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History of the Sikhs in the United States and the Challenges They Face

Even though it is a considerably old religion, very few people in the world have heard of Sikhism. Among the few, who have heard of it, a majority still do not understand the Sikh religion, and what Sikhism stands for. The ignorance of the international community and especially the American population, has led to the alienation of the Sikh community and the perpetration of numerous human injustices against its members (“History of Sikh diaspora in Canada and USA,” n.d.).

Being a minority, Sikhs had to struggle against hate speech and other hate crimes. They have often been mistaken for Muslims or Iran nationals. This has resulted into Sikhs being on the receiving end of the hate and malice directed towards the Muslim and Iranian communities, following the terrorist activities linked to the members of these communities. They have, however, tried to and still try to mingle in with the American population and make the American soil feel like home (Mann, 2004).

Despite their various struggles, the Sikh community has made head way in ensuring that they settle in American. They have formed coalitions and different associations in a bid to educate the general population on their history, religion and what they stand for as a minority group (Maryada, 2011).


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The purpose of this paper is to examine the history of the Sikh community, their immigration and settlement process into the United States soil. Additionally, the paper will also analyze their cultural and religious practices, the challenges they face, their achievements and other milestones made by the community throughout their stay in the United States.

History of the Sikhs and Sikhism

Members of the Sikh society are often misunderstood and mistreated. This is due to the ignorance of people all around the world. Sikhs are often mistaken for Muslims, Indians or to have come from an Arab country. This misconception is caused by the turban they wear on their heads. Ignorant people automatically assume that Sikhs are connected to and are the supporters of the Taliban and, therefore, terrorists (Maryada, 2011).

Sikhs are a small society originally from agricultural Punjab in India, often referred to as the bread basket of India. Contrary to popular beliefs, the Sikh religion does not in any way borrow from the Hindu or Islamic religions that it is believed to have stemmed from. Sikhism and consequently the Sikh community were founded by Guru Nanak, born in 1469. His teachings were based on peace, love and understanding.  The religion was later cemented by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699 (Mann, 2004).

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The Sikh empire later took a military stand. It was properly established in the late  18th century. During this period, the Mughal Empire had fallen, leaving behind a power vacuum, thus, a state of political unrest in Punjab.  The empire expanded and grew into a prosperous dynasty under the military leadership of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who came into power on the 12th of April, 1801 (Zoll, 2012).

Maharaja Ranjit Singh expanded the Sikhs’ territory in the west to Khyber and Kashmir to the north. To the east of the territory, he expanded the territory to Tibet and Sindh to the south.    The empire constituted of three religions, namely Islam, Sikhism and Hinduism, with Muslims being the majority. The fall of the Mughal Empire allowed the Dal Khalsa, the Punjabi Army, to take over and control different parts of the former Mughal Emperor. In order to have a stable empire, the Maharajah’s rule disbanded the armies. The move to disband the armies brought forth a more unified political empire (Mann, 2004).

However, the empire came to an end after the death of Maharaja. The end of the empirical rule by Sikhs was riddled with war and a series of betrayals. The first war between the British Empire and the Punjabi armies was dubbed the ‘Night of Terror’ due to the heavy losses incurred by the British army during the night attach. The British government contemplated conceding defeat but received helpful information on the battle strategies of the Punjabi army from Maharaja Gulab Singh and his counterpart Dhian Singh, who were top generals in the Punjabi army. Such betrayal led to the fall and dissolution of the Sikh empire in 1849 after the second war between the British army and the Punjabi army (Maryada, 2011).

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As a religion, Sikhism is based on discipline of the followers of the religion. Its main area of concern is the equality between all men and women (“History of Sikh diaspora in Canada and USA,” n.d.). For this reason, the caste system practiced by the Hindu religion is looked down upon and discredited by Sikhism. It is governed by three major practices:

  • Prayer and meditation upon God
  • Living by honest means
  • Sharing

The faith dates back as far as 500 years ago, when Guru Nanak received a message from God in form of a vision; his teachings were later passed down to nine other gurus, namely “Guru Angad, Guru Amar Das, Guru Ram Das, Guru Arjan, Guru Har Gobind, Guru Har Rai, Guru Tegh Bahadur, and finally Guru Gobind Singh” (Mann, 2004). The latter, Guru Gobind Singh, cemented the practices and the identity of Sikhs, when he appointed the Khalsa, the pure community. These were five chosen people that were baptized by Guru Gobind Singh. Before his death, he called an assembly of Sikhs that had a positive turn out with about 80000 Sikhs attending the meeting. He showcased a sword asking for people to volunteer as heads (“History of Sikh diaspora in Canada and USA,” n.d.).

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The five that volunteered were baptized and named the Khalsa. He later gave Sikhs guidelines to serve as a sense of identity. He also gave them the Guru Granth Sahib, which is a collection of all the writings and teachings of his predecessors. This was done as a means of offering equality to people on a spiritual level. He abolished the human form of Gurus in order to enable the reading of the Guru Granth Sahib in any Sikh temple anywhere (“Introduction to sikhism,” 2011).

Culture and identity of the Sikhs

The culture and identity of the Sikh people is often thought to have descended from the Islamic or Hindu religion. This is due to the fact that like Muslims and Indians, Sikhs wear turbans, as well. However, while turbans were worn by the elite males and those from high castes as a sign of wealth and prestige, Sikhs wear turbans as a form of identity and equality. Guru Gobind Singh instructed all Sikhs to wear turbans as a source of identity and pride in their heritage (“Introduction to sikhism,” 2011). He also broke the social barriers brought about by the caste system practiced by Indians. In requiring both men and women to wear a turban, he provided a platform for women and men to be viewed as equals in the society. Despite this form of equality provided by Guru Gobind Singh, very few women tie a turban around their hair to date.

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Apart from the turban, Guru Gobind Singh required all men among Sikhs to adopt the Suffix Singh, which means lion, and women to adopt the suffix Kaur, which means princess. He did so in order to abolish the discrimination of different people due to their names. This was in reference to the Indian culture, where a name was a representation of a caste. By breaking the barrier of social class and gender, Sikhs were now free to intermingle and do so without fear (“Introduction to sikhism,” 2011).  

He also gave them a physical identity that had spiritual significance to them. Sikhs do not cut their hair throughout their lives. The uncut hair is taken to be a gift from God. He also gave them a comb for the uncut hair. Therefore, Sikhs comb their hair twice in one day in order to remove the dead hair, remain neat and maintain good hygiene. With the purpose of showing their commitment to the beliefs and ideologies of their faith, Sikhs were given a steal bracelet (Zoll, 2012). This signified the reality, in which they live in: one with no indicated starting point or ending point. A sword was also given to Sikhs by Guru Gobind Singh. The purpose of the sword was to signify the dedication of the disciples and followers of Sikhism to upholding justice. Knee-length breeches were given in order to maintain the disciplined fashion, in which the Sikhs lived. For the young boys, a turban meant for covering their untouched hair is substituted with simple fabric tied in a top knot on their heads (Mann, 2004).

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Sikhism and its Practices

Unlike Hinduism, Sikhism is centered on one supreme and timeless God. It is a religion based on equality, prayer, honesty, humility and sharing. As a religion, it views all people as one and teaches about a single God for all people, regardless of their gender, age, sex, nationality, religion or even race. Sikhism teaches that the purpose of life is to become one with God through living in an exemplary manner. In order to do so, God must be included in everything one does; one must try to avoid sinning and try to lead a virtuous life (Maryada, 2011). One must also strive to find a balance between his or her spiritual duty and all other duties bestowed upon him or her. To achieve this merger, Sikhs believe that practices, such as fasting, renunciation of material things and other aspects of the world, celibacy amongst others, are futile. They believe that the best way to become one with God is through a life of simplicity likened to that of a householder (Mann, 2004).

Rituals and religious practices, such as fasting, idol worshiping, necromancy, pilgrim visits to locations that are thought to have religious significance, such as Mecca among others, are looked down upon and discouraged. They are considered to be blind rituals, therefore, are discouraged in Sikhism (“Introduction to sikhism,” 2011).

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It teaches equality from a racial front to that of gender. In Sikhism, unlike other religions, women are allowed to take part in all religious ceremonies and can preside over any ceremony, as well as lead people in prayer. The religion has no priests as Guru Gobind Singh found them to be corrupt and proud. Therefore, he abolished the priest hood and in their place put custodians of the Guru Ghanth Sahib. In doing so, every Sikh now had the power to read the teachings of the Gurus represented in the Guru Ghanthi Sahib in any of the Sikh temples.

Life of the Sikhs in the United States and their Challenges

After the collapse of the Sikh Empire in 1849, there was a struggle to partition India. However, the actual partitioning was done in 1947. During this period, strife ensued between Sikhs and Muslims that lead to the migration of the Punjabi Sikhs to the west side of Punjab.

The migration of the Sikhs from Punjabi to the United States started from 1920. The Sikh population in Canada was less than 200 by the late 1940’s. This is because of the restrictions on the number of immigrants allowed in the country per year. When the number of immigrants allowed in the country per year was raised from the then 150 persons, including spouses and children, to 300 persons in a year, the population of Sikhs was found to be over 2000 people by the year 1965 (Maryada, 2011).

Initially, the Sikh immigrants were construction workers on railway construction projects, laborers on other projects. Due to their agricultural background, most of them found employment in the agricultural sector. Some started working on fruit farms, while others found employment on dairy farms. In addition, some were employed in the lumbering industry, while others found themselves in small retail businesses. While working in the farms, some of Sikhs were able to acquire farms of their own, thus, providing the employment and empowerment to others (“Introduction to sikhism,” 2011).     

Despite living amongst people of other cultures, interacting with them at places of work, entertainment spots and on other forums, very few people know what Sikhism is all about. A substantially small amount of people understands their religion and culture and its origins (“History of Sikh diaspora in Canada and USA,” n.d.). They are often mistaken to be of the Arabic or Indian decent. This has seen them undergo endless discrimination in their places of work, with some claiming that they have been asked to remove their turbans when at work.  This discrimination is also felt in other places, such as airports, where they are harassed by airport authorities, since they are associated with terrorism.

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Hate crimes towards the people of the Sikh community escalated after the terrorist attack on the United States soil on the 11th of September 200,1when the twin towers were bombed. They have been forced to live in fear not only due to external attacks, but due to attacks from their fellow Americans, as well. They have been a target for vengeful and ignorant people, who seek to settle the score with terrorists. It is such misunderstandings that caused the shooting, injuring and killing of innocent Sikhs on the 5th of august 2012 at a Sikh temple in Washington.

Such attacks on the basis of mistaken identities have been a plight of the members of the minority Sikh community living in the United States for centuries with little to noting being done about them (Mann, 2004).

Such hateful crimes have led to the formation of coalitions and associations by Sikhs in order to fight for their human rights, while educating the global society on their culture and tradition, as well as their religion and the ideologies and beliefs it represents (“History of Sikh diaspora in Canada and USA,” n.d.).

Achievements of the Sikh Community

When they first migrated into the United States soil, Sikhs were laborers and farm workers with no voice and no political representation. With time, Sikhs have established themselves on the business front as successful business men and women, on the political front and have also asserted themselves in the fight for justice, equality and other human rights.

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On the political front, Dalip Singh Saund made history by being the first Sikh from East India to be appointed to the House of Representatives in the United States. He paved way for other Sikhs to join the political world and contest for elective posts in public offices. In December 2001, another Sikh was elected to the Vernon board of Education on a four year contract. Amarjit Singh Buttar was later selected to head the board as its chairman (“Introduction to sikhism,” 2011).

Following the endless discrimination and humiliation of Sikhs, the Sikh Coalition organization was born. Its aim was to combat the violence being perpetrated towards the Sikh community, educate the global society on the Sikh religion and culture with the purpose of making them understand their peaceful nature and the reasons behind their turbans. The Coalition also sought to fight the injustices done to Sikhs and fight for the human rights of other Sikhs and Americans alike (“History of Sikh diaspora in Canada and USA,” n.d.).

In a bid to achieve its purpose, the Coalition entered into a partnership with the department of justice and transportation in order to stop the hate crimes perpetrated against the Sikhs. Partnering with the department of transportation was aimed at reducing profiling and discrimination at airports. It came up with a system that allows person from any nationality and race to report any injustices they feel have experienced towards them to the police (Zoll, 2012).

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Sikhism is a religion governed by peace, understanding, honesty, love and selflessness. Yet, the followers of this religion, Sikhs, are subjected to discrimination and stigmatization due to their appearance. Their turban is a sign of pride. Sikhs wear their turbans to show that they are proud of their religion, their decent and their heritage.  

Like any minority or marginalized population, Sikhs are trying to reach out to the world and educate it about their culture and way of life. Despite their challenges and struggles with being accepted by the society, they have managed to make head way in different spheres, such as educational and political, as well as business sectors (“History of Sikh diaspora in Canada and USA,” n.d.).

It is up to the global society to stop stereotyping people with different views and beliefs from the majority and start accepting the beauty of diversity in order to create a healthy, peaceful and loving society, where all feel welcomed.



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