was killed in battle. He then says to the grieving widow holding her infant son, "Do not let him see you crying too much, one day they will carry on the fight. Children should remember us as strong and confident...never broken. "

This concept is not new to us, we call it Chardi Kalaa. Perhaps we can use this idea to shape our perspectives and portrayal of 1984 - whether it is through art, poetry, music…or T-shirts.