Sikhs in Queens: Crowned with Turbans, United in Diversity

by Parminder Singh Sodhi

The term “Dastar,” synonymous with turban, resonates deeply in Punjab and holds an indelible place in the hearts of Sikhs who don this distinctive headpiece. Amid the tapestry of daily life, the profound symbolism imbued within turbans often remains unnoticed. Just as a tie signifies respect and dignity in Western societies, turbans, too, are laden with significance in Sikh culture, traversing realms from ceremonial to the personal ritual of tying.

Echoes of the Past, Significance of the Present

With a lineage stretching back millennia, turbans boast a storied history. For Khalsa Sikhs, who adhere to the tenet of growing their hair and beard, the turban serves as a practical accessory, preserving cleanliness and orderliness. Yet, its role transcends utility, echoing a cardinal principle of Sikhism.

The annals of history reveal that turbans were once the exclusive domain of India’s upper echelons in the caste hierarchy. Guru Nanak, the beacon of Sikhism, defied this divisive system, advocating that all Sikhs embrace turbans as a potent symbol of equality. Thus, the turban evolved into a powerful emblem of unity, a testament to the intrinsic freedom and dignity every human deserves. For Sikhs, the turban resonates as a cultural and spiritual insignia, epitomizing pride in faith, honor, and the essence of equality.

An Evolving Sikh Identity

Around 2008, the Sikh community in Queens, nestled within the heart of New York City, began coalescing into a formidable political force. While Sikhism inherently celebrates decentralization, the Queens community galvanized efforts to unite, address its unique needs, and foster communal growth. Their advocacy sought to elevate education, public safety, and government interaction to new heights.

Gurpal Singh, the visionary driving SEVA, an advocacy group rooted in Queens, aptly notes, “At the core of our decentralized community is the gurdwara.” This sacred sanctuary serves as both a spiritual abode and a communal nexus.

Within the gurdwara, men and women gather in unison to bow before the Guru Granth Sahib, serenaded by harmonious melodies from skilled raagis, or musicians. Simultaneously, the langar hall buzzes with camaraderie, as people partake in langar, a shared meal. Volunteers laboriously prepare and serve these nourishing dishes in the adjoining kitchen.

Respect reigns supreme within the gurdwara’s precincts, as visitors shed their shoes and veil their hair, signifying reverence. This spirit of inclusivity extends to the next generation, as children’s laughter fills the air. The shadow of the tragic 1984 anti-Sikh riots propelled a segment of the Sikh population towards Queens, seeking solace from violence and envisioning a brighter future. As this fledgling community rooted itself in Queens, it embraced the locale as a sanctuary of hope.

The Power of Unity in Numbers

The 2000 Census pegged the Sikh populace in Queens at 70,000, a number challenged by Gurpal Singh, who asserts that the true count remains concealed, shackled by the reluctance of some residents to open their doors to census-takers. Addressing this concern became a rallying cry for the 2010 census.

Offering a Glimpse of Queens’ Sikh Fabric

Mohinder Singh, the luminary behind the Baba Makhan Shah Lobana Sikh Center, underscores the pivotal significance of precise population assessment. Democracy thrives on numbers, a truth echoed during political gatherings at gurdwaras, where their electoral influence unfurls its wings.

The Sikh diaspora in Queens is characterized by a rich tapestry of professions – construction, entrepreneurship, taxi driving, brokerage, and gas station ownership. Renowned for their financial autonomy and community-oriented ethos, Sikhs prioritize education, advocating for fortified after-school programs and curricula that celebrate immigrant traditions and attire.

Battling Intolerance: A Collective Endeavor

In the 2007-2008 school year, Sikhs confronted an alarming wave of intolerance within educational institutions. Turbaned students became targets of harassment and physical aggression, culminating in a distressing incident outside Richmond Hill High School. The specter of hate crimes loomed beyond the school gates, engendering anxiety within the Sikh community. They galvanized efforts to demand inclusion in the city’s comprehensive response strategy.

Unwarranted Backlash: Sikhs as Misguided Targets

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Sikhs found themselves wrongly implicated, with some mistaking them for Muslims and directing their anger at the wrong community. Fueled by a desire for reassurance against such misguided retaliation, Sikhs sought a commitment to prevent such incidents from reoccurring. Gurpal Singh underscores the importance of dialogue as a precursor to action, as grassroots initiatives like SEVA empowered Sikhs to register and vote, amplifying their voices for change.

Building Bonds and Bridging Divides

Founded by Gurpal Singh, the South Asian/West Indian Council (SAWI) emerged as a rallying point for diverse community leaders. Despite surface-level disparities, these groups shared common concerns and experiences of marginalization. SEVA’s enduring efforts to ease community access to city, state, and federal services, coupled with its drive for South Asian engagement in immigration reform, signify their integration into the nation’s transformative currents.

In Queens, Sikhism thrives as an emblem of acceptance in diversity. Instead of proselytizing, the faith embraces individuals from various beliefs. Rooted in egalitarian principles, Sikhism champions gender equity and pragmatic action. Addressing gender imbalance, Gurpal Singh’s initiatives champion the creation of a SAWI women’s group within SEVA, nurturing a more balanced representation of concerns.

Navigating Shifting Horizons

As economic migrants populate Queens, grappling with a “transient mentality,” gurdwaras evolve into dynamic social centers, symbolizing the establishment of a new homeland through tradition, familial support, and communal investment.

Engaging within their social circles, Sikhs actively partake in traditional pursuits, nurturing their families, and investing in expanding their communal centers. This burgeoning landscape serves as a testament to the forging of a new home, rich with promise and possibility.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Khalsa Vox or its members.

Parminder Singh Sodhi

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