Published on Religion and Politics.
Nestled in the suburbs of Hamden, Connecticut, a little brick building has been transformed into a gurdwara, a Sikh house of worship. Inside Gurdwara Sachkhand Darbar, dozens of families from the greater New Haven area gather for Sunday service.
Most of those who attend services have lived in New England for more than twenty years; only a handful of them are recent immigrants. All listen intently to the kirtan, lips moving softly to the words of a prayer: “Tu Thakar Tum Pe Ardas Jiyo Pind Sabh Teri Ras.” On a projector on the wall, an English translation appears for the younger ones to follow: “You are the Divine Master, we pray before you. Life and body–all is your property.”
It’s a somber prayer—a prayer soaked in memory of the past and hope for the future.
On this Sunday before Election Day, the gurdwara is a quiet place of remembrance. Sikhs across the nation take November 4 to commemorate the anniversary of the anti-Sikh pogroms in India during November 1984. Twenty-eight years ago, at least three thousand Sikhs were massacred in the streets of New Delhi in the wake of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Indian government officials were complicit in the riots: some led the pogroms, many failed to stop the violence as it spun out of control. In the months and years since, thousands of Sikhs fled India to find a new life and home in America.
There are now half a million Sikhs in the United States. Many wear articles of faith, the most visible of which is long and uncut hair wrapped in a turban—a marker that tragically has made many Sikhs targets for violence, especially since 9/11.
“Today we pray for Sikhs who died in the 1984 riots,” said Manmohan Singh Bharara, president of the new gurdwara. “But we also honor all who we have lost to hate and violence in this country.”
In August, a white supremacist walked into a gurdwara just like this one in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and opened fire. He killed six men and one woman, and injured three more. Three months later, the news of Oak Creek has faded from the nation’s consciousness. During the second presidential debate, in response to a question about the rise of gun violence, candidates referenced the horrific mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado, in vivid detail—but did not mention the tragedy in Oak Creek. Perhaps it’s because Oak Creek confronts us with a challenge more complex than gun control: the persistence of religious bigotry and the alarming rise of hate groups in America.
Hundreds of miles away from Wisconsin, Sikhs at the Hamden gurdwara have placed a tribute to the Oak Creek tragedy at the entrance to the prayer hall. It includes a portrait of Lt. Brian Murphy, the police officer who was shot multiple times when defending the gurdwara, now a hero to the Sikh community. The tribute sits next to the blueprints for the gurdwara complex, inaugurated just this summer. The juxtaposition captures the Sikh spirit of “Chardi Kala:” everlasting optimism and high spirits, even in the shadow of darkness and death.
After the service ends, families sit together on the ground to share langar, the free and open community meal. As they eat, they begin to talk about the upcoming election. They avoid particular ballot initiatives or policy choices; rather in light of the morning’s prayer and remembrance, they reflect on the future of the Sikh community in America.
Most are hopeful. They are pleased with the Obama administration’s response to the Oak Creek tragedy. The president ordered the flags to half-mast, the first lady visited to grieve with the victims, and Attorney General Eric Holder declared the shooting an act of domestic terrorism. The Indian government would never have done so much for us, some say.
Younger Sikh Americans interject: they want more than short-term response to the tragedy. They want a president who will combat racial profiling, employment discrimination, bullying, and domestic terrorism. They want a president who will restore our economy, relieve student debt, and move the country as a whole forward.
“The younger generation is realizing that their voice must be heard,” Bharara told me. “I’m seeing an energy I haven’t seen before. I think it happened after Oak Creek … they want a say in our democracy. They are registering to vote and are excited about voting.”
“No matter what happens on Tuesday, we will be here,” he said, taking a deep breath. “We will be a place where people can gather to remember, pray, and hope for a better future.”