Relevance of Education & Awareness Month November designated by California to Guru Nanak Prakash Utsav

The Sikh council of Central California celebrated Sikh Awareness month November ACR 25 (Wieckowski) dedicated to Guru Nanak Prakash Utsav at Kerman Unified School District, Kerman, California on November 16, 2013. The conversational type seminar was attended by Superintendents of Kerman and Selma Unified School District, Superintendent Fresno County Office of Education, State Superintend Office of Public Instruction, President Fresno City Council, Chairperson Fresno Council of Governments, Sikh Research Institute, Sikh Coalition and Jakara amongst others. The multi functional school hall was almost filled with School going children, parents and teachers and principals from various schools. The introductory speech given by me as the Sikh Council of Central California(SCCC) Coordinator Education and Awareness Program explaining the relevance of education and awareness month of November to Guru Nanak Prakash Utsav follows:

Good morning ladies and gentlemen!

We are celebrating some historic milestone achievements today. The Governor has signed the Curriculum Revision bill last year requiring public schools to teach about Sikhism in California. California law now shares with the Sikh American community the belief and necessity to ensure that California represents the diverse cultures of the world in our textbooks accurately. We at the SCCC  strongly believe that is the only way to ensure California’s children may develop an appreciation and understanding of contributions made by groups integral to the rich fabric of California’ culture.

Also November has been signed into law as Sikh Awareness and Appreciation month since 2010. We couldn’t be more pleased and happier to dedicate this month of Assembly Concurrent Resolution, in short ACR 25 on education and awareness to GNPU, as we have been doing it for the past 3 years since 2010. On behalf of the Sikh Council of Central California, whose members have been working very hard along with other like minded organizations and activists to achieve all this, a warm welcome to all in attendance! We greatly value your presence and appreciate your priceless time to join us on this occasion.

November is an auspicious month for Indians of many faiths, including Hindus, Jains and particularly for Sikhs. The founder of the Sikh religion, Guru Nanak, was born in November 1469. Being a great teacher and a keen learner himself, he compared knowledge with light and life and likened ignorance with darkness and death. He travelled extensively, with many stories of his travels compiled in the Janamsakhis. One of my favorite stories is a story illustrating that there is always room for wisdom. One of the places Guru Nanak travelled to was Multan, a city in west Punjab now in Pakistan. It was known for having a disproportionate number of ascetics and holy men, which is why the famous saying about Multan is so popular even today:

ਚਾਰ ਚੀਜ਼ੇਂ ਤੋਹਫ਼ਾ ਏ ਮੁਲਤਾਨ ਅਸਤ,
ਗਰਦ-ਓ-ਗਰਮਾ, ਗਦਾ, ਗੋਰਿਸਤਾਨ, ਅਸਤ| meaning There are four things Multan is known for: Dust, Heat, Ascetics and Graveyards.

When Guru Nanak visited Multan, the holy men felt threatened that he was encroaching upon their territory. They felt there were already enough Holy men in Multan and that they didn’t need any more, so they sent him a non-threatening message by offering him a bowl of milk filled up to its brim, without any room for more milk. Guru Nanak immediately understood the message and instead of feeling threatened, he sensed their concern. He didn’t drink from the bowl; instead he took a jasmine flower from his pocket and placed it on top of the milk. It floated onto the surface. He returned the milk to the Holy Men, who understood the message and respected the method of delivery. The message is still as apt today as it was back then: there is always room for more wisdom and having more information can only serve to make things more diverse and interesting. And that is how the curriculum revision, and education and awareness month November is relevant to Guru Nanak Prakash Utsav .

Another reason November is so important to Sikhs is also rooted in history. We celebrate Bandi Shodh Divas in November when in 1619, the sixth Guru Har Gobind Sahab was released from jail along with 52 other political prisoners who had been imprisoned by the Moughal Emperor Jehangir. We celebrate Guru HarGobind’s actions to the Sikh commitment towards human rights.

Interestingly and in the same vein the City Council and the Mayor of Astoria-Oregon, issued a अproclamation last month commemorating the centennial celebration of the Founding of the Ghadar party, when the Punjabi Sikh pioneers in the early 20th century, along with other fellow Indians working in the Columbia River Basin, met at the Finnish Socialist Hall in Astoria in 1913 and formed the Ghadar party. Thousands of its supporters living in America and Canada at that time returned to India and inspired the countrymen to fight for the independence from Britain which was achieved in 1947. The Astoria proclamation recognizes the Ghadrites, who fought and died not only for the freedom of their home country India, but also for the innate rights of the immigrant worker to lead a dignified and discrimination free life here in America. So this year 2013 was also the 100 year anniversary of this historic meeting which recognizes the universal right of sovereign nations to independence and self rule. The Astoria City Council and Mayor Willis Van Dusen organized a seminar for two days on 4-5 October last month that included panel discussion, film screening and walking tours and concluded with the dedication of a plaque installed in the name of the Ghadrites at the Columbia Riverside walk in a park situated right in front of the historic Finnish Socialist Hall site in Astoria, where the Ghadar party was born in 1913.

The spirit of Abraham Lincoln’s speech as reaffirmed in his famous Gettysburg Address of 1863 that inspired the modern world and the Ghadrites at that time said: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These American ideals then inspired the Ghadrites who were predominantly Punjabi Sikhs, as these are not far removed from the Sikh ideals which incidentally, are the fundamentals of human rights anywhere in the world.

Brief history for the benefit of those who may not be familiar with these Assembly Concurrent Resolutions in short called (ACR’s): How did they come about? 

In the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy, those perceived to look like the enemy, included South Asians, Arabs, Muslims of all nationalities, with the brunt of the attacks placed on the Sikhs with turbans and beards. It has become a normal part of a Sikh boy’s school experience to be called “Osama,” or “terrorist,” along with other religious based bullying. Several Sikh men have been murdered or attacked in hate crimes, starting just a few days after September 11th, and continuing even today. California has signed the curriculum revision into law and proclaimed November Sikh Awareness and Appreciation Month in a valiant effort to educate people about who the Sikhs are, and to introduce some of our core beliefs.

This year ACR 25 (Wieckowski) was authored and presented on the Assembly floor by Assembly member Bob Wieckowski from the Bay Area with Assembly member Dan Logue as its principal Coauthor. Our local Assembly members from the Central Valley Henry Perea, Jim Patterson, Frank Biglow and several other Assembly members supported the Resolution with powerful speeches on the Assembly floor and became its Coauthors when asked by the Speaker of the House. With a powerful support from the Senate Majority leader Ellen Corbett, it sailed through the senate the next day.  So the ACR 25 was passed with a unanimous vote across the party lines as members from both parties became its Coauthors and strongly spoke in its support. It is worth mentioning here that the pre-runner of ACR 25 was also the Resolution passed by your own Sikh Council of Central California last year in its annual celebration of the Sikh Awareness Month November 2012 which was celebrated at the Lincoln High School in Selma.

Question now is how to take this law on to a next level:

While we greatly appreciate this initiative that the State of California has begun, an area of improvement is to create more of an impact through education in public schools and city administrations for the general public. The big question is:
1. Who should take the responsibility for implementation?
2. Most importantly, what more is expected from the community?

On the other hand, one of the strengths of these ACRs is that it is linked to the politics of post-9/11 America: notably the targeting of those who vaguely look like the enemy, and ironically none of the hijackers look like bearded or turbaned Sikhs, who are victims of hate crimes as a matter of routine.

Finally, awareness efforts through events such as this one in Kerman or last year in Selma and in Caruthers the year before, cannot in and of themselves change the continuing mindset and offset harm of designating its minorities as outside the American nation or as suspect or foreign, and thus dangerous.  But it starts with a platform to be heard and for the conversation to  deepen and be ongoing, to educate not just others about who we are, but to educate ourselves, our children, and others. Whenever tragedy strikes, we often scramble to find ways of telling the world who we are not, rather than who we are. And that is a good place to start. And this is the best venue to meet.

On this note, I ask the first speaker to please take the floor and make the presentation.

The conversational type seminar including power point presentations lasted with a pin drop silence for almost three hours. Paraphrasing Fresno County Curriculum Advisor Dr. Catania, representing the Fresno County Office of Education, ” I am  going back with a lot of valuable information from the enlightening presentations and I commend the SCCC for organizing such events.” Dr. Catania had attended a similar event organized by the SCCC last year at the Lincoln Elementary Middle School in Selma.

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