Meet American businessman, philanthropist and a Sikh trailblazer, who is spreading the true message of Vaisakhi through his actions and is now all set to influence American political milieu with the same message
By Surbhi Gogia
Every April, communities across the world come together to celebrate Vaisakhi. For centuries it has marked the beginning of spring harvest for farmers in Punjab. The festival took on special significance for the Sikh community in 1699, when Guru Gobind Singh Ji (the tenth of the Sikh Prophets) formally established the Khalsa Panth to take on leadership to restore peace and freedom amongst masses in turmoil, set by the rulers of that time.
Although this occasion marked integrating both political and spiritual aspects of freedom — political, being protecting your identity and spiritual, being inspiring every human irrespective of color, and religion to be free — the political aspect of this occasion has become more apparent over the years. “Unfortunately, we could not convey the message of Guru Gobind Singh Ji in the last 320 years. The message on that day was that every human is born free and has the infinite potential to attain that freedom — freedom from anything that bounds your limitations — be it society, politics, or your own thoughts. All you need is courage. Guru Gobind Singh Ji simplified that message by demonstrating to Sikhs to stand for their freedom first and then inspire others to achieve this freedom. You can stand for others only if you can stand for yourself,” explains Gurinder Singh Khalsa, the Indiana, US, resident, a philanthropist, a businessman who is recently being titled as a Sikh trailblazer, by the US community.
Singh feels that there is a need for the Sikh community to take this larger message of freedom to the whole humanity instead of limiting it to themselves. He says that the Sikh community has stood for its sovereignty and realized it’s potential, but now is the time to inspire, empower and engage the world with the same message.
Singh himself is the living embodiment of these Sikh principles. He did not just stand for his turban or Sikh turban, he stood for all those who believe in freedom of faith and religious liberty. He organized the campaign that forced US authorities to change their policy towards turban at security checkpoints. And now he is all set to influence the American political milieu with the principles of freedom and serving humanity. He was recently presented with Rosa Parks Trailblazer award for demonstration of courage and compassion.
It was in the year 2007 when he was asked to take off his turban at the Buffalo airport security checkpoint in the US even though he did not set off any alarm. He refused to board the plane explaining the officers that his turban was not just a “cap” to cover the head but a sign of sovereignty and held religious significance. “Our Gurus stood for the freedom of faith for the marginalized and those who were oppressed by the radical Islamic regime. Our turban was given to us as a responsibility to stand for equality. This turban is a beacon of hope. When the security officials asked me to remove it, my conscious did not allow me,” he says. “I did not plan to change the policy or law at that time but I had to do something about it.”
Singh did not board that flight. Instead, he took a car, came down to Canada and with his good friend Ravinder Singh Pannu, who used to run his radio and TV channel took the issue in the community. “I got so many calls at that time and everyone expressed the same concern. The turban was placed in the same box beside shoes. The people even cried.”
He then tried to reach all the influential Sikh leaders in America to do something about it. “To my surprise, no one came on board because it was such a tough task to change a US law. I took the matter forward. We raised some money, we collected 67,000 individual signatures from all walks of life across America including Mr. Barak Obama, who was the US Senator at that time to force Transportation and Security Administration (TSA) to change its policy,” he says. As a result, Sikhs can now wear their turban through airport security in the US.
While dedicating this trailblazer award to all those who supported him in this endeavor, Singh says that this campaign was one of the many turning points in his life that made him realize the power of human potential to achieve anything.
Born and brought up in a humble family from village Adhoi, near Ambala, Singh has been fighting from the situations that curb his freedom. “It all started the moment I was born. I was born to a malnourished mother Surjit Kaur Sandhu. I had so many health issues. Doctors were not even sure that I would survive. But my mother made efforts to keep me alive,” he says. His fight for his life gave hope to his mother. “She was uneducated. Her limitations to write to her father about my survival, gave her an aim. She made sure that all her kids got a good education. She left no stone unturned to send me to a local school. Then I was sent to Chandigarh for my high-school.”
Singh, though good in studies, failed his plus 2 grades due to his limitations in the English language. “I was ready to give up my education. But then I got a letter from my father who was a man of few words. He asked me not to quit because only human beings have the potential to achieve whatever they want to. No other form of life has that privilege. Those words stayed with me. Next time I cleared my exams in first division. This was the first turning point in my life which made me aware of the power of human potential.”
After completing his higher education in three different majors, he pursued his research in geography. He submitted his paper for a US Destructive Water Conference held by the US Department of Interior. He was invited to read his paper at the conference. Once he went to the US, he fell in love with the country. “I took admission in computer science. But again I thought sitting in front of the computer was not something I was meant for. I changed my subjects to business,” he says. After working in banking for a few years, again he realized he was bound by salary. “I realized I was bound by a salary. I was working for money whereas I wanted money to work for me.” He took the risk of leaving a well-paid job and buy his own gas station. This was the second turning point in his life where he became free from the work pattern. “I bought a business, ran it and then that business worked for me. I diversified into plazas, motels, real estate.”
The next awakening came into his life after 9/11. Things were running smoothly until 9/11. Balbir Singh Sodhi, an American Sikh was murdered in hate crime due to mistaken identity. “I felt the same hate. People would throw stuff on us, due to our appearance. They thought we belonged to the terrorist groups. This was the time I realized how fewer people knew about Sikhs. It was a wake-up call for me.”
Singh called his local authorities mobilized Sikh leaders and invited media to educate Americans about Sikhs. “We told them who we were. What took me by surprise was that Sikhs have been an important part of American society but there was so much less known about us. Dilip Singh Sondh became the first Sikh American, the first Asian American, the first Indian American and the first member of a non-Abrahamic faith to be elected to Congress in the 1950s. But then what happened after that. I introspected where did we go wrong. I realized that Sikhs came to this country but got busy with accumulating wealth. We never became part of the local community. Not only did this created a gap between Americans and Sikhs, but we also sacrificed core Sikh values of serving humanity at large.”
It was for this reason, Singh started SikhsPAC (Sikhs Political Action Committee). The mission of the SikhsPAC is “selfless service to community and nation are core values of Sikh culture; values SikhsPAC members live daily through support for candidates in local, state and national elections and through educational programming aimed at raising awareness of this uniquely American community.” Singh is also the president and CEO of SikhsMEDIA as well as a member of several boards and commissions within the city and state.
Through these organizations, he says he does not want to promote any ideology but promote and educate people about true human values which are Sikh values. “My agenda is not to support any separate place for Sikhs but to showcase how Sikhs are invaluable to the communities they live in.”
He has also announced his entry into formal politics by running for city council in Fishers, Indiana. Asked why he decided now was the time to run for council he says, “I have met many trailblazers who have made a difference in the lives of others through their work in public service. My experience in business operations and the ability to bring a new voice to the table as we strive for forward-thinking visions and goals for the community will be an asset for Fishers.”
He desires to invest in the very community that provided him with the same opportunities which have contributed to his success as a community leader. “My values center on the growth of our community and the voice of our community.”
Gurinder Singh Khalsa’s powerful journey has been documented in the film which is shot at Indianapolis airport. Singh himself has acted in the movie. The main purpose of the film, according to him is to get people’s confidence and to assure them that if they are on the right path things will shape up for them. An 18-year-old girl in the US has made the short film ‘SINGH’ . Directed by Jenna Ruiz, a student and actor from Indiana, the film is based on the true incident in 2007 when Singh, was denied boarding a flight in Buffalo, New York when he refused to remove his turban after successfully passing through each security measure at the airport. It is an honour to be able to showcase a moment in history that led to change in our TSA (Transportation Security Administration) Policy regarding the removal of headgear,” said Ruiz, who is pursuing bachelors degree in Nuclear Medicine Technology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. “However, it’s more than that; it’s one man’s real-life story that will shed light on the true vulnerability and fear that comes with being racially profiled – this film will allow viewers to experience firsthand what it is like to be made to choose between religious beliefs and everyday life,” she said.