The Spectrum: Sikhism needs a safe space, on campus and nationally

Asha Sawhney, Columnist

This essay is part of The Spectrum, a weekly forum in our Opinion section for marginalized voices to share their perspectives. To submit a piece for The Spectrum or discuss story ideas, please email [email protected].

Although Halloween is a time of celebration for many, each year Oct. 31 brings painful memories for Sikhs worldwide. Starting in late October of 1984, almost 3,000 Sikhs were massacred in four days in India, mostly in the capital region of Delhi. These killings were in response to a series of tragic events in which Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered an operation to rid the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs, of a Sikh militant group taking residence there. Thousands of men, women and children, were gunned down for the crimes of a few. In retaliation, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards, and immediately after her death every Sikh in Delhi became a target for murder by the Congress Party, the police force and rioting civilians. My father was studying engineering in Delhi at the time, but luckily the Indian Institute of Technology kept him safe.

I could talk about the events of 1984 for days, but that is not the focus of what I want my peers at Northwestern to understand. Instead, I want my peers to understand the difficulty of being an underrepresented, silenced and erased minority on this campus. Sikhism is the fifth largest religion in the world with about 30 million adherents, yet there is not a single class focused on our religion or population at NU. It is unlikely for Sikhs to even be mentioned in South Asian history, despite being violently affected by the Partition of India, one of the world’s largest forced relocations. Likewise, there is no student group or religious staff for Sikh students to access, and it was only this year upon my request, that Sikhism was mentioned in the Diversity and Inclusion Essential NU. The frustrating truth is that every one of us accepted our erasure long ago. I saw confirmation of this when Sikh students slowly stood up in surprise at the ENU, after making themselves comfortable with the expectation that they would not be called to stand. We grew up with history textbooks that blatantly denied our religion, and attempted to wash us over with Hinduism, India’s majority religion, so why would college be any different?

Having no representation or resources on campus takes a physical toll on me as a Sikh student, because there is no space for me to talk through the pain of experiencing Islamophobia. Despite not being Muslim, Sikhs face Islamophobia at astonishing rates due to post-9/11 reactions to the turbans (dastar) that many men and some women proudly wear to go along with our often, but not always, uncut hair. The statistics are utterly depressing. According to the Sikh Coalition, 83 percent of Sikhs have been or are close to someone affected by a hate crime, around half of Sikh children face bullying based on their religion and nearly 1 in 10 Sikh adults in New York have been violently assaulted since 9/11. To add to the wounds, in 2012, a white supremacist gunned down six people just over an hour away from Evanston at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. When I go there to pray, I still imagine what the walls looked like when they were soaked with blood.

Here’s the thing — I want to see change. I desperately do. But I’m tired. I’m tired of never seeing my religion represented except when I ask for it to be. I’m tired of running through the bullet points of my religion, because it’s unfair to distill a beautiful faith based on revolutionary equality into digestible, “easy,” facts. I want to see a student group for us, but I know in my heart it would require hundreds of hours of my time to create that I don’t have.

Therefore, until I find these hundreds of hours, all I want is for students on this campus to take the initiative to educate themselves. Look up our faith, find out where the gurdwara nearest to your hometown is and lend a helping hand when you see either us or our Muslim brothers and sisters being treated like the enemy. I haven’t provided bullet points on our beliefs here on purpose. And to my fellow Sikhs, I hope you read this and know our identity, culture and pain deserve affirmation. And if you’re looking to chat with someone who shares part of your story, please reach out.

Asha Sawhney is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.