Protecting and Practicing the First Amendment in the Desi Community: A Reflection

by Rima Chakraborty

The First Amendment was created in the USA by our Founding Fathers to grant to the people separation of church and state, that our individual religious pursuits would not be dictated by the government. It keeps reigns on religious imposition, but it does not reign in personal persecution, which can go unfettered.

I come from a multi-religious household. My sister and I were raised to be humanists first, and practitioners of a religion of our choice second. We do not expect others to pray when they come to our home, but we do not expect anyone to flagrantly disrespect our beliefs either.

Thus, to be chastised for not praying in a nonreligious setting was a new concept for me.

[Read More: Why Mosque Culture Needs to Change: An Open Letter to Masjid Aunties]

It was a cold, blustery day in October. My family was dropping off a middle-aged woman to her home. We went inside, as she offered us tea for dropping her off. We walked to the door as it neared time to leave the house and the woman asked everyone,

“Please come and give pranaam (obeisance) to thakur (god) before you leave.”

Initially, her children did not want to but then acquiesced after some cajoling from their mother. My mother, sister and I politely declined. The woman then proclaimed condescendingly to us as her children went to pray,

“One of the wives in our family is Christian; however, she is very respectful and always goes and gives pranaam.”

I pondered this sentence for a long time.

Religious freedom has been part of this country’s identity since its inception. Many of the Founding Fathers and their ancestors had left Europe due to religious persecution. This lady mentioned above opined what her idea of respect is. I would counter that the separation of church (i.e., religious institutions in general) and state started through the First Amendment due to people like her who expected others to follow suit in their religious beliefs.

The demographics of religion are changing in the USA. Recent studies show that the number of people who identify non-Christian and agnostic/atheist is increasing. The practices may be different, but the emotions and expectations are similar. Does one’s individual religious beliefs or in some cases, lack of belief, give them the right to impose that on others? Recently, a public business declined a business request due to personal religious beliefs. Is that constitutional? Would I expect someone who does not drink alcohol due to religious beliefs to work in a liquor store or grocery store and refuse to sell me alcohol?

[Read Related: Confronting White Supremacy in Christianity as a Christian South Asian]

This is further important to those of desi origin, as many of us come from countries where religious rights are not guaranteed. For example, both Bangladesh and India in their respective constitutions dictate freedom of religion. However, as the news shows us, there are countless examples of both these countries failing to protect the right to freedom of religion. Pakistan is much the same, although it has in its mix the Hudood Ordinances which further restrict religious freedom, as well. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom lists tier 1 countries as the countries of most concern of violation of religious freedom and Pakistan is always on that list.

It is imperative that the readers of this magazine and those of us who are desi recognize the merits of religious freedom. Whether we were persecuted for our religious beliefs or lack of beliefs, we should realize this is a freedom not always available, although it is promised. The fact that many of the countries we emigrated from have “religious freedom” as part of their constitutions, but not as a practice, shows how important the practice is as opposed to unexecuted laws written down.

That practice starts at home. I would urge those who practice religion to be cognizant of those who do not or those who practice other religions. By forcing or expecting others to practice your religion, you are not letting those individuals exercise their basic First Amendment freedoms.

The opinions expressed by the guest writer/blogger and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Brown Girl Magazine, Inc., or any employee thereof. Brown Girl Magazine is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the guest writer/bloggers. This work is the opinion of the blogger. It is not the intention of Brown Girl Magazine to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual. If you’d like to submit a guest post, please follow the guidelines we’ve set forth here. 

Rima headshotRima Chakraborty is a world citizen who writes for leisure. Her thoughts are mainly penned from daily observations of her life, including being from a multi-religious family, her ethnic background, her travels and her profession in the medical field as a physician. She is an avid soccer player and watcher, foodie, traveler and gregarious bookworm, is appreciative of local restaurants and can listen to Destiny’s Child at any time of day. Any constructive comments are welcome on any of her written pieces of work.
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Oak Creek: A Story of Hate, Hope and Healing

Every year on August 5th, the Sikh American community remembers one of our community’s most devastating tragedies in recent memory — the Oak Creek massacre. On this day in 2012, a white supremacist gunman entered the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, a gurdwara (Sikh house of worship) in Oak Creek, Wisconsin where he shot and killed six worshippers and severely injured others. This violent attack was the deadliest mass shooting targeting Sikh Americans in U.S. history, and at the time, was one of the worst attacks on a U.S. house of worship in decades. Six worshippers — Paramjit Kaur Saini, Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, Prakash Singh, Suveg Singh Khattra, and Satwant Singh Kaleka — were killed on that horrific day. An additional community member, Baba Punjab Singh, was severely paralyzed and ultimately passed away from complications related to his injuries in 2020. Others, including Bhai Santokh Singh and responding police officer and hero, Lt. Brian Murphy, were seriously wounded during the shooting. 

[Read Related: Oak Creek Gurdwara Massacre’s 4th Anniversary: Young Sikhs Express Optimism for the Continued Struggle Against Hate and Ignorance]

In 2022, the community came together to demonstrate that we are undaunted. My organization, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) joined in supporting the anniversary observance at Oak Creek: a remembrance event centered around the theme of “Heal, Unite, Act.” The Oak Creek Sikh community hosted a series of in-person events, including the 10th Annual Oak Creek Sikh Memorial Anniversary Candlelight Remembrance Vigil on Friday, August 5, 2022. The program included a representative from the White House, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, Oak Creek Mayor Dan Bukiewicz, and representatives of the families who lost loved ones. Being there in Oak Creek 10 years after the tragedy was deeply meaningful — both to see the inspiring resilience of this community and to remember how much remains to be done.

In D.C., SALDEF continues to fight for policies that improve the lives of Sikh Americans. I had the honor of chairing the most recent iteration of the Faith-Based Security Advisory Council at the Department of Homeland Security, providing recommendations at the request of Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas. Consequently, the three subcommittees published a report that emphasized the importance of greater accessibility, greater equity, and greater transparency in counterterrorism efforts that for too long revolved around surveilling populations like the one that was senselessly attacked at the Oak Creek gurdwara in 2012. Leading the FBSAC as a Sikh woman, and representing a community that was highly targeted alongside Muslims by both white supremacists and in post-9/11 counterterrorism profiling, was an opportunity to push the Council to advocate more fiercely for further information-sharing between communities and law enforcement, extending grant opportunities for security for Gurdwaras and other houses of worship, and building trust between the government and Sikh communities. In addition, I advocated for accountability for the damage needlessly caused to Muslim, Arab, South Asian, and Hindu (MASSAH) communities by federal agencies historically pursuing “counterterrorism” objectives which has resulted in eroded trust rather than the development of strong partnerships. 

Although we have made great strides in this country, there is still more to do. Through our work we have partnered with many across the nation to come together and find solutions through tenets central to Sikhism and America — unity, love, and equality. SALDEF continues to strongly endorse the policy framework articulated across the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act (H.R. 350 / S. 963); Justice for Victims of Hate Crimes Act; and the Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP) Improvement Act (H.R. 6825). We believe strongly in mandating federal agencies to create dedicated offices to investigate domestic terrorism; allowing prosecutors to feasibly indict perpetrators of hate crimes; and allowing religious nonprofits to access federal funding to enhance their own security.

[Read Related: Anti-Sikh Hate is on the Rise: Here’s What we can Do]

While 11 years have passed, the effects of the Oak Creek shooting are never far from the minds of Sikh American advocates and the community we serve. SALDEF will not stop taking a stand against senseless violence and hate crimes. We continue to work in unity with our community and movement partners, and fight for better policies that will actively keep all of our communities safe. Through tragedy, we find hope. We know there can be a world where people from all backgrounds and cultures can practice their faith freely and, even though it has eluded the Sikh American community in the past, we still believe this world is possible.

Photo Courtesy of Amrita Kular

The opinions expressed by the writer of this piece, and those providing comments thereon (collectively, the “Writers”), are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Brown Girl Magazine, Inc., or any of its employees, directors, officers, affiliates, or assigns (collectively, “BGM”). BGM is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the Writers. It is not the intention of Brown Girl Magazine to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual. If you have a complaint about this content, please email us at This post is subject to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. If you’d like to submit a guest post, please follow the guidelines we’ve set forth here.
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By Kiran Kaur Gill

Kiran Kaur Gill is an accomplished professional with exemplary executive experience. In her role as Executive Director, she is responsible … Read more ›