“I felt sand being thrown in my eyes,” Malhi recounted from his office, which is decorated with a five-panel photograph of the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar and several shots of himself with congressman Denham at Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration.
Next thing he knew, he was being pummeled by wooden sticks on his head and back. His assailants were wearing hoodies, but he could see their blue eyes and white skin from between his fingers, which he’d raised to protect his face.
“They were cursing and shouting ‘go back to your country’,” he said. They spray-painted a similar message on his truck along with a Celtic cross, a white supremacist symbol, before taking off.
A dazed Malhi groped in the dark for his cellphone and called for help. If it hadn’t been for his turban – three layers of fabric tightly wound around thick swirls of hair – he’s not sure he would have survived. “My warrior turban,” he said, pointing at more pictures on his office wall of Baba Deep Singh and other founders of
Sikhism, “designed so you can be hit with a sword and still not get hurt”.
Many Sikh civil rights groups believe that the Trump presidency is to blame for a 17% spike in anti-Sikh violence since the 2016 election, as well as a deluge of other discriminatory incidents in the workplace, in housing, in schools, at airport security checkpoints. The president’s inflammatory language about immigrants and foreigners, they say, has made official profiling more prevalent and emboldened racists to speak and act more openly.
The challenges exist not just in California’s Central Valley, which boasts the oldest Sikh temple in the US, and other parts of the country where Sikhs have settled in considerable numbers. They also extend to the border, which has seen a recent surge in Indian Sikhs crossing from Mexico to flee Hindu nationalist oppression in their native Punjab, and a
surge, too, in Sikhs ending up in immigrant detention centers as they apply for political asylum in the US. Many of those Sikhs are now part of a lawsuit alleging violations of their religious rights and other forms of mistreatment.
Malhi, however, is emphatically not part of the anti-Trump chorus. “He is a great president,” Malhi said. “The violence against Sikhs, it’s always there, but it’s not because of Trump. Every nation has bad apples. My Sikh community has bad apples too.”
Such are the complicated and sometimes contradictory realities of life for an estimated half-million Sikhs in the US. The threat of violence is ever-present: a few days after the attack on Malhi, two assailants kicked and spat on an elderly Sikh in Manteca, 25 miles to the north, and a few days after that a convenience store owner in East Orange, New Jersey, was stabbed to death by a disgruntled employee. Yet victims are often reluctant to point fingers in overtly political directions, or even to assume that crimes against them are racially motivated.
Malhi and many others in the Turlock area, including non-Sikhs appalled by the violence, have preferred to devote their energies to community-building and public shows of support. More than 100 people turned out for a town hall meeting organized by the Sikh youth group Jakara, and more than 600 attended a peace march in Manteca, held in the park where 71-year-old Sahib Singh habitually walks each morning and was attacked.
“The hate is there,” said Bhajan Singh, a Sikh activist from Manteca, “but what is so overwhelming is the response from common Americans, especially in a conservative community like this one.” Singh described how, after a gunman in Wisconsin killed six Sikhs at their gurdwara, a place of worship, in 2012, strangers would pick up his tab in restaurants or come up to let him know how disgusted the shootings made them. The attack on Malhi engendered a similar response, with well-wishers lining up at his home while he was recuperating and sending letters and cards to his home and office to wish him a speedy recovery.
The paradox for American Sikhs is that their religion is one of peace and tolerance and social activism, yet because of their appearance – especially the men, with their bright clothing and unshorn hair and turbans and decorative bracelets and daggers – they have borne a disproportionate brunt of American hostility, ignorance and racism for more than a century.
In 1906, their presence in the logging town of Bellingham, Washington, provoked talk of a “dusky peril” and, ultimately, a race riot whose instigators thought the Sikhs were Hindus. During the Iranian hostage crisis in the early 1980s, many Americans would yell “Ayatollah!” and “Go back to Iran!”, and many Sikhs responded by removing their headwear and cutting their hair. After September 11, many were frequently victims of racist attacks aimed at Muslims in an atmosphere of kneejerk anti-Islamic hostility; they were beaten, shot at, and in some cases killed. And so the cycle has continued.
Bhajan Singh argued that this history, paradoxically, made Sikhs more like other Americans, not less. “The question,” he said, “is not why Sikhs are being attacked, but why Americans are so vicious and violent to each other. Why do so many communities have to go through this cycle – hangings, lynchings, internment camps – before they are accepted into the mainstream?”
‘Every day there’s something’
Seen through a national lens, the Trump presidency has been a veritable five-alarm fire for Sikhs. According to a report released earlier this year by South Asian Americans Leading Together, violence against Muslims, Arabs, Sikhs and other south Asians rose 64% in the year after November 2016. In one-fifth of these incidents, the perpetrators mentioned Trump, or a Trump policy, or a Trump campaign slogan.
“Every day I wake up and check my email and there’s something, whether it’s an incident with TSA, or a hate crime, or a student being bullied at a school,” said Amrith Kaur, the legal director of the national Sikh Coalition. “It’s not that these things didn’t happen before, but they weren’t happening with this frequency.”
Valarie Kaur, a Los Angeles-based lawyer and Sikh activist, concurred. “The current surge is the most dangerous we have seen, because it is fueled by an an administration that has mainstreamed profiling and bigotry in words and actions,” she said. “We are five times more likely today to be targets of hate than before 9/11.”
That reality is sparking a greater desire by Sikhs to speak up and become more active in their communities. They are running for office and winning, sometimes in the face of overt racism. The mayor of Hoboken, New Jersey,
Ravi Bhalla, is a Sikh, and so is New Jersey’s attorney general, who had to remind a popular talk radio show last month that his name was Gurbir Grewal after the hosts referred to him only as “turban man”.
In California, a Sikh is mayor of Yuba City, north of Sacramento, and another is vice-mayor of Manteca. Fresno, the largest city in the Central Valley, where a 68-year-old Sikh was brutally beaten and run over with a truck in 2016, has renamed one of its parks for Jaswant Singh Khalra, a prominent Sikh human rights activist killed by Indian police.
‘Telling our own stories’
Where Sikhs were once few and far between in the area around Turlock and Manteca, there are now about 25,000, many coming from the San Francisco Bay Area where the cost of living has become too high. Sikh lawyers and trucking companies have advertising billboards on Highway 99 and the area is now dotted with Indian restaurants.
“We have come to understand that our community’s future depends on our ability to enter positions of power,” Valarie Kaur said, “whether telling our own stories on the screen or sitting at the policy table … In the last year and a half, I have witnessed our community engage in acts of solidarity that I have not seen before.”
Gary Singh, the vice-mayor of Manteca, recounted how his father was the first Sikh business owner in town in the 1980s. He was the only Sikh and the only Indian in his school, in a town that had previously been settled by Portuguese, Italian and Dutch immigrants. When he first ran for city council, he heard voters repeatedly telling him to his face: “We don’t vote for your kind.”
Yet he won, and has spread the mantra ever since that the way to overcome fear and mistrust is to band together. One purpose of last month’s peace march for Sahib Singh, which Gary Singh organized, was to reassure any elderly person, not just older Sikhs, that they can be safe walking in parks. Participants offered to take turns standing guard over Sahib Singh, or to walk with him, from now on.
A new crisis, meanwhile, is brewing on the southern US border, where a new generation of Sikhs from India crossing over from Mexico has been caught up in the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance immigration policy. At Victorville prison, a medium-security federal penitentiary in southern California requisitioned in June to house hundreds of undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers, Sikhs make up as much as 40% of the new population.
According to a class-action lawsuit filed last month by the Prison Law Office and other civil rights organizations, the Sikhs have been forced to remove their turbans, are not receiving treatment for depression and other medical conditions, have no opportunity to practice their religion and are losing weight at an alarming rate because the food is both inadequate and not vegetarian. “The staffing is not where it needs to be to feed them hot meals, so they are giving them baloney sandwiches,” the congressman Jimmy Gomez, who visited Victorville last month, told the Guardian. “Since the Sikhs don’t eat baloney, they’re just eating the bread.”
Lawyers and Punjabi translators have been visiting Victorville regularly to inform detainees of their rights and collect information on their treatment. One of those lawyers, Meeth Soni, who is herself Sikh, said she worried that the established Sikh community was not doing enough to advocate for the new arrivals and that Sikh organizations were not equipped to fight on their behalf.
That attitude, too, appears to be evolving
. “If these newer immigrants aren’t protected, it’s just going to trickle down,” Amrith Kaur of the Sikh Coalition said. “You take those rights away, and they’ll start crumbling all the way down. By helping to protect these individuals, we help to protect all of us.”