Along the California Highway 99, driving towards the city of Fresno, is a billboard with a picture of a smiling Sikh boy, wearing a turban. A rare sighting on a United States highway, with a message in Punjabi and English, urging the community to be counted in the USA’s National Census 2020. The central valley of California is a fertile farm belt, and is home to a large population of Sikhs.
Estimates of the number of Sikhs in the US range from 200,000 by the Pew Research Center in 2012, to 700,000 today, according to SALDEF, a Sikh American advocacy group.
The Sikh Americans as a group are known to be very interconnected, and strive for civic engagement where they reside. There are more than 200 gurdwaras in the US and numerous non-profit groups that work to raise awareness about the Sikh identity.
How Inclusion In Census 2020 Can Positively Impact Sikh Political Representation
2020 is an election year and is also the year of the census, a count of residents that takes place every 10 years. Sikh volunteers have been running census and voter registration drives through this year.
California-based non-profit organisation Jakara, started planning their voter outreach in 2019. After many months of meeting members in gurdwaras and knocking on doors, to register them for the census and to vote, plans slowed down because of the pandemic. They moved to finding volunteers, including paid workers, to run their efforts online. Using county-wide lists they started their ‘phone banking’ process, making calls to help answer questions about the census, election, mail ballots, deadlines, and providing information about local candidates and issues.
The US Presidential election runs along with local elections for city councils, school district boards, and various region-specific civic issues are also on the ballot.
Virtual town hall meetings, census hotlines on Sikh Radio USA, and colourfully decorated car rallies with informative flyers, have been driving through immigrant neighbourhoods. Ragini Kaur, a community organiser for Jakara, proudly shared with us that she used a megaphone during these ‘caravan rallies’.
The US Census closes on 30 September. The Washington, DC-based Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund's (SALDEF) website mentions that census data determines federal resource-allocation for communities, impacts political representation, and amplifies a community’s voice.
Racial Discrimination Against Sikhs in Post-9/11 America
Sikhs have been targets of hate crimes since 9/11, and many in the community feel that they face discrimination at work and in schools. Sat Hanuman Singh Khalsa is a Vietnam war veteran who lives in Oregon, and is an active member of a closely-connected Sikh community. He worked with the Department of Homeland Security for many years, as part of the airport security unit, also called the TSA (Transportation Security Administration). Being a turban-wearing bearded Sikh, he had his share of being disrespected by passengers during regular security procedures.
Sat Hanuman told us about non-complying passengers when he requested them to remove their shoes and jackets, before walking through the metal detector. In one instance, he had to use his arms to block a passenger who chose to not to listen and was barreling through.
During all his years with the TSA, he had to ignore passengers who would stare at his turban and many even filmed him, as he looked ‘different’.
How An American Sikh Tried To ‘Be A Bridge’ & ‘Effect Change’
Sat Hanuman Singh Khalsa is a Caucasian American who adopted the Sikh faith at the age of 21, and has been wearing a turban for more than 45 years now. Sat Hanuman says:
“I am a westerner, a non-South Asian Sikh, with a turban and a beard. I know the American culture and Sikh religion. I realised I could be a bridge and effect change. I applied for the TSA job, and did training with them, to help. As a Sikh, I do a lot of community work, sewa.”Sat Hanuman Singh Khalsa, a Caucasian American Sikh
Sat Hanuman trained TSA staff to be more sensitive and respectful to Sikh’s kirpans during security procedures at the airport. His many experiences in public places have made him believe that, “Americans are illiterate about Sikhs. They see a turban and a beard, and perceive it as a threat.”
‘Experiences Of Discrimination Start Early’
Singh was in New York on 9/11, and experienced people’s perceptions towards him change overnight, after images of Osama bin Laden started playing on TV. In spite of being a Caucasian, strangers called the police on him because of his turban and beard, and he had to find safety with a group of friends. He feels that the discrimination Sikhs encounter daily is not only racial – because they are South Asian – but also religious, as they are conspicuous in their turbans.
The experiences start early. 18-year-old Jaskirat Singh, a high school graduate, always wore a turban to school. In a predominantly Latino and African American Texas neighbourhood, he remembers being bullied and being called a terrorist by another child in elementary school. Speaking about another incident in middle school, Jaskirat says:
“I was suspended from school because a teacher misunderstood me when I was speaking with a friend about a video game, and perceived me to be a terror threat.”18-year-old American Sikh, Jaskirat Singh
According to a survey by a Sikh non-profit, in the multi-cultural, educated, affluent San Francisco Bay Area, 69 percent of turbaned Sikhs face bullying in schools, which is more than double of other American students.
Enthusiasm Among Sikh Youth & Civic Engagement In Elections
Civic engagement in elections and local races ‘brings representation’ and allows for ‘our voices to be heard’, and ‘impacts funds towards racial justice’, believes Navdeep Singh, a SALDEF volunteer. He gives the example of Harjit Singh who is running for California’s Yuba City Public School Board in the coming elections. Yuba City, also known as ‘mini Punjab’, a few miles away from California’s capital, is home to one of the largest Sikh populations in the US, but does not have any Sikh on the public school board.
Navdeep mentions that what has stood out for him, during the current voter outreach effort, is the enthusiasm among the Sikh youth. He says:
“High schoolers are energised, they make voting plans with their families, they discuss local issues on the ballot.”
The group has been running virtual, phone and text outreach through domestic and social media, and via Jus Punjabi TV, in many US states, including key swing states. Their Executive Director Kiran Kaur Gill told us that along with the US Census-related outreach efforts, SALDEF ran a national Sikh American survey to help count the number of Sikhs in the US.
The first survey of its kind was designed over the summer. A research association with Rutgers University was made to ensure it adhered to international survey standards.
It intends to have a more accurate count of Sikhs and their political affiliations in the US, for more effective advocacy. The data tabulation will take another month.
Sikhs Officially Identified As ‘Ethno-Religious’ Group By US Govt For The First Time
The desire to not be left uncounted in the census is bolstered by the fact that Sikhs have been introduced as a distinct group for the first time in the ongoing census, and do not have to be limited in the general ‘Asian Indians’ category as in the previous census.
Going around the legal limitations of asking for a citizen's religious identity for the census, this year the US government has identified Sikhism as an ‘ethno-religious’ group, which is more of a cultural identity, making ‘Sikh’ a distinct detailed population group. Lt Col Kamal Kalsi, of Sikh American Veterans Association (SAVA), who has been a part of voter registration drives in the past said:
“This development is a double-edged sword. It is a positive step in recognising the community, but can also scare some hard-working South Asian immigrants, who might be unsure of their legal status in the country. The real number of Sikhs is much higher than those that the census will show.”
Community leaders and volunteers have been creating awareness about this change in the census, and helping Sikh Americans identify themselves in the questionnaire.
‘Sikhs Must Register To Vote, Irrespective Of Political Alliances’
In celebration of democracy, the fourth Tuesday of every September is US’s National Voter registration day. On 22 September, in a massive countrywide push before the upcoming elections, mainstream outreach organisations, companies, celebrities, sports stars, politicians and volunteers helped spread the word about registering to vote, and aimed to reach many who might not register otherwise. In the same spirit, as mentioned on their website, the not-for-profit Sikh Coalition announced 20 September as National Sikh Voter Registration Day. From 26 September to 17 October, more than 500 sevadaars aim to reach 25,000 Sikhs in 9 key states.
Even though most of the advocacy groups do not state any affiliations with Republican or Democratic parties on their websites, the first Sikh mayor of a US city, Ravi Bhalla of Hoboken, New Jersey, was a panellist in a recent webinar on the importance of voting – and he identifies as a Democrat.
The ‘Sikh Americans for Biden’ campaign has also been unfolding on social media, recently. The first Sikh to be permitted to wear a turban in the US Army – since the Reagan administration’s ban on all conspicuous items of faith from the defence forces’s uniform – SAVA’s Col Kalsi believes that Sikhs must register to vote, irrespective of their political alliances.
Giving the example of Sikh political representatives in Canada, he feels that Sikhs in the US are a generation behind.
He says, “I strongly believe that the future of the Sikh community is outside India”. One of the slogans going around is ‘Rock the Vote’. The zeal in the Sikh community to push Sikhs to register in the census and to vote, is yet to be seen in other South Asian communities in the US.
(Savita Patel is a senior journalist and producer, who produced ‘Worldview India’, a weekly international affairs show, and produced Across Seven Seas’, a diaspora show, both with World Report, aired on DD. She has also covered stories for Voice of America TV from California. She’s currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)