Standing-room only at special event for Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary organized by the Indian Embassy in Washington
By Geeta Goindi
Washington, DC, November 14, 2019 – To aptly commemorate the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the founder of Sikhism, and to reach out to the Sikh community in America, the Indian Embassy here organized a special celebratory event on Capitol Hill.
It was quite a sight! There was standing-room only in a very spacious space on an upper floor in the Hart Senate Office Building offering awe-inspiring views of the Capitol.
Greeting over 300 attendees including prominent members of the Sikh community, the larger Indian diaspora, scholars and educators on Sikhism, the press and media, Indian ambassador Harsh Vardhan Shringla said, “We are very happy that we are celebrating this historic occasion in the Senate, in Congress”. He emphasized, “It is pertinent that we are celebrating this in the US which has been a beacon of the values of equality and freedom of all human beings, values that are at the core of Sikh philosophy”.
The envoy underscored that “the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev Ji is being celebrated in a befitting manner in all Indian missions and posts all over the world” with the aim of projecting the first Sikh guru’s teachings as India’s contribution to world peace and harmony.
Looking around at the packed gathering, he spoke of “the disproportionate contribution” of Sikh Americans to their country of citizenship.
Recognizing that “there are several issues that have been very important from the point of view of the Sikh community in America”, Shringla said, “The government of Prime Minister Modi has given special attention to these concerns. In the last couple of years, we have seen a number of steps have been taken to address the longstanding issues that have been raised by the Sikh community” including the anti-Sikh riots, he noted.
Without mincing any words, the envoy asserted that the “anti-Sikh riots in 1984 are being exploited by pro-Khalistani elements based abroad for mobilizing support for anti-India activities”.
Given the concerns of the wider Sikh community about the massacre, he pointed out that a Special Investigation Team (SIT) has been constituted by the Indian government to reinvestigate the 186 cases filed in the anti-Sikh riots to ensure justice for the victims. The investigations have been expedited leading to charge sheets being filed and the conviction of at least one very important political leader who was an accused in this matter, he noted without specifically mentioning former Congress leader Sajjan Kumar. “The government has also announced an additional compensation of Rs. 5 lakhs each to the 3,325 victims of the 1984 riots”, he added.
Acknowledging the grievance of the Sikh community with respect to denial of Indian consular services, Shringla assured that “steps have been taken for the facilitation of political asylees of Sikh origin as well as their families to obtain passports and consular services to enable them to visit India”. Regarding the requests to release various prisoners linked to militancy, he said, “These requests are also under active consideration of the government”.
Citing several initiatives taken by the Indian government to commemorate the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, he mentioned that the historic Sultanpur Lodhi is being developed as a heritage town, postage stamps have been released, special trains are connecting places associated with the first Sikh guru, a Center for Interfaith Studies is being set up at the Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar, Chairs on Guru Nanak Dev Ji are proposed to be set up in foreign universities including Concordia University in Canada and Birmingham University in the United Kingdom with more options to be explored in the United States.
It is noteworthy that UNESCO will publish an anthology of the writings of Guru Nanak in world languages making them more accessible to diverse populations.
Hailing the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak as “a momentous occasion”, Republican senator Todd Young of Indiana told the Capitol Hill gathering that he “was proud to recognize the many contributions that Sikhs have made to communities across this country by introducing the first-ever Resolution (S.Res. 393) in the United States Senate honoring Sikhs and recognizing the 550th birthday of Guru Nanak”. The measure was submitted last month together with Democratic senator Ben Cardin of Maryland “to further diversity and afford all Americans the opportunity to better understand, recognize, and appreciate the rich history and shared experiences of Sikhs”, according to a press release.
“I am proud to stand with the 25 million Sikhs around the globe and the nearly 750,000 (Sikhs) across America in celebration of this very day”, Young said at the commemorative event.
He noted that while Guru Nanak’s teachings are considered radical some 500 years ago, they are consistent with the founding principles of America – that regardless of gender, class or creed, everyone has been created equal. “I believe these shared values are why Sikh Americans have made such a profound impact across our country”, he said.
Referring to the historic opening of the Kartarpur Corridor, Young told the attentive audience, “I am also glad that your commitment to equality and inclusion has led to the historic agreement which allowed the border corridor between India and Pakistan to be opened for Sikhs to visit Guru Nanak’s shrine just in time for this 550th birthday”.
Democratic Congresswoman Judy Chu of California noted, “Guru Nanak’s life was a true example to all of us and one whose lessons we would do well to heed today. Guru Nanak was a true humanitarian champion in the face of entrenched discrimination. He preached against prejudices based on race, caste and status. He called it the equality of all individuals no matter what religion they practiced or caste they belonged to. He promoted the equality of all women during a time when women had low status and little respect within society”.
Chu, who co-founded the American Sikh Congressional Caucus and currently serves as its vice-chair, said, “There is so much as a country that we should take away from the teachings of Guru Nanak. His legacy is a legacy of peace and equality. That is why I founded the Congressional Sikh Caucus. I founded it because I wanted to ensure that our nation could understand the true beauty of the Sikh religion and the great accomplishments of Sikh Americans”.
The lawmaker chairs the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) and is a strong voice on Capitol Hill for the Asian American community at large.
“We must make sure that we fight against policies that harm people and that is why I have introduced the No Ban Act because prejudice should have no place in our society and the Muslim ban has increased aggressive actions not just against Muslims, but against all people thought to be different”, she said. The Act which has a companion bill in the Senate introduced by Democratic senator Chris Coons of Delaware, repeals President Trump’s “existing executive order blocking travel from majority Muslim countries and preventing another baseless, discriminatory travel ban from happening again”, reads a press statement.
Referring to an anti-hate Resolution that was passed by the House earlier this year condemning anti-Semitism, racism, Islamophobia, and all forms of hatred against Sikhs, Chu noted that it “encouraged all public officials to confront the reality of all forms of bigotry to ensure that the United States will live up to the principles of tolerance, religious freedom and equal protection. We must work together as a country to live up to the values taught by Guru Nanak, a country that would be inclusive of all people, where no one feels unsafe and unequal”, she said.
On hand at the Capitol Hill event was Republican congressman Greg Pence of Indiana who together with Democratic lawmaker Peter Visclosky, also of Indiana, introduced a Resolution (H.Res. 680), November 8, celebrating the 550th birthday of Guru Nanak and the growing community of Hoosier Sikhs dedicated to giving back. Hoosier is the official name for residents of Indiana.
“Indiana is proud to be home to over 10,000 Sikhs that enrich our communities and embody the meaning of Hoosier values”, Pence said in a press communique.
The Indian Embassy event, expertly coordinated by First Secretary Satwant Khanalia in the political wing, also featured: an exhibition on the life and message of Guru Nanak; two panel discussions on the life and philosophy of the first Sikh guru, and the contribution of Sikh Americans to the United States; screening of a documentary on Congressman Dalip Singh Saund, the first Indian-American Sikh elected to the US Congress in 1956, by writer and director E. Samantha Cheng; all followed by delectable Indian cuisine.
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