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Opinion Balbir Singh Sodhi’s Turban At Smithsonian Exhibition:A Reminder Of Discrimination


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Balbir Singh Sodhi’s turban on mannequin at Smithsonian exhibition reminder of discrimination community has faced

By Deepak Chitnis


WASHINGTON, DC: The discrimination the Indian community has faced in America is a highlight of the Smithsonian Institute’s groundbreaking exhibition entitled ‘Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation’ opening at the National Museum of Natural History, on Thursday.
Balbir Singh Sodhi

An entire panel of the exhibit – one will see it right at the beginning or near the end, depending on where one enters the museum – highlight the plight of desis at the hands of the dotbuster movement in the late 1980s, mostly in New Jersey, as well as the violence faced by Sikhs in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and the shooting at Oak Creek, Wisconsin in 2012.

The dotbuster movement began in New Jersey in the fall of 1987, when white supremacists in the state began singling out people of Indian origin who were beginning to immigrate to the state in large numbers.

The “dot” is a reference to the bindi, worn traditionally by Hindu women and girls. According to a letter published in the Jersey Journal, the dotbusters were looking to rid New Jersey of Indian Americans, who they felt were unfairly taking over the state from the white majority.

“I’m writing about your article during July about the abuse of Indian People. Well I’m here to state the other side. I hate them, if you had to live near them you would also. We are an organization called dot busters. We have been around for 2 years. We will go to any extreme to get Indians to move out of Jersey City. If I’m walking down the street and I see a Hindu and the setting is right, I will hit him or her. We plan some of our most extreme attacks such as breaking windows, breaking car windows, and crashing family parties. We use the phone books and look up the name Patel. Have you seen how many of them there are? Do you even live in Jersey City? Do you walk down Central avenue and experience what its like to be near them: we have and we just don’t want it anymore. You said that they will have to start protecting themselves because the police cannot always be there. They will never do anything. They are a week [sic] race Physically and mentally. We are going to continue our way. We will never be stopped.”

Several Indian Americans were hospitalized as a result of targeting attacks organized by the dotbuster movement. Some like Navroz Mody lost their life as a result of the racially motivated violence. Several advocacy groups were formed to combat the violence, including a student group entitled Indian Youth Against Racism at New York City’s Columbia University. Eventually, law enforcement began cracking down more heavily on the hate crimes, and by 1993 they were all but eradicated.

One of the most poignant displays in the entire exhibition centers on Balbir Singh Sodhi, the Arizona Sikh man who was killed in the days following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Sodhi was killed because he was wearing a turban and had a beard, both of which got him mistakenly associated with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Sodhi was shot outside of the gas station he owned by Frank Silva Roque, a local mechanic for Boeing, the first casualty of post-9/11 racism against Muslims and Sikhs.

The display at “Beyond Bollywood” features a flyer put out in the aftermath of Sodhi’s demise, memorializing Sodhi and urging Americans to take heed of the fact that he was Sikh, not a terrorist. As the flyer says, “he was killed simply because of the way he looked.” Right next to the flyer is a turban worn by Sodhi, wrapped around a faceless mannequin head in a startling reminder of the face that it used to adorn, but no longer does.

Several photographs adorn the discrimination wall, showing Sikh and Indian Americans protesting against terrorism and proclaiming that just because they have beards and turbans does not make them terrorists. However, such cries went unheeded by some, including white supremacist Wade Michael Phillips. On August 5, 2012, Phillips drove to a gurudwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and shot 10 people, injuring four and killing six.

RELATED STORY: “Beyond Bollywood” – Photo Feature

The “Beyond Bollywood” display memorializes this tragedy with a political cartoon, which was published in newspapers across the nation, showing Uncle Sam compassionately embracing a red-turbaned Sikh man. The cartoon is a touching reminder that, despite our differences, Indians in this country are fundamentally still American, and should not be subjected to such tragedies.

“Beyond Bollywood” showcases several aspects of Indian American life, but by including a wall on discrimination, it becomes a well-rounded experience. Instead of just lauding all the many accomplishments of the desi community, it serves as a reminder that the road to these achievements was not always easy. People of Indian origin in the US have always had their fair share of difficulties, and it’s by surviving these and coming out stronger, have they become integrated within the mainstream community.


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