“What if this is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?” That was Sikh-American activist Valarie Kaur’s powerful message on New Year’s Eve to fellow citizens stunned by the upsurge of white supremacy and racism. That message has since gone viral and found more resonance with hate crimes and killings of Indians in the US. Kaur was 20 years old when the Twin Towers fell. The act of terrorism and its aftermath politicised her, as it did a generation of South-Asian Americans, and set her off on a career in filmmaking, activism and law. In a phone interview, Kaur speaks about her Sikh heritage, her grandfather who settled in the US a century ago, and why state violence and hate crimes are tethered together. Excerpts:
The election of Donald Trump as US President has been read as a defeat of liberal politics and political correctness that ‘panders’ to minority feelings. As an activist, do you agree?
The majority of Americans do not support the nationalism, rage, xenophobia, sexism and racism that this administration represents. When people of moral conscience stand up against hate crimes, the police killings of black men, immigration raids or mass incarceration — this is not political correctness. This is standing up for a vision of a country where every community is allowed to flourish.
What is it to be a Sikh-American woman activist under the Trump presidency?
I am among a generation of South Asian American activists who have worked as lawyers, artists and organisers fighting for civil rights since 9/11 and longer. We built organisations, institutions and relationships with the government and media. And yet, none of our work was enough to prevent, what the Southern Poverty Law Centre has called, a ‘year of enormous rage’.
I have been an activist for about 15 years ever since the murder of my family friend, Balbir Singh Sodhi, in Arizona, in the aftermath of 9/11 (Sodhi was the first victim of hate crime after 9/11). About a year ago, I was working at Stanford Law School and the current president became the Republican frontrunner and hate crimes began to escalate in the US. A day after Christmas, 2015, an elderly Sikh man was crossing the street in my hometown of Clovis, California, when he was attacked. Early reports said his assailants asked him: why are you here? My family has lived in Clovis for about a hundred years. In the face of this violence, I was completely paralysed. I looked at my son and realised he is growing up in a country more dangerous than the one I was raised in. But what gives me hope is that millions of Americans are being politically awakened in ways we have never seen.
One of the responses to hate crimes against Sikh Americans is to say that they are being unfairly targeted/mistaken for Muslims.
That argument is deeply problematic. It often makes little difference to the perpetrator of a hate crime, when his hand is on the trigger, that the person he is shooting is a Sikh, not a Muslim, or a Hindu not a Muslim. Rather, our colour, accents, the turbans and beards that our men wear is a signal to the perpetrators that we are not American enough. The frame of ‘mistaken identity’ also assumes that there is a ‘correct’ target for hate. It is a part of the logic of racism to pit communities against each other.
In the aftermath of 9/11, a new racial category emerged: the Muslim-looking other. It can include South-Asian Muslims, Hindus, Arabs, Arab Christians, Punjabi Sikhs, also Latinos with beards, native Americans. Our destinies are tied together, So, it is urgent that we stand in solidarity.
In your speech, you told a moving story about your grandfather who came to America a century ago and was imprisoned. Tell us more about him.
My Dadaji, Kehar Singh, grew up in a village called Chand Nawan in Moga, Punjab. He left India in 1911 with his older brother and spent years working in China and the Philippines, finally earning enough money to sail by steam ship to Angel Island, San Francisco. When he arrived there in 1913, he was thrown into prison. He was finally released through the efforts of one white lawyer, Henry Marshall. Because of the Asian Exclusion Acts, he could not go back to India to marry because he knew he would not be allowed to return. It was only when the laws changed that he went to India, then in his 60s, to get married. I grew up with stories about his life that gave me a profound sense of my heritage as an American.
It was my other grandfather, my Nanaji, Captain Gurdial Singh, who lived with us and helped raise me. From him, I inherited Sikh stories, scriptures and songs, and the idea of chardi kala — the call to be in high spirits even in darkness and suffering — that is central to our faith. He was the bravest person I knew. He fought in WWII, but he never fired a shot and he was very proud of the fact that he had killed no one. When he was sent to the front, he refused to take off his turban as his superior British officer demanded. But when his best friend fell to bullets on the front, he took it off to wrap his wounds and brought the body back.
Could you tell me a little about your childhood in Clovis, California?
I grew up on the farmland that my grandfather had farmed when he first came to America, the farm my father was born on, and where I was born. I grew up with a strong sense of being an American. I also grew up with stories from Punjab, about how my other set of grandparents had survived the Partition of India, how members of my family had survived the 1984 riots. Because I had such an extended family at home, I grew up fully American and fully Sikh. It was only when I went to public schools that I realised that others saw me as suspect, as foreign and as damned because I was not white or Christian.
After the murder of Sodhi, you travelled the country, documenting the hate crimes, which resulted in the film Divided We Fall. How do you look back at that experience?
I was just 20. Balbir Uncle had just been murdered and I felt the need to do something. So, I took a leave of absence from school, got into a car and spent months on the road. Then I kept going back to them over the course of five years. When my now-husband Sharat Raju and I were making the film, I thought it was going to be an archive, a time capsule of a certain chapter in the history of the US that we would look back on with dismay and shame. What has been painful to me is that we are still living in the ongoing aftermath of 9/11. Now, there is an entire generation of young people who have no memory of what life was before 9/11.
Our film, Divided We Fall helps us see the parallels between two moments. Srinivas Kuchibhotla was killed after an explosion of anti-Muslim and anti-foreigner rhetoric, once this administration was sworn in. Balbir uncle was the first to be killed after 9/11 when there was a similar spike in rhetoric. Balbir Uncle’s murder foretold more violence and Srinivas’s murder has foretold more violence to come. As long as we live under an administration that continues to push out anti-foreigner and anti-Muslim rhetoric, policies that punish our communities, hate violence will continue to be a serious threat.
In India, there is great concern about the hate crimes against Indians in the US. How can the community cope?
In India and around the world, I think it is very important to understand the connection between state violence and private violence, which we call hate crime. Any time the state targets a particular community, not for any thing they have done, but for who they are, it signals to ordinary people that it is okay to act upon their biases, and we see hate crimes go up. State violence and private violence are always tethered together. So, it is time for us as South Asians and Americans to stand up and fight the policy that profiles and punishes communities under the guise of national security.