- Extremely low reporting, particularly among Sikh Americans, fails to capture the scope of the bias, bigotry, and backlash that Sikhs face, and the community remains disproportionately targeted.
With racism having taken center stage in this political climate, with Breonna Taylor and George Floyd becoming icons of a racially unequal system, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) released data early last week to show that hate crime levels in the United States have surpassed their highest levels in a decade. And continuing a trend which began in 2017, crimes against Indian Americans were also on the rise.
According to the report in 2019 alone, a total of 8,559 hate-based incidents were reported, with 4,784 incidents motivated by race or ethnicity; 1,650 attacks were based on the victim’s religion. While Jewish Americans were the overwhelming majority of religiously motivated attacks, Sikh Americans, Muslim Americans and Indian Americans also experienced alarming levels of violence.
According to the report, approximately 219 Muslim Americans experienced hate-based incidents in 2019, the majority from White offenders, while 50 Sikh Americans and two Hindu Americans were targets of religiously motivated crimes by both White and Black offenders.
Flashback to a U.S. Navy veteran, Adam Purinton, who yelled “Get out of my country!” before killing Indian software engineer Srinivas Kuchibhotla and injuring two others at a bar in Kansas City in 2017, and who pleaded guilty to three federal hate-crime charges. Finally, in 2018, Johnson County District Court Judge J. Charles Droege sentenced Adam Purinton to life, 50 years without the possibility of parole. He still faces federal hate-crime charges.
The Sikh American community specifically saw a slight decrease in the number of reported anti-Sikh incidents in 2019 after witnessing a 200 percent surge in reported incidents from the 2018 report.
“Even as deadly hate crimes decrease, fewer law enforcement agencies are electing to report data to the FBI. According to the latest FBI hate crime report, hate-motivated murders jumped by 112 percent from 2018 to 2019 — the highest number of deadly hate crimes reported since the FBI began reporting these statistics. Additionally, for the second year in a row, fewer law enforcement organizations are participating in reporting hate crimes to the FBI. Taken together, these two points underscore the urgent need for policy solutions to combat hate in our country,” Nikki Singh, Sikh Coalition Policy and Advocacy manager told American Kahani.
Hindu priest Harish Chander Puri was attacked near the Shiv Shakti Peeth on July 18, 2019, allegedly by Sergio Gouveia, 52, who hit him repeatedly with an umbrella. Indian American organizations have written to police to investigate the case as a hate crime, but New York Police Department Det. Ahmed Nasser told India-West,“Police have no record of the suspect uttering racist statements.”
“Extremely low reporting continues to fail to capture the scope of the bias, bigotry, and backlash that Sikhs face, and the community remains disproportionately targeted relative to its small size among the population,” said Singh adding, “Sikhs continue to remain in the top five-most targeted groups for hate incidents in the United States. While the Sikh community specifically saw a slight decrease in the number of reported anti-Sikh incidents in 2019, we know firsthand from our work with the community that the reality is worse. In all of the hate incidents that were reported to our organization in 2019, we saw violence — as opposed to verbal harassment or property damage. Low reporting from law enforcement organizations fails to capture the scope of the bias, bigotry, and backlash that Sikhs face.”
Agencies are not mandated to report hate crimes, which may lead to underreporting of such incidents, said Gujari Singh, communications director at the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund. SALDEF encourages Sikh Americans to report hate crimes to the organization to make sure they are counted in the data.
Adding to this, Singh says, “This underreported FBI data only reflects a slice of the lived experiences of Sikhs and other minorities throughout the United States, but it still paints a damning picture. Even as deadly hate crimes increase, fewer law enforcement agencies are electing to report data to the FBI. Especially given the dangerously divisive political climate of the past four years, we should be reckoning with the problem of hate in America—not continuing to sweep it under the rug.”
Not wanting to relive the trauma or endure repercussions, numerous Sikh victims of hate-crimes declined to speak when contacted by American Kahani. Says a disheartened Swaranjit Singh Khalsa, president of the Sikh Sewak Society International in Connecticut and director of United Sikhs, “We (Sikhs) have already suffered a lot. We lost our homeland first in 1947 when the partition of India and Pakistan happened. Then in 1984, after the Sikh genocide in India, we lost our dignity. Now we have come outside India and left Punjab, so we can raise our families and practice our religion in peace and we are being attacked and killed here too due to ignorance.”
Minhaj Khan, President of the Indian American Muslim Council, NJ Chapter speaking to Americankahani also adds here that “we can’t go by anecdotes unless someone can provide specifics. We can say we have heard several complaints and due to duress and vulnerability at the workplace, but we are unable to get anyone on the record or reveal identities.”
As to what the Sikh community wants from legislation in the future is ably summed up by Singh. “Our top priority in 2021 as it relates to federal legislation is urging Congress to finally pass the bipartisan Khalid Jabara-Heather Heyer NO HATE Act. This act would require the federal government to address underreporting and related issues by vastly improving hate crime reporting with funding for resources at the state level, including critical training for law enforcement and the establishment of hate crime reporting hotlines.”
Singh adds, “We also intend to continue supporting stronger hate crime laws at the state-level. Three states–Arkansas, South Carolina, and Wyoming–still do not have a hate crime law on the books. Many others have laws for which the provisions and categories of protected groups should be expanded. Much of state legislative efforts were stalled this year by the COVID-19 pandemic — despite the fact that the pandemic itself led to an increase in anti-Asian hate incidents.”
As difficult as it is to do, Singh also pointed out that “In addition to the legislative efforts mentioned above at the federal and state levels, we are continuing to urge all Sikh Americans to be aware of their surroundings and document all hate incidents through our Report Hate website (reporthate.org) to help law enforcement agencies better understand the full magnitude of the problem.”
Assistant Director for Asia Pacific Institute (API) and the American Jewish Committee (AJC), Nissim Reuben talking to American Kahani points out that places of worship of the Jewish-American community have in recent years been the target of racial attacks, mentioning Pittsburgh and Poway (2018) specifically. While not at liberty to speak to the security measures taken to ensure safe worship Reuben says, “During my regular interactions with Indian-American leaders, I always bring up the issue of safety and security of their places of worship bringing to their attention, the importance of regular interactions with Homeland Security Departments at the Federal and State Levels as well as regular interactions with county police officials where their places of worship are located.”
Speaking of other safety measures the Indian American community can adopt, Reuben adds, “I also encourage them to look into adding a security budget in the budgets of their places of worship where a layer of private security is added on the place of worship premises especially on weekends when anywhere between 2,000-5,000 community members visit for worship, weekend children’s school, cultural events etc. I have also encouraged them to look into Department of Homeland Security Community Security Grants, which they might wish to apply for.
Small Town Racism
Kaleem Kawaja, Executive Director of Association of Indian Muslims in America says, “As hate crimes are rising against colored people in general, that affects people of Indian origin too, regardless of their religion. We look different to white people,” adding, “the problem is more with relatively smaller towns. People who are doctors, engineers or who work in a business setting, they may not be subject to it. But those who are not professionals like those who work in convenience stores or gas stations, those people in para professions are more vulnerable to hate crimes. These rednecks in these rural areas go to these gas stations etc. and see people that look different…brown…like they come from a foreign country…their anger can immediately rise.”
Kawaja, who himself has been the recipient of racially profiled hate speech that has pointed him out to be a foreigner and a reason for the destruction of America on a few occasions, says these hate crimes are not new, they are just amplified in the recent political environment. “Over the last ten years there have been instances of hate crimes and there have been many such stories in Indian newspapers. What the Trump administration did was grow the racial hatred in general – against blacks and also browns and Hispanics.”
Minhaj Khan adds, “A general consensus is it did. But we don’t have a formal way of registering or measuring it, so we won’t be able to provide any specifics.”
Recently, media reports and government sources have also detailed how White supremacists and other hate groups have discussed using COVID-19 as a bioweapon by leaving “saliva on door handles” at FBI offices, spitting on elevator buttons, and publicly spreading the virus in “non-white neighborhoods”.
In response to these potential threats to the Hindu American community and places of worship, Suhag Shukla, Esq., Executive Director of the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), released the following statement:
“We urge Hindu Americans to take the spread of the novel Coronavirus COVID-19 very seriously, heeding all CDC guidance on hygiene as well as local and state government guidance on social distancing measures. In addition to the threat that this virus poses in and of itself, we have received credible information from our government sources about hate groups seeking to take advantage of the global pandemic and weaponized the virus to target Asian Americans and others that merits extra vigilance in these already trying times.”
According to report by HAF, online discussions amongst white supremacist groups have urged infected people to spread the disease to Asian Americans and other minorities. Asian American and Jewish communities, as well as places of worship have been discussed as targets groups in the context of discussions promoting the idea of weaponizing the COVID-19 to spread the disease to places of worship, minority-owned businesses, and minorities themselves.
According to Kawaja a possible solution could lie in education. Kawaja adds, “Trump and his folks made it very clear that foreigners are not welcome. When Obama was President and the Democrats were in power, the haters were quiet. They were not feeling encouraged to spout their hate rhetoric in public. But with President Trump these characters were emboldened to go wild. So the solution lies in educating these people that this behavior is bad for America, a country of immigrants. And with such a high percentage of people in this country not being white in every walk of life, in every profession, these disturbances could harm the economy and the nation.”
“Hate crimes continue to be a threat to minorities throughout the nation and showed a marked increase in hate crimes committed against Sikhs,” said SALDEF executive director Kiran Kaur Gill in a press statement. “This marked increase reinforces the commitment by the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education to broaden Sikh awareness, continue to partner with law enforcement to ensure accurate reporting, proper identifications and swift investigations, and to continue to advocate for new legislation,” she said.
At the end of the day, this data simply isn’t giving us the accurate information we need to effectively counteract hate against targeted communities,” said Sim Singh, Sikh Coalition senior manager of Policy and Advocacy. “It’s past time for action. Congress must pass the next generation of common-sense legislation that equips law enforcement to better identify and track hate incidents.
Anu Ghosh immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1999. Back in India she was a journalist for the Times of India in Pune for 8 years and a graduate from the Symbiosis Institute of Journalism and Communication. In the U.S., she obtained her Masters and PhD. in Communications from The Ohio State University. Go Buckeyes! She has been involved in education for the last 15 years, as a professor at Oglethorpe University and then Georgia State University. She currently teaches Special Education at Oak Grove Elementary. She is also a mom to two precocious girls ages 11 and 6.