Rajinder Singh Khalsa never thought men less than half his age, who could be his son’s friends and call him uncle, would beat him up bloody and swear dirty!
They were drunk. They shot out of a pub and yelled (something like it), “Sikh…Sheik…Sick…whatever. You SOB Osama Bin Laden…Get’em!” They pulled off his turban, threw it on the street, and kicked on it.
Then, they started punching in his eyes.
Singh never thought they’d call his religion terrorist. He never thought anybody could desecrate his faith here in America.
Of course, he didn’t know that even most New Yorkers probably didn’t know that maybe even Osama didn’t know what Sikh’ism was. (They still don’t know.) Anyway, that’s another story government officials, elite diversity advocates and social science teachers would deal with.
The first time when I went to see Mr. Singh at his Queens Richmond Hill home, he was badly injured, shook up, and weak. He couldn’t speak well. He was scared and could not drive his taxi because of his physical pain and mental anguish. His left eye was still badly swollen like a plump plum with blood oozed around broken bones and veins. He thought he was going to lose sight on that eye forever.
But he and his family took time to talk to me and a few of my 24/7 hate-crime vigil colleagues from NICE. He told us how he was even more depressed because of the outrageous, uncalled-for insult to him and his sacred religion. He told us how nightmarish the whole experience had been.
Rajinder Singh Khalsa was one of the dozens of Sikhs who fell victims of a hateful post-9/11 New York and New Jersey. In fact, we had large community vigils, press conferences and rallies to protest these crimes. I promise to find some of those precious reports and photos to post later.
By the way, even though I am writing this blog about crimes against Sikhs, Muslims, Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Arabs and all the others who according to the criminals, deserved the assault because they “looked liked terrorists, acted like terrorists, or talked like terrorists,” never would I claim sole credit for the grassroots anti-bias mobilization work during those turbulent, difficult days (in fact, I find this statement itself to be superfluous). Hundreds of small and big groups and individuals came together to save and protect lives and honor of the innocent. I want to take a special moment to acknowledge them all.
First, I acknowledge NICE’s founder-director Bryan Pu-Folkes; for years, we worked together, and became good friends.
Then, to work with a number of Sikhs like Rajinder Singh who were unfortunate targets of bias attacks, frontline organizations were Sikh Coalition, United Sikhs, Sri Guru Ravidas Sabha of Woodside, Singh Sabha and Sikh Center of New York, and Sikh Cultural Society. In fact, although the circumstances were sad and depressing, it was a great opportunity to visit a whole bunch of gurdwaras on Sunday morning and get to know big, strong, powerful, kind and innocent Sikh men and women from various neighborhoods of New York. Amardeep Singh, the Sikh Coalition lawyer who needs no introduction, became a good friend (watch him testify before U.S. Congress). I came to know Santokh Singh at Ravidas and other individuals who came forward to rescue the honor and dignity of their insulted faith.
Brother Santokh was forced to cut off his hair and beard to look like an “American.” at the insistence of his then “American” employer. But that’s another story.
Rabbi Robert Kaplan and his organization Jewish Community Relations Council, as well as Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz and Queens borough president Helen Marshall also took significant steps to curb hate in the city. John Liu, then city council member and now comptroller, participated in our rallies, along with a few other elected leaders. In fact, I remember, David Weprin, New York City council member who’s now running for Anthony Weiner’s congressional seat, was with us too. I remember meeting Msgr. Marino at the Archdiocese of Brooklyn Catholic Church at a number of occasions around these issues.
I also want to thank big and small media organizations whose help was enormous. The New Yorker magazine, with special effort of its editor Pam McCarthy, put out an extensive photo essay portraying the faces of 9/11 victims: they featured Rajinder Singh. New York branches of CBS and NY-1 TV, radio shows such as DemocracyNow!, and Community newspapers such as Queens Tribune and Queens Chronicle printed cover-page stories on the grassroots resistance we were able to build against violence on innocent men and women. Ethnic papers such as India Abroad, News India-Times or Indian Express (New York) as well as Punjabi-language papers from New York and New Jersey all publicized our work; it created enormous impact among the average New Yorkers and most importantly, government officials, who then came forward and through jointly-held news conferences, denounced such crimes of hate.
For years, I wrote columns and news stories on our human rights work and justice for immigrants in Bengali newspapers such as Ekhon Samoy, Thikana, Sangbad, Bangali, etc. I believe these papers deserve a special note of thanks for their courage to print courageous stories and analyses.
New York Police Department also held a number of special task force meetings with us, and we worked together to publish anti-bias-crime materials for various communities.
I kept in touch with Rajinder Singh Khalsa for a few years even after I moved on to work as the executive director of New Jersey Immigration Policy Network. Then, I lost touch. I hear though that he’s doing better now.
I also hear that a number of these hate criminals, after the initial media hype was over, slipped out of the criminal dossier, and they’re now doing even better than Mr. Singh.
Now, that’s mighty American 9/11 justice!
Brooklyn, New York