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Lawmakers pledge to reverse army's no-turban rule

June 13, 2009 01:05 IST
United States lawmakers, who attended the annual Sikh American Heritage Dinner on Capitol Hill organized by the Sikh Council on Religion and Education, pledged to support the community's efforts to serve in the armed forces without compromising their religious principles.

US Congressman Ed Royce, senior Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, said, "I will work to make sure that Sikhs are admitted to serve in the US armed forces without any restrictions," a pledge he was joined in by caucus co-chair Congressman Jim McDermott, who vowed to bring the issue to the floor of the House and press the Pentagon to make necessary changes in the rules.

"I know there have been discussions going on about the carrying of the symbolic dagger (kirpan) and all of the things that are part of Sikhism, but to say these people can't operate in the US military is just plain silly," said McDermott, who was instrumental in creating a hate-free zone in his home constituency of Seattle, Washington, after the post 9/11 attacks on Sikhs.

"It is important that we be allowed to be who we are, worship the way we want to, but not to have to choose, or be picked on or excluded on any basis."

Last month two Sikh American military recruits, both medical professionals, who had been denied the right to report for active duty in July unless they remove their turbans and cut their hair and beards, had called on the Pentagon to allow them to serve their country without compromising on their religious mandates.

Captain Kamaljit Singh Kalsi, a physician, and Second Lieutenant Tejdeep Singh Rattan, a dentist, said they had been assured by military recruiters that their turbans and unshorn hair 'would not be a problem' when they were recruited to join the Army's Health Professionals Scholarship Program, which paid for their medical training in return for military service.

Both had maintained their turbans, unshorn hair and beards throughout graduate school and during specialized army training, at army ceremonies and while working in military medical facilities.

"I was shocked to learn that the army would go back on its promise, and tell me I would have to give up my faith in order to serve," Kalsi said. "There is nothing about my religion that stops me from doing my job. I know I can serve well without compromising my faith. I have trained in my profession as a medical doctor thanks to the assistance I received from the US Army. Now I want to make sure that I give back to the country and the people who have invested so much in me."

At a time when the American army is desperately stretched across several fronts, it is inexplicable that he should be kept from serving, the Riverdale, New Jersey native argued.

"As a father, I hope my children achieve all their hopes and dreams. And, as an American, I hope they never have to choose between their religion and country."

Rattan, a resident of New York City, pointed out that though he was not born in the United States, it is now his home. "I am an American, and our country was built by people like me, from different parts of the globe, from different races and religions. All of us came here trusting in the core principle of equality and that is the same right I am asking for today," he said.

As far back as 1981, the army had banned 'conspicuous' articles of religious faith for its service members -- including the cross, the Star of David, the Muslim crescent and all else. However, Sikhs and soldiers belonging to other faiths who were part of the army before the 1981 rule had their religious observances grandfathered.

As a result, Colonel Arjinderpal Singh Sekhon, a physician, and Colonel G B Singh, a dentist, served in the army with turbans and unshorn hair and beards for over 25 years.

The two, who retired a couple of years ago, came to the event in support of the recruits.

Congressman Royce, who last month had as part of a Congressional delegation led by House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Howard Berman visited the Golden Temple in Amritsar during a trip to India, recalled how Sikhs had, one hundred years ago, helped his home state California build its railroad.

Royce, who was honored with the Bhagat Singh Thind Award by SCORE, said, "I want to acknowledge what you contribute to his country. Your stress on honesty, hard work and generosity is something of tremendous value and you have been mentors to many Americans."

Recalling his visit to the Golden Temple, the lawmaker said it was 'very fulfilling.' "We have to do more to explain to people in America and the world, about who the Sikhs are. Many Americans might think India is a Hindu nation, but it is also important to explain how much diversity there is and how Sikhs have contributed even though you are only two percent of the population," Royce said.

"Wherever you reside, I and a lot of Americans will work to make sure that Sikhs are admitted to serve in the US armed forces without any restrictions."

Congressman Rush Holt, who has a large Sikh gurdwara in his constituency in Bridgewater, New Jersey, backed up the pledge, and said the US should be welcoming of Sikh patriotism and the community's urge to serve the country.

Congressman Ted Poe of Texas, who also serves on the Foreign Affairs Committee as well as the powerful House Judiciary Committee, asked the Sikh community to use its growing political influence to fight against such injustice.

He also asked Sikh youth to work in Congressional offices as interns and said they could learn a lot, while working towards gaining wider acceptance for the community.

Congressman Wally Herger, who represents Yuba City, California, the district with the largest Sikh American community in the United States, said, "I can boast that over 80,000 Sikhs gather in my area for an annual parade. They march to get here once a year that brings people from all over the nation. It has been a pleasure to work with the Sikh community and especially to work on issues whether it is human rights or good government."

California lawmaker Devin Nunes spoke of the important role the Sikh community plays in the agriculture sector in California, and spoke of how Sikhs had made Punjab the breadbasket of India.

Congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina, a favorite with the community, spoke of state legislator and majority whip Nikki Haley Randhawa, a Sikh, who recently announced her intent to run for governor of South Carolina.

Congressman Ben Lujn from New Mexico reflected on his family's long association with Sikh religious leaders Yogi Bhajan and his wife Bibiji, and spoke of the success the Sikh community had brought to New Mexico.

"They are part of government at all levels in my state and I admire their leadership. It is a brain trust that Sikhs offer and it is something we have to embrace."

The Obama administration was represented by Paul Monteiro, Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Liaison and Michael Wear, Associate Director of the White House Faith Based Initiative.

"We want to work with you in facing various challenges facing America," Monteiro told the large gathering of Sikhs drawn from across the country.

"President Obama also feels that religious intolerance, religious freedom and violence related to intolerance are other issues of utmost importance, and he would like to see various religious traditions engage in interfaith dialogue because in many places in the world, and even in the United States this is a challenge."

He said he had passed on to the president a letter he had received from SCORE on the safety and security of Sikhs in the US, who have been subjected to racial profiling and hate crimes since 9/11. "We will continue to meet your community and various organizations to educate ourselves and to form partnerships," the White House official said.

Police Commissioner Lawrence Mulvey of Nassau County, the 11th largest police district in the nation, who was honored for his call to the Sikhs to join his police force without any restrictions, said, "We are very proud of the diversity in the police force under my jurisdiction. My message to the Sikh community is that the goal is in your lap. You have to apply and consider becoming a police officer. Get the word out to your community members."

The annual event honored Sikhs who made significant contributions to the betterment of the community, including Dr Shamsher Singh, founder of the Hemkunt Foundation; Lakhbir Singh, head of Nathan Associates, an international consulting company based in Arlington, Virginia; Arpinder Kaur, the first turbaned woman Sikh pilot from Texas and Himmat Singh, a community activist in New York.

SCORE's founder-chairman Dr Rajwant Singh said his organization was happy to get the backing of important lawmakers on the issue, 'but we must continue to press hard so that we can get the Pentagon to change its rule.'

Sartaj Singh Daine, Outreach Director for SCORE told India Abroad, "The fact that there were so many lawmakers making it a point to stop by shows the strength of this annual event and the commitment to the community these lawmakers have."

"It was inspiring to hear the lawmakers pledge their support to our cause, especially our efforts to get the Pentagon to allow our youth to serve in the US armed forces, and also to hear from the aides to President Obama, assuring us that the administration is willing to address our issues and are sensitive to them," he said.

Aziz Haniffa in Washington D.C