Over 350 partake in ancient Sikh tradition promoting equality on Capitol Hill
By Geeta Goindi
Washington, DC, July 28, 2015 – It was a heart-warming sight on Capitol Hill as manifold US lawmakers, the most powerful in the world, together with over 350 attendees, partook in the centuries-old Sikh tradition of ‘Langar’ (a free vegetarian meal promoting equality) at an event organized by dedicated and down-to-earth college students.
SikhLEAD, an initiative of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) which enables young aspiring leaders to intern in the nation’s capital, spearheaded the praiseworthy effort highlighting Sikh values to bipartisan lawmakers and the mostly Congressional aides who attend the annual event, now in its second year.
Democratic Congresswoman Judy Chu of California, co-founder of the American Sikh Congressional Caucus, declared at the outset, “This is one of my favorite events! The turnout is even more spectacular”, she said, looking around the venue. “It is so great to see everyone participating in this beautiful aspect of the Sikh religion. It shows what great diversity we have here on Capitol Hill and in this nation. It celebrates the great things about the Sikh American community”.
About the bipartisan American Sikh Congressional Caucus, she noted, it “helps members of Congress understand the issues which are important to the Sikh community such as racial profiling”. Referring to the horrific massacre at the Oak Creek Gurdwara in August 2012 that killed six worshippers, Congresswoman Chu said, “We know that hate crimes are a very real issue. That is why we advocated for the (Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation) crime-tracking database to include hate crimes against Sikh Americans. Fortunately, the category has been included this year to ensure more accurate reporting”. Previously, no federal statistics were kept on hate crimes against Sikh, Hindu and Arab Americans, posing a stumbling block in identifying and preventing such criminal offences.
In his remarks welcoming Democratic Congressman Joe Crowley of New York to the ‘Langar’, Jasjit Singh, Executive Director of SALDEF, commended the lawmaker for taking a leadership position on advocating for Sikh Americans to serve in the US armed forces with their articles of faith, leading the hate-crime tracking effort by the DOJ-FBI, and graciously hosting the SikhLEAD class of 2015 on Capitol Hill.
Congressman Crowley told the gathering that while “we have had tremendous success in the last couple of years regarding the Sikh community especially in hate-crime tracking, there is so much more work to be done. Sikh Americans need to have their rightful place to serve in the US armed forces, the right to serve as police officers in cities like New York and around the country”, he said. “There is so much more that needs to be done to make the Sikh community part of the American fabric. We are here to make that happen”, he vowed.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (Republican – Wisconsin), who was tapped by Republican Mitt Romney to be his vice-presidential running mate in the 2012 race, represents Oak Creek and at the ‘Langar’, he emphasized that the Gurdwara was “a site where a community came together, where the Sikh community displayed just incredible warmth, incredible generosity” in the face of “bottomless evil and violence”.
He underscored, “The peace and the love and the community (spirit) that was displayed by Sikhs impressed so many people in southern Wisconsin. I can’t describe in words the feeling that we have towards the Sikh community in southeastern Wisconsin”. Sikh Americans are “pillars of our community that we are so proud to call our friends and neighbors in Oak Creek”.
To the organizers and attendees of the ‘Langar’, Congressman Ryan said, with admiration, “All of you here are doing your part to lend in the incredibly important effort of expressing and advancing religious tolerance and freedom”.
Recognizing the dedicated efforts of SALDEF, Congressman John Garamendi of California, Democratic Co-Chair of the American Sikh Congressional Caucus, said, “because of the advocacy of your organization, the FBI now recognizes the issues of faith-based communities”.
The lawmaker, whose District includes Yuba City which is home to a vibrant and economically successful Sikh community, noted, “We are also making progress on the military service issue. We have got work to do which will not succeed without the participation of the Sikh American community”, he emphasized.
Congressman Jim McDermott (Democrat – Washington) greeted the gathering in the traditional Sikh manner with ‘Sat Sri Akal’ and proceeded to recount how he has been involved with the Sikh community in Seattle for a long time through personal friendships and associations and has seen it “evolve in all its glory”.
The lawmaker recalled that after 9/11, a Sikh manager of a motel in Seattle was beaten brutally due to ignorance, an utter lack of understanding. He spoke about the hate-free zone in his District to protect the community and foster a spirit of oneness. “We are all one”, he emphasized. “The Sikh community has done a number of things to bring that message to the American people”.
Jasjit Singh pointed out that Congressman McDermott “has been phenomenally supportive of Sikhs serving in the military”, to much applause and appreciation from the audience.
Congressman Ami Bera (Democrat – California) told the gathering that as Co-Chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian-Americans, he is proud to work with his colleagues in a bipartisan way to address issues which concern Sikh Americans such as racial profiling, hurdles when it comes to serving in the military with their articles of faith, and playing basketball on a national level with a turban and beard. “We have to break those barriers down so every individual has the right to practice their religion and serve”, he declared.
About Langar, he noted that the tradition was started by Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the first Sikh Guru. “Go to any Gurdwara in the country and they will share a meal with you”, he said. “It is about breaking barriers, sitting together for a simple meal, because in the eyes of God, we are all one. If you look around this room, it represents the best of who we are. My legacy would be if someone in this room is elected to Congress”.
Jasjit Singh informed the gathering that SALDEF has “ten interns who have come to DC this summer to work on Capitol Hill, in federal agencies, and with non-profits. They represent our best and brightest”, he said.
Expressing the hope that an intern would follow in the footsteps of Dalip Singh Saund, the only Sikh American elected to Congress in 1956, Jasjit Singh pointed out that the “SikhLEAD program was started some five years ago to build our community’s capacity of activism and to support our future leaders”.
The interns of SALDEF’s SikhLEAD 2015 class are Jaspreet Kaur of California, Harman Paul Singh Brar of New York, Tejpaul Singh Bainiwal of California, Amreen Kaur Bhasin of New Jersey, Naureen Kaur Singh of Colorado, Kiman Kaur of Utah, Shawn Singh Bhatia of Texas, Bani Kaur Randhawa of Pennsylvania, Nanki Kaur Bhullar of California, and Avneet Kaur Soin of Massachusetts.
Congresswoman Grace Meng (Democrat – New York) gushed, “This event is so special to all of us because it was started by interns on the Hill who are our future leaders. They knew it was important to share a piece of their religion and culture with members of Congress and staff on the Hill”.
The lawmaker, who has steadfastly supported the effort to track hate crimes against religious and ethnic minorities, affirmed, “There is no better way to share experiences that are religious and cultural, and also to combat hate and discrimination, than by exposing each other to all the good things that we have to share with each other, that are part of our culture and part of the diverse fabric of our country”.
Congressman Ted Poe (Republican – Texas) represents Houston, in Harris County where Sandeep Singh Dhaliwal is the first Sikh serving with his turban and beard in the Deputy Sheriff’s office. “Sikhs have a history of public service”, said the GOP lawmaker at the ‘Langar’.
He told the gathering that bipartisan members of Congress have sent a letter to Secretary of the Army John McHugh calling for a rule that all Sikhs be allowed to serve while practicing their religion, with their turban and beard, without approval on a case-by-case basis.
Congressman Jerry McNerney (Democrat – California) lauded Sikh values such as hard work and strong family bonds. “When I see a person with a turban, I think here is someone of integrity, here is someone of honor”, he said. “We need to make sure that hate speech is not tolerated in this country, that hate crimes are prosecuted, and that people understand each other”.
Among other lawmakers who attended the ‘Langar’ on Capitol Hill were Congressmen Brad Sherman (Democrat – California), Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Joe Wilson (Republican – South Carolina), Doug LaMalfa (Republican – California), Tom McClintock (Republican – California), Mark Takano (Democrat – California), Hank Johnson (Democrat – Georgia), James Clyburn (Democrat – South Carolina) and Sanford Bishop, Jr. (Democrat – Georgia). The event was co-hosted by Congressman Mike Honda (Democrat – California).
About the ‘Langar’, Jenny Yang, Chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), said, “This is a fantastic event. I am thrilled to join you on the Hill as we honor a 500-year-old tradition that emphasizes equality” which “is at the heart of what we do at EEOC”.
Yang noted, “Over the past 125 years, the Sikh American community has made an indelible impact on the fabric of America and we celebrate that this evening”.