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Poet, Singer, and Activist

Fighting Our Own Battles: Using Technology to Educate People on The Sikhs!

Posted by on Jul 28, 2014 in Discussion | 0 comments

safe_image.phpIt always pleases me when I see organizations like SALDEF (Sikh American Legal Fund) stepping up to actively educate people about the the Sikh turban. It seems like it’s an ongoing series of battles, even though we have been living here in America for over a century!

Caused primarily by ignorance and misunderstanding, several community activists and Sikh American organizations are actively engaged to overcome this bias by spreading awareness and educate our fellow American brothers and sisters. They are working with the legislators, educators and other community leaders and organizations. Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, SALDEF has launched a historic new media initiative on behalf of Sikh Americans, with first ever PSA (Public Service Announcement) by a Sikh American – Waris Ahluwalia, an actor, writer, and designer. Please take a moment to view it above and you can read more about the initiative HERE

Under different circumstances and in a different land, the Sikh turban has a long history representing a revolutionary voice against oppression, ever since Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion donned it the first time more than 500 years ago. Below is a video slide show of my Punjabi poem “ਪੱਗ ਦੀ ਸਾਂਝ,” (Pag di Saanjh with English subtitles): a Tribute to the Sikh Turban that I sang to add to this dialogue and hopefully instill pride, respect, and understanding in its history and all it represents.

The importance of not only educating others, but educating ourselves on the history of the Sikh turban and contextualizing it is especially important today when it has become almost a standard part of a Sikh boy’s educational experience to be called “Osama,” or “terrorist,” simply because people don’t know who the Sikhs are or what the turban represents.

Sikhs have been in the United States for over a century. It’s about time our fellow Americans knew!

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Singing All the Way, The Sikh Journey in America is on the Move now ; Gurpreet Singh Sarin, ” The Turbanator ” On American Idol

Posted by on Jan 24, 2013 in Discussion | 0 comments

I was very happy to see a young Sikh American named Gurpreet Singh Sarin nicknamed ‘ Turbanator ’ on American Idol. He has set out to spread Sikh Awareness in his own artistic way.  I had recently watched him on American Idol. Gurpreet appears to have decided to sing it all the way!  As I watched this video, I couldn’t help but think back to a few months ago when I attended the Western Scholars Conference 2012: Sikh journey in America, hosted at University of the Pacific, Stockton, California. In celebration of the centennial anniversary of Stockton Gurduara, founded in October 24, 1912, the conference was organized by the Sikh-American Research Center of the Pacific Coast Khalsa Diwan Society and Stockton Gurduara Centennial Committee. I had driven down to the conference with my wife and we were both very appreciative of the Sikh American youth volunteers from local schools, colleges and universities, who welcomed the guests at the registration front desk with a genuine smile, and conducted and moderated presentations in a timely and professional manner. It is very uplifting to my spirits to know that this generation is taking up the mantel and does not run everything with Indian Standard Time!

The conference understandably, revolved around the founding of the Stockton Sikh Temple and the formation of the Ghadar Party in 1912/13 in California.  We were delighted to see the conference hall packed and well attended with more than a dozen distinguished speakers, who made thought provoking power point presentations. Although I did not agree with some of the scholars who in their own dramatic way, tried to redefine the Ghadarites, their motives and thus rewrite the history as if it were. My attention was specifically drawn to the presentation by Dr. Harold A. Gould, of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Referring to the Oakcreek Sikh Temple tragedy, he said that no one could even pronounce the name of our religion properly when the news first came out that an unidentified gunman had murdered five members of the Sikh faith within the confines of their temple in a Milwaukie suburb in Wisconsin. He went on to say that most Americans, and even most members of the press, had no accurate idea of who and what the Sikhs are. Media reporters couldn’t pronounce the community’s name properly-calling them ‘Seeks’ or some variation of that. “At most,” he had said, “they probably knew that Sikhs are originally from some part of India, who came to this country, God knows how and when, as immigrants of some kind. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney more than once called them “Sheiks”(a Muslim term for an Arab leader) instead of “Sikhs”(the name of their cultural community)!” These words repeated in my head as I watched the Turbanator very funnily charm Nicky Minaj by telling her he had a turban the color of her hair!

Following a huge backlash of Oakcreek, where many condemned this heinous crime at Milwaukee with pouring in of sympathy and goodwill from all quarters –from marching down City Hall to the White House. There started to be a lot of talk about the Sikhs in America in the media, and an honest look at who we are. A significant legislation pertaining to Sikh Awareness and to include necessary information about Sikhi in the Public School Curriculum in California which had been kept at the back burner for years was swiftly passed by the legislature, largely because of this media attention. Equally swiftly it was signed in to law by the California Governor Jerry Brown last year in November 2012. There is a long way to getting it all right but at least, American press and general public now can finally pronounce the name right.

It takes a century, tragic and ironical as it is, the proverbial Duddu (frog) is finally out of the well and well into the main stream America. The Sikh journey in America and beyond is now on the move. But where did it all begin? As Sikhs living in the Diaspora especially in America, do we really appreciate it or are we really even fully aware of it? That has to go back to the Ghadrites era or even before, when the circumstances drove ordinary field and saw-mill Indian workers (called Hindoos) to become radicalized and began to turn to human right activists and Ghadrites. But that is the subject of a separate post.

While it may not seem like Gurpreet Singh Sarin, “The Turbanator,” is a cultural or religious ambassador for Sikhs or Sikh-Americans, I believe he is presenting a wonderful message to all Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike. That we are all human and you should never judge a book by its cover. During the time of Guru Gobind Singh and during the struggle for Independence, it was time to take up arms. In the 21st century, today, may be it is time to pick up the ‘Rabab’ again and sing! Let us wish American Idol hopeful, Gurpreet Singh Sarin “The Turbanator,” the best of luck in his creative endeavour and for presenting a loving and wonderful image of Sikhs to the world! As always let me know your thoughts on my face book or on my website:

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Baba Nanak and his place in World History

Posted by on Dec 25, 2012 in Discussion | 0 comments


Guru Nanak Dev Ji: First Guru of the Sikhs and Bhai Mardana

Guru Nanak Dev Ji and Bhai Mardana

Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), an Italian explorer who sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in the 15th century, with mighty ships propelled by the might of no less than the King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella of Spain travelled around the world and discovered America; the country that was always there. For this, Columbus got a place in the framework of World History & Social Science in the School Books.

Early in the 16th century, in less than ten years, one fevered German monk named Martin Luther (1483-1546) plunged a knife into the heart of an empire that had ruled for a thousand years, and set in motion a train of revolution, war and conflict that would reshape Western civilization, and lift it out of the Dark Ages. Martin Luther became an important figure of the Protestant Reformation was rewarded with a prominent place in the World History Books.

Baba Nanak (1469-1539) on the other hand and in a distant land almost at the same time in the dark and foggy ages of the East, not only lighted up the path and walked on this earth but literally walked the Earth, with his two feet and a ‘Rabab.’  He set out to achieve and did what was never done before or after. He gave rise to nine more Nanaks and a new philosophy  now known as Sikhi enshrined in Sikh Scripture called Guru Granth, the eternal Guru adding to the family of world religions along the way in 239 years that followed .  Few if any men have changed the course of history like Baba Nanak did. Illama Iqbal a great Muslim poet (philosopher) of all time,  said it all when he wrote, “
Phir Uthi Aakhir Sada Tauheed Ki Punjab Se,
Hind ko Ek Mard-e- Kamil Ne Jagaya Khawab Se.”
(Again from the Punjab the call for monotheism arose,
A perfect man roused Indian sub continent from slumber.)

But Baba Nanak is known somewhat in the East only and is waiting to be discovered by the western world.

There have been many visionaries, explorers, and revolutionaries well documented in history books, which remain in our consciousness many years after we leave school. That is where it all begins. Growing up in Bhakna, I remember listening to stories of heroism by Ghadarites like Kartar Singh Sarabha and revolutionaries like Shaheed Bhagat Singh from Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna.  I had also heard  sakhis of Baba Nanak and stories about Sikh Shaheeds like everyone else growing up in a Sikh family. It wasn’t until many years later however, that I began to fully understand about Baba Nanak, Sikhi and Gurbani better by reading more of it and about it in academic articles in obscure magazines or books that contained more concrete historical facts. While the achievements of the Ghadarites have been usurped by others, nobody could ever lay claim to anything Baba Nanak has been documented to have achieved. Since Baba Nanak’s revolutionary act of defiance by rejecting the threading ceremony, the caste system, and making the radical claim of monotheism, human rights that all men and women are created equal, he exposed and confronted the hypocrisy of Mullah and the Pundit who were either silent or working in cahoots with the powers to be which were not only dividing and exploiting the common man under the garb of religion but were downright cruel and ruthless to them.

My son and daughter, who are now married with children, grew up in the west reading history books full of names such as Martin Luther, Christopher Columbus, Vasco-da-Gama, kings and queens. Baba Nanak is only mentioned in certain history books and still remains an enigmatic figure by those who are not Sikh. In the west, he is not known at all. Talking of religions, in the constitution of the United States of America where my family now lives, religion and politics are kept separate. But there is basic information about all the major religions of the world incorporated in the curriculum Framework of History & Social Science taught in the public high schools except the Sikh religion, although we have been here for the past 100 years and have made valuable contributions to make this great country greater.

Recognizing this fact and in order to rectify the situation, the California Legislature celebrated Baba Nanak’s Birthday  by dedicating November as Sikh Awareness and Appreciation Month. A senate bill was also passed which will enable to include basic information about Sikhi in the public school books at par with other religions. More recently, a Northern California congressman honored the state’s longstanding Sikh community by formally acknowledging the Stockton temple’s 100-year anniversary in the Congressional Record. His statement read into the Congressional Record says there is “no religion more attuned to the principles of the American Declaration of Independence than the Sikh religion.”

Celebrating 543rd Guru Nanak Prakash Utsav which was dedicated to Sikh Awareness, dozens of people met inside Lincoln Middle School in Selma, California on November 10, 2012 to listen to the state superintendent of schools, Tom Torlakson. Incharge of 6.3 million students, 10,000 Schools and 1,100 School Districts in California,  Torlakson informed folks that changes are coming to the history and social studies curriculum being taught in our public schools due to the recent passage of senate bill. California Textbooks will feature images and information which tell the story of the Sikh community, “Their contributions over the last 100 years to the economy of California and bringing their strength of values to California,” Torlakson concluded. To read more about this please check it out at:

There are countless documentaries of Shah Jehan and the romanticized vision of Taj Mahal and such likes built on the backs of the common man, detailed documentaries on Jesus Christ, wide coverage of the voyages of Columbus and Vasco-da-Gama but not a single one on the life and travels of Guru Nanak that uses scholarly sources, rather than presenting the same information on books, by Dhadies, Ragis, Kirtanias, Singers and Preachers reading the same old stories.

In this Google age, where books are now read on the internet, a young Punjabi filmmaker, Nawalpreet Rangi, who I got to know through FaceBook is coming out with a documentary film I am looking forward to seeing when it comes out. What I am especially intrigued about him is that it is the first time that someone has attempted  to compile the full spectrum of Baba Nanak’s travels of his lifetime in a visual form, which might give the humanity some inkling how he discovered what he discovered that is so unique to Baba Nanak and his Sikhi that should benefit us all. ‘Der Aiye, Darust Aiye’ (Better late than never).To get some idea what Rangi is attempting to tell in this documentary, please watch his interview on Harpreet Singh’s Show at:








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Religious Diversity in Multicultural America

Posted by on Dec 6, 2010 in Discussion | 0 comments

The other day I was reading a fascinating article in The Economist called One Nation,with Aunt Susan. With so much of the news these days highlighting how our political affiliations or religious leanings divide us, it was refreshing to hear about how our religious diversity is a “powerful source of American unity.” The article discusses the latest work of two social scientists, Robert Putnam and David Campbell from Harvard University and the University of Notre Dame, respectively. Their focus is on “the unifying force” of religion.

My son, Navdeep Singh Dhillon, teaches Writing and Literature at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, one of the most diverse cities in the world where people from virtually every race and religion can be seen. A month or so ago, he showed the class several images, one of those was an image of a turbaned and bearded man for an assignment on identity, and surprisingly every single one of his students thought he was Muslim. They were equally surprised to find out that the man, Tanmit Singh, was  a) American  b) Sikh, not Muslim c) a hip-hop artist!
Despite the misplaced anger and grief some fellow Americans have had towards other Americans of other faiths, particularly after September 11, I have always felt that America, at its core, is a nation that embraces diversity. So I found the question posed in the article very interesting: “Having intense religious beliefs but belonging to many different faiths and denominations as Americans do, could in theory produce an explosive combination. Why doesn’t it? Ask the authors, Messrs Putnam and Campbell.”

As Americans, we have so many different identities that we balance, that it is difficult to relegate it to just one. I am Sikh and I am American. But I am also many other things. As a Punjabi poet, I have a strong tie to Punjabi as a language, but also towards the culture and the ethos of Punjabi culture (Punjabiat). Similarly, a Jewish friend of mine, whose family has lived in America for generations, is American and Jewish, but he also has strong ties to Israel, without ever having lived there. The points that the article brings up is that one reason is that the U.S. Constitution protects it.  But also that a person’s religion provides Americans with a “sort of civic glue, uniting rather than dividing.”

So who is Aunt Susan?

The authors give a lot of credit to Aunt Susan, who they describe as My Friend Al factor. They clarify this by saying, “You befriend Al because, say, of a shared interest in beekeeping, and later learn that he is an evangelical Christian. Having an evangelical Christian in your circle of friends makes you warmer to other religions in general”.
It was an interesting idea, connecting with people through things other than religion, and it took me back a few decades, when I lived in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates.

Pashaura Singh Dhillon

Pashaura Singh Dhillon

As a Senior Landscape Architect, I joined the Dubai Municipality Planning Department in 1987. I was the only turbaned Sikh in the senior management predominantly of Muslims. Although a fresh arrival, since I was a technical advisor on landscape matters, I had frequent meetings with the Director of the Planning Department and, as became evident, was noticed by others in the office, including the secretary and people in personnel, who I was always cordial with. One morning as I was sitting at reception, waiting for the Director to arrive, other sectional heads from the Town planning, Roads, Public health etc also arrived, wished each other good morning in Arabic, and sat quietly in wait. To break the ice, an Egyptian colleague named Mohamed Gad sitting next to me suddenly asked me, “Pashaura Singh. Tell me about your religion and why you wear this thing on your head.” He asked pleasantly but curiously both questions at once.
I was preoccupied thinking about my meeting at the time, and it was not something I was used to answering. I was thunderstruck and momentarily drew a blank. It wasn’t that I didn’t know the answer, but I didn’t know where or how to begin to answer that question without appearing rude, or giving a long history lesson in the significance of the turban and Sikhism, to everyone else in the room, who were also eagerly awaiting my response. But before I could say a word, Zainab, the secretary sitting at the reception desk interrupted. “Mohamed, I do not know his religion either,” she said and paused slightly as if thinking. “but whatever it is,” she continued, “it must be good.” Everyone seemed to be satisfied with this response, including Mohammed. Everyone laughed.  I looked over at her and thanked her for the quick response. Then it was time for the meeting.

But what was interesting about the whole situation was that despite not really knowing about my religion, they knew me in my other identity, as a landscape designer, and as a person, which is why they were satisfied with that response. Many of the friends I made in Dubai who happened to be Muslim became my friends because of shared interests, not through a discussion of religion. We did, of course, talk about our religious beliefs sometimes, but this came much later.

Balbir Singh Sodhi

Balbir Singh Sodhi

On September 11, 2001, I watched the attack on the twin towers on my television and shared the shock, disbelief, and grief of my fellow Americans. A few days later, on September 15, I watched the devastating news that Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh American, had been killed in the first hate crime because of his turban and beard, who many people thought looked like a follower or sympathizer of Osama bin Laden. And my heart sank again.
Americans who “looked” like they were from the Middle East were being attacked, and even though the Sikh religion has nothing to do with the Middle East, Sikh-Americans bore the brunt of it because of their turbans and beards. And ironically, none of the 9/11 hijackers had beards or turbans. Sikhs have lived in the United States for the past 120 years, but were the first people to be attacked after September 11 by fellow Americans. In fact, there were Sikh Americans at Ground Zero, some of whom were there to help rescue people.
This is not the result of any ill-will, but a lack of understanding. And there have been some very positive steps taken to help build bridges. The California Legislature unanimously passed an Assembly Concurrent Resolution 181(Logue) very recently, which will help tremendously to lead to more understanding.  This November was designated Sikh-American Awareness and Appreciation Month in California, a bold step, aimed at recognizing and acknowledging the significant contributions made by Californians of Sikh heritage to our state and afford all Californians the opportunity to understand, recognize and appreciate the rich history, shared principles, religion, faith and role Sikh Americans play in furthering mutual understanding and respect among all peoples. There was an excellent article written on Experience Clovis by Rand Green called Celebrating California Sikh Awareness Month where he uses the analogy of a man accidentally shooting a sheepdog, mistaking it for a wolf, in an attempt to protect the sheep. This was a great analogy to use to segue into talking about the real issues affecting all of us today: a lack of understanding of one another’s beliefs.

Balbir Singh SodhiWhile the death of Sikh-American Balbir Singh Sodhi, the first hate crime after 9/11, there was also a ray of hope. There were many other Americans who knew him as their own Aunt Susan or My Friend, Al. Many of them didn’t know about his religion, but they knew he was a good person simply based on their interaction with him. The outpour of support at his funeral was very moving, where Americans of all colors, and of all religious backgrounds were there to support one another.
And despite how many people may feel about George W. Bush’s politics, the one thing that is undeniable, is that as an American, George Bush made very powerful speeches after 9/11 condemning attacks on other Americans on the basis of their religion, country of origin, and race. He appealed to everyone to take this one element of our identity, being American, and have it unify us, rather than the other elements in our identity to divide us.

Do you think in a multi-cultural, multi-religious society such as the one we live in today, we should do more at the elementary/middle/and high school level, in exposing our younger generation by teaching learning sensitivity of all ethnicities now living in America? As always I would be happy to have your comments.

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It’s Official: November 2010 is Sikh American Awareness and Appreciation Month!

Posted by on Oct 27, 2010 in Discussion, Sikh Council of Central California | 0 comments

Guru Nanak Dev, the founder of Sikhism

Guru Nanak Dev, the founder of Sikhism

Greetings to All on the Guru Nanak Prakash Utsav in the month of November.

Guru Nanak Prakaash Utsav (Celebrating the birth of founder of the Sikh religion) is just around the corner. All over the world wherever the Sikhs now reside, November has traditionally been the month to rejoice. On this auspicious day, there can be no other befitting tribute which may be bestowed to the Guru than the California legislature unanimously passing the Assembly Concurrent Resolution No. 181-Relative to California Sikh American Awareness and Appreciation Month in November 2010. And there can be no other message more powerful for humanity than what the most cherished philosopher/poet Sir Ilama Iqbal, a practicing Muslim, wrote about Guru Nanak:
“Phir Utthi Aakkhr sdaa Touheed Ki Punjab Sey
Hind ko ik Mard-E-Kamil Ne jgaieya Khaab Sey.

I haven’t translated the above yet, but let me know if you would like me to, and I will gladly do so. Readers familiar with the history of India in the 15th century and what the word ‘Khaab’ or khvaab means in this context will understand the sentiment behind the lines.

Despite Sikhism being the youngest of the religions, it is the 5th largest religion in the world. And yet not many people know who the Sikhs really are or what Sikhism is all about. Many people invariably confuse Sikhs with members of the Taliban or disciples of Osama Bin Laden because they equate all turbans as alike. Neither we, as Americans ,nor the entire civilized world can ever forget the terrorist attack of 9-11 on our nation. And ironically, none of the 19 attackers who committed the heinous crime of taking the lives of nearly 3000 totally innocent people had beards or turbans. However, they belonged to Al Qaida, whose leader (Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants) grow beards and wear turbans, as do the Taliban in Afghanistan. They were shown repeatedly by all TV channels.  This led many people to believe that Sikh Americans were one of those terrorists. The mistaken identity caused the hateful cold-blooded murder of Mr. Balbir Singh Sodhi on 9/15/2001 in Mesa, Arizona as well as many “backlash’ crimes that have not been covered in any depth by any national media outlet.

In America, and I am sure in many other countries as well,  Sikh boys have also been and are continued to be harassed in schools by their peers because of their long hair, turbans and patkas. Organizations such as the Sikh Coalition based in New York have taken a great step forward in addressing this issue. These incidents show the need for a greater understanding and educating people about some basic Sikh facts such as the fact that 99.9 % of the men wearing turbans (Pug or Dastaar) in the U.S. are Sikhs, hailing from India. 100% of the boys wearing mini turbans (patkas) and having unshorn hair are maintaining their Sikh identity.

Sikhism is not a branch of another religion. It is a monotheistic religion  founded in Punjab, India 540 years ago by Guru Nanak. It has approximately 26 million followers worldwide, largely living in Punjab, and is the 5th largest world religion. Sikhs have been in the U.S. for over 100 years and approximately number 700,000 of which nearly 40% live in California.

Sikh Temple in Stockton

Sikh Temple in Stockton

The first Sikh Temple in Stockton was built in 1912 by the Sikhs who later played a significant role in the freedom of India movement better known as Ghadar movement. Sikhs have served in all American wars, starting with Bhagat Singh Thind in  WWI. Some 85,000 Sikhs died fighting for the freedom of others in Europe during the wars they did not start or want. The first Asian American to be elected to the U.S. Congress, Dalip Singh Saund  (1956-1962), was a Sikh. And the serving Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh, who as the US President Barak Obama put it, “ when he speaks, world listens,” is a Sikh. Sikhs are enterprising and are in all professions from farming to fiber optics and everything in between.

Mine is not a mission in preaching a particular religion to the multiethnic and multicultural readers but the Sikhs need to use all possible means of educating the general public about who they are and ensure that their identity is not to be mistaken or abused. If this was the case with any other community, I as a poet and singer would appreciate it and support their effort the same way.

California Legislature recognized and acknowledged the significant contributions made by Californians of Sikh Heritage and has adopted the aforementioned ACR 181 (Logue). This measure seeks to afford all Californians the opportunity to better understand, recognize the rich history and shared principles of family values, monotheism, the tenants of Sikh faith and the important role that the Sikh Americans play in furthering mutual understanding and respect among all peoples. This ACR 181 Resolution – Relative to Sikh Awareness and Appreciation Month, a shot in the arm so to speak, couldn’t have come at a better time if not too late for the auspicious day in November 2010, coinciding with the 541st Guru Nanak Prakash Utsav.

Contributing to this effort as a humble Sikh, permit me to draw your attention to my poem ‘Pag di Saanjh’; A tribute to the Sikh turban (Dastar/pag/pagri). Explaining the historical background, symbolism, struggle, sacrifice and successes against all odds, the poem is set to my voice and moving images by my son Navdeep Singh Dhillon. As always, I welcome your comments.

p.s. The story behind this Kavita ie, ‘Kavita di Kahani’ will follow in a later blog.

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