On April 13, Sikhs around the world began the celebrations for Vaisakhi, one of the most important holidays in the Sikh calendar that marks the start of the new year and the first harvest. Two days later, on April 15, eight people—Samaria Blackwell, Karli Smith, Jasvinder Kaur, Amarjeet Johal, Jaswinder Singh, John Weisert, Amarjit Sekhon and Matthew Alexander—were shot and killed in a FedEx warehouse in Indianapolis, IN. The suspect, 19-year-old Brandon Hole, an ex- FedEx employee, was found dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. Of the eight victims, four were Sikh. In fact, Sikhs make up 90 percent of the employees at the warehouse.
In the past week, organizations such as the Sikh Coalition shared resources with community members on how to support, discuss, and share news about the incident. Nikki Singh, policy and advocacy manager of the Sikh Coalition stated:
“On behalf of our entire organization, we are deeply saddened by the loss of eight lives in Indianapolis last Thursday. We mourn those who were lost, and extend our hearts and prayers to their families, those who were injured and are recovering, and those who witnessed the attack. Moving forward, the Sikh Coalition is working to provide direct support to the Sikh community in Indianapolis. We also continue to call for a full investigation of the shooting, including the possibility that bias may have been a motivating factor.”
The Sikh Coalition, along with 47 other advocacy, civil rights, community, legal, and faith-based organizations, sent letters to FBI Agent Paul Keenan, IMPD Police Chief Randal Taylor, Indiana’s entire congressional delegation and state legislature, Gov. Eric Holcomb, and Major Joe Hogsett. They asked for the investigators to look closely into the shooter’s past and possible racial motivations. It was found that approximately a year ago, Hole’s mother believed him to be suicidal, and officers found white supremacist websites on his computer.
On April 23, the FBI responded to the Sikh Coalition and committed to a full investigation of the attack, including looking into “all bias motivating factors, among others.”
Other community organizations have been in crisis response mode, trying to relay accurate information about Sikhism to media outlets, lobby law enforcement, share resources via social media, contextualize the history of violence against Sikhs in the U.S., and provide a how-to guide for pronouncing “Sikh,” and show solidarity. For example, on April 22, Revolutionary Love Project and Faith in Action sponsored a virtual interfaith vigil to grieve and stand in solidarity with the Sikh community.
“There are a few headlines, no hashtags, no visible solidarity. We are changing that tonight. You are changing that tonight, by being here,” said civil rights lawyer, filmmaker, Sikh American activist, and founder of the Revolutionary Love Project, Valarie Kaur, at the opening of the vigil.
“For too long the Sikh community has had to carry the unjust burden of being othered in America. For too long the Sikh community has had to endure violence and pain including the rise in discrimination and hate after 9/11, Oak Creak, and now Indianapolis,” added Erica Moritsugu, Deputy Assistant to the President and Asian American and Pacific Islander Senior Liaison. “Please know that the President, The Vice President and their entire administration stands with you at this moment.”
Komal Kaur Chohan, the granddaughter of shooting victim Amarjeet Kaur Johal, was also present at the vigil to share her story. She was joined by Pardeep Kaleka, son of Satwant Singh Kaelka, a victim of the Oak Creek incident, and Rana Sodhi, brother of Balbir Singh Sodhi who was killed in the Phoenix incident. Faith leaders from different traditions were present to stand together, heal, and fight against white supremacy in light of the Atlanta spa shootings, the verdict convicting Derek Chauvin, the shootings of Daunte Wright and Adam Toledo in Minneapolis, and the killing of Ma’Khia Bryant.
The advocacy and work by coalitions, community organizers, and organizations to combat anti-Asian American hate seems to be influencing federal legislators, as well. On April 22, the U.S. Senate, in a bipartisan 94-1 vote, passed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, a bill intended to combat the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes by creating a new Justice Department position to respond to the violence. The Act also calls for better collection of anti-hate crime data and the establishment of a hate crime telephone hotline. A similar version of the bill was introduced in the House, and both versions of the bill will need to be reconciled and signed by President Biden to go into effect.
To donate to the families affected by the Indianapolis FedEx shooting, please click here.
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.
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 eventcentered 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.
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 following open letter is written by Hindus for Human Rights, an organization advocating for pluralism, civil and human rights in South Asia and North America, rooted in the values of Hindu faith: shanti (peace), nyaya (justice) and satya (truth). They provide a Hindu voice of resistance to caste, Hindutva (Hindu nationalism), racism, and all forms of bigotry and oppression.
Dear President Biden,
As Indian-Americans, human rights organizations, and concerned allies, we are writing to urge you to engage publicly and meaningfully to push back against the Indian government’s escalating attacks on human rights and democracy, especially ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to the United States.
Despite objective evidence that India’s democracy is under critical attack, you have not spoken out about this crisis. In early 2023, Indian authorities conducted retaliatory raids on the BBC’s Delhi and Mumbai offices for releasing a documentary about Prime Minister Modi. The week before the Summit for Democracy, the Indian government made three successive attacks on Indian democracy. First, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party expelled Rahul Gandhi from Parliament. Second, the Indian government shut the internet down in Punjab, severely impacting the rights for Sikhs to peacefully organize and protest. And third, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that Indians can be found guilty by association for terrorism. And yet, not one representative from the Biden Administration said anything about even one of these developments. Instead, while Islamophobic violence gripped India in late March, you invited Prime Minister Modi to speak at the Summit for Democracy. Mr. Modi visits DC at a time when the state of Manipur has experienced heavy communal and anti-Christian violence after Modi’s ruling party pushed an initiative to undermine Indigenous rights in the state.
“As privileged members of the diaspora, it’s our duty to challenge the repressive practices of the current regime in India. We stand in solidarity with those … opposed to the government’s attempt to reshape the country into a Hindu nationalist state. https://t.co/RxU9wUy2Zy
Even when confronted with questions by Indian reporters about human rights in India, your administration has only had private two-way conversations about how both of our governments can always improve. Quite frankly, we find it unacceptable to see such equivocation on Indian democracy from an administration that has been strident in its defense of American democracy and the rule of law.
India is one of the fastest autocratizing nations in the world, mostly thanks to the current government. Freedom House has rated India as a “partly-free” country for the past three years, and has blamed Prime Minister Modi’s government for a rise in discriminatory policies, including persecution against Muslims and caste-based violence against Dalit and Adivasi communities; harassment of civil society, protestors, academia and the media, and the targeting of political opponents. It has also rated Indian-administered Kashmir as “not free,” citing violations of human, civil, and political rights after the Modi government revoked the territory’s autonomous status. In Reporters Without Borders‘ press freedom ranking, India has dropped to 161 out of 180 countries in 2023. India has appeared in the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Impunity Index — which examines accountability for unsolved journalists’ murders — every year for the past 15 years and currently ranks in 11th place worldwide. According to PEN America’s Freedom to Write Index, in 2022, India was one of the top 10 countries that jailed writers globally. The Varieties of Democracy Institute characterizes India as an “electoral autocracy” and blames India’s descent into autocracy on Prime Minister Modi. And the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has said India has been one of the top 15 countries at risk for a mass atrocity event every year since 2017, which reflects the toxicity of Indian politics under Modi.
“If the President meets with PM Modi, then the protection of the Muslim minority in a majority Hindu India is something worth mentioning…if you do not protect the rights of ethnic minorities, there’s a strong possibility India starts pulling apart.” Thank you @BarackObama! https://t.co/RhcMNfiqaR
Given the magnitude of this crisis, we ask you to engage directly with Indian-American and human rights civil society leaders to explore solutions to address India’s human rights crisis. We also ask you to employ the tools at your disposal to ensure that the Indian government cannot attack Indians’ human rights with impunity. As the 2022 Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor report details, several government individuals have committed human rights violations that, under U.S. law, would qualify them to be sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act. Indian security forces that have engaged in human rights violations should have security assistance rescinded, under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961.
Finally, we urge you to publicly call on the Indian government to honor its commitments to human rights, including calling on Prime Minister Modi and his cabinet to halt the use of anti-terror laws to arbitrarily detain political critics. You can publicly denounce the rising numbers of political prisoners and the weaponization of the rule of law in India to shut down criticism. Even if you are not willing to personally criticize the Prime Minister, you have ample opportunity to criticize the Indian government’s misuse of public trust and public institutions to consolidate power and undermine the will of the Indian people.
This morning in DC, on the lawn of The White House at the welcome reception for Modi.
As President of the United States of America, you hold a unique position to lead the fight against authoritarianism. Prime Minister Modi will listen to you when you speak. But he and his allies will only change if you take a stand publicly. We urge you to listen to those of us who care about India and ensure that one man cannot steal the futures and the rights of our loved ones in India.
— Signed by countless organizations and individuals leading the charge (linked here).