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Here's to a New Year without fear

January 04, 2013 20:34 IST

Much as we journalists try, it is sometimes difficult to 'switch off' the personal from the professional, says Ritu Jha.

Last year was a year of homicides; say my year-long notes. I am astonished at the number of people of Indian origin killed in such crimes last year. At one point, I started getting the feeling that something was going to happen. If things were routine for a couple of weeks, I felt like there was disaster lurking somewhere around the corner --- the lull before the storm.

I saw the feeling of insecurity reflected in the words and eyes of people I spoke to. A father who had lost his son said, "We thought the United States is heaven, so we came here."

Rahul Sharma, 20, was gunned down not very far away from his home in Fremont, California. Prannath Sharma, Rahul's father who had sold everything back in India to chase the American Dream, broke down as he told me, "It's no more safe living in America. The United States government should control the gangs and local crime."

I tried to focus on my pen and notepad. Now, after Connecticut, Wisconsin, Oakland, Colorado, Fresno, Tracy, I wonder if Prannath Sharma might be right.

Tshering Rinzing Bhutia, 38, a student from Sikkim, was among the seven killed in the shooting at Oikos University, a religious college in the San Francisco Bay Area. A student at Bhutia's memorial service asked me: "Are we safe here? I am from Tibet and the fear for my life brought me to the US. Killing is common there, but I never thought…"

Often, people throw such questions at us journalists. I can't tell them: 'I don't know the answer.'

Now, after the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the entire nation is talking about gun control. I sincerely hope that the horrible tragedy acts as a tipping point; as a catalyst for change for the better.

California, where I live, has strict gun laws, which were imposed after the shooting at an elementary school in Stockton in 1989 that killed five children and a teacher. But these laws are not as effective as they could be because of the lack of similar laws in other states.

So, a uniform gun-control law might help, though I am not sure how it will curb local crime or gangs. Meanwhile, there has been no headway in the murder of two Sikh seniors in March 2011 in Elk Grove, California.

Like Prannath Sharma, I have begun to ask if we, immigrants who have come to the Land of the Free, hoping for a better future for our children, are safe in our neighborhoods.

As a journalist, I have to plod on.

I have to report on news even if it shocks me -- like the rape and murder of Lalita Patel, a senior citizen, in Tracy, California. Like the case of a former Indian Army officer and fugitive Avtar Singh, who killed his three children, his wife and himself. Singh was in the US illegally; so how did he buy the gun?

Even the numbness of a crime reporter is shattered when something like the Wisconsin gurdwara shooting happens. The incident shook not just one community or city or county, but the entire country.

A few months later, one Sikh man told me the shooting was "a blessing in disguise. Today people know more about Sikhs and why they wear turbans, and that a Sikh woman has Kaur as her last name."

Indeed, as an Indian American, I doff my winter hat to the government and the public in general, who stood firmly behind the Sikhs in the face of the terrible tragedy. It was a reflection of the Sikh-American community's gesture of responding to the worst of human nature with the best of humanity.

Last year was a watershed one for Sikh Americans -- and not just in terms of tragedy. California Governor Jerry Brown addressed a peace and unity rally organised by the the California-based North American Punjabi Association at the state Capitol and signed two historic bills.

One will allow Sikhs to enjoy their religious freedom at work, and the other will ensure information about Sikhs is part of the school curriculum starting this month.

"What else we could ask for?" asked a Sikh man who was angry at Indian consular officials being invited for the signing of the bills. "We never got this much respect back home."

Yes, the ghost of 1984 still haunts parts of California.

N Parthasarathi, India's consul general in San Francisco, has changed the look of the consulate. He can be seen at almost every community event. In his one year term, he has visited many places including Yuba City, home to many Sikhs.

His outreach efforts have not always been reciprocated. He was not on the guest list at the popular Sikh parade called Nagar Kirtan, nor at the conference hosted to recognise the centenary of the first gurdwara in Stockton.

The New Year is a time for new beginnings, so I should not dwell too long on the bad. Instead, I will remember that in 2012 Sikhs established a permanent exhibition, Becoming American, the first of its kind, at the Community Memorial Museum in Yuba City.

In 2012, India-born Om Mallik bought the United Kingdom-based Paidcontent. In 2012, President Barack Obama gave a ray of hope to many undocumented immigrants by passing the deferred action order. In 2012, the states of California, Illinois and New York provided a new voter page that carried ballot information in Hindi.

Thanks to the department of justice and advocacy groups that worked hard to reach out to Indian-American voters.

Neha Juneja, co-founder of Greenway Grameen Infra, India, won $50,000 at the 8th Intel Global Challenge at the Haas School of Business at University of California, Berkeley. N R Narayana Murthy, founder of Indian tech giant Infosys, was honored with The James C Morgan Global Humanitarian Award by the Tech Museum of Innovation in Silicon Valley.

I hope this year, I have to report less on heart-breaking stories, and more on our collective success.\

And I hope in 2013, Americans will have less to fear.

Ritu Jha in San Francisco