In a major milestone on Capitol Hill for the Sikh American community, a bi-partisan group of United States lawmakers led by California Democrat and Congresswoman Judy Chu and California Republican Congressman David Valadao on Wednesday announced the formation of an American Sikh Congressional Caucus in the US House of Representatives.
There is already an India Caucus in the US House, called the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, which has been around for over a decade-and-a-half and is the largest country caucus in Congress.
Chu, who is also the chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said at a news conference while launching the Caucus, “There are 500,000 Sikhs living in the US today, and Sikhism ranks fifth among the world’s religions.”
“Sikh Americans have had notable achievements as soldiers, farmers, entrepreneurs, scientists, scholars, and actors, among countless other professions,” she said and pointed out that “The largest federal court security contractor for the US Marshals Service is a Sikh American owned company.”
Chu added, “The inventor of fiber optics is a Sikh American, one of America's largest peach growers is a Sikh American, and last but not least, one of the first doctors to arrive on the scene to treat victims at Ground Zero, and indeed a true hero of 9/11, is a Sikh American.”
“Sikhs have contributed greatly to our America’s prosperity, yet they do face challenges to the enjoyment of their rights. For example, Sikhs are not presumptively permitted to join the US Armed Forces because of restrictive appearance regulations,” she said.
Chu also bemoaned that after the 9/11 attacks, “Sikh Americans have experienced a steep rise in incidents of bias-motivated attacks and bullying.”
With the launch of the Sikh American Caucus, she said, “Sikh Americans and Sikh organisations are hopeful that the Caucus will serve as a platform for better engagement with the United States Congress.”
Valadao also noted, “Surveys have found that up to three out of every four Sikh boys in the United States are bullied due to their appearance,” and added that the horrific massacre of innocent Sikh worshippers “at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin last year is a tragic example of why Congress must focus on American Sikh issues.”
Congressman John Garamendi, a California Democrat who represents one of the districts in the state that boasts of a significant Sikh American population, said, “The Caucus will educate Members of Congress and the general public about American Sikh issues and support the community in Congress.”
“I have had the pleasure of working with the Sikh community for decades and the challenges outlined at today’s press conference -- preventing deplorable hate crimes, fighting discrimination, and ending misconceptions in the public -- are very real,” he said.
Spearheading the launch of the Caucus was Harpreet Singh Sandhu, a California-based political activist who has been a grass-roots activist in the Democratic Party. He was a delegate to last year’s Democratic National Convention in North Carolina and is also close to all of the US lawmakers representing California.
Also, helping Sandhu in pushing for the formation of the Caucus was Dr Pritpal Singh, of the American Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee Coordinator and these protagonists were backed by United Sikhs -- one of several Sikh American advocacy organisations in the United States.
An elated Sandhu said, “Our dream of a direct voice to Congress about Sikh related issues has come true. The Caucus’ purpose is to educate and allow members to strategise on how to support the American Sikh community and attack the many issues we face today including bullying, armed forces, and homeland security.”
He predicted that with the support of United Sikhs, “This Caucus can only get bigger and bigger as days to come.”
But some Sikh American leaders told rediff.com that the coalition of organisations and individuals who had pushed for the launch of this Caucus included some pro-Khalistani elements.
They were fearful that as a result, there ultimately could be a blowback that would negate the very utility of the Caucus as an advocate for the civil rights of Sikh Americans, due to the inclusion of some individuals and organisations that had sought a separate state of Khalistan in Punjab.
None of these leaders who spoke to rediff.com wanted to be identified, saying they feared these pro-Khalistani elements, but expressed surprised that none of the 26 lawmakers who had signed on as members of the Caucus seemed to have done their homework in terms of the organisations and individuals who had promoted and urged them to convene this Caucus.
A prominent Sikh American leader and activist in the Washington, DC area said, “What is surprising that people who stood next to Chu and others at the press conference have close relationships or they themselves are the strong advocates of Khalistan.”
This particular leader said, “Among the people who were there were Yadvinder Singh, formerly president of AGPC and also former president of Sikh Youth of America” and alleged, “They vocally support the Khalistan movement. This group has been defeated in all New Jersey and New York gurdwaras because of their support for Khalistan.”
Other individuals who had had pushed for the Caucus included “Avtar Singh Pannu, an activist of Sikhs for Justice, who along with Gurpatwant Singh Pannu, had filed cases against (Congress leaders) Kamal Nath, Sonia Gandhi and (Punjab chief minister) Parkash Singh Badal for human rights violations,” this leader said.
“Dr Pritpal Singh, coordinator of AGPC, along with Harpreet Singh Sandhu, reached out to these two Congress leaders to launch the Sikh Caucus,” this leader said, and alleged that “they did not break the news to some of the prominent Sikh organisations until a couple of days before the launch.”
“Many of them were organisers and leaders in the community, active at the Hill or in Washington, and they were taken totally by surprise,” he said.
Another Sikh leader, also concerned by the composition of the activists who had pushed for the formation of the Caucus, said, “It was no surprise that among the people who were invited to the press conference was Dr Amarjit Singh, head of the Khalistan Affairs Centre”.
The website of KAC states that it was created under a mandate by the Panthic Committee to promote the vision and creation of a sovereign Sikh state. Singh, a much sought after speaker across US and Canada, was appointed as the Panthic committee spokesman in the West, and was chartered to lead KAC.
The Center focuses its activities on advocacy for Khalistan as well as awareness of atrocities committed by the Indian State against Sikhs, according to its website.
One leader reiterated that “it seems that Congressional leaders or the Indian embassy had not done their homework,” and added, “The Congressional leaders might have good intentions but unintentionally may have given credence to groups and individuals who do not have much support within the community or who are seen as radical.”