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Sunday, October 15, 2006

Politics, Spoken in Punjabi

Mohinder Singh, wearing a royal blue turban and long white beard, sits behind a desk piled high with colorful Punjabi-language newspapers. Along with four other Sikhs, Mr. Singh, 57, was elected to the Queens County Democratic Committee in last month’s primary. The victory represented the first time Sikhs have been elected to public office anywhere in the city.

The five have joined almost 3,000 other party committee members statewide; an executive committee of 77 makes most of the party’s nominating decisions and develops the party’s platform. In this bureaucracy, the power of the new recruits seems fairly diluted. Still, the election of these five men signifies the increasing engagement of the Sikh community in American politics....

But the only thing many Americans know about Sikhs, if they have heard of them at all, is that they look different. With their long beards and distinctive turbans, the men often resemble the images of Osama bin Laden that flash on television screens. Though Sikhs have no relation to fundamentalist Islam, their turbans and beards set off alarm bells about terrorism in the minds of many of their fellow Americans.

Some voters made that feeling clear when Mr. Singh and his fellow candidates came knocking on their doors to campaign over the summer. Although Mr. Singh, an insurance broker, has lived in Richmond Hill for 12 years, he is wary of people’s reaction to his appearance. So when he went door to door to nearly 200 homes, he took along his wife, his son and his two grown daughters. He also took along a staff member from the Grassroots Initiative, an advocacy organization that worked with the Sikh candidates on their campaigns. Even so, Mr. Singh said, some constituents greeted his appearance with the words, “Go back to your country!”

But their unusual appearance is one of the things that encourage Sikhs to get involved in politics. Instances of bias reported to the Sikh Coalition range from stabbings that occur outside the victims’ homes to the refusal by vendors to print T-shirts emblazoned with images of gurus and martyrs from Sikh history.

“Because we stand out, we’re targeted,” Mr. Bhalla said, “and because we’re targeted, we need a voice on the inside.”....

For years, he added, Sikhs have been trying to effect changes from the outside. “Now,” he said, “we want to sit among them with our turbans and make the change ourselves.” [Link]

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