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Sat Sri Akal, Sardarji
August 6, 2012 3:58 AM   Subscribe

The history of the Sikh Diaspora in USA and Canada goes back to Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 1897. Emerging as a casteless alternative to the ongoing Hindu Muslim wars in India, the Sikhs have always been known as a martial tribe, their prowess and courage respected by the British and others alike. Colloquially addressed respectfully as Sardarji, the men take Singh (lion) as their middle name while the women bear the name Kaur (princess). This custom further confirmed the equality of both genders as was the tradition set by the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak. The first Sikh Organization was The Pacific Coast Khalsa Diwan Society organized in the spring of 1912.

Later in that year they purchased a house in Stockton to serve as a Gurdwara. A second Gurdwara was established in El Centro in 1948. They participated fully in the revolution to free India from British along with the Ghadar(Revolution) party. Early Sikh immigrants had to face legal, social, economic and even physical barriers to material success. They were not allowed to bring their spouses from Punjab, and if they married an American citizen, she would lose her citizenship by such marriage. The Aliens ineligible for citizenship could not buy, own, or lease agriculture land. Most of the Sikhs started life in America as farm laborers, many of them finally became landowners and successful farmers. In 1956, Dalip Singh Saund became the first East Indian born person to be elected to the US House of Representatives. In the 1940s, Saund helped launch a successful effort to convince the U.S. Congress to pass the Luce-Celler Act of 1946, which granted naturalization rights to Indian immigrants (then sometimes referred to as "Hindus"). Thus began the next era in history for Americans from the subcontinent - Governer Nikki Haley of South Carolina is Sikh.
posted by infini (34 comments total) 56 users marked this as a favorite

 
Great post! When I have explained the barriers faced by early Aisian-Indian immigrants, most people I know don't believe me. Thanks for the links, and specifics.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 4:04 AM on August 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


In 1956, Dalip Singh Saund became the first East Indian born person to be elected to the US House of Representatives.

I don't know a lot about Sikhs (nor do I especially feel the need to, and there is a temple close by if I feel especially moved), aside from the fact they carry daggers, wear turbans and don't wear motorcycle helmets, and nor do I know much about their experience in America, but 1956?

That's downright progressive and stunning.
1956.
posted by Mezentian at 4:18 AM on August 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


Probably the biggest controversy involving the Sikh community in America (and one I saw a lot of ugly debate about in the late 80s and early 90s, growing up near Stockton) is the religious obligation for baptized Sikhs to wear the kirpan, a ceremonial dagger. The outcry manifested itself as something along the lines of "you can't have children carrying knives to school!"* which in retrospect seems almost quaint seeing as this is the same place that suffered one of America's earliest and most horrifying schoolyard shootings in 1989.

*This was "solved," I think, by the community's eventually demonstrating that you cannot use a dagger if it's been sealed inside its sheath, even at an elementary school.
posted by psoas at 4:22 AM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Something tells me that the gun-men in Wisconsin did not know anything about Sikhs.
A little education, as found in a post like this, can go along way toward dispelling blind hate.
posted by Flood at 4:46 AM on August 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


Also, if you need it (and even if you don't) they'll feed you. Worth knowing in many situations.

Also see the Hari Krishna.
posted by jaduncan at 4:48 AM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


That is the best thing I've ever heard about Stockton.
posted by gingerest at 4:56 AM on August 6, 2012 [5 favorites]


Great post. Very informative. Thank You.
posted by adamvasco at 5:14 AM on August 6, 2012


Probably the biggest controversy involving the Sikh community in America (and one I saw a lot of ugly debate about in the late 80s and early 90s, growing up near Stockton) is the religious obligation for baptized Sikhs to wear the kirpan, a ceremonial dagger.

I graduated from a UC four years ago and my first year one of the dining halls gave a student hassle about his kirpan. They eventually backed down after a lot of 'How stupid can you be?' So lesson not learned, apparently.
posted by hoyland at 5:14 AM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, if you need it (and even if you don't) they'll feed you.

In India (not sure about in the States), they serve food 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And in my experience, the food is delicious.

They clean the floor with a zambonee-like rider-cleaner thing.
posted by goethean at 5:21 AM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Governer Nikki Haley of South Carolina is Sikh.

Proving once again that coming from a diverse background is no guarantee you're not a shitty politician.
posted by kmz at 5:28 AM on August 6, 2012 [8 favorites]


This custom further confirmed the equality of both genders as was the tradition set by the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak.

The Sikh leaders have been ridiculously feminist/pro-woman's equality. "There are ten Gurus, or teachers, who shaped Sikhism into the religion that is practised today. They all thought women should be equal to men. Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism and the first of the ten Gurus said:

["In a woman man is conceived, From a woman he is born, With a woman he is betrothed and married, With a woman he contracts friendship. Why denounce her, the one from whom even kings are born? From a woman a woman is born, None may exist without a woman."]

Despite this though, the Sikh themselves are still really sexist.

"However, the Guru's teachings of equality have never been fully realized, which is clearly evident in the treatment of women even in the Sikh society today. Either because of the influence of the majority community on the Sikh minority or the Sikh male's unwillingness to give up his dominant role, women continue to suffer prejudices. A woman has never been elected as the president of Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (the Central Management Committee to manage the affairs of the Gurdwaras in the Punjab), or as the head of any of the five Takhats (the thrones of authority). Indian society discriminates against women in workplaces, and denies them the right to fight on the battlefield. People measure a woman's value as a bride by the size of her dowry, not necessarily by her character and integrity. Alice Basarke, a free-lance writer, sadly realizes, "After 500 years head start, Sikh Women are no better off than their counterparts in any other religion or nation.""


The articles I linked to discuss sexism in the the Sikh community. Another one I downloaded but haven't read yet is Sikh Politics, Gender, and Narrative Identity - "This essay explains the contradiction shared by many Sikhs who vehemently oppose sexism as antithetical to Sikhism, but simultaneously engage in discrimination against women"
posted by nooneyouknow at 5:40 AM on August 6, 2012 [7 favorites]


This is precisely the post I've been meaning to make all day, but didn't because I was trying to avoid the Blue and get some work done.

No wait, on second thoughts, it perhaps isn't. The comment I drafted in my mind is significantly less awesome than this.
posted by the cydonian at 6:02 AM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Governer Nikki Haley of South Carolina is Sikh.

Should that be was a Sikh?

http://www.nikkihaley.com/truthinfacts/question-is-nikki-a-christian/
posted by ntrifle at 6:08 AM on August 6, 2012 [5 favorites]


Canada had two Sikh Members of Parliament, Navdeep Bains and Gurbax Singh Malhi, but they were both voted out in 2011. Malhi was apparently "the first turbaned politician to be elected anywhere in the western world".
posted by sudasana at 6:15 AM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Speaking of firsts... Just try to make these guards laugh.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:16 AM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Speaking of firsts... Just try to make these guards laugh.

Wait, wait... was that a not offensive Daily Mail article?
posted by hoyland at 6:27 AM on August 6, 2012


Here's an article about Sikh diaspora in Mexico.
posted by dhruva at 6:32 AM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


When I grew up we lived in the family housing for University of Michigan while my dad completed his PhD in math under a professor from Mumbai. My family's circle of friends leaned heavily Indian, since that was how the math department leaned. In particular, there was a Sikh family in my folk's situation, with two sons my age and my brother's age, so we ended up spending lots of time with them. At the time, I had very long hair, and whenever they went back to India, they'd bring me really fantastic hair things that equally longhaired Sikh 7-year olds put in their hair. My favorite was this pink, blue, and gold tasseled, sequined, ribboned poof that I made my mom braid into my hair just about every day. Then I tried to convince my dad to grow his beard like Jasprit's, and we could move to India and no one would notice that we were not Indian because our hair would fit in. Alas, it was not successful.
posted by ChuraChura at 6:35 AM on August 6, 2012 [6 favorites]


Right, well thanks Nikki (among others) for proving that someone of Indian descent can be elected the governor of a US state as long as they convert to Christianity.

I took a brief head-count recently, and almost all of my friends whose families came from India are Sikhs. I don't know for sure, but I think an ability to be my friend speaks to their charity and tolerance more than anything else I've heard. And while the food is delicious, I still get the same funny feeling eating at a gurdwara that I assume a Korean person feels if they go to a conservative Jewish shabbat service. Not hostile, not at all, but more than a little, "Hmm. You're dating someone here, aren't you?"
posted by 1adam12 at 6:37 AM on August 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


he first ever turbaned politician to be elected anywhere in the western world

With all due respect to Gurbax Singh Malhi I think that may be slightly overstated. I think Reshbeg Singh Dhillon, elected to the Slough council in England in 1976 is the first turbaned politician to be elected in the western world. Not as high up the political ladder as Malhi, granted. The UK's first Sikh MP was Piara Khabra (a "secular" Sikh who wore no turban), an interesting chap, elected in 1992.
posted by ntrifle at 6:45 AM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Then there was Duleep Singh, who kept Queen Victoria company. A fascinating story of his descendants in its own right.
posted by infini at 7:05 AM on August 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


Thanks for this post, it's great. I'm not surprised that Sikhs are sexist in practice, but I've never read anything so nice about women in any other religious text, so they're ahead of the game than othe religions on that issue.

There are a few Sikhs in my neighbourhood, I see them around. It's good to know that although we definitely have cultural differences, we also have some shared values too. I'm going to get over my introversion and nod or say hi to the turbaned guy I see at my train station pretty regularly. I dunno. After the shooting I just feel like it's important to show that humanity isn't a complete dead end.
posted by harriet vane at 7:32 AM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


...became the first East Indian born person to be elected...

"East Indian" is such a clumsy term. I realize that some Americans are far more likely to use the word "Indian" to describe a Native American, but in most contexts - and especially deep in the second paragraph of a post about Sikhs - I don't think even they would double-take and ask you to clarify if you meant Native American, West Indian or East Indian.

And, according to the linked article, he was actually the first Asian to be elected to Congress. Which is an even bigger first.
posted by rh at 7:52 AM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, on the lighter side, I found out when dating a Sikh guy recently that secular/nonpracticing Sikhs like him (at least those not practicing Kesh) are referred to as "cut"--as in they've cut their hair--which amused me to no end, what with the other meaning it carries in our gay world.

So one can be both cut and uncut, and here endeth the TMI.
posted by psoas at 9:39 AM on August 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


They were not allowed to bring their spouses from Punjab, and if they married an American citizen, she would lose her citizenship by such marriage.

Have to say, my first reaction was, this can't be true. "The Man Without A Country" is patriotic propaganda, but fantasy.

Operative word, Man.

There it is, laid out for all to see in the 1907 Expatriation Act of 1907 (34 Stat. 1228). Happily, cooler heads prevailed in the thirties.

While rootling around for that, I came across the Supreme Court decision that found that although Sikhs were legally Caucasian, they were not white, and therefore subject to state miscegenation laws (and loss of citizenship if they had managed to sneak through the bureaucracy). Which get's us back to dhruva's Sikh-Mexican connection. I read here (page 975) there was no miscegenation breach if Sikhs married Mexicans, be they never so America, because they too were not white.

What a country!
posted by BWA at 11:01 AM on August 6, 2012 [5 favorites]


Mexican Hindoos and a poignant vignette
posted by infini at 11:10 AM on August 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


Malhi was apparently "the first turbaned politician to be elected anywhere in the western world".

The new mayor of Charlottesville, VA, Satyendra Huja was first elected to the City Council there in 2007.
posted by Surfurrus at 12:49 PM on August 6, 2012


Superb post infini. Thank you. Am crazy about that cool melting pot story of Mexican Hindus. Love complex brocade stories.

psoas, the term usually used when a Sikh cuts their hair is mona. It's not a complimentary term for Sikhs and is not to be used lightly. Another couple of synonyms are Rowdah or rowday (pronounced row-day plural or rowdah singular) and inhead.

Such a painful irony that Sikhs are being mistaken for Muslims because of their turbans when the creation of the Sikh religion in 1699 was to protect India against Muslims. Sikh teachers during the Mughal invasion of India did not want Hindus to be forced to convert to Islam and fought to protect the right to practice their own religion.

Sikhs and Muslims have been traditional enemies for centuries, since India had been invaded by the Mughul Empire from 1526 to 1858. The Islamic invasion of India only ended when the British Raj took over, supported by the Sikhs.

Personal anecdotes: My first day in India in September 1975, I was 21 years old. I'd come over the very busy Pakistani border between Lahore, Pakistan and Amritsar, India. The 17 year old British schoolboy I'd hitchhiked overland to India with had heard that a person could spend the night free at the Golden Temple, the big Sikh temple. So we went there. It's an extraordinarily beautiful temple. We left our shoes at the entrance, as is the rule, and walked barefoot on the marbled floors, slowly though the temple with the other pilgrims, wild green parrots landing on the eaves, free food offered, people of all ages there together in a warm and quiet camaraderie, incredible looking Sikh holy men in astonishing turbans and regal bearing, the clang of temple bells, incense, walked by the Sikh Bible, the Guru Granth Saheb.

When night fell, we were told we could sleep anywhere and we put our sleeping bags right there on the marble floor with the other pilgrims, we felt and were totally safe, treated with respect. There were women and men, kids and old people. The women were amazingly beautiful, in their traditional, comfortable dress, the salwar kameez. People spoke to us gently and in a friendly way. And the turbans! All colors, and unexpected ones for men, hot pink, rose pink, lavender, butter yellow, the colors of lollipops and popsicles, happy colors.

I fell in love with India on the spot and ended up living, blissfully, there for 10 years. Sikhs are the backbone of India's agricultural green revolution. They're the great farmers who provide a good percent of the country with staple foods, grains and veggies. They're many of the top politicians, top doctors, top scientists, the transport people who drive the trucks, are restaurant and construction company owners, the spine of India's military.

Another, somewhat darker anecdote: I was hiking in the Himalayas on foot. On Kunzom-la. A 15 thousand foot high peak between India and Spiti. It's a desolate place and I was there alone, age 27. I began to get altitude sickness and fever, as I'd also waded through a river the day before and gotten a chill. Some Tibetan roadworker kids told me I could rest in a stone hut up the mountain. Somehow the news traveled that a foreign woman, me, was alone in the stone hut and 3 Sikh truck drivers heard about it, made their way up there. They entered the hut and began to pull the sleeping bag from me, and I could only surmise I was about to be raped.

I looked them in the face and said the word in Punjabi (their language) for God (which is also the word for God in Hindi as well), Bhagwan. I said it 3 times. They left immediately. I know it's a strange respect but I do, actually, feel respect for them that even though they intended me harm, when confronted with their own spirituality, they stopped. Something amazing about that.

Anyway, over the years my respect for Sikhs has increased. My sincere condolences to the families of those harmed by that malignant idiot who defiled their spiritual sanctuary with his rabid violence. It is my hope that the Sikhs are able to forgive those Americans who are ignorant, dangerous fools and know that the rest of the American public, who is familiar with how wonderful the Sikhs can be, offers sympathy at the horror that just took place.
posted by nickyskye at 12:52 PM on August 6, 2012 [13 favorites]


And ... Democracy Now has a segment today that goes into background of American Sikhs, including some explanation for the importance of their turbans and beards as identity.
posted by Surfurrus at 12:52 PM on August 6, 2012


Such a painful irony that Sikhs are being mistaken for Muslims because of their turbans when the creation of the Sikh religion in 1699 was to protect India against Muslims.

Yes, this is striking. Sikhs have been no fans of Muslims. I was introduced to Islam via Sikh views (I was married to a Sikh 1970-80) - views which included all the history of the Sikh martyrs under the Moguls, disgust of anything halal, horror stories of Partition, and so on. Living in Turkey last year was a whole new experience and I had to revise a lot of my beliefs. Bigotry via tragedies, historic rife and revenge is, unfortunately, universal.

I really appreciate a comment I heard (cannot find the link now) about how much is said about the tragedy of the Sikhs being mistaken for Muslims, while it should also be said, obviously, that Muslims as a target is equally tragic.

I only hope that this horrible attack will bring people together in new understanding. We all need to bridge our differences.

Thank you for this thread, Infini. I am sitting and worrying about my children and their cousins today.
posted by Surfurrus at 1:26 PM on August 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


It's sad that a tragedy is the only time for education. Even more depressing is the fact that this education never reaches the intended audience. A maniac with a gun has no eyes or ears
posted by savitarka at 4:17 PM on August 6, 2012


Surfurrus: "disgust of anything halal"

This had nothing to do with Islam specifically. The Jhatka requirement is quite explicitly to minimize the suffering of the animal.

Despite the fact that the Khalsa (not Sikhism as a whole) exists as a direct response to the violence of Aurangzeb, at no point did any of the Gurus suggest that the fight was against Islam itself - quite the opposite.
posted by vanar sena at 5:02 PM on August 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


Thank you for clarifying that, vanar sena. I was writing from my experience and not from my studies of Sikhism. I should add, I feel great respect for the teachings of Sikhism -- in spite of how it is sometimes practiced. And, sadly, I would say the same thing about Christianity ... and most all religions I've seen.

I just thought it was strange (ironical) to see anti-Muslim bias in the Sikhs that I knew many years ago -- considering that one of the major teachings of Guru Nanak was that religion should guide congregations to be inclusive of all humanity instead of divisive and instigating hate. I loved that teaching; that alone would be a great gift from Sikhism to all people today.
posted by Surfurrus at 12:17 AM on August 7, 2012


to see anti-Muslim bias in the Sikhs that I knew many years ago

The Punjab suffered the most in the Partition. It was no less than a holocaust in its own right, perpetrated by the British and many complex and complicated feelings remain until this day. Particularly by those whose lands and fields and homes were left behind in what is now Pakistan.
posted by infini at 1:09 AM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


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