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Rediff.com  » News » 'I don't know why God picked my family to suffer so much pain'

'I don't know why God picked my family to suffer so much pain'

June 19, 2003 13:51 IST

India Abroad, the oldest and largest circulated Indian-American weekly, has won the prestigious South Asian Journalists Association 2003 award for Outstanding Story on South Asians in North America. India Abroad is owned by rediff.com

Chief Correspondent Onkar Singh, whose award-winning story we carried yesterday on rediff.com, and Senior Writer Jeet Thayil, whose story we are carrying today, looked at the lives of Balbir and Sukhpal Singh Sodhi, Sikh brothers killed 10 months apart, one in a hate crime after 9/11 and the other by an assailant in his San Francisco taxi cab (India Abroad, September 13, 2002).

Jeet and Onkar will be honoured at the 2003 SAJA convention at Columbia University, New York City, June 20.

In 2002, rediff.com and India Abroad won the All Media Special Recognition Award for Outstanding Story on South Asians in North America for its powerful reporting and analysis (in words and photos) of 9/11 and its aftermath: the attacks, the victims and the hate crimes.

In 2001, rediff.com and its subsidiary, thinkindia.com, won a Special Recognition Award for their in-depth coverage of the immigrant smuggling ring run by Lakireddy Balireddy, a US-based landlord. It also won the award for Outstanding Story on South Asians in North America for Shobha Narayan's 'Confessions of a Cross-carrying Immigrant' and the award for Outstanding Editorial/Op-ed on South Asia for Amitava Kumar's 'Of Curry and the Making of Subcontinental Identity.'

September 14, the Sikh community of Arizona plans to hold a memorial service for Balbir Singh Sodhi at Red Mountain Park in Mesa. 'Embracing Humanity' will remember not only Balbir but also his brother Sukhpal. It will re-open memories that many people would rather forget.

Two days before Balbir Sodhi's murder on September 13, he and his brother Lakwinder went to their gurdwara in Phoenix, Arizona. The wave of incidents that would come to be called a 'backlash' had not yet begun. Balbir Sodhi did not know it then, but his death would be the beginning.

Balbir Sodhi, who operated a Chevron gas station in Mesa, a suburb of Phoenix, had noticed a dramatic change since September 11. His customers had begun to look at him with fear, suspicion and hatred. These were people he had known for years, neighbours, people he considered his friends. Sodhi had been running the gas station for five years and was determined to educate Americans about Sikhs. That was why he and Lakwinder Sodhi visited the Guru Nanak Dwara in Phoenix.

"They burst into the office and Balbir said, 'We've got to do something to protect innocent people who could be hurt,'" said Guru Roop Kaur, secretary of the Gurdwara Sahib. "We worked out a strategy. We were going to make flags for our cars and offices, and buttons that said, 'I am an American Sikh from India.'" People saw us all as being from Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan because we wore turbans. We had to get the message out that 99 per cent of people in this country with turbans were Sikhs from India."

At the time Kaur and the Sodhis did not know that when the message went out, it would be too late for Balbir.

On Saturday morning, Balbir Sodhi went to Costco where he had been named Businessman of the Year. Costco had sold out their American flags. While there, Sodhi spotted a Red Cross Fund for victims of September 11 and donated around $75, all the money he had in his pocket at the time. Then he went back to the gas station because the landscapers were coming. Sodhi was beautifying the spot with flowers and a lawn. The landscapers spend most of the morning working on the area around the station. They called Sodhi out to take a look at their work.

Frank Silva Roque, 42, who worked for Boeing's helicopter division and had recently moved to Mesa from Alabama, drove up to the gas station in his pickup truck. Instead of stopping at one of the pumps, he drove straight up to Balbir Sodhi and shot him with a .380 calibre firearm. Three rounds hit him in the back. When police arrived at Roque's mobile home he yelled, 'I'm an American patriot, arrest me and let the terrorist go wild!'

Balbir Sodhi was one of eight brothers, of whom five were in the United States. He was the one the family looked to for direction and advice. He was popular with a wide circle of friends, relatives and acquaintances. People said of him that he was easy to talk to, that he seemed anxious to help others. After his death, the younger members of the Sodhi family looked to Sukhpal, who was next in age to Balbir.

Ten months after Balbir's murder, Sukhpal was shot and killed by an unidentified assailant. Sukhpal, who was 49, was also shot in the back, through the window of his taxi. The San Francisco police announced that there was no evidence his death was a hate crime. His relatives and advocacy groups found that hard to believe. The money in his wallet, $322, was untouched.

"Sometimes I wonder why God chose our family to suffer so much," said Harjit Singh Sodhi as he spoke of his dead brothers. "I don't know why God picked my family to suffer so much pain."

One answer could lie in the fact that Balbir Sodhi's death led to widespread condemnation. Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee called President George W Bush with a personal request to ensure the safety of other Sikhs. The Sodhi family has taken some consolation from the idea that Balbir's death saved other lives, though not his brother's.

"It is an incredible shock to us, we find it very hard to believe," said Harjit Sodhi of his dead brothers. "Two brothers, both innocent, both shot in the back. The police can't find out how it happened. We came here because we had a wonderful dream. I believe in America and justice but how can it stop people with guns? They can pull the trigger anytime, anywhere. Both my brothers died in seconds, shot and killed from the back, neither of them knowing why."

Last month, Harjit went home to India for the first time in 12 years. He took his wife and three children, hoping to bring some joy to his parents after the tragedy they had suffered. When Harjit arrived at the family home in Passiwal village, Punjab, everybody was in tears... they had just received the news about Sukhpal. His parents did not want him to return to the United States. We are losing our sons one by one, they told him.

"I had no option," said Harjit. "My children cannot read any Indian language, they are used to this system of schooling. But I wish I could go home. I feel comfortable there, at peace. Someday I will sell everything and go back. There is no protection here, people can shoot you any time on the street." Since his return from India, Harjit has not been to work at his gas station. "I am still nervous, afraid to go on the street," he said. "But how long can I sit at home?"

Harjit said he had briefly considered getting a gun but was dissuaded by his wife. "She said guns never save life, they only take life. If Sukhpal had a gun would he have been able to use it? Or Balbir? I agreed with her," he said.

"Balbir was a humble and caring person. There is a real sweetness in this family," said Roop Kaur. "It is the power of the Sodhi line."

She said it has been a terrible time for the extended family of the Sodhis. "It has been devastating to lose not only a brother who they loved but the brothers they all went to for counsel," she said. "It was very difficult, especially for the children, when Sukhpal was also killed." Since the Sodhis' parents were unable to travel to America, Sukhpal's body was sent to India for cremation.

Anya Cordell of the Campaign for Collateral Compassion has been advocating financial reparation and memorial services for victims of the backlash. Based in Evanston, Illinois, Cordell says it has been "an unbelievable struggle to get relief for the families and even to get the stories told."

She pointed out that September 15 was the anniversary of three backlash murders: Sodhi, Adel Karas of San Gabriel, California and Waqar Hassan of Dallas, Texas. "The memorials for September 11 victims is appropriate but there is a missing piece," she said. "We must commemorate the entire tragedy and the hate backlash was a part of the it."

Cordell said she had heard many reasons put forward for not awarding families of backlash victims similar reparation measures provided to families of September 11 victims. The most common excuse was that "there were no hate crimes, that they were random unconnected crimes that would have happened anyway," she said.

Image: Dominic Xavier

Jeet Thayil