Facing up to Wisconsin

It was a tragic aberration in a nation that has welcomed and gained from Punjabi diaspora

Written by Manpreet Badal | Published:August 9, 2012 3:41 am

At the conclusion of every prayer,be it at home or in a place of worship,the Sikhs say,“Sarbat da bhala (Welfare for the entire humanity).” The Sikhs,adherents of the fifth largest organised religion,seek blessings for all,instead of praying for their own welfare. Some may not even realise the significance of the phrase,but it is unique in its deep humanitarianism: it does not discriminate between believers and non-believers. In the aftermath of the tragic shooting at a gurdwara in Wisconsin,US,those words should ring a bell.

In all probability,the fanatic shooter at the gurdwara was not aware of the Sikh prayer. For him,his way of life and thought was supreme. For him,it was not enough that his way of life was supreme. For him,there was no place for any conversation,and the question of blessings for the entire humanity did not arise.

It is a tragedy that such incidents still occur in this century,and doubly so that it took place in the US. Because the US has remained a torchbearer for creating a new society based on talent,fuelled by the hard work of immigrants from all over the world. Indians,particularly Punjabis and Sikhs,have benefited from the American dream — perhaps more than others. The Sikhs ventured into the Americas in the late 19th century,and in spite of not being granted the right to own land,went around harvesting gold.

North America has provided them with fair opportunities to succeed. It was evident from my visit to a dozen cities in the US and Canada last year. From New York to Washington DC,I met scores of Punjabis,particularly Sikhs,glowing with pride about their achievements. Of course,there are cases of failures and harassment as well,but the success stories have inspired two generations of Indians back home.

The Sikhs have also reciprocated and contributed to the US in a substantial way. In the late 1950s,Dalip Singh Saund was,to quote US President Barack Obama,“a trailblazer”. Saund campaigned for the right of South Asians to become naturalised citizens in the US,and became the first Asian-American to become a member of the US Congress. Saund was campaigning for the principle of equality — something that is ingrained in the Sikh faith ever since the religion was founded by Guru Nanak.

If,today,any South Asian can become a citizen of the US and be a member of its Congress,the credit goes to people like Saund who,by virtue of their activism,contributed towards creating the American dream. And for me,a politician from Punjab,the success of the Punjabi diaspora and its contribution to North America is so important that I took time off hectic politics in Punjab to meet them,though many are not even voters in India. But the recurring comment from Sikhs in North America was — we wish Punjab could be like North America!

In this light,it is heartbreaking that such an incident occurred. It is compounded by the fact that it could be a hate crime.

Eleven years after 9/11,identity issues continue to block and colour people’s vision. Questions have been raised about issues related to identity,and the significance of these questions will only grow,given the increasing importance of ethnicity vis-a-vis the nation state in many parts of the world. It is equally pertinent that while we safeguard our identity,we do not impinge on the rights of others.

While ethnicity,religion,colour,appearance,or dress are personal attributes and preferences,it is unfortunate that they continue to affect public perception while we are going about creating a brave new world.

This incident could have been caused by any of the above mentioned factors. It may be a question of mistaken identity,as Sikhs are confused with people of other faiths or ethnicities. This reminds me of a popular quote that is doing the rounds nowadays. I do not know the name of the author,but it goes something like this — I could tell you the difference between Hindus and Sikhs and Muslims,but I realised that you don’t need to know anything about somebody’s religion to know that you shouldn’t shoot them.

So even if Sikhs were targeted as a case of mistaken identity,the crime remains as heinous. No amount of reasoning can reduce its gravity. The fanatic shooter had decided to kill: had it not been the Wisconsin gurdwara,it could have been some other place.

For the community,which has often delved into identity issues,such incidents suggest the need for perhaps greater outreach and advocacy efforts. For the Sikhs,who have often avoided advocacy,it is yet another call to strengthen interfaith dialogue. The tendency to apportion blame to a single set of characters and to look for an external enemy is a trap. Criticising gun control laws in the US,while sitting in India,is not the solution. Nor is organising a demonstration by motley crowds outside the US embassy in India. In fact,the Sikhs in India need to look at how the American Sikhs have reacted to understand the situation and its consequences. For,it is the American Sikhs who have been at the receiving end of hate crimes during the past decade.

It is not only the fanatical shooting,but reactions and consequences also need to be examined. The reaction in the US has been exemplary. The brave police officer who,despite being wounded,continued to direct his fellow officers,stands as a testimony to the professionalism of law enforcers. The reaction of the police force,the first responders,and their selflessness have been a model for others to follow.

The local community has come out in support of the victims of the hate crime. The people,particularly preachers of all faiths,have gone out of their way to stand beside the Sikh community in their hour of grief. The governor of Wisconsin,Scott Walker,has been at the forefront,expressing his solidarity. From President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Ambassador to India Nancy Powell,the US reaction has been heartening for the Sikhs,who are not only a minority,but also a visible minority.

While the lone shooter may have been filled with hate,the overall reaction in the US has provided succour. And going by the response,the shooter has summarily failed in his objective. For,the crazy act by the gunman failed to invoke hate,and instead forced everyone to come out,united,in support of the hapless victims. This is what the Sikh prayer is all about — seek the welfare of all,Sarbat da bhala.

The writer is the leader of the People’s Party of Punjab,express@expressindia.com

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