Mansimran Singh Kahlon hopes to become first Sikh American elected to a state legislature
By Geeta Goindi
Centreville, Virginia, May 29, 2017 – Thousands of people flocked to the seventh annual ikPunjabi Mela at the sprawling Bull Run Regional Park on a warm and windy afternoon in the Washington area.
The festival coincided with Mother’s Day and several families resplendent in traditional, colorful attire partook in the celebration of India’s rich culture.
Organizers, led by Novi Bhuller, were elated by the response: over 9,000 people attended the event making it among the largest festival of its kind in America. Special acknowledgment was accorded to members of the Punjabi community who traveled from the states of Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Delaware, and North Carolina.
Among the highlights of the festival were: performances by renowned singers Jazzy B of Vancouver, Canada, Kaur B, Prabh Gill and Baljit Malwa of Punjab; vibrant dances by young students of the Virginia School of Bhangra and artistes of Dhiyan Punjab Diyan Gidha; Indian cuisine which drew long lines; a spacious play area with activities for children; booths for shopping and more. Perhaps the best part was being outdoors and enjoying all the traditional festivities on a gorgeous day for Spring.
At the Mela, we met Mansimran Singh Kahlon, a Democrat, who is running for the Virginia House of Delegates from the 13th District which encompasses largely Gainesville and Manassas Park in Prince William County.
“Currently, there is no Sikh in any state elected office or state legislature in the entire country”, he informed us. Primary elections for the Virginia House of Delegates are scheduled for June 13 and statewide elections will be held on November 7.
Kahlon is a resident of Gainesville, and has always lived in Northern Virginia since he came to the US from India as a child, three years old, in 1996. He attended Rutgers University after Centreville High School, and is now a local business owner who runs a trucking company.
If elected, he will be one of very few state representatives born in India. Delegate Aruna Miller, who represents the 15th District in Montgomery County, Maryland, and will be running for Congress from the 6th District in 2018, was born in Hyderabad.
Kahlon is hoping to unseat Bob Marshall, a 24-year Republican incumbent in a District which is over 60 percent white and about 11 percent Asian. He is undeterred.
“I’m really passionate about serving our community and the general community”, he told us, adding they are not being served by the current General Assembly. The top 10 priorities of residents are not compatible with the top 100 legislation drawn every year by the 66 majority of Republicans in the 100-seat Virginia House of Delegates, he lamented.
People are not being served, Kahlon reiterated. “With President Trump in office, more so”, he said, mentioning the “healthcare fiasco and the debacle going on right now” whereby over 20 million people are at risk of losing their coverage and those with pre-existing conditions will be left in the lurch.
We queried Kahlon about the upswing in racial attacks on Indian-Americans and other minorities. Is the divisive rhetoric, directed in large part against Muslims, exacerbating the situation, we asked.
“If people are going after others right now, what makes us think that we are not being targeted”, he replied. “Sikhs have been targeted post 9/11. It’s time we stand up for not only ourselves, but others. Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, all have to realize that we are all stronger together, not divided. There are many forces out there trying to divide us. Together, we can accomplish legislation that is aimed at making our lives easier, and that of our neighbors”, he said.
“I never put the interests of my community above or below others – we are all the same”, he emphasized. “We all have the same vision where our kids can walk the cul-de-sac without the fear of the pigment of their skin”.
We caught up with festival-goers for their response to the event in the Bull Run Regional Park.
Ashly Singh of Leesburg, Virginia, was enjoying the activities with her school-going kids, all dressed in traditional attire. “It’s a great cultural festival”, she said. “My husband is Punjabi, so we’re a mixed family”. For Ashly, the high points of the Mela were the music, meeting and greeting with people, and seeing all the friendly faces.
Her daughter, Manpreet Kaur, told us, “The festival is a great opportunity to experience diversity”. A middle school student, she was enjoying the food the most.
Navdeep Teja of Virginia, an auditor by profession, is a regular festival-goer. “Every year, you see more vendors, more people”, she noted. “It’s great because you get to see all these beautiful dresses and traditions. So many men are wearing traditional attire”.
Navdeep believed the event was a great learning experience for kids. “We can’t really tell them everything about India”, she reasoned.
In a wonderful expression of camaraderie, she brought her friend Jeanenne to experience the festival for the first time. “My friend would know me a little better if she knows about this”, Navdeep told us.
“We love the food. I stay right here, close to the stalls”, she said, laughing.
A trio of friends – Apanjit of Maryland, Kanwaljit and Maneet of Virginia – concurred, citing the food and music as their favorite attractions. Sunmukh Singh of Loudoun County, Virginia, an eighth grader, and Navneet Singh of Maryland, in ninth grade, spoke in unison on what they liked the most about the Mela: “Friends and food”, the boys gushed.