Last month I had a chance to visit the National Steinbeck Center in Monterey , California . John Steinbeck might have gone out of fashion with Americans but for this writer his Grapes of Wrath has been an enduring work. Right at the museum entrance I found a plaque that commemorates immigrants who have contributed to the Salinas valley. Along with the Irish, Chinese, Swiss, Germans and Portugese, the Sikhs find a mention, reading which my heart swelled. You see, I am a Sikh.
The year before, while strolling through the Notre Dame, I had stumbled upon a similar mention of the Sikh community on a shield that celebrated the soldiers who died fighting the Nazi regime during WWII. (Nearly half of the Indian troops who received the Victoria Cross were Sikhs.)
Yes, we Sikhs pop up in the strangest of places. We have been in America since late 19th century when we began work on the farms in California . We’ve been in Europe since we fought World Wars I & II on the side of the British. You can find us in Southeast Asia, Africa, Russia , sporting our distinctive look - Sikh men wear a turban as a mark of their faith. As a saying goes in our native Punjab , wherever in the world you may be, you’ll find two things: potatoes and Sikhs.
Much like that vegetable, the Sikh is hardy, adaptable, progressive, and a free-spirited citizen of the world. Sikhs have sought out new frontiers and made them their home. In the Punjab they changed the course of water to make an arid land fertile. In California they helped agriculture thrive with their hard work. In Europe they helped fight the fascists in two world wars. The war-time British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was so impressed with the bravery of Sikh soldiers that he said: “British people are highly indebted and obliged to Sikhs for a long time. As a result of their timely help we are today able to live with honour, dignity and independence.” In 1914 Sikhs challenged the prevailing North American policy of discrimination against coloured races by chartering a Japanese steam liner Komagata Maru to carry Punjabis to Canada .
Sikhism is the world’s fifth-largest religion, yet little understood as the tragic shooting within a Wisconsin gurudwara has shown. Post 9/11, Sikhs in the US have faced hate crime because they have been mistaken for Muslims.
Apparently the shooter was a neo-Nazi Army vet who wanted to secure the future of white children. Likely, he had done a recce of the Sikh temple beforehand. He should have explored further and gone inside. There he would have found a place of worship that has four doors, signifying that it is open to all. He would have been invited to join in the langar, food that is prepared by volunteers and served freely to all. If he had lingered around and enquired of the Sikhs he would have gleaned the faith’s origins as a bridge between the vastly disparate and hostile faiths of Hinduism and Islam on the Indian subcontinent in the turbulent 15th century. He would have learnt that the foundation of it’s holiest shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, was laid by a Muslim saint, Mian Mir, on the urging of the Sikh Guru Arjan Dev.
He would have realized that the Sikh faith is founded on the principle of equality of all mankind.
The story goes that when Mughal emperor Akbar visited the Sikh Guru Amar Das the mighty King sat amongst commoners and ate the langar which was served from the community kitchen.
With its emphasis on hard work, community service, fight against injustice and discrimination, Sikhism is a truly modern faith which is in sync with contemporary times. The Sikh diaspora has contributed actively to society everywhere. For anyone looking to learn more about the faith I’d recommend A History of the Sikhs by noted writer-columnist Khushwant Singh.
Recently, when I took leave of Mr Singh after a chance meeting with this Sikh luminary, he urged me on with a traditional Sikh blessing: Charhdi kala vich raho!
‘Charhadi Kala’ is the motto of the Sikh faith which advocates resilience and a buoyant spirit. The Sikhs will overcome the Wisconsin shooting. Going forward, they will continue to work with their countrymen to foster greater understanding of their faith. However, will US lawmakers do their duty to secure the future of their countrymen by terminating the pernicious link between prejudice and easy access to guns?