Oak Creek Sikh Temple Killings: A Historical Perspective

Author:   Dr. Shinder S. Thandi



Oak Creek Sikh Temple Killings: A Historical Perspective 

Dr. Shinder S. Thandi 

This year Sikhs are celebrating the centenary of the establishment of the first Sikh Temple on American soil in Stockton, CA in 1912. The tragic killings of 6 Sikhs and an American police officer in the Oak Creek Sikh Temple, Wisconsin, Milwaukee have brought a premature and mournful end to these celebrations among the Sikh community and a tragedy particularly for the families of those killed. This was a sacrilege and an unprovoked, brutal and cowardly attack by a hate-filled white supremacist on innocent Sikhs in their place of worship. The incident marks the largest single act of violence inside a Sikh temple since the attack on Durbar Sahib (Amritsar) by the Indian army in June 1984 and the largest outside India involving Sikhs. No matter how we characterise this heinous act, whether as an act of domestic terrorism or a hate crime, it however is a stark reminder that even after more than a hundred years of settlement in the USA, the Sikhs remain largely an “invisible”, unrecognised and mistaken religious minority in a land widely considered as a ‘melting pot’ or ‘salad bowl’ of multi ethnic and multicultural peoples having a shared experience of being immigrants and a belief in living the American dream.

Being victims of racism or hate crimes is nothing new for the Sikhs – called Hindoos in local discourses - as the painful experiences of the early Sikh pioneers testify. Although, the Sikhs only started arriving on the Pacific coast in the closing years of the 19th century, by the end of the second decade of the 20th century, the door to further immigration had been firmly shut. A number of racist laws were enacted which disabled Sikhs to bring their wives from India or marry local white women, to own land or to obtain the US citizenship. Sikhs could only work as farm labourers or leaseholders, although only some had managed earlier to gain employment in building railroads or in the lumber industry. Moreover, their presence was also detested by other immigrant groups because they were perceived as snatching away their jobs and /or offering their labour at a cheaper wage. Inter-ethnic tensions often erupted into violence. Two important incidents are  worth recalling. In 1907, in the town of Bellingham (near Seattle, Washington), hundreds of Sikhs were woken from their beds during the night, and then physically thrashed and forced to flee across the border into Canada. In 1917, in Wheatland, California, a white gang made an unprovoked attack on Sikh farm workers which made a significant and enduring psychological impact on the political thinking of the community. This incident also acted as a catalyst, along with the racist Komagata Maru incident of 1914 in Canada, for the members of the community to engage in radical politics through establishing the nationalist Gadar Party. It dawned on many in the community that their “dual” oppression - at home due to British colonial rule and abroad due to racist hostility in British Columbia and California - could only be resolved by liberating India from the British rule. Unfortunately, this utopian dream of liberation was not to last long and the Gadar Party leadership began to lose its way, making the Party fractured and then withered. The onset of the World War II, eventual independence of India in 1947, and relaxation of racist laws in both the USA and Canada ushered in new opportunities and dawned a fresh era for Sikh migration. From the mid 1960s onwards, we notice a rapid increase of Sikh communities on both the Pacific coast of the USA and Canada as well as on the  east coast of America. Continuing political turmoil in Punjab in the 1980s gave further impetus to migration and led to the enlargement of the Sikh community with the opening of many more Sikh temples. Thus, by the turn of this century and by all accounts, 300,000 or so Sikhs were living the American dream and had fully bought into the white American characterisation of them as a fine example of a “model minority”. But the 9/11 terrorist attacks (11 September, 2001) and subsequent events were to bring a rude awakening again. Almost 48 hours after the 9/11 attacks, the murder of Balbir Sodhi in 2001 in Mesa, Arizona – ironically by an immigrant – compelled many Sikhs to realise how their identity could be easily mistaken for Al Qaida terrorists. They felt vulnerable and defenceless as the number of cases of harassment, physical abuse, temple desecrations and violent crimes rose against them. Due to this serious state of anxiety, the community rallied around and went on a massive public relations offensive, to tell American that they had no links to Islamic terrorists. Rather, they were a peace-loving community despite the apparent similarities in their headgear and that they were very patriotic and proud to be Americans having a long history of presence in America.


In the subsequent weeks and months, a number of new Sikh organisations - Sikh Mediawatch and Resource Task Force (now SALDEF, Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund), Sikh Coalition, Sikh Education Council and Sikh Council on Religion and Education (SCORE) among them - emerged to convey these messages in a more organised and professional way to counter the effects of racial profiling strengthened through the Patriot Act of 2001. Media monitoring on misrepresentation of Sikhs, compilation of list of all hate crimes - estimated at well-over 700 since 2011 - and offer of legal defence to victims of such crimes took priority.However, over time, services provided by such groups and others that emerged later on expanded their objective to include immigration issues, human rights, humanitarian relief and advocacy on promoting Sikh civil rights across the globe. With the passage of time, the latter types of activities appear to have become more important than the actual contexts which gave birth to these organisations. There was perhaps a loss of direction, focus and emphasis on inward orientation. The Wisconsin Sikh killings will therefore undoubtedly lead to a period of deep introspection by community leaders again and pertinent questions will be asked about the nature and quality of community outreach strategies pursued over the past decade. No doubt, the other issues the community leaders have to confront are: were the lessons of 9/11 fully learnt, have the priorities shifted from educating their American neighbours about the Sikh tradition and Sikh values towards aggressive advocacy which at times has verged on becoming just an anti-India lobby.

All the religious communities in America, India and elsewhere have rightly condemned the Wisconsin killings and have been grieving with the Sikhs. President Obama has condemned the killings and Michelle Obama and other political leaders found time to visit the Oak Creek Temple and offer their condolences to the families of victims and the community. There has been a tremendous show of sympathy and goodwill towards the community from across North America and the globe; but the community now needs to utilize this tragic and sad occasion and take advantage of the renewed media interest in Sikhs in order to present the case of this caring, sharing, progressive and hard-working global Sikh community. We should also not forget that the USA is the only country outside India where the Sikh community has been endowing Sikh Professorships since 1994 to promote the study of Sikhs and the Sikh tradition, and there are at least six of them in America now. Surely, the visionaries behind these community endowed academic positions must have had expectations of them to engage in wider community education and outreach One could argue that these academics are in a unique position to play pivotal roles in effective community education, communication and inter-faith dialogue. We must remember that whilst raising awareness about the community is an important goal, ultimately, the reduction in hate crimes is, however, related to resolving wider issues around structural inequalities, exclusion and the US gun laws. Only an eternal optimist would argue that hate crimes can be eradicated altogether and the Sikh community has to fight with progressive elements in American society to counter hate and bigotry.

The Sikh history is replete with examples of adversity and setbacks and in the recent past only the Sikhs have had more than their share of challenges to their religious identity, whether in India or in diaspora. Sikhs are still coming to terms with Operation Bluestar of June 1984 and the mass killings of innocent Sikhs in Delhi in November of that year. But taking a broader historical perspective, I remain very confident that the Sikh community will learn quickly from this evil act of persecution in Oak Creek and come out even stronger, more resilient and more vibrant. This tragic event will not be forgotten but it may mark the beginning of a new chapter in the history of Sikhs in America.





Dr. Shinder Singh Thandi is based at Coventry University, UK and was a Visiting Professor in Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara during academic year 2011-12.




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