It was 10 years in the making. Two Sikhs from California built the foundation for the American Sikh Congressional Caucus.
And when they had a member of Congress to register the caucus, three of the national Sikh advocacy groups and many individuals joined them to garner support from 27 more members.
“It took a few months for this caucus to be formed,” said Judy Chu (D-Pasadena, California), co-chairwoman of the caucus. The national Sikh American groups, especially the ones that are active in Washington, lobbied the members of Congress that they work with and asked them to join the caucus, she told SikhNN after the April 24 news conference to announce the caucus.
She publically thanked New York-based United Sikhs, New York-based Sikh Coalition and Washington-based Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
“You have to have some voice in the Congress,” said Pritpal Singh, coordinator of the American Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, who spearheaded the effort in California. “Before that we used to go to one congressman. Now it is a big plate. So we will go to that platform.”
“With this caucus we’ll be able to address the issues of the Sikhs and educate and formulate many of the policies,” said Harpreet Singh Sandhu, a political activist from Richmond, California, who worked closely with Pritpal Singh.
With the caucus, political boundaries are irrelevant. Members can be a voice for the national Sikh community on issues that arise anywhere.
“They themselves will be proactive in finding a solution or addressing the issues of the Sikhs,” Harpreet Singh said.
Announcing a caucus with 28 founding members is “phenomenal,” he added. “There are caucuses that start with two or three Congress (members). It will grow to a much larger number, and by next year we will see the fruit of all those who participated address the issues they have talked about.”
This is the second caucus in the House of Representatives that concerns an ethnic religion. The Latino-Jewish Congressional Caucus was the first. And one of its founding members, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Miami, Florida), is also a member of the Sikh caucus.
“(They are) the reason why we are here as a caucus,” Harpreet Singh said. Like Judaism, Sikhism can be considered an ethnic religion, and not conflict with the separation of church and state.
About 30 Sikh activists and representatives from Sikh organizations attended the news conference last week, where seven of the caucus members spoke. Later that evening, about 75 Sikhs attended a reception celebrating the caucus. Several Sikh activists joined a few caucus members in congratulating the community.
“Most of the immigration in this country from the Sikh community has happened in the last 25 years,” said Yadvinder Singh, from New Jersey, and former head of the American Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee. “And the reason is, while they see a lot of political strife back home in 1984, they see freedom and justice (here), and this is one of the reason they came to this country.
“And when incidents of this kind… any sort of discrimination or any kind of incident like Oak Creek (happen), it all rings the bells around us. What are we doing wrong here? …We’re not involved in American society, in American culture and American system.
“I believe we took one of the steps today, a lot more steps (are) to come. And this will strengthen our resolve to be part of a nation, which always looks and (has) so many parallels to the faiths that we all observe, especially the Sikhs.”
Avtar Singh Pannu, coordinator of Sikhs For Justice, in New York, spoke in Punjabi: “Sikhs have taken a big step to address issues such as education, discrimination. Thank you to all the Sikhs who have taken the community forward by working to form this caucus.”
“We served in the two world wars, over 100,000 Sikh soldiers died in the Second World War… and we want to serve this country by wearing our turbans,” said Amarjit Singh, founder of Khalistan Affairs Center in Washington. “We are thankful (for) so much this country has given to us, we want to pay back. And we hope that very soon that Sikhs will be able to serve in the Army.”
Chu had earlier said that having the Army accept Sikhs into its ranks is one of the caucus’ first priorities.
“So there is much work to be done, I am just so glad that we have this tremendous start,” Chu said.
David Valadao (R-Bakersfield, California), caucus co-chairman, who has served in Congress for about four months, said he also is an immigrant. His family came here from Portugal.
“It’s always amazing when you come to this country, or you see people who come to this country, and experience and take advantage of the situation where you understand how awesome an opportunity it is to be here in this country. And the Sikh community has done that well.
“And to just give them the decency of the same opportunities (as) everybody else and the same respect that we expect for ourselves. I’m happy to be here to be part of the fight, to listen, to learn and to bring more into it.”
“Community involvement brings political power and this caucus shows that’s what’s happening,” said Jerry McNerney (D-Stockton, California), caucus member. “The (Sikh) community is aware and moving into the position of being able to influence policy in this country. That is a tremendous step, tremendous achievement. The Sikh community deserves a lot of respect for that.”
Doug LaMalfa (R-Redding, California), a caucus member who also is a farmer, said he knew many Sikhs in the trucking and agriculture businesses.
“There is so much more that we have in common, and it’s a tragedy when we here about things like what happens because of misunderstanding of cultures or perception of a culture… Your community has opened itself up to me in my part of the state and… it’s been a very rewarding friendship and relationship.
“I have my own turban at home, it’s a nice purple color,” he added. “I have no idea how to retie it so I have to be really careful with it.”
Rajwant Singh, founder of EcoSikh and the Sikh Council on Religion and Education, in Maryland, reminded everyone that this year, on July 4, is the 100-year anniversary of Bhagat Singh Thind’s arrival in Seattle.
“He then fought in the First World War, and then struggled to get his immigration rights, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court,” he said. “All the struggles that our community has gone through, and to have this moment where we get official recognition from our congressional leaders, is truly a great landmark for our community.”
“We had planned and we had strategized after 9/11 that we want to have something like this,” said Harpreet Singh, a regional director for the U.S. Department of Justice, Community Relations Service. “I’m so happy that we found members of Congress that support this cause… And I hope we double, triple that number and we can move on to create this in the Senate.”
Manmeet Singh, staff attorney for United Sikhs, thanked Chu and Valadao. “You have forever solidified your name as key players, and re-writing Sikh history in this country.” He also thanked Pritpal Singh and Harpreet Singh. “They sewed the seed for this effort about a decade ago... Without their tireless effort and unflinching resolve, this launch would not have been possible.”
This caucus is “going to provide us with a platform to discuss civil rights issues on a national agenda,” said Simran Kaur, advocacy manager for the Sikh Coalition. “This is extremely meaningful, and a turning point for our community. It’s also extremely timely, as (we) all know, in the light of Oak Creek and the mass tragedy there. These issues are not going away… These are issues that we continue to hear on a daily basis from our constituency.”
“We are not victims though,” said Jasjit Singh, executive director of SALDEF. “That’s not our history and that’s not what our scripture teaches us.
“Today we have nearly 30 members of the US Congress standing with us, ready to hear what our concerns are and advocate for issues that affect not only us, but all Americans,” he said. “From the struggles of our Sikh American pioneers to the challenges that we faced post 9/11, to advocating for the rights of all Americans, this is our story and this is our collective journey. We are writing our piece of Sikh American history together at this very moment.”