Thursday, August 9, 2012

A Tragedy In Wisconsin And Some Debates

On Aug 5th Wade Michael Page, a member of a White supremacist group, went to a Gurdwara in Oak Creek, WI and killed, in cold blood fueled by racism, 6 people. He would have killed more but for a timely alert by kids aged 4 who saw him first. Page terrorized a group of peaceful worshippers until SWAT teams took him down. The Sikh community and Indian-Americans at large are still reeling from  the emotional aftermath. President Obama ordered a national day of mourning and assured India's Sikh Prime Minister that all will be done to protect Sikhs in America. Wisconsinites and Americans at large poured forth their sympathies. Rev Paul Armstrong of United Methodist Church in Oak Creek told Time "we are in this together..the community is saying we hold the Sikhs in high regard". A year ago Rev Armstrong had taken members of his church to the Gurdwara and was "totally impressed by their hospitality and their tales faith". (Below picture is of the community in Oak Creek mourning, courtesy Time magazine, more pictures at the bottom of the blog, also from Time )

The tragedy in Wisconsin took place within a month of another mad guy (now, medically mad) taking an assault rifle to a Batman movie and mowing down tens of moviegoers. That triggered a debate about America's vexing issue of gun control. Fareed Zakaria argued, correctly, in Time that America has a gun problem and really needs to look at the issue disappasionately. Zakaria went so far as to say that Americans who do not support gun controls are doing a disservice to the famous 'second amendment' which is cited for the 'right to bear arms'. The Wisconsin shooting took on another layer of controversy viz. 'racism'. Sikhs have been targeted, 700 times according to Sikh associations, since 9/11, being mistaken for Muslims. Some of those incidents were fatal.

Wade Page was a racist, pure and simple. He was a member of white supremacist gang and had an application for KKK, the most notorious racist organization in USA. Page, reports now reveal, was an avid listener to a certain genre of pop music that, NYT called, 'fueled hate'. Even music can be used to fuel hatred. Two op-eds appearing in Washington Post and NYT, by Sikhs, amongst others, have taken this racism angle head on.

Arjun Sethi, writing in Wash.Post, recounts painful incidents like being bullied in high school (pushed into girls toilet), profiled at courts, where he appeared professionally. Sethi points out how FBI for reporting hate crimes does not have an option for Sikhs to record. MLK Jr scolded America that its promissory note returned "insufficient funds". Sethi called for America to live up to its promise of equality for its diverse population since that is 'what drives immigrants here and what makes USA the envy of the world'.

Bhira Backhaus, writing in NYT, celebrated the century old Gurdwara in Stockton. Backhaus, like Gogol in Jhumpa Lahiri's 'Namesake', recalls growing up amidst a culture clash. He had married 'outside the Sikh community' causing a 'painful breach' with his parents until their last days. Backhaus is comforted that when his parents reached out to him at last he understood that he still "belonged to the community". Then he raised the question if the devotees would have been spared had they 'dressed' like the rest of Americans (almost all women folk in that Gurdwara were in Salwar) or talked like Americans.

That the victims were brown skinned was the only reason they were killed. No matter what dress they wore or what accent they spoke Wade Page would not have spared a single one of them. Backhaus concludes by saying "to wipe away what has come before, who we have been over the centuries, also means to forget who our own mothers and fathers were". This is where I differ. This is moment of great tragedy and the cause is clear, racism, hence I tread carefully on this 'assimilation' debate.

Active discussions are taking place on the fact that Sikhs, unlike other Indians, wear a visible sign of their religion. The turban and a beard for the menfolk. It is their religious precept and they should be free to do it without prejudice like a pastor wearing his cassock or a Jew wearing his yarmulke. Assimilating does not mean forsaking all that.

Backhaus would love for Americans, of all races, to respect his faith, his values and whatever goes within the amorphous term 'culture'. But he has no word to say about the fact that his parents, RIP, thought it was sacrilegious to marry outside his community. His parents had lived in US for decades and I am sure expected to be treated as equal human beings. Should not Indians show the same acceptance towards American culture? Why do Indians look at American girls as something less? Why do Indians advertise for their girls "need groom for Indian born American girl, BUT brought up with Indian values". What does THAT mean?

When I saw 'Bend it like Beckham' I was indeed thinking 'are Sikhs in UK that insular from their fellow British'. Acceptance is a two way street. I understand that the community is anguished and very angry but how come nobody thought it proper to even mildly acknowledge the fact that the country has rallied around them unlike their mother land whose leader, in response to 3000 sikhs being killed, said "when a huge tree falls the earth is bound to shake".

I've been shocked to hear Indians carelessly use derogatory words referring to Afro-Americans. The term 'racism' is loosely used and often refers to whites as the perpetrators. Afro-American council members in DC spoke in blatant racist terms about 'Asian groceries'. Criticizing media adulation for South Asian basketball sensation Jeremy Lin an Afro-American athlete spoke in racist terms.

I am a strong supporter of being assimilated into the local culture. America's prosperity, its secular fabric, its openness etc are all the result of American 'culture'. Indians should learn to become Americans. A woman of Sikh origin is the governor of a Southern state (South Carolina). Preet Bharara, Manhattan Attorney, featured on the cover of Time and listed by Time as one of the '100 most influential, is the scourge of Wall Street.

Many Indians wonder why not US ban hate speeches. White supremacists are often monitored by FBI but America's vaunted 'first amendment' protects a lot of speeches including some abominable ideas. Hate speech is protected speech too. FBI or Department of Justice usually act with care when they prosecute for hate speech. This political correctness and respect for constitution is hotly debated. Before Indians accuse US of racism in turning a blind eye to white supremacist hate groups let us remember the Fort Hood shooting. Maj. Nidal Hassan killed 13 people in an army base. Nidal Hasan was flagged for provocative ideas but was given a pass.

When a person wags his finger at Americans and asks "why should I forget my language, my culture, my homeland etc" it would be fair to be asked back "so why bother to come here". An H1B guy who sends an email 4 days after landing saying "the common man on the road has no morals in USA" I am appalled. Why do Indians, who desire to be treated as equals and as 'Americans', at the first available instance ready to look at America like they were guests examining the country seeking to pass judgments? Indians need to first look at themselves as Americans and not as 'visitors' with a smug look of ' I love your money as long $1=Rs50 and I hate everything else'. If they think so it is ok except when they eagerly seek green cards or citizenships. There are millions of Indians and other countrymen who would love to become Americans for the love of American culture and they deserve that green card more than the smug Indians. Weeks after 9/11 I was at a party where a Sikh, a millionaire franchisee owner of Pizza Huts, declared solemnly "America is a terrorist country". This, from a person whose motherland is yet to prosecute, let alone convict, 28 years later, a single person for a pogrom that killed 3000 Sikhs. He did not even demur that 3000 of his fellow countrymen were killed just weeks back. As much as we want Americans to accept us it is high time we thought about how accepting we Indians are of Americans.

I disapprove of Indians celebrating India's independence day in USA complete with a flag march and, of course, a Bollywood actress. Those celebrations in NJ/NY are a shame both for India and USA. There is place for only one flag in US, the stars and stripes. That Empire State building lights up in tri color is the magnanimity of Americans. That Diwali is celebrated in the White House is a sign of arrival for Indian-Americans. Schools in NJ and even offices elsewhere celebrate Diwali. the Aug 15th celebrations, points out, is strongly Hindutva in character pushing away other Indians. North Indians do not treat South Indians, especially Hindi illiterate South Indians, as fellow Indians. An advertisement for A.R.Rahman concert in NJ states "there will be as few Tamil songs as possible". When ARR first visited US North Indians booed him when he played Tamil songs. Then Tamils returned the favor for Hindi songs leading to that kind of advertisement. Indian Americans are a fractious lot. Instead of this useless Independence Parade if Indians organize symposiums on India's greatest achievement, its Freedom struggle, it would make Americans proud of India.

America can certainly do better and it is my wish to continue to hold America to its promise but we also need to remember that Americans are human beings too. 19 hijackers belonging to one religion declared a religious war killing 3000 Americans and the story continues till today. The Times Square bomber, a Pakistani, was even made a citizen. Yet he chose to kill fellow Americans on American soil. In this climate very regrettable acts of profiling and hate crimes occur. To be fair they have not proliferated. Bush's Secret Service agent was asked to get off a plane because he was a Muslim. Later Bush appeared on live TV with the agent beside him to condemn that incident. Bush, it should be noted, invited a Muslim cleric to offer prayers in the National Cathedral along side members of other clergy in the wake of 9/11. America has actively prosecuted hate crimes.

Today a Wisconsin teacher says he will learn more about Sikhism and teach his students. We wish a tragedy does not have to be the reason for that learning but this is the only sane redemption a society can strive for.

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