9/11 hate crime victim not sore any moreAugust 29th, 2008 - 12:18 pm ICT by IANS
New Delhi, Aug 29 (IANS) Eight years after 9/11, Rajinder Singh “Bammi” Kalra feels like a true American. The hate crime victim has come to terms with the trauma he had to undergo after the 2001 terror attacks in the US.Kalra, who has been fighting hate crimes and trying to teach American youngsters that turbaned Sikhs are not Islamic terrorists from the subcontinent, is currently in India to address members of his community at the Golden Temple Sep 1.
“I am a contented man now. My adopted homeland has done justice to me - my assailants are in jail. America has a better judicial system than India,” Kalra told IANS in an interview here.
Kalra recalled that evening when he was returning home with his friends, he found a group of whites beating a Sikh man near Lefferts Boulevard on New York’s 101 Avenue. He stopped his car and tried to rescue the victim. While the victim managed to escape, Kalra was beaten up.
He was punched, kicked and his nose was pummelled out of shape. The doctors gave him a new nose in the hospital. “I passed out. And when I came back to my senses, I was in an ambulance,” the victim of the hate crime said.
“They were drunk and I sued the bar which had served them excess alcohol. It was called Villa Rousseau. The verdict is expected any time now - and they will have to compensate me for the damage,” Kalra said. The money will go to a Sikh charity.
Even two years after 9/11, Sikhs in the US would live in constant fear of being attacked by whites, recalled Kalra. “But it has changed now.”
The country reported a spate of attacks on people of Asian and Middle Eastern origin. Sikhs, who resembled Islamic immigrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East and wore a turban as many Muslims did, were singled out. Verbal abuse was rampant and Asian shrines became the target of racial crime.
A gurdwara at the Sikh Culture Society - one of the largest Sikh places of worship in New York - on Richmond Hill was torched barely a week after 9/11. It is still being rebuilt.
Incidents of hate crimes were galore. A Sikh man, Balbir Singh Sondhi, was shot dead Sep 15, 2001, after being mistaken for a Muslim.
The Civil Rights Division, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and US Attorneys’ offices have investigated over 800 incidents since 9/11 involving vandalism and arson against Arab-Americans, Muslims, Sikhs and South-Asian Americans.
Federal charges have been brought against 42 people, with 35 convictions to date. Additionally, Civil Rights Division attorneys have coordinated with state and local prosecutors in 150 non-federal criminal prosecutions, in many cases providing substantial assistance.
“I remember the day the gurdwara was attacked. I saw it on New York One Channel, which is a minority channel, in the evening. It was a big building; and smoke was billowing out of its ornate portals.
“I immediately telephoned the Punjabi Durbar. It is a social networking centre - which provides lists of 10 Sikh contacts to every volunteer. In two hours, we had mobilised 5,000 Sikh volunteers. They rushed to the shrine, and the mayor of New York City reached too. The firemen doused the blaze in two hours,” Kalra recalled.
But a tourist from Delhi was charred to death. “He had left his passport inside and had gone to fetch it,” Kalra said with a sad smile.
Today, Kalra is a celebrity as one of the pioneering Sikh activists against hate crimes post-9/11. He is the president of the Sikh Recognition Trust of America - with several firsts to his credit. He is also a speaker in several forums, including the New York Crime Forum.
Kalra has been instrumental in getting Diwali official festival status in New York and in introducing a basic module on Sikhism and identification of Sikhs in government-run schools in New York post-9/11.
Now that the post-9/11 hate has mellowed, Sikhs in the US find life easier. “With the years, the horrors have faded. The educated Americans now know the difference between Sikhs and Muslims. They can distinguish between the turbans - the schoolchildren are being taught about the Sikh way of life. It is much easier to cope with stray instances of racial crime now,” said Kalra’s son, 24-year-old Satbir Bammi.
The heightened awareness had led to some white Americans converting to Sikhism. “Even the train driver who managed to save the lives of 500 people at the time when the twin towers of the World Trade Organisation were burning has changed faith. He is a Sikh now and his children are studying in Amritsar,” Kalra said. And American judges are prescribing community service in gurdwaras after jail terms for offenders.
Kalra knows all about hatred. He left India in 1994 after a futile 10-year crusade for the victims of the 1984 Sikh riots in Delhi.
But he is without bitterness. He runs an orphanage in Sonepat where 82 children live. And now, he has found a bride for his son on this trip. “I am taking her back to the US. She need not fear,” he said.