In the aftermath of the shooting, Komal Chohan, the granddaughter of Amarjeet Kaur Johal, who was killed that day, stated, “Enough is enough. Our community has been through enough trauma.” For Sikh Americans across the country, the tragedy in Indianapolis was part of an all too familiar trend of white supremacist violence that Sikhs have faced since they began migrating to the U.S.
Today, there are more than 25 million Sikhs around the world, making Sikhism the fifth-largest religion. An estimated 500,000 Sikhs live in the U.S., with the largest communities on the East and West Coasts. Smaller Sikh communities have grown throughout the country in recent decades in places such as Indianapolis.
Yet, while Sikhs have a long history in this country, they remain little known and often appear in the national discourse only after devastating attacks on the community, and even then only briefly. While the brutality of anti-Sikh violence is part of Sikh American history, so too is a tradition of resilience, resistance and the ongoing pursuit of justice and equality.
Sikhism is a monotheistic religion that emerged more than 500 years ago in the Punjab region of India. Sikhs are distinguishable by their long beards and turbans. The founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, was born in 1469. In response to the discrimination, social inequalities and hierarchies he saw around him, he created a new faith based in the idea that all people are equal and interconnected. Two ideas have made Sikhs central to the struggle against white supremacy: Seva, or service, is a central tenet of Sikhism and Sikhs are taught that their service to humanity is inseparable from their service to God; and, Chardi Kala, an ethos committed to resilience and perseverance in the face of oppression and adversity.
Although Sikh migration to the United States began in the late 19th century, 1904 was the first notable year of South Asian migration to the U.S., with the arrival of 258 migrants. This number steadily increased over the next few years, reaching 1,072 by 1907. About 90 percent of these migrants were Sikhs who hailed from five agricultural districts in Punjab. Their migration was prompted by exploitative economic and politically repressive policies in India under British colonial rule that coincided with capitalist development of the American West, where the railroad, lumber and agricultural industries sought a cheap labor force.
But from the moment they arrived in the United States, Sikhs encountered a deep-seated tradition of anti-Asian racism and white supremacist violence. In the summer of 1907, public agitation against Sikh migrants grew to a fevered pitch in Bellingham, Wash., when an angry mob forcibly drove nearly 200 Sikh workers from the town, dragging many of them from their beds in the barracks of the lumber mills where they were employed, throwing their belongings into the streets, beating them and demanding that they leave Bellingham immediately. White workers in Bellingham blamed Sikhs for taking lumber mill jobs that they saw as theirs and warned that their expulsion of “a tide of turbans” was crucial to protecting and enforcing what were then commonly referred to as “white men’s countries.”
In response to the racial discrimination, violence and exclusion they faced both in India and in the U.S., Sikh migrants organized a broad, heterogeneous and innovative anti-colonial struggle. Organized by the Ghadar Party, this movement was both deeply influenced by U.S. democratic ideals and deeply disillusioned with the inequitable practices of American democracy. Their goal was to free India from British rule and also to resist white supremacy in the U.S.
Composed primarily of Sikh agricultural workers on the West Coast and lumber mill workers in Oregon, Ghadar activists established their headquarters in San Francisco in 1913, where they came to see their fight against British colonialism in India and racism in the United States as part of the same freedom struggle. They organized from the U.S. to fight for an independent India and believed that, in doing so, they would advance freedom across the U.S. and the world. At the start of the First World War, thousands of Ghadar activists from the U.S., Canada, Hong Kong, the Philippines and numerous sites from across the diaspora returned to India to realize their vision of a free and independent nation. They did not, however, succeed in overthrowing British rule and dozens of Ghadar leaders were imprisoned or executed by the British government for sedition.
Sikh migration to the U.S. was effectively halted with the passage of the 1917 Immigration Act, the most sweeping immigration law in U.S. history at the time. Among other restrictions, the act excluded all peoples living within the “Barred Zone,” a constructed geographic area that included almost all of Asia. The 1917 act largely closed to door to South Asian migrants until Congress passed the 1965 Immigration Act. Following that loosening of immigration restrictions, Asian migration slowly increased toward the end of the 20th century, but so too did the familiar trend of white supremacist violence.
Then, in aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, hate crimes against Sikh Americans swept across the country, as Sikh Americans were perceived as “looking like terrorists.” On Sept. 15, 2001, 49-year-old Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot and killed outside the Chevron gas station he owned in Mesa, Ariz., by a shooter who cast himself as “a patriot” and “d--n American.”
One of the most brutal attacks against Sikh Americans occurred on Aug. 5, 2012, when a white supremacist walked into a Sikh house of worship in Oak Creek, Wis., and opened fire, killing six Sikhs. While political figures and government officials were quick to condemn this attack, most expressions of shock and sympathy stopped short of discussing, or even mentioning, the broader historical and structural forces of racism and white supremacy within that such violence occurs. These consistent acts of racial violence are often treated as “senseless” acts of lone, deranged individuals, a framing that does not acknowledge that such racially targeted attacks operate through a very deliberate logic of white supremacy.
According to FBI reports, hate crimes against Sikh Americans have sharply increased in recent years, and there have been hundreds of instances in which Sikh Americans have been verbally attacked or beaten, and their homes and temples have been bombed or defaced.
Anti-Asian violence is neither episodic nor aberrational. The Indianapolis shooting was the second mass shooting of Asian Americans in 2021 and occurred one month after the shooting in Atlanta that killed six Asian American women.
The anti-racist and coalition building work of Sikh Americans has also continued. Today, Seva takes shape with the tradition of langar, a communal meal freely offered to all. As the country has been rocked by a pandemic and protests demanding racial justice during the past year, Sikhs have provided tens of thousands of meals for health care workers, protesters marching against police killings of Black Americans and those facing food insecurity.
Organizations like the Sikh Coalition and Valarie Kaur’s Revolutionary Love Project have emerged to advocate for Sikh solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives and in the fight against anti-Asian hate. Their vision of Chardi Kala also centers a politics of solidarity, in which they locate anti-Sikh violence as a manifestation of white supremacist violence in its myriad and relentless forms. They fight against this violence by practicing their faith in solidarity with others, for they recognize that solidarity is not just an option, it is necessary if Sikhs are to survive.