01/11/2015 8:22 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

US-Based Sikhs Take A Stand Against Racist Bullying

The Sikh Coalition

As an immigrant and as a mother I spent many sleepless nights worrying about bullies before my son started pre-school. I steeled myself to prepare him for mean kids.

I acted out scenarios in which I shoved him physically and asked him tough questions. He didn't just pass, he excelled.

And as it turns out, I had nothing to worry about. He was never bullied in his entire school career and a few weeks ago, he started college.

Other kids have not been so lucky.

Earlier this month, the Sikh Coalition triumphantly played a leadership role in launching a national anti-bullying campaign in a landmark partnership with the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI).

Starting in October, designated as the national anti-bullying month, this campaign seeks to raise awareness about bullying and American children. It includes Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, Sikhs, Muslims, LGBTs and immigrants and is meant to empower students, parents, teachers and communities to report, stop and prevent bullying.

The campaign introduces the web resource#ActTochange which features - in multiple languages -- blogs, resources and video testimonials from celebrities, athletes and community members about bullying.

They also released a video.

The Sikh Coalition, an organisation that was formed after the September 2001 attacks, is all too familiar with the bullying of Sikh kids. They have spent years documenting attacks against Sikhs and have observed an ugly pattern of aggression that is based on the fact that people associate their beards and turbans with Muslim terrorists.

They heard reports of several shocking attacks on Sikh kids having their hair cut off or having their turbans pushed off their heads. The organisation had documented many cases but were unable to do anything legally as few of the victims wanted to pursue prosecution.


Sikh kids (Photo: The Sikh Coalition)

Harjot Kaur, 24, a development manager at the organisation, has spent years on studying and filing the stories on bullying. "We have come a long way in raising awareness on bullying. It was seen as a rite of passage but now we are showing it as it is. It's unwanted, hurtful aggressive behaviour towards another," she says. "We are teaching our Sikh kids to grab the power back in the hands. And say 'no more'."

Kaur describes how for years after 9/11 the Sikh community watched helplessly as their children were "physically beaten, mentally tortured and being targets of hate because of the articles of their faith."

A lot of these kids did not want to be approached either by the Sikh Coalition or the media. One incident that received widespread attention involved a Sikh child being harassed on a bus. The boy filmed the incident and the video went viral, but even then his parents refused to speak publicly.

For Japjee Singh, now 17 and in the eleventh grade, the bullying started when he was in the second grade.

As a child, he wore a patka and other kids would crowd around him, taunting him with the same question over and over again. "What's that on your head? Is that a tomato? A cheeseball? A potato? A bomb?" He was also no stranger to hurtful barbs like "you smell like curry" or "are you a girl or a boy?" or "go back to your own country."

The cruelty escalated into physical incidents: One day when the kids were playing kickball, they made Singh into a target. A very small-built kid, he was hit multiple times with the ball before the teacher intervened.

Then in the eighth grade came the incident which his sister Aasees Kaur, 20, describes as the "worst of the worst."

On 4 October 2012, Singh was brutally physically assaulted on school grounds of his Atlanta, Georgia school by another eighth grader, who was egged on by others watching.

Singh had his nose broken, his jaw dislocated and his cheek bones were unattached. Kaur recalls that as he lay on the floor, with his face bloodied, children taunted him and told him to go back to his own country. "It broke our parents' hearts to see how the kids displayed a total lack of compassion," says Kaur. However, Singh's parents, Pejinder Singh, 57, and Harpreet Kaur, 51, declined to press criminal charges. The school suspended the offender for a few days.

Aasees says the student showed no remorse and never apologised. The explanation he gave to why he attacked Singh was "Because I felt like it." After that, Aasees says, something in her brother shifted. "He began to switch away from his faith and from his identity."

The family began to worry about him as he slid into depression and Aasees began to research bullying which led her to the Sikh Coalition.

They worked on Singh's case and secured a landmark settlement with Georgia schools to address bullying based on religion and national origin.

They heard Aasees's plea and with their strong support Singh began to change. He grew more confident and emerged as an advocate against bullying.

He testified before Congress and he spoke at gurudwaras and public meetings to kids and urged them to stand up to bullies.


Japjee Singh testifying before Congress (Photo: The Sikh Coalition)

Singh has decided to discontinue speaking to the media because every time he does so he gets negative attention. Today, Aasees represents the family in the media, but he continues to be active in the cause.

"We are hopeful that the telling of our story will bring change. Our society will be more aware that bullying causes damage and pain to kids and their families and this is wrong. This kind of behaviour must not be tolerated. We want all kids to stand up and say no to bullying today," says Aasees.

A version of this post first ran in The Quint

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