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USA Sikhs Urge Non-violence


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Shasta County’s Sikh community is placing fresh emphasis on its annual Vaisakhi Festival, a Day for Non-Violence, in the wake of an apparent hate-related drive-by shooting last month in Elk Grove, near Sacramento.

That incident left Gurmej Atwal, 78, hospitalized with two gunshot wounds and still on a ventilator, fighting for his life 30 days later while his long-time friend, Surinder Singh, 65, bled to death on the sidewalk of a quiet neighborhood where the two had been walking just moments before, published reports stated.

A late-model tan or beige Ford pickup was observed leaving the scene shortly after the gunshots rang out, published reports state.

The men both had beards and wore traditional Sikh headgear, also known as a dastaar, while out for their customary evening stroll. Such appearances could have caused an extremist to mistake the duo for Islamic terrorists, an occurrence happening much too frequently since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to some Sikh leaders.

“We are treating the case as a potential hate crime because neither have we developed any information that it is not,” Elk Grove Police Chief Robert Lehner told a Hindustan Times reporter. Even one month later, no arrests have been announced.

Elk Grove police are working with the FBI’s hate crimes unit to follow up on leads, the same newspaper reported.

While a few Sacramento-area Sikhs have reportedly been too frightened to appear in public, that is not the attitude being adopted by Shasta County’s Sikh community, a local leader said.

“As far as taking any precautions, we are quite strong in our belief that we are not going to hide our identity,” said Amarjit Singh of Anderson, a leader at the Sikh Centre, one of two Sikh temples in Anderson.

Anderson’s Sikh community has seen its share of religious bias.

While still under construction in March 2007, the Sikh Centre in Anderson was damaged when Redding resident Michael Benjamin Rafferty, 40, stole a front-end loader and rammed the building in several places. He was sentenced in May 2008 to 11 years, 8 months in state prison after being found guilty of vandalism, vehicle theft and a civil rights violation.

“We are not going to shave our beards or loose our turbans or cut our hair,” Singh said, speaking on behalf of the 40 some families who gather frequently for readings of holy scripture and communal meals at the Sikh Centre. “Instead, we are hoping to do more to educate people in the small towns like in Anderson,” said Singh.

One way local Sikhs hope to do that is through their annual spring festival, set this year for Saturday, April 30, so that it will not interfere with a similar celebration in Fairfield, he said.

Singh has helped organize the Sikh Centre’s Vaisakhi Festival and Day for Non-Violence each of the past three years. The event will feature Punjabi foods, Indian classical music, a demonstration of Sikh martial arts, workshops of turban tying and the proper draping of Punjabi suits for women.

Members of the Native American community will offer prayers, a drum circle and flute music.

Shasta Head Start will demonstrate skin decorating with the spice henna or Mehandi, colored powders mixed with water to create a thick paste, Singh said.

Singh made his comments in the wake of the Elk Grove shooting — the second such incident in less than three years – that has alarmed the Sikh community throughout northern California, as well as grabbing the attention of Sikh faithful back in the Punjab state of northern India where the monotheistic religion was founded in the fifteenth century.

Sacramento’s Sikh community has pledged a $30,000 reward to anyone with information leading to the arrest and conviction of the shooter. The Sacramento Valley chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations is adding another $5,000 to the reward, as did the Jewish Anti-Defamation League’s Central Pacific Region. A Christian group has also added $3,000 to the reward fund.