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Towards a Sikh Civil Rights Agenda

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    Although my earlier discussion on multiculturalism put forth some of my thoughts, an interesting news item caught my interest yesterday. I guess this can be seen in a way as a part II of that original post.

    While many of us spent our weekends remembering the spirit of the Khalsa, attending Nagar Kirtans, making rounds at the Vaisakhi Melas, or buying tickets for the upcoming Gurdas Mann tour, some New York Sikhs did something very different.

    Sponsored by the Sikh Coalition, Sikhs in New York gathered at the steps of City Hall in protest. They released a report, “Making Our Voices Heard: A Civil Rights Agenda for New York City’s Sikhs.”

    The report provides its own background:

      In December 2006, the Sikh Coalition, with the help of several dedicated volunteers, began conducting the first ever civil rights survey of New York City’s Sikhs. The survey intended to gather information on Sikhs’ experiences with incidents of bias, employment discrimination, language access and other issues that hinder full integration into New York’s civic and political life.

    This report represents the results obtained from the data we collected from 1,021 Sikhs who live in New York City’s five boroughs. The data presented in this report identifies significant gaps between the promise of the law and the Sikh community’s reality on the ground.

    The report seemed most concerned with issues related to Sikh identity (read: outward appearance). The survey should not be considered a snapshot of the general experience by Sikhs in New York as the survey itself mentions that 90% interviewed “carry some outward manifestation of their faith” (this may be a bit disingenuous because the implication seems to be keshadhari Sikhs, but such a worded quote should also include all that wear a kara as well.) and only 1/3 interviewed were female (odd target group as the acknowledgments shows that the report was largely conducted by Sikh women), but despite these limitations, the report is suggestive in the following fields:

    • Hate Crimes or Harassment
      • 41% of New York City’s Sikhs reported being called derogatory names such as “terrorists”
    • School Bullying and Discrimination
      • Amongst those who wear turbans or patkas, 3 out of 5 Sikh children have been harassed and verbally or physically abused.
    • Employment Discrimination and Workplace Harassment
      • Amongst Sikhs who wear turbans, 9% state that they have been refused employment or denied a job promotion because of their Sikh identity.
    • Language Access
      • While over 25% of non-citizen Sikhs reported needing English translators, yet Punjabi-language resources are provided by only a handful of New York City agencies.
    • Public Accommodation
      • 11% of New York City’s Sikh adults reported being refused entry somewhere because they carry a kirpan. Government buildings were the most common place that respondents identified being refused entry because of their kirpans.
    • Health Insurance
      • Nearly half of the non-citizen Sikhs who live in New York City do not have any form of health insurance for themselves or their families.
    • Relationship with Law Enforcement
      • A quarter of Sikh New Yorkers who wear turbans report that they believe they have been unfairly stopped or questioned by law enforcement officers.
    For me, most striking of this approach towards a “civil rights” agenda was that community activists are working towards expanding a previously smaller definition by including topics such as health insurance and language access. These moves should be commended.

    Other interesting suggestions from the report may be related to possible future blog topics:

    • The discouragement of using young children as translators in families that do not speak English as this causes an undue burden on the young child. Anecdotally, I have noticed young girls often are placed in this role, even if an older brother is in the house.
    • Another suggestion of note for me was that the NYPD should “visit Sikh gurdwaras to ensure New York City Sikhs know they can be protected from hate violence.” Is it just me or should the police not come to our Gurdwara? I feel we should keep the state out of this space. I am not against this information being disseminated, but must it be at our Gurdwaras? This seems to be one of the key ‘achievements’ of all Sikh advocacy groups (Sikh Coalition, SALDEF, SCORE, etc) that the police came to the Gurdwara and gave a presentation.

    Ok, so of course, as a contrarian, while I do commend such action, I wonder if as a Sikh community we need to begin the process of moving away from a ‘rights-based’ logic. In a previous post on multiculturalism, I wrote:

      Similar to Lal, I believe we do see ‘legal pluralism’ in the courts of Canada and the United States. However ‘legal pluralism’ are merely court verdicts and parliamentary/congressional laws and bills that offer some legal support to minorities, but are constantly and continuously contested. Legal pluralism is temporary. The real meaning of ‘legal pluralism’ only enforces the supremacy that is given to the state to make all decisions.

    What we need is actual ‘cultural pluralism.’ Cultural pluralism will occur when Canadians or Americans see the Muslim hijab or the Sikh kirpan as not something foreign or belonging to only a specific community, but rather a cultural and religious marker of members of its own society.

    However a ‘rights-based” logic only promotes the supremacy of the state to determine rights. It must be constantly contested. Maybe the words of ‘accomodation’ and ‘assimilation’ can be of assistance, although I will invert the more frequent connotations.

    The legal pluralism in Canada and the United States has the ability to ‘accommodate’ to diversity. This is the reason why the various advocacy groups are usually legal organizations that mainly deal with legal issues and court cases. However, legal pluralism CANNOT ‘assimilate’ diversity into the mindsets of the majority of Americans. Look no further than the civil rights movement of African-Americans. Despite legal pluralism and decisions in numerous courts, African-Americans are still ‘outsiders’ for the majority of Americans.

    For Sikhs this is even more strongly the case. While in the short-term a ‘rights-based’ logic may yield tactical advantages, our overall strategy, I believe, must move away from such an approach. While Sikh turbans and kirpans may be accommodated (accommodation however continues to imply ‘other-ness’ and ‘foreign-ness’) through a legal framework, they cannot be assimilated into the American mindset. To assimilate implies the ending of distinctions based on centers and margins. Assimilating the Sikh turban and kirpan means moving it out of a perceived strange ‘other-ness’ until it is also considered inherently Canadian, American, etc.

    How do we do this? By critical engagement in our communities. When all of us on a local level engage in those issues that press our local communities and they see our faces, turbans, karas, etc. In some small way, I even here these words echo from Sylvia Deed. Interviewed by the Stockton Record (as a sidenote, while viewing the Stockton Record’s sports page, here is an interesting look at their local sports podcaster, Jagdip Dhillon) about this weekend’s Nagar Kirtan:

      Sylvia Deed, 49, is not Sikh, but her San Joaquin Street home opens right onto the parade route. She gathered three generations of her family, called her friends and held her own barbecue to watch the parade. “It is awesome every year,” she said. “It’s so beautiful to watch.”

    So while I think that a ‘civil rights’ agenda is a step in the right direction and will bring us as a community.

    Posted by Jodha | Wednesday, April 16, 2008

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