Author Archive

Peshawar Sikhs highlighted in TIME magazine

Sikhs have often been minorities in countries where followers have formed close-knit communities. This has meant they have had to fight battles for their rights. This is reflected in the cases that UNITED SIKHS takes on such as the recent release of Bharpoor Singh from Japanese immigration detention and the granting of Canadian asylum of a Sikh woman and her daughter after her husband was brutally killed two years ago by a group suspected to be the Taliban, near Peshawar.

Please read more about this issue in this recent article in TIME magazine about the “tiny and embattled” Sikh community in Pakistan:,8599,2032514,00.html

Happy Bandi Chorh Diwas

Today is the Sikh celebration of Bandi Chorh Diwas! This is the day on which Guru Hargobind Sahib was released with 52 Kings from Gwalior Prison. The word “Bandi” means “imprisoned”, “Chhor” means “release” and “Divas” means “day” and together “Bandi Chhor Divas” means Prisoner Release Day.

Bandi Chorh Diwas and Diwali are separate festivals although they take place on the same day every year. People often think of both of these events as the same but in fact they represent two quite different events in history.

Bandi Chorh Diwas represents freedom and the triumph of light over dark but it is also a time to remember, to do something for those less fortunate. These are sentiments that ring universal for spiritual people all over the world, no matter what your faith.

UNITED SIKHS wishes everyone a very happy and resplendent Bandi Chorh Diwas and Diwali!

Read President Obama’s Diwali message here.

Sacred space

I was a panelist for UNITED SIKHS yesterday at a symposium exploring the meaning of sacred spaces in a variety of faith traditions. The symposium was held at the Interfaith Center on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

I spoke in detail about the gurdwara, the Sikh place of worship, and also contributed to the general discussion on the meaning of ‘sacred space’.

Everyone needs space in which to grow personally and some people need space to practice their faith. That space could be something as small as an all-faith chapel in a hospital or as large as a whole country. Some faiths even have a homeland. You could say that the Sikhs had one in the Punjab before it was annexed by the British Empire in the 1800s. But this idea of sacred space becomes contentious sometimes – you need only look to the Middle East or Kashmir, for examples of this.

One of the questions asked at the symposium was how Sikhs deal with potential and actual conflict situations. There are no easy answers. An ideal perspective is one in which we prioritize the need to support everybody’s right to a sacred space, whether Muslim, Christian, Hindu or Sikh.

UNITED SIKHS works to promote inter-faith dialogue by participating in many symposia such as this and also works actively with various faith groups on a variety of social justice issues. For more information on our recent inter-faith efforts see here.

Obama calls off Harmandar Sahib visit

So, it’s official. Obama’s trip to Harmandar Sahib (aka The Golden Temple) is off. The White House says it is due to time constraints. “[India is an] extraordinary country and we can never do as many events as we’d like to do,” according to the White House. Needless to say, the Sikh community feels immensely disappointed at being overlooked. But following our press release sent out today, we urge YOU to put pressure on President Obama to visit Sikh Gurdwaras like Nankana Sahib and Panja Sahib in Pakistan during a visit slated for 2011. This would an ideal opportunity to highlight UNITED SIKHS’ Pakistan flood relief efforts and our work with displaced communities.

Sikh community: click HERE to voice your opinion NOW. Or visit White House Facebook and Twitter sites.

Or write a letter to the President at this address:

The White House

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

Sikh films premier at New York festival

I attended the International Sikh Film Festival over the weekend and one of the most affecting films I saw was about the plight of farmers in the Punjab district of Sangrur. The film, Harvest of Grief, produced by Isas Basu, highlighted the miseries of farmer families after their breadwinners committed suicide due to debt problems.

The heart-breaking stories provide faces that humanize the statistics and ties in with the work UNITED SIKHS has been doing with farmers and their families for years in Sangrur, Punjab. The film states that the severe agricultural crisis in the Punjab is a result of economic liberalization, globalization and the myopic business strategies of profit-seeking multinational corporations.

To see a trailer for the film please click here. Please consider donating to UNITED SIKHS to help this cause. Donations can be made through our website:

Other films premiered included Holy Kitchens about the tradition of Langar (free community kitchen) within the Sikh faith by Vikas Khanna and Rebel Queen a historical biographical documentary about Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s most feisty wife, Maharani Jindan Kaur, directed by Michael Singh.

Among the guests was legendary Indian actor, Raj Babbar, who rallied the audience to keep the flame for Sikh causes burning.

Will Obama visit Harmandar Sahib, or won’t he?

The Indian press got into a tizzy this week over President Obama possibly cancelling his trip to Harmandar Sahib, the holiest Sikh shrine in the world when he visits India in November. Team Obama has reportedly visited many sites in anticipation of the trip and the agenda is not yet confirmed.

If the President does visit Amritsar, it is a chance for him to stand as a champion for rights of religious minorities all over the world. Let’s hope he does. Please read UNITED SIKHS’ response addressing these concerns of cancellation.

UNITED SIKHS wants to urge the Sikh community and all others concerned with raising the visibility of religious minorities to express how important it is for President Obama to visit Harmandar Sahib, through the White House’s Twitter and Facebook sites. Please make your voice heard!

(Tip: you must click “like” before you comment on the White House Facebook page.)

Has multiculturism failed?

Every now and then – especially in Europe, it seems, – someone in a prominent position on the public stage announces the death of multiculturism.

In 2004, the former head of England’s now defunct Race Commission, Trevor Phillips, said multiculturalism belonged to another era and the fact that Shakespeare is not taught is bad for immigrants. The Archbishop of York also railed against the concept as being un-English and called for the celebration of St. George’s day as a symbol of the English identity.  This week it was German Prime Minister, Angela Merkel. Merkel who was speaking to a meeting of younger members of her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party at Potsdam near Berlin, said “multikulti” had “utterly failed”. Commentators such as Philip Oltermann in The Guardian said it was likely that Merkel was actually talking to Germany’s “4 million-strong Muslim population” – meaning she was keeping in line with the rising tide of anti-Islamic sentiment over the last decade and the increase of secular fundamentalism in European nations as opposed to the ideals of secularism that sought separation of Church and state. Formal equality in modern nation states seems to most often than not, always protect the majority population to the detriment of minorities.

After 9/11, one of the first reprisal killings was of a turban-wearing Sikh in Arizona, who was mistaken as belonging to the group which perpetrated the 9/11 incident. Sikhs due to their appearance have since been a target of hate and bias crime and discrimination. In the aftermath of terror events like 9/11, there is a tendency – rational or not – to make immigrants or those who appear different to become more like the host society so their differences do not threaten the masses. But often the distinction between assimilation and integration becomes blurred at too high a cost. At UNITED SIKHS we have fought against unfair rulings that threatened the Sikh identity – such as our globe-spanning Right to Turban and Right to Kaakars campaigns. In our work, some Sikhs have been turned away from everyday places like Social Security offices, been humiliated or discriminated during airport security screenings because of their appearance and for wearing articles of faith, like kirpans. This is why respecting others’ religious identities is important and should not be waved away in a single motion by the statement that multiculturism has utterly failed.

Multiculturism is too complex to die completely, anyway. It remains in the form of tolerance of other cultures. As Amnon Rubenstein, said in an article in the New York Sun in 2006, it is a part and parcel of a democratic norm, in which the “other” is accepted. But as a concept that entitles different cultures and religions to equal treatment, it may well be dead and buried.