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RESILIENT LOT: Wherever they go, they carry their identity and faith
IN precisely six days, the Sikh community at Oak Creek in Wisconsin, the United States reopened the gurdwara that was the scene of a planned, ghastly killing of five men and a woman devotee by a former US soldier who had turned into a white extremist, hating people of other complexions.
"A coward came to destroy us... and to start a race war, but he came to the wrong place, because it brought us closer together," said Amardeep, whose father, Satwant Singh Kaleka, the temple's president, was killed.
Gunned down while praying or rendering community service, the six had done no harm to the killer. There have been over 700 attacks on Sikhs in the wake of 9/11. With turban and beard enjoined by their faith, the Sikh men get mistaken for Muslims and suffer for the anti-Muslim sentiment that has escalated in the West since 2001.
President Barack Obama ordered the American flag flown at half-mast as a solidarity gesture and urged Americans to do some "soul searching".
One can only hope that Obama's call will help raise the American voice against hate crime and allow not just Sikhs, but also Muslims and all ethnic and religious minorities, to feel safe in what is billed as the "greatest democracy".
The Sikhs have themselves taken the lead. New York-based United Sikhs organisation and Sikhs Abroad.com have begun a campaign with just a single sentence: "I pledge against hate crime."
This is a resilient response to a crisis and indicative of the great adaptability that the Sikhs show wherever they are. And, it would seem, they are everywhere. If there is a truly global community, it is the Sikhs. One of the many jokes about man landing on the moon is about the astronaut being overcome by surprise at finding not just human habitation, but a dhaba, a Punjabi eatery run by a Sikh.
The image of nonagenarian Fauja Singh running with the Olympic torch just before the Games opened in London is too recent to be forgotten.
The largest number of Sikhs live in India's Punjab state that has their holiest of shrines, Harmandir Saheb, popularly called the Golden Temple, in Amritsar. A small number are in Pakistan, where the birthplace of the founder of the faith, Guru Nanak Dev, is located.
To protect their faith and identity, they fought the Mughals. The last among the Indians to be defeated by the British, they organised the most violent resistance. The rebels were killed or deported to the far off Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Those willing to work were encouraged to migrate to distant lands around the 1880s. They made excellent lumbers in Alaska and Canada and in many British colonies, railroad workers, soldiers and policemen.
As farmers, they own extensive lands in Australia and in California. And with large hearts, they have been into philanthropy.
At each place, they have carried their identity and their faith. They built gurdwaras as they contributed to the progress in far-off lands.
For the Indian Sikhs, the 1980s were a trying time. Many left in the wake of the attack on the Golden Temple in 1984 and, the same year, violence that killed hundreds when three Sikh security guards murdered then prime minister Indira Gandhi.
That period is past. But scars remain.
Southeast Asia has many Sikhs. Malaysia has 100,000. With a not-so-negligible a presence, it is understandable if they get riled at being called "Bengalis". This is, perhaps, because the first migration from British India was from Bengal.
My ever-smiling former Times of India colleague Gurmukh Singh did not aspire to go global and did not even have a passport till 1999.
But with a book project in mind and an around-the-world ticket, he travelled to Britain, Europe, Canada, America, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand and East Africa to collect material, photographs, etc, for his book, The Global Indian: The Rise of Sikhs Abroad.
After three years of hard work and some additional trips abroad, he produced a marvellous book that chronicles the emigration of Sikhs from Punjab towards the end of the 19th century and today occupy places of pride in their adopted lands.
Retired Indian diplomat P.L. Bhandari writes of one Sucha Singh, settled on farmland near a remote town in Latin America, living happily as "Sanchez" with his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. This typifies the global Sikh.