The Indian Plate is officially considered a subcontinent. Its land mass is great enough to earn the subcontinental rank, but its cultural, religious and linguistic bounty really puts it really more in the league with other full-fledged continents.
As a result, the Indian subcontinent sends immigrants from a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds to the United States. From that rich tapestry, the Sikhs have emerged as one of the more interesting India-endemic groups, one that has been often misunderstood or maligned in countries they immigrate to as well as in India itself.
The Sikhs belong to a monotheistic faith that originated in the 15th century. Their homeland is centered in the Punjab region, which derives its name from a Punjabi corruption of two Persian words that mean “five waters,” referring to the five rivers of the region that are tributaries of the mighty Indus River.
While the emergence of a Sikh empire in the 18th century marked a period of unparalleled religious tolerance in India, there has been intermittent friction, even violence, between Sikhs and Mughals since its establishment — and later, tension with Muslims and Hindus. This friction was notably prominent in the period leading up to the partition of India in 1947. Sectarian strife involving the Sikhs truly picked up steam in the 1960s as the Sikhs lobbied for the creation of a Punjab state, which was eventually granted on a modified basis in 1966.
The 1970s marked another period of sectarian conflict, this time between Sikhs and Hindus. In large part, this tension was due to the perceived anti-Sikh bias of the ruling Congress Party. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi assumed emergency powers in 1975 in reaction to the violence, which contributed to increased Sikh agitation for justice, spearheaded by the Sikh leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.
The tension culminated in a cascade of retributory strikes in 1984. Government forces attacked the Sikh-revered Golden Temple in Amritsar, where Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale sought refuge. Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards four months later. A massacre of thousands of Sikhs throughout India followed immediately.
Fortunately, relations between Sikhs and Hindus have improved since the disastrous chain of events in 1984, but the times of trouble have contributed to a diaspora of Sikhs in the world. There are more than 19 million Sikhs in India and 27 million Sikhs worldwide. The most recent estimates rank the United Kingdom after India as having the largest population of Sikhs at 760,000. The United States is next at 500,000 Sikhs, followed by Canada with 468,000 Sikhs.
Imigration from India to other lands, unfortunately, has not spared the Sikhs from discrimination and violence.
One of the tenets of Sikhism, the so-called “Five K’s” — the articles of faith that all baptized Sikhs are obliged to wear — includes one, called Kesh, for uncut hair, which prompts Sikhs to don their trademark turban, called a dastar. In the post-9/11 era, the Sikh wrapping of hair has drawn physical attacks by some people in who wrongly confuse them with Islamic extremists (many of whom wear turbans as well, though almost always of a different style).
The misguided and racist violence against Sikhs after the September 11 U.S. terrorist attacks has unfolded in a series of beatings and killings over the last 13 years. It was expressed most tragically in 2012, when six worshippers at a Sikh temple were gunned down outside a temple in Milwaukee.
The current ISIS-spurred burst of violence in the Middle East has again drawn unwarranted negative attention to turban-wearing Sikhs.
The sentiments of many Sikhs who have integrated into American society can perhaps best be summarized by one Sikh-American named Vishavjit Singh, who has made it a mission to educate people about Sikhs and spread his message of tolerance among a variety of audiences.
Singh recently recounted his reaction to one uncomfortable situation to a group of students at Alfred University, where he runs a special program called “Drawn to Diversity.” “People can think I’m not an American, they can tell me to go home to where I came from,” Singh told his student listeners. “And I say: ‘OK, I’ll go home tonight. I live here.”
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