The recent shootout in California might be a case in point as two friends – Surinder Singh (68) and Gurmej Atwal (78) – were shot at during their afternoon stroll through Elk Grove, Sacramento. While Singh had died on the spot, Atwal is still fighting for his life. Both India and the USA have promptly condemned the violence, and the FBI has already joined the probe. A shocked Sikh community has announced a $30,000 reward for relevant information and a top Islamic body has offered a reward of $5,000 as well. Of course, you have the liberty to dismiss it as a ‘routine’ crime in a country where gunmen are known to mow down kids and adults without discrimination. Shooting and stabbing happen in the Indian Capital as well – leading to equally ‘unfortunate’ deaths. Yet, there is a subtle difference in these methods of violence. In Delhi or Mumbai, you only need to oppose the bhai clan (read hooligans/mafia leaders) or the powers-that-be, and you can get killed irrespective of race, religion and nationality. But in a country like the USA where the rule of the law reigns supreme and the gelling of cultural happens fast, the rise in crime against specific sects clearly indicates that all is not well.
About four months ago, a Sikh cab driver was shot dead in West Sacramento. Again, on Aug 4 last year, store worker Inderjit Singh Jassal was killed by an assailant in Phoenix, Arizona. The killer, Jermaine Canada, came to the store with his two children, aged 2 and 6, pulled out a firearm, and allegedly killed the 62-year-old after a short conversation. On Aug 8, the body of a homeless man, believed to be a Sikh, was found in the Richmond Hill area of New York. On Aug 16, Gurmohinder Singh, the owner of multiple convenience stores in California, was shot dead by 22-year-old Jeffery Aguilar. One may go on recalling similar incidents, but it’s worth delving a little deeper.
That hate crimes are on the rise is an indisputable fact. As early as 1991, a federal report categorically stated: With renewed increase in hate violence activities by white supremacist groups, racial tensions have escalated across the country. Such groups use the latest in today’s technology, such as cable television and computer bulletin boards, to spread their message of hate to anyone who will listen. And, just as these organized terrorist groups practice hate violence daily, individuals or small groups have also contributed to the increase in these types of crimes.
But why are the Sikhs singled out and targeted in the first place? You will always find a handy explanation doing the rounds. Sikh men in beards, turbans and ethnic wear can be easily mistaken as Muslims and, therefore, are considered as potential threats. In fact, the US administration has solemnly pledged to create a positive perception of the Sikh community among the US public in order to protect them from racial backlash.
“Creating a feeling of camaraderie across cultures is, undoubtedly, a meaningful gesture, – especially in these times of fear and mistrust” agrees Anchal Nair, a Bangalore-based counsellor specialising in Social Psychology. “But are we aware of the other side of the coin? If your verdict for one sect is ‘not guilty’ and you want to bestow ‘acceptance’ on them, do you indicate that the other sect might be a wolf in sheepskin? Whoever you are, a Hindu, Sikh or Muslim, you have the right to justice. But you don’t need that kind of selective coddling.”
“Fear and anger drive hate crimes like these,” feels Nayonika Dubey, a practising psychiatrist currently residing in Mumbai. Her family was in Jersey City during those infamous ‘Dotbusters’ days in the late 1980s – perhaps the worse spate of racial attacks focused on the Indian community. “Resource crunch, tough job markets and ethnic tension often lead to a deep feeling of resentment that can spark violence at the least provocation,” her clinical analysis seems quite relevant.
However, there is another ‘X’ factor that may trigger the sense of fear and insecurity in every ethnic group. In his classic The Nature of Prejudice, Gordon Allport describes the path that begins with talking about prejudices and ends with acting upon them. He asserts there is always some milder form of hatred or animosity on which violent tendencies are based. I remember an intriguing incident that I would like to share here.
In the 1980s, I and my parents were travelling from Mumbai to Kolkata in a second class sleeper coach. Other co-passengers included a Muslim gentleman and two Hindu missionaries, who felt righteously indignant to find themselves in the company of non-believers. In fact, nothing would induce the missionaries to let the other gentleman sit on the lower berth with them (incidentally, it was HIS berth) until they were literally threatened by the police.
But that kind of parochial attitude is not limited to religious sects. It happens almost everywhere – even in terms of career advancement and social acceptance. Although I am not a Hindu by religion, my surname indicates that I might be one of those backward classes in India who are entitled to certain benefits in terms of reservation. When I first came to Delhi, the HR guy in the office looked as woebegone as those swamijis and asked me whether I was a Schedule Caste from the province of Uttar Pradesh or Bihar. My whole point is: I was nowhere near the USA or the Land of Oz. Yet, what Allport said became painfully true on my own soil. In fact, most of us fall victims to hate crimes not because we are job-stealers or scheming terrorists. But because we fail to cleanse the ethnic prejudices that come home to roost. Ethnic tension and an eye-for-an-eye attitude bring about some of the worst tragedies that the humanity would like to forget. For, none of us is safe, until all of us are safe.
So, what are we to do when it comes to the long chain of hate crimes and racial revenge? Cower and hide or be up in arms against another community in order to seek justice? We often feel angry and helpless when the ‘we-versus-they’ chasm stares us in the face, when a bloody battle between ‘right and right’ begins in real earnest. I was extremely impressed by what an American woman posted on a site run by the Sikh community. It seems Laura has listened to the voice within and came up with the only humane solution possible. I want to post here a part of her blog published on SikhNet that may touch us all:
We must all be in charge of our own anger and fears. While each of us alone cannot fight the injustice and hatred in America and in the World, each of us fighting our individual battles against ignorance and evil with hope and tolerance and patience will together win the war and bring peace to ourselves and others.