Turban Triumphs in USA
The news spread like recent wild fire of Southern California in over 500,000 strong Sikh community in U.S.A., and there was spontaneous jubilation amongst them, justifiable too. This triumph of the turban has come after a prolonged struggle by the community to establish and advance themselves in this country, half the globe away from their great love - Punjab, the land of their origin. Prejudice and stereotyping were a part of the Sikh experience ever since the earliest immigrants from India arrived over a century ago in USA , who were all from Punjab with majority of them from this adventurous and courageous community.
In 1849, the British annexed the Punjab region into the rest of its colonial holdings in India. The subsequent land reform laws disenfranchised many Punjabis, and younger sons were encouraged to find work abroad. Their destinations ranged from British territories in Africa to the Caribbean to Hong Kong and Singapore to Canada. Many made their way to Vancouver, Canada. They found employment in the burgeoning lumber industry, and, as subjects of the British Commonwealth, they were able to travel freely. But as their numbers grew, discrimination against them by Canadian workers of European descent also grew. Indeed, European Canadian worker protests became so strong that, eventually, ships carrying Indians to Vancouver were barred from landing. These workers found their way further south, into the northwestern United States, where an economic boom was in the works. When the first Indian immigrants arrived in California's fertile Central Valley more than a century ago, they were reminded of the plains in their homeland, the Punjab. Their farming skills, their willingness to work, and their drive to get ahead ensured their rise in status from humble migrant laborers who picked fruit in the hot sun to significant landowners who today control much of the agriculture in California. However, like the Indian immigrants in Canada, they too received an acrimonious reception from workers of European descent not wanting to compete against them for jobs.
The California Alien Land Law of 1913, revised in 1920, prevented immigrants from owning and leasing their own land, making it a difficult struggle for those who made their living as farmers. Barred from owning land due to anti-Asian laws, many married Mexican women and forged a fusion culture that flourished in California's Yuba City and Imperial Valley. A small "Mexican-Punjabi" community formed in California when early male Punjabi immigrants married Hispanic women. Many of the men were unable to retrieve their family members from India, and thus were forced to seek new relationships in the United States. The two cultures experienced different rights under the law. Punjabi men were unable to legally own land. The Mexican women, however, could own land, as they were unrestricted by discriminatory laws targeted at Asian immigrants. Later, they also put land in their children's names, who were American citizens. This helped them to legally own land holdings and push their economic progress, particularly in Yuba City and areas around it in Northern California, but troubled time for the turbaned immigrants from Punjab was far from over in some other parts of their adopted country.
Immigrants from India continued to face resistance from European and American laborers who were in competition with them for jobs and who feared they would be willing to work for lower wages. This resistance assumed tangible form in racist organizations such as the Asian Exclusion League. The group was responsible for violent incidents in Canada and the U.S., such as the "Anti-Sikh" riot in 1907 at Bellingham, Washington. On the night of September 4, 1907, a mob of between 400 and 500 white men attacked Bellingham's Punjabi colonies. Many of them were beaten. Some escaped from their quarters in their night clothes. Several sought refuge on the tide flats. Others were driven toward the city limits or jailed. During the course of the disturbance, the indignation of the crowd was fanned to action by speakers who addressed impromptu audiences on the street corners and incited citizens to "help drive out the cheap labor." Unfortunately, the Bellingham riot was mirrored by similar assaults in California during the months that followed in Marysville, Stege, Live Oak, and other communities where the immigrants had settled.
These incidents, however, didn't reflect the attitude of the whole community. As the immigrants continued to work hard and achieve success some of their neighbors began to accept them. A retrospective account in the Daily Astorian gives an idea of how Indian workers were viewed in Astoria, one Oregon mill town. "We thought they were terrible coming with their turbans. We were afraid of them at first. But then we realized, they have to make a living same as the rest of us. We are foreigners too. And they never undercut wages -- they wouldn't work for less than the other employees. And most of the Astoria community considered the Sikhs vastly interesting and peaceable." There were cracks in the great white wall, which eventually went down with the emergence of some highly honored and successful Sikh immigrants.
Early in the 20th century, Indian students began coming to the United States to study engineering, medicine, agriculture, and manufacturing. The students represented all parts of the subcontinent, particularly Punjab. Most Indian students chose institutions on the Pacific Coast -- the University of Washington, agricultural colleges in Oregon, Stanford, and, above all, the University of California, Berkeley. The University of California was really the best for them on this coast. Tuition was only $15 a year and living expenses about $250. Opportunities were plentiful in Berkeley for self-support. During the summer months students could make $125 a month as agricultural laborers. The students found many sources of support. The Pacific Coast Khalsa Diwan had purchased a hostel where Indian students could stay rent-free.
Dalip Singh Saund earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of California at Berkeley. Over the next 20 years of his life, he worked in agriculture and became a successful businessman too. He was the first Asian American to be elected to the US Congress. He was elected in 1956 from 29th Congressional district comprised of Riverside and Imperial Counties of California and reelected twice. While contesting in 1964 for his fourth term in the U.S. Congress, he suffered a stroke and became incapacitated. However, he did set a precedent for many Asians to follow in the U.S. Congress. He remains a beacon of hope and an example for many Indian Americans to succeed him.
“One day, just three days before the election, a prominent citizen who was opposing me bitterly saw me one morning in the town restaurant. There must have been some fifty people in there having their breakfast when he came up to me and said in a loud voice: "Doc, tell us, if you're elected, will you furnish the turbans or will we have to buy them ourselves in order to come to your court?" "My friend," I answered, "you know me for a tolerant man. I don't care what a man has on top of his head. All I'm interested in is what he's got inside of it." All the customers had a good laugh at that and the story became the talk of the town during the next few days. -- Dalip Singh Saund on his 1952 campaign for judge in Westmorland.
Fifty years ago, Didar Singh Bains came to America with $8 in his pocket with the belief that money grows on trees. He was right. Bains was a young "jat" - A Sikh farmer from Punjab, where farming is next to godliness. Driving tractors and irrigating orchards for 75 cents an hour, he did the work of four men, and soon bought his first peach orchard. He bought another, then another, and by 1978, had become the largest peach grower in California. By 1980, Bains owned 12,000 acres in California and Canada.
Sikhs have been a part of the American populace for more than 130 years. When everything was going great for them came September 11, 2001. In the wake of 9/11 attacks, there was an upsurge in anti-Sikh discrimination across the United States, including a number of incidents that involved physical attacks on Sikh individuals who were wearing turbans. They were blamed for something they had nothing to do with. But rather than getting mad at the people instigating hatred against them, the educated amongst the community felt it was their obligation to help common Americans understand their cultural traditions. They wrote articles, gave speeches and sent e-mails. They raised seed money for a documentary film, Mistaken Identity: Sikhs in America, that has been screened at film festivals, police departments, schools and colleges. The newspapers aided the outreach effort by running informative articles. The result was the attacks on turban wearing Sikhs stopped, eventually leading to the decision of the U.S. administration to reverse the ban on Sikhs wearing turbans in the federal security services. The decision is seen and celebrated by Sikhs as the day “Turban Triumphs in USA”.