Hate Crime Against Sikhs In The US
The USA Today of August 7, 2012, has reported as follows: “Sikh rights groups have reported a rise in bias attacks since the September 11, 2001, terror attacks. The Washington-based Sikh Coalition has reported more than 700 incidents, which advocate blame on anti-Islamic sentiment. Sikhs don’t practice the same religion as Muslims, but their long beards and turbans often cause them to be mistaken for Muslims, advocates say…..But the turban also attracts violence to individuals and their places of worship. In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, four drunk teenagers set fire to the Gobind Sadan, a Sikh house of worship in Hastings, N.Y.”
From a study of the reports published in the US media, it would appear that since 9/11, there have been two attacks on Sikh places of worship in the US. The first was the arson attack by some drunk teenagers in Hastings, N.Y, which apparently did not lead to any casualties and the second the attack with a handgun on a group of Sikhs who had gathered inside a gurudwara in Oak Creek in the Milwaukee area of Wisconsin on August 5, 2012, which led to the death of six Sikhs, four of them turbaned priests. Among those killed was the founding-President of the Gurudwara, 65-year-old Satwant Singh Kaleka.
One of those present in the gurudwara told the CNN in an interview that the gunman appeared to be specifically targeting bearded, turbaned members of the congregation and not those who were clean shaven. He first killed two Sikhs in the parking lot outside the gurudwara, then shot dead four more inside, exited and seriously injured two police officers who had rushed to the gurudwara. He also injured one other Sikh, but it is not known whether he injured him inside or outside the gurudwara. The gunman was ultimately shot dead by one of the police officers.
The gunman used a 9 mm handgun for the killing. From a study of the reports in the US media, he does not appear to have indulged in indiscriminate firing. If it was indiscriminate firing, there would have been more injured people. It was targeted firing directed at Sikhs with beard and turban.
Speaking to the media, Teresa Carlson, FBI special agent in charge of the investigation, said the “motive is still being assessed at this time,” but the shooting is being investigated as domestic terrorism. The FBI defines terrorism as violence used to coerce a government or civilian population to advance political or social objectives.
Paul Bresson, an FBI spokesman, told the media: “We’re looking at hate crime as a possibility. You have a shooting that took place in a house of worship. This was not just a random thing. There’s a feeling that this was somehow thought out and targeted.”
By the evening of August 6, the gunman was identified as Wade Michael Page, aged 40, originally of Colorado and now living in Wisconsin. According to Lt. Col. Laurel Devine of the Public Affairs Division of the US Army, Page joined the Army in 1992 and was discharged at the rank of specialist in 1998. He specialised in psychological operations. He was posted at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, Fort Bliss in Texas and Fort Bragg in North Carolina. He received several awards, including five achievement medals, two good conduct medals and a parachutist badge.
In a press statement, Page has been described by the Southern Poverty Law Centre, a non-governmental organisation which maintains a data base of white extremists, as “a frustrated neo-Nazi who had been the leader of a racist white-power band.” The centre, which reportedly has a database of more than 20,000 people it has identified as white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other members of hate groups, said Page figured in its database since 2000.
According to Heidi Beirich, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, in 2000, Page came to its notice for the first time when he tried to purchase unidentified materials from National Alliance, a neo-Nazi group that influenced Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. He was subsequently noticed associating himself with some music groups that propagated “hate music”. Among such groups were two called Youngland and End Apathy.
According to her, Page used to write for a white supremacist website called Storm Front under the name of Youngland. His groups played at music festivals meant for white supremacists, skinheads and neo-Nazis. His band played in a festival called Uprise in 2010 and he attended other festivals including Hammerfest, one of the largest festivals. She said that the number of hate groups operating in the US had increased since Barack Obama had been elected President in 2008.The number of hate groups identified by her organisation has gone up from 602 in 2000 to 1018 last year.
The USA Today has quoted Beirich as identifying five White extremists figuring in the database of her Centre as having taken to violence. Apart from Page, these are: James Von Brunn who died after shooting and killing a black security guard at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in 2009 in Washington, D.C.; Richard Poplawski who was convicted of shooting and killing three Pittsburgh police officers in 2009; Keith Luke accused of killing two people and raping and shooting a third in a shooting spree in Brockton, Mass., in 2009; and Kevin Harpham, an Army veteran convicted of planting a bomb at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade in Spokane last year.
In an interview in April 2010, Page said he started his band End Apathy in 2005 out of frustration that “we have the potential to accomplish so much more as individuals and a society in whole.” He added: “The concept was based on trying to figure out what it would take to actually accomplish positive results in society and what is holding us back. A lot of what I realised at the time was that if we could figure out how to end people’s apathetic ways, it would be the start toward moving forward. Of course after that it requires discipline, strict discipline to stay the course in our sick society.”
According to Marc Pitcavage of the Anti-Defamation League as quoted by USA Today, Page also was a member of the Hammerskins, “one of the oldest hard-core racist groups” in the country. The music groups with which he was associated, were affiliated with the Hammerskins.
CONSPIRACY OR COINCIDENCE?
In recent times India’s image and international standing have declined dramatically. A series of events have transformed India from being a rising global power a year ago to a tottering banana republic unable to hold itself together and getting increasingly alienated from the rest of the world. How and why did this happen? Was it the cosmic power of stars that brought about this dramatic shift or was there man made conspiracy at work?
This week a hate crime resulted in six Sikhs being shot dead in a Gurudwara in Wisconsin, USA. The killer was a disgraced US army veteran. Was this the act of a lunatic or motivated terror? An unidentified man, tattooed like the killer, was witnessed videotaping the scene after the shootout. Who was he? Recall the so-called race violence against Indians in Australia three years ago. I questioned the popular view. Had there been race acts the Arabs, Vietnamese, Malays, Chinese and the rest would also have been targeted. Only Indians were targeted. I described the incidents as being not race acts but anti-Indian acts. Why would the Australians traditionally so friendly with India indulge in anti-Indian acts? Were anti-social, petty criminal elements instigated by a third power through monetary offerings to perpetrate the acts? My views were of course ignored. But what happened to that so called racism? It has disappeared. Can racist feelings be switched on and off at will?
Recently a series of events have occurred. In the strategically sensitive state of Assam riots broke out between Bodo tribals and Muslims. The riots broke out after a couple of murders of Muslims. Bodos were suspected. There were retaliatory killings. Violence flared. Later it was conceded that there was no Bodo hand in the initial killings. But the damage had been done. To this day the authorities have not identified who perpetrated the original murders that sparked the violence. The Ministry of Home Affairs smugly asserted that no outside forces were behind the violence. On what basis did it conclude this?
There occurred terrorist violence in the Maruti car complex in Haryana. There was an ongoing dispute between the management and workers. But the violence was irrational and more like the work of terrorists than disgruntled labour. A pro-labour management official was killed. The police stood by watching as the factory was burnt and terror unleashed against officials. This terrorist violence in a global automobile outfit has created deep misgiving across the world. It should be noted that foreign subversion is undertaken to foment terror and violence only where genuine grievances already exist.
There occurred the world’s biggest power blackout which was reported widely across the world. It severely damaged India’s standing as a safe investment destination. Has the government satisfied itself that at some level there was no deliberate sabotage involved? One can go on. One need not reiterate that corruption has made many Indians unsuspecting and unwitting pawns of foreign subversive designs. If RAW officials can be subverted, why not others? Are such suspicions paranoid? Perhaps these are. But what is the harm for Indian Intelligence to probe and study this angle?
If indeed there is conspiracy at work, what might be behind it? Only if investigation does offer evidence of subversion might any conjecture be made. But the observation of Dr. Henry Kissinger commenting on conspiratorial acts of terror is worth recalling. He said what should be identified first of all is the beneficiary of the terrorist act. That provides a starting point for investigation. Recent events in India have damaged India’s international reputation, destabilized part of society, harmed its economy, and alienated public opinion from America. Which foreign elements could benefit from all this? It may seem very fanciful to suspect that such diverse events can be the work of a foreign hand. But it may be recalled that a cabinet minister recently categorically alleged that Indian businessmen were colluding with a foreign power to damage India’s international reputation. What led him to make such a serious allegation?
By Rajinder Puri
The USA Today quotes Pitcavage as stating as follows: “Page had a number of tattoos identifying him as a skinhead and neo-Nazi. There was a tattoo of a cog that included the number 838, which means “Hail the crossed hammers,” a skinhead slogan. There also was a tattoo of a Celtic cross with the number 14, a reference to the 14-word white supremacist slogan: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” He also had a tattoo of a totenkopf, a death’s head or skull, which is a neo-Nazi symbol that shows allegiance to the white supremacist movement.”
Analysts in US media attribute the increase in the number of White extremist hate groups to the following factors. Firstly, the propaganda carried on by White extremists that by 2040 immigrants from Latin America will constitute the majority of the US population. Secondly, the belief of the White extremists that an increase in the vote bank of the Blacks and other minorities contributed to the victory of Obama in the Presidential election. Thirdly, unemployment. Economic distress adds to the anti-minority anger of the White extremists.
When one gunman attacked the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, a gurdwara, in what appeared to be a hate crime in Oak Creek, a quiet suburb of Milwaukee, the 65-year-old founding President of the gurudwara, Sadwant Singh Kaleka emerged as an hero during the shooting incident. Kaleka not only confronted the white supremacist gunman with his kirpan, he saved dozens of women, children and other worshippers. Although in the battle, Kaleka sacrificed his life, as the gunman, Wade Michael Page, 40, killed him mercilessly with his 9-mm handgun.
The US media reports informed that Kaleka’s valour slowed down the neo-Nazi killer, which provided women and children important time so that they could run away and locked themselves in rooms around the complex. When Page attacked, the women and children, preparing meals for congregation, were in the direct line of attack, but it was Kaleka’s heroic endeavour that not only saved the women and children but also earned him accolades in Wisconsin. “He became an unlikely hero to save the place which he had devoted to build,” his son Amardeep Kaleka said. “Whatever time he spent in that struggle gave the women time to take cover.”
Kaleka and his family immigrated to the US from India in 1982, where he developed a thriving business. He devoted every extra dollar he earned to building the gurudwara. Relatives said Kaleka was widely regarded as the founder of the temple that was attacked by Page, a disgraced veteran, who is thought to have mistaken bearded and turbaned Sikhs for Muslims.
When Kaleka confronted the gunman, Page had already shot at least one person in the car park. He went on to kill six worshippers before returning outside to ambush the police when he heard their sirens. He was killed in a gunfight after he severely wounded a police officer.
Meanwhile, Wade’s mother Laura Lynn said that she was sorry for her “precious little boy” turning into a mass murderer.
What has been the contribution of the post-9/11 anti-Muslim suspicions and prejudices to the growth of hate groups? This has not been adequately analysed though this too must be a factor. The increase in hate crime against the Sikhs could be attributed partly to economic and partly to religious factors. The economic factor being jealousy over the prosperity achieved by them. The religious factor is the inability of sections of the population—even people not identified with White extremists—to distinguish the Sikhs from the Muslims and Sikhism from Islam.
Initial reports of the attack spoke of the possibility of there being more than one perpetrator. Now, the police seem to believe that there was only one. Was it a lone wolf attack self-motivated or was it an attack motivated by an organisation or group spreading hatred against Sikhs? The indications till now are that it was probably a self-motivated lone-wolf attack.
If the observations of a clean-shaven Sikh who was interviewed by the CNN that Page seemed to be targeting turbaned Sikhs are correct, there would be a greater possibility of the attack being due to religious bias than economic anger.
Ever since they arrived in the U.S. as farmers and lumber mill workers in the late 19th century, Sikhs have struggled with how little Americans knew about the faith. The exact number of Sikhs living in America is not known. Estimates range from 200,000 to 500,000. Many left their homes in the agricultural Punjab province, known as the breadbasket of India, and arrived first in the West and Pacific Northwest in the late 1800s.
The first major temple was built in 1912 around Stockton, Calif., but like other immigrants, Sikhs were not allowed to bring their spouses to the United States, which restricted their numbers. When President Lyndon Johnson eased immigration quotas in the 1960s, Sikhs began arriving in larger numbers with their families. Temples were built around Boston, Chicago and other parts of California.
Yet, no matter how established they felt in the United States, many Sikhs felt misunderstood. They remained a small and readily identifiable by their turbans. During the 1970s Iranian hostage crisis, Americans often mistook Sikhs for Iranians. Vandals attacked some temples after the Oklahoma City bombing, committed by white U.S. Army veteran Timothy McVeigh.
For Sikhs, the Wisconsin attack attack was the latest and worst of a string of horrific assaults on their community. Many of the recent attacks have been outright hate crimes. Others remain unsolved.
Just four days after the 2001 (9-11) attacks, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a gas station owner in Mesa, Ariz., was shot and killed by a man who mistook him for a Muslim and was seeking revenge. Last year, a New York City subway worker and Sikh, 30-year-old Jiwan Singh, was assaulted on a train and accused of being related to Osama bin Laden. His son had been attacked two years earlier. In Elk Grove, Calif., a Sacramento suburb, two Sikh men were fatally shot last year during an afternoon walk. No one has been charged with the crimes.
In recent years, many young Sikhs have cut their hair or worn baseball caps instead of turbans to avoid standing out.
The FBI Special agent Teresa Carlson said: “We are looking at ties to white supremacy groups. Page had contact with law enforcement in the past and was in FBI files, but the FBI had no reason to believe he was planning an attack.” It needs to be added that most of the details carried by the US media regarding Page’s links with White extremist groups as mentioned above have come from non-governmental research groups monitoring White extremist activities and not from the police. The CBS TV channel, citing unnamed sources, said evidence suggested race or ethnicity might have played a role in the violence, but it added no links to extremist groups have been confirmed.
The Journal Sentinel of Milwaukee reported that Page apparently worked as a truck driver with Granger, Iowa-based Barr-Nunn Transportation, from about April 2006 to August 2010 while living in Fayetteville, N.C. An employee at the company reportedly told the newspaper that Page left “involuntarily” but declined to elaborate. The only criminal information it had on Page was one of issuing a check in October 1997 which bounced, it said.
The incident has not revived the debate on the need for effective gun control in the US. Many States allow unrestricted open carriage of guns. Some States do impose restrictions on concealed carriage, However, it is so easy to buy and possess guns without effective background checks. A gun is seen as a weapon of self-defence and political leaders do not want to impose controls on the right to protect oneself by acquiring a gun. The argument that many of the guns are used not for self-defence, but for killing others in anger or hatred or in outbursts of irrationality has not made much of an impact either on large sections of the political class or on the pro-gun lobby. It is futile to expect that the massacre of the Sikhs could have any impact on the debate on this subject.
The Sikh community, which was already concerned over the spate of hate attacks on individual Sikhs like taxi-drivers, gas station attendants etc since 9/11, will be even more concerned over this attack on a congregation of Sikhs in a gurudwara resulting in multiple fatalities. There are already reports of unhappiness among members of the Sikh community in the US over what they view as the apathy of the authorities of the two countries in the light of continuing attacks on individual Sikhs and their failure to protect them.
The police may have difficulty in protecting individual Sikhs subject to surprise attacks in public places, but the Sikhs will not be able to understand the inability of the police to protect them when they are in groups in places like gurudwaras. There are already suggestions for increased police patrolling of areas where gurudwaras are located. Posting of static guards in such places where Sikhs gather for prayers and other religious and social occasions should be possible. It is estimated that there are about 120 gurudwaras and other Sikh places of worship in the US. Providing them effective protection should be possible. The Government of India should take this up with the US authorities.
It is also necessary for the Sikh community to interact frequently with non-Sikh communities, particularly Whites, in the US in order to remove wrong perceptions regarding Sikhism as a religion and the Sikhs as a community.
By B Raman
(The author is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate, Chennai Centre For China Studies.)