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December 7, 1999
Charges Against Sikh Priest Dropped
R S Shankar
Three months after he was arrested and charged of carrying a concealed weapon, 69-year-old Gurcharan Singh Bhatia, a priest at a gurdwara near Cleveland, Ohio, heard from the authorities on Monday that the charges against him were dropped.
Now, Bhatia, says he can his walk around carrying his kirpan without fear or embarrassment. If convicted, he could have faced up to six months in jail and a $ 1,000 fine.
The case brought the intervention of former Ohio governor Richard Celeste, currently the US ambassador to India. In the House of Representatives, Edolphus Towns, a Democrat close to Gurmit Singh Aulakh and fellow radical Sikhs, protested the arrest and charging of Bhatia.
Towns, an African-American Congressman who represents New York's 10th district, on urging from the Washington-based Council of Khalistan, took to the House floor on September 23.
"America is a country where everyone enjoys religious freedom," Towns said, noting, "there are about 500,000 Sikhs in this country and they have every right to practice their religion in this country.
"Sikhs have contributed to America in many walks of life, from agriculture to medicine to law, among others," he said.
"Sikhs participated in World War I and World War II, and a Sikh even served as a member of Congress in the 1960s. His name was Dalip Singh Saund and he was from California."
The Sikh community across North America, joined by several Indian American organizations, began a letter-writing campaign demanding the charges be dropped.
Bhatia's ordeal started shortly after midnight of September 3. He says he was returning from a religious ceremony blessing the new home of a Sikh family when he stopped at a light. He thought he had gone too far into the intersection; he backed up, and his car bumped the car behind him.
Though no one was hurt, Bhatia said he apologized to the occupants of the other car. A passenger in the other car noticed a bulge under Bhatia's shirt and pointed it out to police officers. The kirpan was discovered, and Bhatia was arrested.
Bhatia recalled the time: "I said, 'That is a kirpan, and, in my religion, I am allowed to wear this.' He (a police officer) said, 'No, that is a concealed weapon.' "
Soon after his arrest Bhatia told The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, through an interpreter, that tears now mix with prayer in his three hours of daily reading of Sikh scripture. He said he hoped God would forgive him for breaking his vow to always wear the kirpan.
Bhatia, who has lived in America for nearly two decades, was released within hours of the arrest but the incident led to resentment among the Sikhs against the police.
When Police Chief Richard Amiott said his officers acted properly in enforcing the law banning concealed weapons, it made matters worse.
"How can you describe for me the difference between a ceremonial knife and any knife?" he asked.
Community leaders suggested that the Ohio police should have training in multiculturalism and sensitivity.
But Ron Graham, city prosecutor, acted with caution. Soon after Bhatia's arrest and release, he said he would be willing to drop the charges if Bhatia can demonstrate that he is required by his religion to carry the kirpan.
The state law does not allow for exceptions, Graham said, adding, "We don't want to prosecute anyone for exercising religious freedom."
Community leaders wrote letters to Graham and higher officials, pointing out to a similar case in Cincinnati in 1996, when the Ohio District Court of Appeals overturned a municipal court conviction of a Sikh for carrying a concealed weapon.
"To be a Sikh is to wear a kirpan -- it is that simple. It is a religious symbol and in no way a weapon," Judge Mark Painter opined.
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