Fighting The Good Fight

Ever since its inception, I’ve been a quiet admirer of the Sikh Coalition’s work. Early on, as each press release and victory announcement came through my inbox, I was amazed at how quickly the Coalition managed to influence and change policy. Years ago, I also had the opportunity to volunteer on their behalf while making Sikh awareness presentations at high schools in the Midwest. But in all my interaction with the Coalition, I never expected to find myself in need of their services.

In late 2007 on my way home from a business trip, I was stopped by TSA agents at the Kansas City airport who asked me to remove my dastaar. I explained to the agents that I knew my rights and opted for the turban “pat down” in an enclosed area (before the self-pat-down was an option). Although the policy was technically followed that night, I felt uneasy my whole flight home. Maybe it was how I was purposely singled out because of my dastaar, or the embarrassment of being escorted through the airport surrounded by TSA agents, or the degrading pat-down itself…whatever it was, I felt I had to do something. I immediately crafted an email to the Sikh Coalition about my experience.

To my surprise, I received a response from a staff attorney within 24 hours asking for further details. Over the next few weeks, the Sikh Coalition filed a formal complaint with the TSA on my behalf and followed it through to the end, which included an interview to be reviewed by the DHS’s Office for Civil Rights & Civil Liberties. Somewhere in all the correspondence that went back and forth between the Coalition and the TSA, it dawned on me…I’ve been experiencing discrimination, profiling, and hate incidents for most of my life – never did I have anyone “representing me”, never did I feel I had anyone in my corner looking after my rights, never did I feel that anyone “had my back.” I felt empowered.

And I’m not alone in this feeling…a staff member recently shared with me how a Sikh student did not feel his principal was doing enough to stop his bully. He said to the principal, “I can have the Sikh Coalition here tomorrow!” And although it took some re-arranging of schedules, the Sikh Coalition was there…and the school responded.

As my relationship grew with the Coalition, I had the honor of joining their Board of Directors last year. I was hesitant at first. I consider myself a freelancer and like to help any project with any organization doing positive work, but after attending a fundraiser shortly before the launch of the ‘Right To Serve’ campaign, I knew there was something different about this organization. The Coalition was about to take on the United States Army, an organization deeply rooted in tradition and history, with a monumental task of making a religious accommodation to the Army’s uniform policy. But even under such daunting circumstances, the atmosphere that night was different…there were inspiring speeches, people smiling and laughing – there was an air of optimism and confidence in the room that you don’t typically find in these events. That’s when I knew the Coalition was trying to build something. They were not going to limit themselves to “putting out fires”, they were here to establish the Sikh image and identity in the fabric of America…permanently.

My experience on the board has made me view the Sikh Coalition and its work through a different lens. As I’ve witnessed behind the scenes – on the road to securing civil rights, it can get a little bumpy. The Sikh community, although relatively small, is a dynamic one with varying perspectives. Even a simple press release or advertisement for an event can receive praise from one segment of the community, yet harsh criticism from another.

I’m often questioned by critics, “Why did the Sikh Coalition invest so many resources on the ‘Right To Serve’ campaign? All this for two or three people? Do we really expect that many Sikhs to join the military?” I would wonder similar things in the past, but what I’ve since discovered is the precedent such cases set. The Coalition invests so much time on individual workplace discrimination cases due to the Sikh uniform. If a well-respected organization like the Army with its strict guidelines on uniforms accommodates Sikhs, how could any local police department or security company not? The debate itself could end. I’m also asked why the Coalition rejects certain cases, “aren’t we here to serve the community”? Well just as easily as precedent can help us, it can hurt us too. If we take on a case without the right circumstances, a loss can set a devastating precedent that could affect our work for years – a balance must be struck.

A large part of my job is listening to our community – supporters and critics alike, as there is very valid and constructive criticism to our work. The Coalition is often pegged as being “out of touch” with the community it serves because of its lack of an institutional presence at gurdwaras. Although I don’t believe our civil rights organizations need to fit within a Gurdwara’s management structure, I do feel there’s room for improvement in communicating programs and opportunities to the communities we serve and also communicating back the sangat’s needs more regularly to the staff and board, especially the needs of our sangats in under-served communities. These are all things I hope to focus on during my tenure.

But the most difficult conversations are around budgeting and fundraising. As lucky as we are to have majority of our donations come from individual donors, as a whole – we still fall short. As a recent Pew Forum on Religious Advocacy Groups (where 3 Sikh organizations were studied) showed, Sikhs are sorely under-investing in advocacy efforts– we’re not even competitive with other communities- even though our needs are significant. Interestingly, many of the leading philanthropic foundations in the world i.e. NY Foundation, Atlantic, Soros and others have thoroughly evaluated the work of the Coalition, recognized its leadership amongst all non-profits, and as a result repeatedly rewarded the organization funds for more programming. And when we don’t meet our fundraising goals, tough questions arise…where do we cut back? Education? Legal? Community Organizing? We have long ways to go to establish the Sikh identity in this country and in my opinion – we cannot afford to compromise on anything.

In all the challenges and criticism, there have been some inspiring moments too, like how the Coalition recently took the lead in demanding an independent audit of the TSA and potential racial profiling, a letter that received signatures from 37 other Civil Rights organizations. Or when New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (surrounded by Sikhs) signed into law a bill -initiated by the Sikh Coalition- that will significantly enhance religion-based protections for employees working in New York City. A law that will not only benefit Sikhs, but also Jews, Muslims, and any others who wear articles of faith. Seeing Sikhs take the lead is proof that we will no longer remain quiet as victims, no longer will we have our backs against the wall. Now Sikhs will have a seat at the table, influencing policy for the benefit of our community and other communities who share our struggle.

Beyond the accomplishments, I especially cherish the stories I’ve heard from staff and other board members…like after the dinner celebrating Simranpreet Lamba’s (first enlisted Sikh in US Army) graduation from basic training, he stood to salute his superior, Captain Kalsi before parting ways…none of this would have happened a few years ago. And most recently, the story about a recent large donation from a Non-Sikh we received shortly after launching the Unheard Voices of 9/11 website. When inquiring how she learned about our work, she stated “I’ve been reading on facebook and the thing is the Sikh Coalition is doing great work…we need to stick together and make this country a better place.” She didn’t mention any Sikh friends, acquaintances or anyone actively soliciting the donation. But she believes supporting the Sikh Coalition will make this country better…how beautiful. This leadership role in the civil rights arena and ideal of service to all of humanity brings out the fragrance of Guru Nanak, and reminds me of why this work is so important.

I am very grateful to be part of this work, grateful to be part of this movement, and grateful to finally be able to stand before my Sikh brothers and sisters – whether at a children’s camp or my local Gurdwara – and tell them that no Sikh should be discriminated or denied anything for embracing the Guru’s bana – and if you are ever told otherwise, call us…we got your back.

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About RP Singh

Writer. Reader. Runner. Thinker. Seeker View all posts by RP Singh

11 responses to “Fighting The Good Fight

  • Izhaarbir

    I think its fantastic that you are playing an important role in the Sikh Coalition, which has done some great work for the community. I am sure this will result in great things for the organization. I also appreciate the work SC has done so far in terms of airport security issues, kirpan case, school bullying, etc.As a former staunch supporter of the organization, I do have a couple of critical points which have caused me to question my unconditional allegiance (for the sake of space, I will only mention one). The under lying current of my thought is that SC is no longer thinking in terms of long term consequences of their actions, and instead its most recent works seem to suggest a move toward flashy short term gains which prove its worth to the community.Regarding Sikhs right to serve in US Army:I understand the SC's argument of "equal rights for all", but I strongly oppose the move to fight for Sikh rights to fight in the US Army. It may seem like a great fight, since both Sikhi and American constitutional formational principles strongly advocate equality, but I think in the excitement some grave overlooking has been done. What the SC fails to consider is that there are also a substantial number of Sikhs who DO NOT want to fight in the US Army and maybe not for any nation's army as they maybe moral dissidents of that nation's foreign policy. SC only takes seriously the case of the marginal population that wants to fight in US Army, and does not consider the repercussions on all Sikhs in the community if all Sikhs are given the right to serve in US Army.Have we forgotten that such a thing as "the DRAFT" exists? The draft has been invoked earlier in US history, it was almost invoked now, and will definitely at some future time be used to draft citizens into the Army. Sikh Coalition's fight for Sikh's right to serve will place many Sikhs into a moral jeopardy that they were not ever going to have to face otherwise. SC might feel that all Sikhs should integrate strongly into their respective nations and fight for those nations, as those nations are providing the space for unhindered growth of Sikhi. But, this is not a perspective shared by all, and is not a perspective representative of the entire community. SC's decision in this sense is moving away from Guru Panth model, which engages the entire community in discussion before making such a vital decision as this, and is moving into acting in a patriarchal role for the Sikhs. As a SIKH organization, it is a serious matter to place anyone in moral jeopardy; your fight for one Sikhs rights can be a serious violation of the rights and ethical life of another. This is a serious concern to self-reflect on, and I hope that as a Board Member of Sikh Coalition that you take seriously.

  • RP Singh

    Guru Fateh, Singh! Thanks for taking the time to comment. As always, you provide food for thought. I have and will continue to reflect on the issues you raised, but in the interim, let me share some personal perspectives to the specific issues you’ve raised…Regarding the ‘Right to Serve’ campaign, I realize it is your view that this is simply a “flashy short-term gain” and that it was designed to “serve the marginal population that wants to fight in US Army”, but I would suggest you re-read my 7th paragraph about precedent that states just the opposite of this. Along the same lines, those who face discrimination or arrests due to their Kirpans are also a marginal population, as are those Sikhs who face workplace discrimination. Does that mean we simply ignore it because it only affects a few? I would prefer we address the issue and change policy so it doesn’t have to affect the larger population of Sikhs.I also would not simplify the Coalition’s stance as “equal rights for all”, SC believes that no Sikh should be denied their rights. If we are to be citizens of this country, we should get the full rights of citizenship – period. Sure, with rights come responsibilities. I can’t answer too much about the draft, as there are too many unknowns around it – it hasn’t been instituted since the Vietnam era, but personally, I believe if the government would go so far to implement a highly unpopular draft, they also may choose to lift the ban on articles of faith at that time too with or without SC’s involvement – how do we know? Truthfully, I’m not familiar with any civil rights platforms that says “we want the same rights as all citizens…except for X, Y, and Z.” Although I’ve received criticism about SC’s way of handling certain things, I’ve yet to hear arguments on why we shouldn’t be given the same rights as all citizens. Perhaps you can give me more examples to bring clarity. Also, you speak of the Army purely in terms of the draft. Your and my tax dollars are also spent putting soldiers through school, including dentistry and medical school – like two of the Sikh soldiers in the military now. Are you okay with Sikhs being denied that opportunity too?Lastly, you state the SC is “moving away from Guru Panth model, which engages the entire community in discussion before making such a vital decision as this.” This is always something that comes to my mind, how can we bring principles of Sarbat Khalsa in to our work…and to be honest, I’ve struggled with this even at a small level – not just with SC, but any organization I’ve been a part of so I can’t give you an answer of how we address this at a national level. One thing I appreciate about the SC’s legal team is how they leverage the Rehat Maryada during legal proceedings, especially in Kirpan cases. This to me is in line with the ‘Guru Panth Model’ and not simply “making up” what the Kirpan is and isn’t just to win a case.I would love to hear your suggestion on how the ‘Guru Panth’ model would work in how the SC operates. How do we tap in to a national body of Sikhs that represent “the Sikh opinion?” Who makes up that body? When do we reach out out ot the Panth? When do we not? Do we need to get 100% consensus in order to move forward with a campaign? How do we facilitate such decisions with the demands and time constraints of the legal system? There are other groups that represents Sikh interests or publicize Sikh views to the mainstream media too– many of which I disagree with – shouldn’t they be cleared by the Panth too? Please elaborate on this.Again, I appreciate you criticism brother – I always learn something. Please do share more, but I would challenge you to offer some more suggestions too. I can’t claim that I or the Coalition “knows it all”, We will take all the guidance we can.Guru Ang Sang!

  • Izhaarbir

    Gurfateh Veerji,Thank you for the kind, illuminating and prompt reply. As I am in the midst of finishing my semester papers and traveling back home, I am not able to respond fully to your response for the next few days. I will provide a full response to everything you have said within a few days.I hope all is chardi-kala on your end.

  • RP Singh

    No problem, brother – take you time.Good luck on the papers and safe travels!Chardi Kalaa!

  • Izhaarbir

    Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa,Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh!Veerji,I definitely ended up taking time to respond back. I wanted to make sure I thought a lot more thoroughly and clearly so I do not make ignorant assumptions and statements.There is a lot to be said about fighting for civil rights, types of platforms, opportunities for and responsibilities of Sikh ___ (nationality, ex: Sikh Americans); much of which I had been creating as a response for the past several days to the issues you had raised. I have opted to not put that here on the blog as I think what will be most beneficial is a fruitful discussion on how to incorporate the Panthic model with Sikh organizations. Part of my decision to not put that response here is because after much contemplation I realized my view is not the popular view of majority of Sikhs, so I have opted to remain silent publicly but if you like I can send you that response as a private message. The only thing I will leave as a response to those issues is the following set of questions:Is it necessary for Sikhs to achieve all of the rights privileged to citizens of particular countries in order for them to fully and freely practice the values and way of life prescribed in Sikhi? If yes, what are the specific instances and why? If not, what is the benefit of doing so, and do those benefits outweigh the potential negatives and contradictions to Sikh way of life/Gurmat as a result of achieving all the rights of those countries? Finally, and possibly the toughest set: Are Sikhs a nation? If so, how do we resolve the issue of “dual citizenship” in the sense of where do priorities lie for the Sikh individuals and the Sikh organizations?In response to incorporation of the Panthic model with Sikh Coalition:I will say upfront that I am ignorant of the exact operational structure of SC, but in terms of incorporating a type of Panthic model I provide my suggestions below. Please feel free to educate me where I am lacking in terms of what you are already doing.SC does not need to consult Guru Panth, or the subset of population whose lives its decisions will effect, on every civil/criminal case it takes on. Doing so will be absurd as it will slow down the process of achieving justice. It is operationally understood that SC acts in good faith of serving the greater Sikh community. This understanding is enhanced by the fact that SC utilizes SRM in court cases and through its actions so far in terms of airport security, school bullying, kirpan cases, etc. The only cases where I suggest approaching Guru Panth is when SC takes on a large scale issue where it is not immediately defending an individual but fighting for the collective life/rights of the community. It can be argued that every individual case is such a case, but I am talking of things like Sikhs right to serve in the Army or Sikhs in history textbooks or determining the legal definition of a kirpan that is allowed nationwide, etc.

  • Izhaarbir

    The following are the measures I suggest:0.) Selection Process (the terms introduced here are elaborated on the points below): a.) SC sends out information to national Sangat about Sevadars needed for both the national sikh committee and internal committee of amritdharis. Whichever Sikh wishes to serve in national sikh committee informs SC of their desire, and the same goes for whichever amritdhari Sikh wants to serve in the internal SC committee of 5 amritdharis. b.) Selection of National Sikh Committee: The names of individuals from each region are collected and placed as closed slips into regional bowls. The bowls are placed in front of SGGS. Ardas is done, Hukamnama is taken and 1 (or w/e number of representatives deemed necessary) slip(s) is taken from each bowl. Names on these slips become the committee members. c.) Selection of internal committee of 5 Amritdharis: Same as for NSC, but region specificity is not important, just that all the slips are in one bowl and 5 slips are taken out.1.) SC creates a National Sikh Committee comprising of representatives from each section of the nation, whichever way SC wants to create the sections. The sole responsibility of these committee members will be to act as Sangat representatives, selected by the Sangat of the region and not by SC. As Sangat representatives they will be a convenient medium of communication between SC and the Gurdwaras/Sangat of the region. The main role of the members of this committee will be to take the large scale issues that SC wants to discuss to the Sangat of the various Gurdwaras of the region, and collect the opinions/concerns/collective voice of that Sangat. The committee then takes all of these findings and reports them to the internal committee of 5 Amritdharis in SC, the function of which is described next. Every 6 years this committee is selected again.2.) SC creates an internal committee of 5 Amritdharis, selected from a pool of national Sangat interested in serving. The sole responsibility of this committee will be to take the opinions/concerns from all the Sangat of all the regions of the country and assess them in light of Gurmat. The committee gives its full report to the final decision making body of SC. This committee changes every 3 years.3.) Final decision making body (I am not sure what this is right now, I am assuming it is the Board of Directors): a.) Makes the final decision in light of the report from internal committee of 5 Amritdharis, and in light of legal issues, doing its best to address all of the concerns.

  • Izhaarbir

    bhul chuk maaf karni ji.I hope all is chardi kala on your end.Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa,Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh

  • RP Singh

    Waheguru Ji Ka KhalsaWaheguru Ji Ki Fateh!!Thanks again Izhaarbir Singh for your response and offering suggestions to your concerns. I like how your suggestions utilize elements of the Sarbat Khalsa model which has helped move the Khalsa forward throughout history. Some thoughts in response:You are right in assuming that SikhCo would only take cases that fight for the collective life/rights of the community. SikhCo does not have the resources to take each and every individual case that comes it’s way, so why shouldn’t it only take those cases that can cause significant policy change. This then would arguably require a review with the ‘Panth’ for each case – which simply could not work from a resource/timing perspective.Contrary to what many might think, SikhCo does not work in a vacuum. There is currently an advisory board of Sikhs from various professions and involvement with the community that guides SikhCo on strategic issues. This group regularly meets with SikhCo executives and board. There are also advocates throughout the country who have been trained in working with their local communities, media, and government representatives to organize for policy and advocacy initiatives and provide feedback to SikhCo. There are amritdharis in both these groups, but neither are completely amritdhari. This would diverge from the panthic model you have defined. Although I don’t disagree with your sentiment, but this assumes we have a vast pool of amrtidhari resources who are qualified in this arena of civil rights and advocacy. And also assumes there are a pool of amritdhari resources who are interested in volunteering for this type of work?Also, a model such as this would not create and manage itself. Having some insight to funding and resources for the SikhCo, it would take almost a whole new organization to implement and manage this. Which leads to my question from my previous response, why should this really be limited to SikhCo’s work? Why should this not apply to any organization – nationally and internationally that impacts Sikh lives? Wait…an organization to facilitate the Sarbat Khalsa…isn’t that what the Akal Takhat is supposed to do? In the end, I think you make valid arguments…but it’s a broader discussion.Let’s continue the dialogue, brother…Gur Fateh!Singh

  • Minister Balmeet

    Vaahiguroo jee ka khalsaaVaahiguroo jee kee fatehThis blog and Izhaarbir Singh's responses are always fun reads.RP Singh, the message I am understanding from your posts is:1) the Sikh Coalition does the best it can given the resources it has2) why should Sikh Coalition have to invest resources into adopting a Panthic model when other organizations do notGiven the accomplishments so far, I would say the Sikh Coalition is the most effective Sikh organization in North America right now. That is why the Sikh Coalition should be the first to adopt a Panthic model. As to how to do this, one idea was just proposed. Maybe a "Panthic Model contest/campaign" will generate more.Yes, the achiever is rewarded with even higher expectations. But, if the history of interplay between the Sikh organizations is any indication, other organizations will adopt within days… if only to be able to send out that press release.

  • RP Singh

    Waheguru Ji Ka KhalsaWaheguru Ji Ki Fateh!Thank you Balmeet Singh for your thoughtful response. I too enjoy Izhaarbir Singh’s comments. His love for the panth is evident, so I appreciate him “keeping me honest.”I was going to apologize for my delayed response, but truthfully, I’m glad I took the time to reflect on your comments.Our debate has become more about how to fit the principles of Sarbat Khalsa in to the Sikh Coalition’s operational model (or vice-versa)…but I’m still confused as to how we got in to this debate. The premise of Izhaarbir’s original argument was that the Sikh Coalition’s stance on civil rights is controversial, and that some Sikhs don’t necessarily want all of the same rights as other Americans do. He admittedly referred to this as a minority view. Similarly, there are minority views that believe we should not publish material on human rights on our website or refer to the state atrocities of 1984. There are minority views who feel we spend way too much time defending amrithdharis in court, and not the larger population of Sikhs. If we were to implement the process outlined above for every case like this, we’d be doing nothing else. It would be a waste of panthic resources. As I mentioned, we receive plenty of criticism on how we present or articulate things, but rarely are we criticized on our stance with civil rights. Keep in mind, the Coalition is funded mostly by individual Sikhs from all demographics. If the vast majority of Sikhs felt we had the wrong stance, we’d cease to exist. So if our stance is widely accepted by the community, where is the dire need for consensus building and conflict resolution across all Sikhs in the country for the Sikh Coalition’s work?As I mentioned earlier, I’m all for re-visiting the Sarbat Khalsa model to see how it can help our institutions define our stances…institutions like the WSC, AGPC, SGPC, and the Akaal Takht who do speak on behalf of the entire panth and state our positions on social and panthic issues. But this system has been broken for many years, and it will take a concerted effort to re-examine and re-implement. Perhaps it should be a focus for an upcoming conference or retreat…and you both would be perfect facilitators 🙂

  • Anonymous

    Nice to see you are all so embroiled & engrossed in affairs which can never get you near God or the True Guru. Why waste time with worldly affairs? From the moment one is born, as each day, month, yr passes, Mr. Death's messenger gets nearer and nearer to bringing death to you. He never stops walking towards you, I or anyone else. Everything and Anything we do, except The Name remains here to Dust. All material things perish in Time, empires, kingdoms, authorities and seats of power, all perish to Dust.

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