From missing flights to losing life: Sikhs in the US have seen it all

39-year-old Sikh man, Deep Rai was shot and wounded outside his house by a partially- masked gunman on Sunday.

Published: 05th March 2017 01:03 PM  |   Last Updated: 07th March 2017 09:39 AM   |  A+A-

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In a suspected hate crime incident, A 39-year-old Sikh man, Deep Rai was shot and wounded outside his house by a partially- masked gunman who shouted "go back to your own country". Deep was working on his vehicle outside his home in Kent, Washington when the stranger approached. While the Kent police said that the Sikh man sustained "non life-threatening injuries", there have been several cases in the past when Sikhs, who have often been the targets of hate crimes in the US, have even lost their lives.

The first person to be victimized by hate crime in the United States after the 9/11 terrorist attacks was not a Muslim. He was a Sikh, Balbir Singh Sondhi, who was shot dead at his petrol filling station in Arizona. Sondhi was mistaken for a Muslim because of his turban. As reported in CNN, the assailant said that he wanted to "go out and shoot some towel-heads" for the actions of Osama bin Laden.

Now with President Donald Trump’s travel ban plans on citizens from Muslim-dominated countries, Sikhs in the US are a worried lot. Although Sikh migration to the country began more than 130 years ago, turban-wearing followers of the faith are routinely mistaken for Muslims, and taunted with calls like ‘Osama!’ and ‘turban heads’.

Not just this, in one of Trump's campaigns, an Indian-origin Sikh was mistaken to be a Muslim supporter on the flyers.

Facebook | SikhChannel840

Gurinder Singh Khalsa featured in the ad is a resident of Fishers city in Indiana who had immigrated to the US from India. "I am not Muslim and I am not supporting Trump," he was quoted as saying to WTHR TV channel.

With new travel rules (if implemented), the community fears a spike in cases of abuse in general and harassment at security check-ups in particular.

Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screenings have become a big issue for Sikhs in America

The Sikh Coalition, a volunteer organization, founded in response to 9/11, has received over 700 TSA complaints through their mobile app called 'Flyrights' since 2012.

Also read: Stalker’s video of Indians in US Fuels hate sentiment

Tanvir Singh, a 40-year-old Sikh American driver at the Seattle-Tacoma airport, says he and his family have faced frequent public humiliations and unwarranted screenings at airports. He says he has missed flights at least six times due to unfettered TSA screening and search practices. “I have been searched so many times that my family does not want to fly with me. My kids even refused a trip to Disneyland,” Tanvir Singh told the New Indian Express.

Once while returning from Canada, his family was searched for six hours at the border protection line. “The TSA agents refused to allow my wife to buy milk for my six-month-old son and did not even provide water for my four-year-old daughter, who began vomiting during this screening.”

On another occasion, Singh was searched and sent through the screener multiple times at the airport before a flight from Washington DC to Los Angeles. “I was then sent to a room with six to seven agents. One of them tried to touch my turban. The turban is one of the five articles of faith worn by an initiated Sikh. I requested them to allow me to remove my turban myself, yet the agents removed it while laughing at and mocking me. I missed the flight and ended up spending 14 hours at the airport.”

Tanvir Singh said people in his community have been weary of travel checks even before the Donald Trump order. “Many of my friends do not want to travel anymore even for a short distance. We are made to wait for hours and hours.”

While Trump’s travel ban order is temporarily suspended and the revised executive order is expected to be signed next week, the community fears that increased security checks at airports will see a surge in cases of abuse and humiliation.

Wanda Sanchez Day, an attorney associated with United Sikhs, a civil rights organisation, said, “We condemn the ideas embodied in the executive order issued by Donald Trump on January 27, 2017. It is a setback to progress that has been made on civil and human rights in the United States.”

The torment of Sikh community is not limited to airports. There have been hate crimes against them in several US cities. However, according to a survey by the National Sikh Campaign, a non-profit organisation, 60 per cent of Americans didn't know about their existence.

According to the Sikh Coalition, the community is “hundreds of times more likely than their fellow Americans to experience hate crimes”. There had been over 175 Anti-sikh hate crimes since 2001, it said in a report.

In January 2016, 68-year-old Gurucharan Singh Gill, who was working at a liquor store in California, was stabbed to death in broad daylight. "The local community members feel that Gill was attacked because of his skin colour and identity," Lieutenant Mindy Casto, Fresno Police Department was quoted telling a news agency.

In another incident which took place in December 2015 in Fresno, a 68-year-old man was hit by a car while he was waiting to go to work. The assailants reportedly emerged from the vehicle to attack the man and yelled, "Why are you here?" 

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