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Some very distinguished guests stopped by to greet and address a gathering of Sikhs from across the nation at the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, May 17, 2005. Among them: Senator Richard Lugar, Chairman U.S. Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former First Lady; Congressmen Frank Pallone, Jim McDormatt, Tom Davis, Joseph Crowley, Rush Holt, and Congresswoman Sheila Lee Jackson; Justice Department officials, interfaith leaders, and friends. They were attending the Sikh American Heritage Dinner Reception sponsored by The Sikh Council on Religion and Education under the leadership of its Chairman Dr. Rajwant Singh. This historic gathering was another significant milestone in recent months for Sikh Americans in their efforts to mainstream their presence.

Senator Richard Lugar addressing the gathering, flanked by Dr. Rajwant Singh and K.P. Singh on the right.(1031)

The honored guests recounted the proud history, many contributions to American society, and great sacrifices of the Sikhs for human freedoms. Each representative offered assurances to work on the special concerns of the Sikh community since 9/11: workplace religious freedoms, ending misplaced suspicions and unlawful discrimination, racial profiling, and violence and hate crimes against the Sikhs due to the distinct identity of Sikh men with faith-mandated beards and turbans.

Amidst interfaith prayers and honoring the achievements of their own in various fields in which they had excelled, the Sikh Americans expressed hope that some day they may also be able to serve in all areas of American life without threat to or having to renounce their sacred articles of faith. Reminders of the inalienable rights and responsibility of each citizen to honor, strengthen, and preserve those rights and precious freedoms received an enthusiastic and faithful response from gathered Sikh men, women, and young adults. Some of the Sikh American soldiers presently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan were formally recognized and honored.

Washington D.C., with its spring beauty, architectural monuments and memorials, historic sites, and symbols of proud heritage of many cultures was the perfect setting for this important gathering. New Americans, as all the generations of immigrants before them, are searching for a rightful place and opportunities to serve. Throughout history they have brought their concerns to this powerful citadel of democracy. Though the Founders and great architects of nation could not have imagined this convergence of people and cultures to our shores, they would have approved the promise, unbound energy, cultural textures that new arrivals represent for America's future.

A few composite images, highlights, and reflections of this historic evening:

The interfaith prayers were led by Bhai Gurdarshan Singh (Sikh Priest), Mr. Clark Lobenstine (Executive Director, Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington), Mr. Richard Foltin (American Jewish Committee), and Chaplin Daniel P. Coughlin (Chaplin of U.S. House of Representatives).

There was an unusual synergy, a sense of emotional triumph, and may be even disbelief among the 225 Sikhs who were attending the event and that the concerns of the Sikh community in the USA and around the world were being spotlighted by U.S. Senators, Congressmen, and other officials whose voices have an impact far beyond the Halls of Congress and the States and the Departments that they represent. The entire Sikh world was in the witness stand and applauding.

There were enthusiastic introductions of special guests by members of the Sikh community and equally warm and animated responses and vigorous assurances of support from these leaders of America. Several honorary sponsors of the event could not attend. The attending honored guests expressed sensitivity, understanding, friendship, and pride in the contributions of the Sikh community to American strength and enrichment. Some of the special guests recalled the unparalleled sacrifices of the Sikhs throughout their 536-year young history in assuring universal human dignity, personal freedoms, and in defense of sacred rights of others.

A brief history of the bravery and sacrifices of the Sikhs during World War II was presented. The audience observed a minute of silence in memory of those who fought on the side of the Allies during World War II and made enormous sacrifices. Out of the nearly 3 million Sikhs who served, 83,000 lost their lives and 109,000 were injured in that conflict in defense of freedom.

Among the attending Congressmen and Senators, many had traveled to India, some even to the State of Punjab and The Golden Temple at Amritsar - the St Peter's and Vatican of the Sikhs. They made their remarks from personal experience and knowledge of the Sikh faith, history, and people. Each distinguished guest was honored and recognized with special gifts on behalf of the Sikh community. Most of the Congressmen and the Senators stayed at the event to greet the gathered guests, answer questions, and for media interviews. There was a spirit of solidarity, mutual respect, uncommon dignity, and friendliness in the ornate banquet hall.

There were frequent reminders of the attack on America on 9/11 and the countless incidents of the harassment and unprovoked violence against the Sikhs. Many Sikhs became victims of hate crimes; many more continue to be treated unfairly due to their being mistaken as Middle Eastern, Arabs or somehow associated with the despicable characters like Osama Bin Laden.

There were gentle reminders that the significance and sanctity of Sikh symbols and articles of faith must be recognized as an inalienable right of freedom of conscience of Sikh Americans. All doors presently closed under the existing laws on the physical appearance must be re-examined and opened for members of the Sikh community with their faith-mandated identity and religious symbols as well as for other minorities with special legitimate concerns and traditions. All citizens must be able to serve and contribute to the American society.

The continuing denial to participate in the military service due to past rigid requirements need to be revisited in light of the convergence of diverse groups in America in recent decades. The existing governing laws based solely on physical appearance, gender, and entrenched traditions reinforce perceptions of unfairness and open discrimination. This is in violation of equal rights for all citizens guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

Dhol and Tabla interludes and delicious North Indian Dinner:

Brief interludes of Punjabi Dhol (drum) with its energetic beat and rhythm invited the spirit to dance and the heart to sing transporting our imagination and senses to a joyous folk festival or colorful celebration 12,000 miles away in some dusty village of Punjab.

A masterful Tabla (a pair of Indian drums) demonstration given by tabla maestro Rajinder Pal Singh Jindi to the accompaniment of background music on the harmonium played by Bhai Gurdarshan Singh provided a beautiful musical highlight.

A typical North Indian dinner added another cultural touch and provided an opportunity to connect with guests and community representatives, make new friends, and learn about the many creative ways in which people are serving their communities; seeking and discovering their rightful place under the American spacious skies and investing in its societal fabric.

A promising future amidst the current challenges:

Sikhs and Asian Indians have been a part of American life for over one hundred years. Today, nearly 500,000 hardworking and proud Sikh men, women, and children are engaged in peaceful pursuits in building America. They, along with all other faith and ethnic communities, are contributing in immense measures to the economic prosperity, cultural tapestry, and spiritual landscape of America. They are also awakening to the need of greater political awareness and participation in diverse areas of their community life, institutions, and opportunities.

Beyond the high-profile meeting and lofty promises, the challenge before us is not to let our values and culture, which is the very core of our being, to be diluted, infringed upon as in France, or elsewhere or be lost due to neglect or needed nurturing. As we preserve our own culture and spiritual heritage, we must try to relate to the nations; let our culture be a part of the larger and rich national cultural tapestry. We need to ask ourselves what we are doing for the community and country that provides us home, warmth, opportunity, and unimagined blessings. Each of us must make a difference and be willing to safeguard life, liberty, and our precious freedoms.

America has always honored equal opportunity and merit. Americans respect diligence and family values; celebrate contributions and achievements. We too can achieve respect through hard work, being model citizens, and sacrificing for the common good. While mentoring and cultivating the next generation, we must focus on those facets that bring greater awareness of our rights and responsibilities; participate in creating a sense of belonging in our new environment.

We must: develop a sense of place and understanding about the culture and communities around us; do our homework before we present our case or concerns and use the best talents for the job and the occasion. This is not a personal crusade but a collective campaign. Stakes are too high to let important opportunities be allowed to slip away or to be guided by shortsighted, unwise or divisive agenda. We have much to gain though a united front, resolving outstanding differences peacefully; a professional approach, by offering an unmistakable, responsible, and well-defined message at landmark events, and networking with other faith and ethnic communities with distinct and diverse experiences. We must honor the traditions and commandments of our faith: sanctity and dignity of all life and faiths; universality, equality, justice, and service of others.

We must encourage the best and the brightest to lead our cause; involve the young and up-coming talents early and often. Attractive visuals, special cultural ambience, and support information and literature can be a major asset. Let learning (Sikh means disciple) and thoughtful reflection, not teaching others be our first and foremost lesson. Many of these ideas were in place at the Sikh American Heritage Dinner Reception and at other landmark events across the nation. Sikh Americans are engaged in shaping the promise of America. Congratulations!

Kanwal Prakash "KP" Singh
Indianapolis, Indiana USA

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Click Pictures for bigger View

Congressman Jim McDarmott and Dr. Rajwant Singh.(1034)

Senator Hillary Clinton and tabla maestro Rajinder Singh Jindi
(foreground, left). (1047)

A touch of Punjabi folk music- Dhol (drum) demonstration. (1072)

Senator Richard Lugar greeting members of the gathering (1013)