By Komal Patel
Nearly 14 years after the 9/11 attacks, Sikh youths continue to fall victim to bullying and fear for their safety as a result of retaliatory hate crimes against Sikhs mistaken for Muslims that have yet to cease.
Jaskaran Singh, a member of the Sikh community in Richmond Hill, Queens, can recount numerous times that he’s been the subject of harassment after being mistaken for a Muslim rather than a Sikh.
“Growing up, I’ve been bullied a lot, whether in middle school, or even high school, elementary school, and even out on the street,” said Jaskaran Singh, 18. “There were incidents when I was sitting on the train, and a couple kids would start coughing, saying, ‘cough cough, 9/11, cough cough,’ and stuff like that.”
Such negative attitudes and violence towards members of the Sikh community is a source of fear for him.
“I worry about safety all the time,” said Jaskaran Singh. “I have a younger brother whose 15, and I’m always worried about his safety. I’m even worried for my parents, you know, my mom works at the airport, and there’s always people going in and out of the airport. My dad’s a taxi driver, and he interacts with a lot of people, too.”
Members of the Sikh faith, which originated in the Punjab state of India, traditionally wear dastaars, or turbans. These turbans are mandated by the faith and take on symbolic meanings of dedication, self-respect, courage, and piety. As a result, Sikhs are sometimes mistaken for Muslims, some of whom also wear turbans.
According to the Pew Research Center, there are approximately 200,000 American Sikhs of all ages in the United States. Though statistics for hate crimes against Sikhs are unavailable, the United States Department of Justice states that over 800 hate crimes against Arab-Americans, Muslims, South Asian Americans, and Sikhs have been investigated since 9/11.
In New York City alone, multiple high profile hate crimes against Sikhs occurred in 2014. Columbia University professor Prabhjot Singh was attacked in April, 29-year-old Sandeep Singh of Richmond Hill was run over and dragged by a car in July, and Jaspreet Singh Batra, a doctor, was harassed and attacked on Roosevelt Island by a group of teenagers in August.
Jaskaran Singh is not alone in feeling the fears left by these hate crimes and facing the challenges that come with bullying inspired by religious hatred. Other Sikh youths from the greater tri-state area feel the same negative backlash and resulting anxiety.
Seventeen-year-old Ravinder Singh (no relation to Jaskaran) has been called “terrorist,” “Osama Bin Laden,” and a “raghead,” among other things. He finds the hate towards Muslims, and being mistaken for one, worrisome.
“It worries me because of my immediate family,” said Ravinder Singh, a Connecticut resident. “My mom and dad aren’t fluent in English, so they don’t know how to tell people who they really are.”
These youths don’t always find the support they need. Simarjot Kaur, 17, a student at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North in New Jersey, was shocked at how little support she received from her school after being taunted in the cafeteria by her peers for her waist-length hair, which is kept uncut in Sikhism.
“There were a lot of people in that room, a good hundred people, so a lot of people heard what they were saying, but nobody stood up for me,” said Kaur. “I went to my guidance counselor and started crying, and she wasn’t really helpful. She said, ‘Oh I’m sorry to hear that,’ and gave me a tissue and said that she was busy and that she would send me a note to come see her a different day.”
Many Sikh teenagers have found solidarity from the Sikh Youth of New York, part of the Sikh Coalition. This program was founded in Richmond Hill and aims to advocate for Sikh youths throughout New York and surrounding areas. Currently comprised of 24 youths, the group meets for three hours each week to have discussions on advocacy and identity issues.
One of the Sikh Coalition’s goals is to stop bullying through education. A campaign launched by the organization to improve the accuracy of information on Sikhism found in American high school textbooks by working with major publishers, like McGraw Hill, recently met with success.
In addition, the members of the Sikh Youth of New York take it upon themselves to educate others in their schools. After pointing out to a teacher that the information about Sikhism he was using was inaccurate, Ravinder Singh taught his class about his religion. His teacher even invited him to teach about Sikhism each year following the incident.
“I feel like if there’s a presence in school that gave kids a knowledge of what Sikhism is, kids would be bullied less often, and they would be more knowledgeable on the subject,” said Amar Kalicharan, 18, a member of the Sikh Youth of New York group.
Though hate crimes and ignorance have caused a negative impact, they have also reiterated a sense of urgency to these Sikh youths’ work in raising awareness.
“It gave us so much fire,” said Ravinder Singh about the recent crime in Richmond Hill against Sandeep Singh. “It’s like, now is the time, now it has to end. We can’t continue being treated like that.”