Reflecting on the Power of 1699

April 15, 2011

You have probably heard about the Sikh Coalition’s 16.99 Vaisakhi Campaign.  But what is the historical significance of 1699?  Consider the following extracts from the writings of historians Gopal Singh, Nikki-Guninder Kaur, and J.D. Cunningham:

“1699. It was on the first day of Vaisakh, mid-spring … that Guru Gobind Singh [the Tenth Sikh Guru] … decided finally to evolve a new order. Upto now, everyone, Hindu or Muslim, was welcome to the portals of the new faith, if he pledged to forego his caste exclusiveness, interdine, serve man irrespective of his creed and to believe only in one God, and discard all cant, superstition, and ritual. It was a society of the peaceful and the holy.” [GS]

“But it was the martyrdom of Guru Teg Bahadur (the Ninth Guru) in Delhi that finally consolidated the martial aspect of Sikhism.  [Guru Teg Bahadur] challenged the policy of the Muslim rulers of converting Hindus by force, and for this defence of religious freedom he was executed in 1675. His son and successor … though only nine years of age then, provided vigorous leadership to the Sikhs. His first task was to infuse a new spirit among his people.” [NGK]

“The Guru, therefore, decided to evolve an order which would keep as its ideal of life nothing but sacrifice for the cause of [righteousness], and would not accept slavery, either political, or social or economic. And, if for this they had to fight their way through, they wouldn’t shirk the use of arms.” [GS]

“Guru Gobind Singh fulfilled his aspiration for religious freedom in 1699 by inaugurating the Khalsa, the Order of the Pure. It was a casteless and self-abnegating body of Sikhs ready to take up arms to fight against oppression[.] Chanting verses from the Guru Granth [Sahib], Guru Gobind Singh began the initiation into the Khalsa by churning water, poured into a steel bowl, with a double-edged sword. His wife, Mata Sahib Kaur, came forward and dropped sugar crystals into the vessel. Sweetness through the feminine hand was thus mingled with the alchemy of iron.” [NGK]

“The occasion marked a dramatic departure from the past. The five to whom the rites of initiation were administered by Guru Gobind Singh were given the surname of Singh, meaning ‘lion’ and were ever after to wear the emblems of the Khalsa, popularly known [today] as the Five Ks. These were Kesha or uncut hair; Kangha, a comb tucked into the Kesha to keep it tidy; Kara, a steel bracelet symbolizing strength and unity; Kachha, short breeches; and Kirpaan, a sword. Their rebirth into the new order represented the annihilation of their family (caste) lineage, of their confinement to a hereditary occupation, of all their earlier beliefs and creeds, and of the rituals they had so far observed. They were enjoined to help the weak and fight the oppressor. Guru Gobind Singh reiterated [the First Guru, Guru Nanak’s] message to have faith in the One, and consider all human beings equal, irrespective of caste and religion.” [NGK]

“This done, [the Guru] now stood before [his disciples] with folded hands, entreating them to administer the Amrit to him … [and] the Guru was administered Amrit the same way, much to the wonder of his devoted followers. It electrified the atmosphere as nothing else could. It is said many thousand persons were baptized thus on that day at their request[.]” [GS]

“Women were also to wear the five emblems of the Khalsa. As men received the surname Singh, women received the surname Kaur, signifying “princess,” and they retained the name whether single or married. Thus the patriarchal structure of society was modified. Men and women no longer traced their lineage or occupation to the ‘father’; as ‘Singh’ and ‘Kaur’ both became equal partners in the new family of Sikhism.” [NGK]

“A living spirit possesses the whole Sikh people, and the impress of [Guru Gobind Singh] has not only elevated and altered the constitution of their minds but has operated materially and given amplitude to their physical frames. The features and external form of a whole people have been modified and a Sikh chief is not more distinguishable by his stately person and free and manly bearing than a minister of his faith is by a lofty thoughtfulness of look which marks the fervour of his soul and his persuasion of the near presence of the Divinity.” [JDC]

Sources: Gopal Singh, Guru Gobind Singh (1966); Nikki-Guninder Kaur Singh, The Name of My Beloved: Verses of the Sikh Gurus (1995); J.D. Cunningham, History of the Sikhs (1849)


Fighting the Bullying Epidemic – Gurwinder’s Trip to Washington

April 13, 2011

Duong and Gurwinder at the White House

I am extremely thankful for the opportunity to share my experiences on bullying at the White House Conference on Bullying Prevention. Attending this conference and meeting other people affected by bullying helped me understand that I am not alone in this struggle.  Although there is a lot of work to be done to stop bullying in schools, there are a lot of people around the country fighting this very serious issue.

I grew up in Richmond Hill in Queens, and ever since I can remember, I’ve been treated differently.  It wasn’t exactly bullying – that started in elementary school – but the other kids didn’t like me very much.  I stood out from the rest of them because my joora made me look different.  When I got to elementary school, they used to call me “egg head.”  Or they would ask me, “What’s inside there?  Is it a potato?” Sometimes my mom would come to school to defend me, but she wasn’t able to do much, because she isn’t fluent in English.  Loneliness just became a part of my life.

After 9/11, things became much worse.  Kids called me names, and would ask me things like “Are you related to Osama bin Laden?” or “Is Osama bin Laden your uncle?” They called me a “terrorist” or “terrorist’s son.”  The kids on the bus used to look at me awkwardly, so I tried to avoid looking at them as much as I possibly could.  I would just hide.  Once on the bus ride home, someone pulled my patka off my hair.  I couldn’t do anything; I was helpless.  No one was there to stand up for me, and I didn’t know how to stand up for myself.  My mom was the one who did my joora, so I didn’t know how to fix it myself.  I had to walk home with my patka off, and my joora open, which was very embarrassing.  I was crying, and wondering what I could do.

This conference allowed me the opportunity to hear President Barrack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama speak on bullying in schools.  I discovered that President Obama was also bullied when he was in school, and I realized that I am not alone in my experiences.  They both sent a strong message to the country, saying that they take bullying issues seriously.

I also met with other students who are working to address bullying issues in their own schools.  One particular individual was Duong Nghe Ly, a kid my age who had joined with other Asian students at his school to fight bullying there. Duong and I were placed in the “In-School Policy” group to have a discussion on bullying.  Others in the group included psychologists, professors, parents and other experts on bullying. One mother spoke about her child committing suicide because he could not handle the bullying he experienced.  It was difficult hearing about the distress her child had faced. The mother was very strong and I pray that she never faces another situation like that again.

When it was my turn to speak, I introduced myself and explained how I was a youth member of the Sikh Coalition. I then shared one of my bullying experiences in high school where my classmate dumped soda all over my patka. After sharing my story I suggested that the schools should educate students on all religions, including Sikhism, Islam and Judaism, so that all students understand who we are and the values that we believe in.  .

After the conference, I ran into KalPen Modi (former star on TV’s “House” and the Harold & Kumar films) on my way out of the White House!  I was thrilled to see him, but even more so when I later learned that he had had a role in helping me get invited to the conference.

I would like to thank the Sikh Coalition for giving me this opportunity. This experience meant a lot to my family and me. My mother, who has always supported me, was the happiest person there. I hope to continue to fight against bullying everywhere.  There is a long way to go toward eradicating it completely, but I want to reach out to Sikh students to reassure them that there is hope and help available.  There is no limit to what you can do!


How We Lobbied for Civil Rights … and Got Profiled by Capitol Hill Police

April 5, 2011

Rajdeep Singh – Director of Law and Policy, The Sikh Coalition

On the morning of April 4, 2011, it was my privilege to accompany Sikh youth activist Gurwinder Singh to Capitol Hill, where he was due to give a presentation about his experience with school bullying and his efforts to combat it.  This opportunity was made possible by South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), a civil rights organization, as part of its 2011 South Asian Summit.

Like all summit participants, Gurwinder and I were instructed to deposit personal bags and suitcases in a storage room on the 5th floor of the Cannon House Office Building, which was reserved for SAALT by Congressional staff.  And so, after clearing security with Gurwinder’s bag, we found the relevant room, mingled with some familiar faces from the South Asian community outside, and deposited the bag.

On the way out, we ran into my colleague, Sikh Coalition staff attorney, Sandeep Amy Kaur, who also dropped off her bag, and proceeded to exit the building so that we could watch Gurwinder make his presentation at a different location.  After walking about a block toward our destination, 3 Capitol Hill police officials stopped us; asked us whether we had dropped off a bag a few moments earlier; told us to step aside in the grass (in full view of curious onlookers); demanded our identification cards; and rudely grilled us with questions about what we were doing there that day.

After several awkward minutes, other summit participants (carrying suitcases) happened to pass by the area and backed up our claim that a storage room had been set aside for the South Asian Summit.  By this time, the policemen also received confirmation from their colleagues that we had done nothing wrong.  As our driver’s license cards were returned to us, one of the police officials noted that a civilian had reported “two men of Middle Eastern appearance acting suspiciously” inside the Cannon Building.

It was at this moment that I realized we were being profiled and that what made us “suspicious” in the eyes of some misinformed bigot were our turbans. I clarified to the 3 officers that we are actually from South Asia; requested their business cards; and told them that we would “be in touch.”  At long last, we made our way to the Capitol Visitor Center, where Gurwinder delivered an excellent presentation with poise and incredible grace, only moments after being profiled by police outside the halls of the United States Congress.


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