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Is the Consolidation of Hindu Right Alienating Sikh Americans From Their Indian American Identity?

Is the Consolidation of Hindu Right Alienating Sikh Americans From Their Indian American Identity?

  • As a sociologist, my inclination would be to systematically explore these points of contention between Sikh- and “Indian” America.

Sikhs, who comprise about 0.22 percent of the American population, successfully lobbied for a category separate from Indian American starting with Census 2020. United Sikhs, the organization whose efforts yielded this outcome, felt it necessary because “[t]he ability to self-identify is empowering and a milestone… Separate tabulation and accounting for Sikh Americans opens doors to resources, accountability, and better governance.” 

Jasmit Singh, Advocacy Director for United Sikhs, added that a separate Sikh category “will ensure our fair share of billions of dollars in funding for schools, public housing, social services, infrastructure, and public works. This effort will also assist to open doors allowing Sikhs to serve in the armed forces without any exemptions.” 

Implicit in these statements issued by United Sikhs is the position that Sikh American needs and experiences are set apart from Indian Americans (as well as South Asian- or Asian Americans). Suggested in these words by the organization’s leadership is also a degree of intra “India American” tension. In other words, when classified as “Indian American” simply because a notable proportion of Sikhs trace their ancestry back to India, the needs and interests of Sikh Americans remain unfulfilled. [This also alludes to a flaw in using the nation of origin as the basis for classifying immigrant groups because it does not account for the social differentiation and corresponding identities that travel with immigrants from the same country of origin.]

An important contributor to this tension between Sikh- and Indian Americans is the trauma of 1984, a defining experience for members of the Sikh community. Harmandir Sahib, or the Golden Temple, which one could say is the Vatican for Sikhs, was attacked by the Indian army from June 1-6, 1984, under the codename Operation Bluestar. The decision to do so was made by the then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, seemingly to “flush out” Sikh “terrorists” from the place of worship. There was widespread outrage, anger, and sadness about these attacks on the Sikh community.

One way in which this outrage was manifested was through the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards on October 31, 1984. This, in turn, became the pretext for fueling anti-Sikh pogroms in India’s capital city New Delhi, and northern and central parts of the country. The Indian government continues to dismiss the violence as spontaneous “riots” even in the face of evidence gathered by civil rights organizations, activists, lawyers, and academics, and denies the atrocities that befell the Sikh community. The counterinsurgency operations by the Government of India following this period that involved disappearances, abductions, and killings in Punjab additionally traumatized the community.

It is this trauma and memory of 1984 that is carried over by the immigrants from India to the U.S. which indeed surfaces in the narratives of the immigrant Sikhs of my own research. It was a critical reason for which some respondents felt alienated from India. My respondents relate stories of families tortured and even killed during the June and November violence and the tumultuous decade of disappearances that followed these events. The events of 1984 and their aftermath that created othering of Sikhs was an important motivating factor for emigration from India. It was also in the diaspora that Sikhs could start to openly talk about the trauma of 1984. 

The recent assassination of the Sikh-Canadian leader, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, allegedly by the Government of India may have further strained the relationship of the diaspora Sikh community with India, and presumably with fellow “Indian” Americans.

As a new teenage immigrant in New York City in 1986, I remember immigrant Sikh-driven yellow taxis, the subject of my dissertation research close to two decades later. I remember some of the cabs had bumper stickers giving voice to the cruelty endured by Sikhs. This history and experience of 1984 remain mostly unspoken in the larger “Indian” American community [read: Hindu, although India is a multireligious and multiethnic society with a plurality of cultures and histories], aligned with the “silent” majority in India, including its government. It continues to be an important reason for the intra-group tension among “Indian” Americans.

One consequence of the intra-group tension was the coming together of Sikh Americans in the form of the Annual Sikh Day Parade starting in 1986. The Annual Sikh Day Parade, unlike the India Day Parade which celebrates the independence of India from British colonial rule, celebrates Sikh Americans and lends voice to issues specific to the group, including 1984 and the various matters related to it. In my observations, I have noted the parades to have floats and signage demanding justice for 1984 as well as posters celebrating Sikh leaders who are seen as terrorists by the Government of India. Presumably, such an open challenge to the Indian nation-state is not permitted at the India Day parade, making it imperative for the immigrant Sikhs to have a separate space to freely celebrate being Sikh and commemorate the injustices suffered as minorities in India.

The recent assassination of the Sikh-Canadian leader, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, allegedly by the Government of India may have further strained the relationship of the diaspora Sikh community with India, and presumably with fellow “Indian” Americans. Given the dislike of the BJP government that I have noted among my interlocutors, it is reasonable to assume that Sikh Americans would be critical of financial contributions by Hindu American groups to the Bharatiya Janata Party BJP, the Hindu nationalist party that currently heads the government in India. Such divergent positions towards the BJP government by Sikh and “Indian” Americans likely fuel the need to carve out boundaries around “Sikh Americans.” 

As a sociologist, my inclination would be to systematically explore these points of contention between Sikh- and “Indian” America. Future social science research should, therefore, focus on whether almost a decade-long consolidation of power by the Hindu right, has exacerbated the feeling of alienation among Sikh Americans from “Indian” Americans and perhaps from India itself. 

Certainly, there are indications in my research on Sikh Americans that they express a greater affinity with Pakistan and a particular disenchantment with India or even disavowal of the Indian identity. There is, of course, context for feeling kinship with Pakistan because after all Guru Nanak was born in Nankana Sahib, now in Pakistan. There are also cultural ties with what I would call Greater Punjab, East, and West Punjab, that remain despite Partition. I have noted this myself during my fieldwork on the immigrant Sikh cabbies. Customers at the eateries that were typically frequented by the cabbies were split along ethnic lines, whereby “Punjabi” cabbies from India and Pakistan would congregate in one set of restaurants and the “Bengali” taxi drivers (dominated by immigrant Bangladeshi cabbies with a very small number from West Bengal, India) typically frequented a separate set of restaurants. Do these regional alliances fuel intra “Indian” tension? This again is an empirical question.

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I do think that such cultural ties across national borders are a reminder of the artificiality of those very borders. The distinctions in the Indian subcontinent are along the lines of region and culture. Consequently, relationships, memories, and identities can disintegrate when people from all sides of the border get the opportunity to meet. The discovery of these artificial boundaries is often possible in the diaspora. The narratives of the immigrant Sikh informants of my research certainly point in this direction. It questions the idea of nation as central to identities. Such questions challenging national identities are perhaps more threatening to dominant group members, namely Hindu Americans in this context, and subsequently, set the stage up for more intra “Indian” American conflict. 

Furthermore, Sikh Americans face a particular kind of racism in America. While South Asian Americans are all labeled terrorists, the visible markers of religion increase Sikh Americans’ exposure to violence due to the label. This is particularly so for Sikh men who don the turban. They are conflated with Muslims, a religious group racialized as terrorists. The Sikh cabbies, for instance, reported having to correct passengers’ misconceptions about their religion. In this context, the shooting of Balbir Singh Sodhi in Arizona just a few days after September 11 comes to mind. 

One of the Sikh couples whom I interviewed related an incident where they were told “Osama, go home” as they drove through a toll booth. It is noteworthy though that the label of “terrorist” travels with Sikhs from India to America as do a general lived experience of being the “other.” Being teased for wearing the patka, a head wrap worn by young Sikh boys, as a young boy growing up in New Delhi was common for one of the respondents, as was being told that “India is for Hindus” reported by another. Such prejudices towards Sikhs and general ignorance of Sikhism travel to the diaspora, as told by yet another Sikh American woman interviewed for my research.

However, not all the immigrant Sikhs interviewed saw themselves as separate from “Indian Americans.” The cabbies especially aligned themselves with the professional status of middle-class Indian Americans to project a superior social status. Still others, despite grievances towards the Indian state and/or having encountered prejudice while growing up in India, expressed a fondness for India because it was still the country of their birth. Hence, it is important to caution against essentializing the Sikh American identity as entirely oppositional to “Indian” American or as one undifferentiated whole. Yet it is also the case that “Sikh American” and “Indian American” do not seamlessly merge with each other. Sikh Americans are a minority within a minority with distinct experiences as nonwhite immigrants in America and as non-Hindu within “Indian” America. Thus, Sikh Americans’ interests may be best served when the group mobilizes as one. Research is sorely needed in this area to understand the extent of the difference between Sikhs (immigrants of Indian origin) and “Indian” Americans and the consequent need for a separate accounting of Sikhs. Time will tell.

Diditi Mitra is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Brookdale Community College. Mitra has authored “Punjabi Immigrant Mobility in the United States: Adaptation through Race and Class” and co-edited “Race and the Lifecourse: Readings from the Intersection of Race, Ethnicity, and Age,” along with having published peer-reviewed academic articles. Diditi currently serves on the editorial board of Sikh Research Journal. Mitra is also a Kathak dancer. 

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