In historic Senate hearing, Harpreet Singh Saini asks US lawmakers to give his mother the dignity of being a statistic
By Geeta Goindi
Washington, DC, September 19, 2012 – In a heart-wrenching testimony on Capitol Hill, a young Sikh boy asked the most powerful lawmakers in the world to make the attack on his mother, a victim of the shootings at the Sikh Gurdwara in Wisconsin, a hate crime.
Led by Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin (Democrat-Illinois), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, a hearing was convened on hate crimes and the threat of domestic extremism, in wake of the massacre at the Gurdwara on a day, August 5, 2012, that will never be forgotten. A white supremacist, Wade Michael Page, went on a shooting spree killing six worshippers before pulling the trigger on himself.
The hearing was historic in more ways than one, an unprecedented move by the US Senate, the most powerful legislative body in the world. More than 400 people packed the event, on Wednesday afternoon, with an overflow crowd being accommodated in an adjacent room, causing Senator Durbin to note “the huge amount of interest in this hearing”. It was a strong show of strength by concerned citizens, mostly Sikhs from across the country, deeply affected by the massacre in Milwaukee.
For the very first time, a Sikh was testifying on Capitol Hill: 18-year-old Harpreet Singh Saini who lost his mother, Paramjit Kaur Saini, in that terrible tragedy. Hardly able to hold back his tears, Harpreet said, “Senators, I came here today to ask the government to give my mother the dignity of being a statistic. The FBI does not track hate crimes against Sikhs. My mother and those shot that day will not even count on a federal form. We cannot solve a problem we refuse to recognize”.
Senator Durbin said he supported Harpreet’s request and believed the government was moving too slowly on demands for data collection. He queried government witnesses at the hearing who included: Scott McAllister, Deputy Under Secretary, Office of Intelligence and Analysis in the US Department of Homeland Security; Roy Austin, Jr., Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division in the US Department of Justice; and Michael Clancy, Deputy Assistant Director, Counter-terrorism Division, FBI.
Austin disclosed that his “agency will bring together a wide array of religious groups in October and make recommendations to the FBI on whether the data collection should be expanded to include hate crimes against Sikhs. The Department of Justice has heard this concern. We are going to take action”, he assured.
In a statement, Senator Patrick Leahy (Democrat- Vermont), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, conveyed that, in August, he joined Senator Dianne Feinstein (Democrat-California) and other lawmakers “in asking the Justice Department to add a new category for Sikh-Americans on the form used to gather data on hate crimes. The Hate Crimes Statistics Act of 1990, which I supported, requires the Department of Justice to maintain data on crimes based on – among other things – religion. The current hate crime incident report form used by law enforcement to collect such data allows officers to denote that a crime was motivated by bias against Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims and atheists, but not Sikhs. I was pleased to learn this morning that the Department of Justice has announced that they will ask the FBI’s Advisory Policy Board – the board responsible for making these decisions – to review and consider including additional categories for religious hate crimes, including those against the Sikh community. I commend the Department of Justice for acting quickly”.
The lawmaker quoted President Obama who said: “We must stand against crimes that are meant not only to break bones but to break spirits, not only to inflict harm but instill fear”.
Senator Leahy pointed out that the “tragic shooting” at the Sikh Gurdwara in Wisconsin “tore into one of our defining principles – religious freedom. By targeting a house of worship during services, this extremist sought to terrorize all American Sikhs”, he said. “Today’s hearing is a continuation of the Committee’s work to ensure that all Americans feel safe in their communities and that perpetrators of hate crimes are brought to justice”.
It is a thorny issue: America acknowledging that it has a problem with hate crimes, that minorities are targeted based on religion, race, appearance. There are those who believe the world’s superpower should not expose its weaknesses. Dismissing narrow-minded viewpoints, Senator Durbin declared “America is strongest when we lead by example”!
He noted, “The recent shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, was a tragic hate crime that played out on TV around the country. It was not the first tragedy based on hate and, sadly, it won’t be the last. But, it should cause all of us to redouble our efforts to combat the threat of domestic terrorism”.
Citing facts and figures, Senator Durbin told the sizeable crowd, “more than 6,600 hate crimes were reported to the FBI in 2010 – the most recent year for which statistics are available”. But, he acknowledged these figures are understated and that Muslims, African-Americans, Jewish Americans, Latinos as well as other minorities continue to be victims of hate crimes.
Daryl Johnson, who authored a 2009 DHS report on right-wing extremism and headed the DHS unit on violent domestic extremists, was among the non-government witnesses who testified before the Subcommittee. He underscored, “We are currently seeing an upsurge in domestic non-Islamic extremist activity, specifically from violent right-wing extremists”. Johnson believed that “the federal government must do more to combat domestic terrorism within the US. Our failure to act now will assuredly embolden the enemy”, he cautioned.
Harpreet implored the government to “pursue domestic terrorism with the same vigor as attackers from abroad”. He told the Subcommittee that “the man who killed my mother was on the watch list of public interest groups. I believe the government could have tracked him long before he went on a shooting spree”, he said.
Durbin asked Michael Clancy if there was “a breakdown in intelligence here? Was he (Wade Michael Page) being tracked by our intelligence community? Were there any warnings to the Sikh community?”
Clancy answered that the FBI had no information that Page posed a threat to any group. “We did not have a case opened on him”, he said. “His activities had not risen to the level where we would be able, under the Attorney General’s guidelines, to open an investigation. We were aware of him as a peripheral figure. But, he never emerged as more than that. He engaged in a lot of hate speech which is not against the law”.
Harpreet’s loss is irreplaceable! At the hearing, he pleaded with Senators to “stand up for us. As lawmakers and leaders, you have the power to shape public opinion”, he said. “Your words carry weight. When others scapegoat or demean people because of who they are, use your power to say that is wrong”.
Harpreet mentioned that “tens of thousands of people sent us letters, attended vigils and gave us their support – Oak Creek’s Mayor and Police Chief, Wisconsin’s Governor, the President and First Lady. All their support also gave me the strength to come here today”, he said.
Harpreet’s testimony was profoundly moving. It made incisions in many souls. There were very few dry eyes in the hearing room that day.
Harpreet told the Subcommittee: “A little over a month ago, I never imagined I’d be here. I never imagined that anyone outside of Oak Creek would know my name. Or my mother’s name, Paramjit Kaur Saini. Or my brother’s name, Kamaljit Singh Saini. Kamal, my brother and best friend, is here with me today.
As we all know, on Sunday, August 5, 2012, a white supremacist fueled by hatred walked into our local Gurdwara with a loaded gun. He killed my mother, Paramjit Kaur, while she was sitting for morning prayers. He shot and killed five more men – all of them were fathers, all had turbans like me.
And now people know all our names: Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, Prakash Singh, Suvegh Singh, Satwant Singh Kaleka.
This was not supposed to be our American story. This was not my mother’s dream….
It was a Tuesday, two days after our mother was killed, that my brother Kamal and I ate the leftovers of the last meal she had made for us. We ate her last rotis – which are a type of South Asian flatbread. She had made the rotis from scratch the night before she died. Along with the last bite of our food that Tuesday came the realization that this was the last meal made by the hands of our mother that we will ever eat in our lifetime…..
Senators, my mother was our biggest fan, our biggest supporter. She was always there for us. She always had a smile on her face. But, now she’s gone. Because of a man who hated her because she wasn’t his color? His religion?
I just had my first day of college. And my mother wasn’t there to send me off. She won’t be there for my graduation. She won’t be there on my wedding day. She won’t be there to meet her grandchildren.
I want to tell the gunman who took her from me: You may have been full of hate, but my mother was full of love. She was an American. And this was not our American dream….
So many have asked Sikhs to simply blame Muslims for attacks against our community or just say, ‘We are not Muslim’. But, we won’t blame anyone else. An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us….
I also want to be a part of the solution. That’s why I want to be a law enforcement officer like Lieutenant Brian Murphy who saved so many lives on August 5, 2012. I want to protect other people from what happened to my mother. I want to combat hate – not just against Sikhs, but against all people.
Senators, I know what happened at Oak Creek was not an isolated incident. I fear it may happen again if we don’t stand up and do something. I don’t want anyone to suffer what we have suffered. I want to build a world where all people can live, work and worship in America in peace. Because you see, despite everything, I still believe in the American dream. In my mother’s memory, I ask that you stand up for it with me, today, and in the days to come…”
Haunting words that linger on long after they are spoken.
Indira Kalotra Ahluwalia of Great Falls, who attended the hearing, remarked, “We lost hope while Harpreet and Kamal lost their mother on August 5, in Oak Creek. We can’t sit idle. This cannot continue to happen”. She commended Deepa Iyer, Executive Director of SAALT (South Asian Americans Leading Together) and Amardeep Singh, Director of Programs at the Sikh Coalition, “for being the catalyst for getting Senator Durbin to listen and lead. Our country can no longer tolerate hate crimes”, she said.