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Gurdwara victims' kin believe incident an aberration: Rao

August 10, 2012 10:31 IST
Indian Ambassador to the US Nirupama Rao visited families of victims of the Wisconsin grudwara shootout and said that the incident should not define ties with the larger American community. Aziz Haniffa reports   

India's Ambassador to the United States Nirupama Rao, who visited Oak Creek, Wisconsin, to condole with the families of the victims of the gurdwara shootout said that the permeating theme she kept hearing was this atrocity by white supremacist Wade Michael Page, 41, was an aberration, and should in no way define the community's relations with the American people.

Appearing on National Public Radio's 'Tell Me More' programme, in Washington DC, Rao said, "When I visited Wisconsin and spoke to the affected families, what struck me was their calm, their composure, their dignity, and their wanting to move ahead."

"And, what I kept hearing was this is just an isolated incident, (and) we don't want this to define our relations with the larger American community," she said.

At the outset, defending the strong reaction in India when the news broke of the wanton killing of six innocent Sikh worshipers in their gurdwara, Rao said, "People were agitated. We're emotional people and the first reactions are always emotional and of concern."

While acknowledging the outrage and anger "at the level of the people," where protestors assembled outside of the US embassy in New Delhi and burnt American flags and raised anti-US slogans, she said, "I would say at the level of the governments, the two governments, the reactions have been very sober, very restrained."

"But when it comes to people  -- and we live in democracies -- they express their emotions freely and that's what you saw happening. You saw those pictures coming out of India."

Rao refused to be drawn into the debate over gun control, since the Wisconsin tragedy had been preceded less than a month ago by a similar shootout at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, saying, "I really can't comment on the pros and cons of gun control because I am a foreigner -- a foreign diplomat -- on the soil of the United States, and I can't presume to take a position on gun control."

"But I want to say that in India, when we see violence of this nature and we see Sikhs somehow becoming some kind of collateral damage in many senses, obviously questions do arise about the use of guns in the United States -- why all this should happen," she said.

But when reminded that Sikhs in India have also experienced violence against them over the years, and the fact that sectarian violence has also occurred intermittently in India, Rao asserted, "Just as President (Barack) Obama said in his message of condolence that the Sikhs are so much a vibrant part of the fabric of your country, similarly in India, they are so much an intrinsic part of our lives."

She acknowledged, "We've had, yes, in the 1980s, there were certain happenings -- certain incidents -- and a sequence of events that caused troubled relations with the Sikhs. But, we are over that now -- there's been a process of healing and a process of coming together once again, and that is really the story of India. We have tremendous resilience and capacity to heal and that is really what is called for again in the current situation."

However, when pressed if that kind of a process of healing could be a template for the US, the envoy said, "The contexts are definitely different."

But Rao argued, "What must be understood is that out of the strength of Sikhism -- the religion, what it espouses, the whole qualities of compassion and community service that it espouses -- these are the qualities that have stood the Sikh community in good stead through the ages."

On the question of whether the tragedy at Oak Creek was an act of domestic terrorism -- as some in law enforcement described it -- or a much broader hate crime issue, Rao refused to be drawn into semantics. She lauded Obama's call for "soul­-searching" on these vexing issues saying the President "really hit the nail on the head, and as somebody said in one of the talk shows, 'We need an architecture of soul-searching on this."

"We really need an architecture, whether it is hate crimes, whether it's domestic terrorism, why it is happening. We need some soul-searching. Why do acts of violence of this nature happen? We need a mature conversation on that."

Asked if in her extensive travels around the country, she was hearing concerns from South Asian about their safety in the United States, Rao answered these are not the kinds of vibes she's encountered.

"We have about 3 million Indian Americans in this country today," she pointed out, "and wherever I've gone, what struck me is that they feel very well integrated into the American fabric -- into the mainstream of what this democracy is about."

Rao noted, "As a rule, Indian Americans have really stable, secure, lives…and I haven't got a sense wherever I've gone that they feel that they are threatened or insecure."

She conceded, "This incident, of course, is terribly unfortunate. But when it comes to Indian Americans and particularly the Sikhs, there is a term they use, 'eternal optimism' and I think that is the sunshine of their minds -- just that eternal optimism and that's the capacity to look ahead, to heal, to be tolerant, to be understanding, and to be calm and composed in the face of terrible tragedy."

Aziz Haniffa in Washington DC