Sukhdeep Kaur Receives Zeff Fellowship

0501_Suhkeep.jpgRice University senior, Sukhdeep Kaur, has received the Roy and Hazel Zeff Memorial Fellowship – a $25,000 grant, which will allow her to study issues of human rights and access to justice in areas around the world. The news release states:

A political science and policy studies major with a focus on law and justice, Kaur has a longstanding interest in human rights and justice issues that stems from the violent history between the Indian government and Sikhs in Punjab.

For her fellowship, Kaur will travel to four countries — Chile, Rwanda, Israel and France — to work with minority populations on the issues of access to human rights and justice.

I recently interviewed Sukhdeep and we discussed how she first got involved with human rights. “I knew I wanted to work with law and justice but wasn’t really sure whether to focus on civil rights or human rights,” Kaur said. However, after taking a human rights course her sophomore year and her personal study of the violence toward Sikhs in India in 1984 and subsequent human rights violations, she decided to make this the focus of her field work.

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More Sikh Art: mool mantar through oil paintings

Thematically Sikh paintings are rare. Thus, when I came across the paintings below, I thought I should share. The oil paintings below are the work of Jaswant Singh Zafar. He’s a poet, photographer, and painter in his free time and an engineer in Ludhiana by day. This year, he’s spending his free time creating a series of paintings under the theme of ‘Gurbani.’ The paintings completed thus far weave the mool mantar through various aspects of nature, shapes, and other backgrounds.

At the end of the year, the series will be in an exhibition at the Artmosphere Gallery in Ludhiana. Artmosphere was created to provide a platform for budding artists in Ludhiana and Punjab such as Jaswant Singh Zafar. Such an endeavor cheers me and gives hope that the visual arts scene there is growing.


I appreciate these paintings because they provide some insight into the art scene in Punjab- an example of what’s happening there. More works from this series can be found here.

So Many Questions

sikhyouth.jpgSometimes (or may be it more often), you read an article that just doesnt seem to make any sense. My google newsfeeder caught on such article titled: Sikh youth moving away from teachings of Sikhism. The author of the article Harleen Kaur seems to be at all places at once, reporting stories on Chandigarh, Malaysia, Leicester, and New York all on the same day. It does raise eyebrows into the type of reportage it can claim.

The story reports:

The young Sikhs seem to be moving away from the teachings of Sikhism largely due to lack of knowledge and faith in their culture and religion.

Hardly anything surprising there. Sikhs have been saying that for years.

The article is trying to promote the Sikh Naujawan Sabhas Vaisakhi-fest, but some of the analysis seems off, even bordering on the absurd:

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Towards a Sikh Perspective on the Indian Elections

india_election.jpgThe election results in India seem to be in. The Congress Party has increased its power in the center and even some of the commenters here in The Langar Hall have been jubilant.

While the Indian elections have received brief commentary, here and there in The Langar Hall, the results call out for some analysis towards a Sikh perspective.

Overwhelming have been the shouts of Singh is King as it seems that Manmohan Singh will continue to keep the Prime Minister position, at least if his victory-speech is any indication, until his political overseers the Gandhi family are ready to replace the kursi-warmer with Rahul Gandhi. Others in The Langar Hall have already written critical pieces of this so-called Great Sikh Hype.

News media have rightly commented on the Congress Partys sweeping electoral victories in Delhi on the partys dumping of the mass-murderers Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar (albeit it seems more political maneuvering with one of the positions filled by Sajjan Kumars brother, than any true remorse) and the projection of Manmohan Singh as a way to draw Sikh votes in Delhi away from BJP candidates. As a strategic community, Sikhs in no way should they tether their votes to a single party.

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Ravi Bhalla advances in Hoboken City Council elections

Ravinder At the Langar Hall, we’ve covered a number of Sikh candidates’ campaigns for local government office. I just wanted to include a brief update about Ravi Bhalla, who looks poised to become one of Hoboken’s first Sikh city councilmembers as he enters a run-off election next month:

While it is clear that Peter Cammarano and Dawn Zimmer will vie for the Hoboken mayoralty on June 9, the provisional ballots may still change the neck-and-neck race to see which of the last three of six council-at-large candidates get into the runoff on that date. [...]

As of Tuesday night, it looked like the top six will be as follows:
[1.] Carol Marsh 3,719
[2.] Ravi Bhalla 3,698
[3.] Dave Mello 3,361 [link]

When we last covered this story, Ravi was running as an independent for office. Since then, he joined a “reform” slate and has been campaigning extensively. His success comes as a surprise to some, who don’t understand how a practicing Sikh could get so far…

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Building Human Rights Culture

Breakthrough is an innovative, international human rights organization using the power of popular culture, media, leadership development and community education to transform public attitudes and advance equality, justice, and dignity. Through initiatives in India and the United States, Breakthrough addresses critical global issues including violence against women, sexuality and HIV/AIDS, racial justice, and immigrant rights. [link]

A friend directed me to this video which reflects the use of media to educate society about human rights issue. The video I have included below is one of many produced by Breakthrough, an organization whose aim is to create a culture of human rights. “Breakthrough’s multi-media campaign, “Is This Justice?” aims to bring public attention to the stigma and discrimination faced by women living with HIV/AIDS-most of whom have been infected by their husbands or male partners.” I found this piece, titled A man looks at me but I’m the one who isbeing punished,to be quite powerful. Is this justice?

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Gurbakhash Kaur: Standing Up For Our Rights joe-biden3

One of the major issues affecting the Sikh community is increasing civic engagement in the United States. We often focus on getting more Sikhs to vote and lobby our politicians about the issues affecting our community. This lobbying general pertains to writing letters and signing petitions that ask our community members to move beyond taking pictures with politicians at fundraising events or giving them awards at local melas. This past week, a young Sikh woman, Gurbakhash Kaur, highlighted what it means for a Sikh to be civically engaged. She questioned Vice President Biden about two Sikhs in the United States Army who were told to cut their hair in order to serve and Governor Jon Corzine about rising health education costs, while her Sikh peers stood by her side. These handshaking events were not a forum set-up for accountability, but more as photo-ops for the politicians. However, Gurbakhash Kaur was determined to make hand-shaking an opportunity to hold our elected officials accountable to their Sikh constituency.

As a resident of Lodi, New Jersey, she got face-time with Vice President Biden during his visit for a new construction project to widen Main Street and US Route 46. During her questioning, World Sikh News reports that:

Vice President Biden interrupted Kaur to tell her a member of his staff is a Sikh and did not allow her to finish her question. Afterwards, Kaur said, “I want the story to get coverage, as hardly anyone pays attention to our issues . . . we need a lot more legal support and begging and pleading to get our issues addressed.”

Ultimately, Gurbakhash Kaurs actions are inspiring because she highlights an example of Sikhs standing up for our rights through self-empowerment. More importantly, she acted through self-organizing rather than taking part in an event organized by other groups to mobilize the Sikh community.

Kuddos to Gurbakhash Kaur for demanding accountability from our elected officials!

The North American Gurdwara: Are We Expecting Too Much?

g_b5.jpgPhulkari’s post a few weeks back got me thinking about Gurdwaras – their origin and the role they play in Sikh society today. History tells us that Guru Nanak Patshah created Dharmshalas in Kartarpur where Sikhs would rise early and meet for Keertan, Veechar, reflection, and Guru-ka-Langar. It was a central element to the ideal society that Kartarpur would become.

Over a century ago, Sikhs first arrived in North America – working at lumber mills, railroads, and as migrant laborers. They settled their families and chose to establish Gurdwaras (as early as 1908 in West Vancouver, BC and 1912 in Stockton, CA) to preserve both their spiritual and cultural roots in the land far from their history.

Now with hundreds of thousands of Sikhs in North America and the needs of our communities growing, the Gurdwara has expanded the services it offers far beyond its humble beginnings. Many Gurdwaras have Khalsa schools and libraries. Others plan for fitness centers, basketball courts, and healthcare clinics. One of the local Gurdwaras here hosts an annual Panjabi cultural show and mela, with weekly Giddha and Bhangra practices held at the Gurdwara facility itself. The North American Gurdwara has become not only a spiritual center, but also a community center, serving all the needs of the Sikh and Panjabi population.

On the one hand, I like having a Gurdwara as the center for our community’s activity. Although not all people have an initial interest in Sikhi, all these other events and programs at least keep people coming. And even a short “ritualistic” trip to the Gurdwara could develop in to something more. On the other hand, I can’t help but wonderare we asking too much from our Gurdwaras?

With such different and competing interests, leadersfight for position so they can make their agenda the focus, and control Gurdwara resources accordingly. This drives much of the political drama and power struggles that surround our Gurdwaras today. As a result, many programs (such as Khalsa schools) end up mismanaged, poorly resourced, and inefficient.

Secondly, with all the programs our Gurdwaras offer, I question – are we taking away from the primary purpose of the Gurdwaralearning Gurmat (the Guru’s way)? How well do our Gurdwaras focus on Simran and Veechar? How well do our Gurdwaras connect the youth with the Guru’s message? What about services for non-Panjabi speakers or introducing non-Sikhs to our faith? What about programs emphasizing Sikh culture – like Gatka or Gurmat Sangeet? Are our Gurdwaras really institutions for learning? If the answer is less than perfect, shouldn’t we re-prioritize and change the focus of our Gurdwaras?

Many Gurdwaras serve small communities in rural areas where limited resources force the Gurdwara to serve multiple purposes. However, in larger communities, where resources are plenty – should we consider separating out our organizations? Maybe create separate Punjabi societies, Khalsa schools, clinics, and even Sikh community centers that focuses on outreach, youth counseling, and seva projects?

Perhaps under separate structures and management, these organizations will be able to thrive and meet their goals more efficiently with less resistance. And with our community’s growing needs, why not grow our presence with more diverse organizations?


Hair for a Sikh, an African American, and a trichotillomaniac

Kes is an important part of the Sikh identity but it also carries social, cultural, and political meaning for more than just Sikhs. Recently, a film student from NYU explored this less explored cross-cultural perspective by speaking with 3 individuals from various backgrounds in an interesting (and short-18 minute) documentary.

The film engages with a Sikh (Sonny Singh from the Sikh Coalition’s New York office), an African-American woman, and a woman with trichotillomania – a disorder that causes the sufferer to compulsively pull out hair. We often consider kes in the context of religion, beauty, and identity; but rarely do we do so in a cross-cultural perspective (unless you grew up in a culturally diverse community). The film is thoughtful and thought-provoking, so I’ll let it speak for itself. It includes footage from the recent Sikh Day parade in New York City, as well as a pagh tying competition in Richmond Hill.

[hat tip: sonny]

Hair… As one of the most important aspects of how others see us, how has our hair become interwoven with issues of race, religion, beauty, and identity?

Sikhism mandates that the hair is never cut. We explore the rationale behind this and the discrimination that Sikhs face today in a post 9-11 world.

Many women of African descent grow up to think negatively about their natural hair. So begins the burdensome, expensive, and often painful process of weaves and chemical straightening, as a however subconscious attempt to achieve a homogenized concept of beauty. We speak to a woman who takes pride in her natural hair and is committed to show others how truly beautiful “nappy” hair can be.

Sometimes what we do with our hair is not a choice. Trichotillomania is a disorder that causes the sufferer to compulsively pull out hair. We will meet a long-term lash/brow puller who describes how people have reacted to her disorder and how these experiences have shaped her. [link]

Bleed India


The last day of India’s 5 day, 6 week general election is tomorrow, May 13th. And only one political party has been speaking honestly about what they will do for the country post-election: Bleed India. Pappu Raj is the candidate. And select excerpts from his “moneyfesto” are as follows:

On Taxes: “Direct taxes will come Directly – to me.”

On Global Warming: “Buy A/C.”

On Heartfelt Public Health: “Run Round in Circle Act. : Run from one department to another one: Round and Round. Round and Round. This is the aerobic exercise. It gives the good muscles, improves heart and Cardio. Plus blood will flow. And we are liking your blood.”

On Jail Reform:


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Leaving Punjab on the Cancer Train

train.jpg“…the first troubling clues in the late 1980s and early ’90s: Peacocks – India’s national bird – disappeared from the fields.”

A recent story on NPR discussed the “cancer train” in Punjab. The train is so named as it routinely carries about 60 patients and their families from Bathinda to the town of Bikaner in order to get treatment at the government’s regional cancer center. Studies now suggest that populations with high use of pesticides have an increased risk of cancer. This seems to be the case in Punjab, where the introduction of the Green Revolution in the 1960s not only led to increased production of agriculture but also adverse health outcomes. The NPR piece discusses how villages that use pesticides were shown to have higher rates of cancer than villages that did not use pesticides.

On a recent evening, just before the train arrives, waiting passengers wrapped in shawls sit glumly on the bare pavement. Vendors hawk tea and chapattis. “He has blood cancer,” says one man, explaining his upcoming journey by gesturing at his skinny, pale 16-year-old son, Jassa Singh, beside him. Another man points toward his little boy, and says bone cancer has attacked his hip.

A gaunt but dignified-looking man wearing a bright yellow turban says he is going to Bikaner for treatment of cancer in his throat. “It’s difficult to talk,” he says, pushing a button in a device inserted in his throat that makes his voice sound like a computer synthesizer.

It is important to note, however, that as with many public health studies – an association between pesticide use and cancer does not necessarily suggest a causal link. Many people are hesitant to blame the Green Revolution and new technologies on the prevalence of cancer in Punjab. Neverthless, it seems clear that the correlation with the higher rates of cancer can not be understated and suggests that environmental factors could quite possibly be the cause.

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A Sikh Response on Ruby Dhalla?

ruby_dhalla.jpgFor those that follow The Langar Hall, Ruby Dhalla is no stranger to our coverage on Canadian politics. Whether it be on our list of Sikh MPs throughout the world, a Sikh Barack Obama, a horrible beating that is symptomatic of the nightmare that is the Punjab Police, or even attendance at NRI Punjabi conference, she has found mention.

In this post, she becomes the focus. Since last week after the Star published a story, Ruby Dhalla, the Liberal Member of Parliament, representing Brampton-Springdale, has been on the receiving end of a flood of media criticism for the following allegations

[Immigrant home care-givers] claimed that they earned $250 a week working 12- to 16-hour days at the Dhalla family home, that Dhalla herself had seized their passports and that other family members made them wash cars, shovel snow and clean chiropractic clinics owned by the family. [link]

The Canadian press has had a field day and has likened the case to the controversy that led to Eliot Spitzers resignation as the governor of New York due to his relationship with a prostitute after being seen as a moralizer. Ruby Dhalla has been known to champion immigrant rights issues and women and thus it is for this reason that the allegations have been such damning.

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Lose you turban and I’m outta here

The crisis of Sikh identity was once described to me in very simple terms; most Sikh males no longer want to look like Sardars and most Sikh girls don’t want to marry Sardars. In fact, I distinctly remember several Sikh guys that I went to school cutting their hair for the simple reason of “getting girls”.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen efforts on many fronts to confront this trend, including beauty pageants (Mr. Singh International), Sikh models (Sunny Singh Caberwal of Kenneth Cole and now GQ fame). Now, in a twist on the standard Sikh dharmak or religious song, Taranmpreet has released a track called “Teri Meri Bas: Sat Sri Akal”.

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Bulletproof turbans

Last year I commented on the UK government spending over 100,000 to (unsuccessfully) figure out how to create appropriate gear for Sikhs recruited into their anti-terror corps. It also wasted a lot of time for a Sikh officer who had been recruited to serve in the corps and then kept in limbo without assignment for over a year.

Well, someone somewhere got the memo. The still new BSPA is working with scientists to design and provide a Kevlar turban for its 2,000+ Sikh police officers, explaining that currently there is no other safe and religiously-appropriate option. The failure to provide this gear directly impacts the employment options and pathways of British Sikhs who serve as police:

Sikh officers have been prohibited from becoming firearms officers because our religion does not allow us to remove the turban…

There has been some research done into producing a ballistic material for turbans and we would like to follow any opportunity where we could manufacture a ballistic product – made out of something like Kevlar – that would ensure a certain degree of protection so Sikh police officers could take part in these roles.

If these turbans are actually useable and wearable, they could open professional options for Sikhs across a swathe of high risk “law and order” positions (and no doubt, the military). On the other hand, a Kevlar turban sounds terribly uncomfortable, and also seems like a somewhat strange alteration of the turban itself. Maybe I am having a hard time wrapping my head around the concept, but I’m not entirely sure how a Kevlar turban could be designed to be both religiously appropriate and, well, a solid hunk of material.

Do the Right Thing: Kudos to Pioneer Bhangra

pioneer_bhangra.pngIn all honesty, I have grown tired of bhangra. Gone are my days of competing; gone are my days of organizing; gone are my days of even caring.

Still sometimes there are things that are newsworthy and call for praise and attention. This is one such story.

The Pioneer Bhangra competition, hosted by CSU East Bays Associated Students Association, had originally scheduled their competition at Chabot College Performing Arts Center in Hayward on June 6, 2009. The date should immediately ring alarm bells. It was to fall on the day of the 25th year of commemoration of Operation Bluestar (the Third Sikh Ghallughara) in 1984.

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Nikky Guninder Kaur Singh in DC

If you’re in the DC area on Friday and are free in the afternoon, head over to the Library of Congress at 1:00 pm. Nikky Guninder Kaur Singh, author of “The Feminine Principle in the Sikh Vision” among other works, will be speaking in the nikky_guninder_kaur_singh_in_dc.jpgMary Pickford Theatre on the 3rd floor of the Madison Building.

When: May 8, 1:00 pm-2:00 pm

Where: Mary Pickford Theater, 3rd Floor, James Madison Building,Library of Congress
101 Independence Ave., SE, Washington, DC 20540
(Metro stop: Capitol South on the Blue/Orange Line)

What: “The Feminine Principle in the Sikh Vision”
by Dr. Nikky Guninder Kaur Singh, Crawford Family Professor of Religious Studies at Colby College

Click on flyer to see full-size.

Steel Plates (Thaals)::Seva

408672059_45630e5958.jpgOn TLH we have discussed Green Gurdwaras. Part of this green initiative is to use steel plates (i.e. thaals) and cutlery instead of the common paperware. A couple of weeks ago at a local Gurdwara langar, I saw steel plates being used that had been stored away in cupboards for years. Every week disposable cups, plates, spoons and forks were used by the sangat. Somehow in a community with a growing immigrant Punjabi population disposable means modernity. I remember watching sangat members come stand in the standard langar line and show surprise as they reached the front and saw large piles of steel plates. The reactions were amazing. We had aunties with twitched noses who continued to scrub the steel plates although they had been cleaned and washed the night before and showed no signs of being dirty. Uncles made comments like, hun taan aapaan Punjab ton nikal gaye, a hun desi kamm ithhe vi shuru kar taa. Others just smirked and laughed.

There were also positive reactions where aunties and uncles supported the langar sevadars for reintroducing steel plates. These sangat members felt that these plates helped reduce waste while encouraging the action of seva. Interestingly, they said more seva is done by cleaning jutha plates than by just throwing them away. By cleaning jutha plates, it reinforced a sense of humility of cleaning other peoples waste. In addition, some people showed a lot of humility by refusing to allow the sevadars to take and wash their plates. For example, an elderly woman, who had difficulty walking, slowly took her plate inside the kitchen and washed it herself. Lastly, a number of sevadars, aside from the family doing langar seva that week, decided to help clean plates. An assembly line of cleaners and dryers was set-up. Some spoke and others just quietly felt the spirit of doing seva together. Ultimately, by reintroducing steel plates the spirit of seva was rekindled in a new way.

Faith and “I”

I will be taking care of all your problems today. So sit back, relax, and enjoy the rest of your day!

This is what the sign on the wall read at the Salvation Army on the North side of Chicago. Prior to volunteering there, I only knew stereotypes of the homeless and hungry…just what you see on TV. But it didnt take long for those stereotypes to break down. The people we served meals to were happy, smiling, polite and full of energy. What surprised me most, wastheir deep sense of spirituality. Not only did I find this in my conversation with folks, but even in their greeting. My standard, “Good morning, how are you?” was often replied with “Blessed” or “In His Grace”, many with bible in hand.

I used to wonder, how could people so hard on their luck, have so much faith? I have seen so many times with family and friends, after they’vesuffered difficult circumstances or loss, God and religion are the first things questioned, i.e. “How could God do this to me?”

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Sikh Scouts: a response to bullying

Many students face physical and psychological bullying in schools- elementary, middle, and high. But Sikh students, male and female, often face especially severe bullying. Over the past couple years, some severe cases have come intosikh_scouts_2.jpg the public eye, including one teenager’s patka being set on fire, and others whose hair was forcibly cut. For statistics on the prevalence of harassment against Sikh students in New York schools, check out the Coalition’s report, “Hatred in the Hallways.”

One pro-active student at Baruch College (of the City University of New York) has come up with a simple and creative way to provide support to kids facing harassment. Through his school’s Sikh Student Association, he started a mentoring program called Sikh Scouts. The students, aged 5-12 are paired with older Sikhs of the same gender, and go on a day’s outing together.

Sikh Scouts is essentially a small-scale Sikh youth mentoring event that aims to forge and develop a long-lasting relationship with children in need of good Sikh role models to help them guide them on the path of Sikhi. [link]

One of the students from Baruch that participated in the program wrote about the experience.

After they warmed up to us and broke through their initial shyness, the kids couldn’t stop talking about their favorite movies, TV shows and music – the Jonas Brothers and what not. And in between all of that, we got down to the serious issues: a majority of the kids did not enjoy school and felt uncomfortable because of harassment or teasing by their peers. [link]

There might not be much that anyone, including the older Sikh Scouts, can do to make the bullying stop- after all, kids will be kids. But what we older Sikh students can do for our younger counterparts is to be a source of strength, share insights about why it’s important to be comfortable with who you are whether it fits someone else’s definition of cool or not, and be there to offer advice for specific situations. There are things we’ve learned in hindsight that can benefit those facing the same harassment today.

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From Peru to Punjab

gallery20.jpgAs someone who considers herself honorary Peruvian (it’s a long story) – I was especially proud when I heard about Operation Walk – an organization established by Harpal Singh Khanuja and his wife Maria Khanuja.The non-profit organization is dedicated to providing free knee and hip replacements tounderserved people around the world. The concept behind the organization was to perform complicated surgeries on people in developing countries, “where arthritis progresses to its end stages and reconstructing joints becomes technically challenging.” Often times, it is people who are most at need who cannot afford the surgery. A news article discussesOperation Walk’s recent trip to Lima, Peru where they performed 48 surgeries to replace knee and hipjoints. Here onTLH welike to highlight examples of seva – this is another important example of what it means to do selfless service,

“It was very rewarding to do this work for people and not expecting anything in return,” Harpal Singh said. “It’s really their gratitude that you cherish the most.”

Theorganization’s goal is to replicate the Peru mission to Panjab where the need is also great (some of which can be attributed to the chemical farming of the Green Revolution).

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