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Attack on Sikh men triggers outcry in Elk Grove, Calif., and beyond

Sikhs have been mistaken for Muslims and attacked since Sept. 11, 2001. Elk Grove police haven't ruled out another such incident in the shooting that killed one and injured another.

April 11, 2011|By Lee Romney, Los Angeles Times
  • Amarjit Kaur, the wife of Surinder Singh, views her husband's body during a service for the slain man. Singh was shot and killed while walking with a friend in Elk Grove, Calif., in March.
Amarjit Kaur, the wife of Surinder Singh, views her husband's body… (Bryan Patrick, Sacramento…)

Reporting from Elk Grove, Calif. — Orange police chalk marks the lonely stretch of roadway where the crime occurred.

Surinder Singh, 65, and Gurmej Atwal, 78, were out on their customary afternoon stroll in this suburb south of Sacramento when they were shot near the bright green bus shelter overlooking California 99, where they often stopped to rest. Singh died at the scene. Atwal remains in critical condition.

No arrests have been made and no motive established in last month's shooting of the elderly Sikh neighbors, which has triggered a national outcry.

Police have not ruled out the possibility of a hate crime. It is a scenario that has played out numerous times since Sept. 11, 2001 — Sikhs mistaken for Muslims and randomly attacked.

Sikhs attacked: An April 11 article in Section A about the shooting of two elderly Sikh neighbors in Elk Grove, Calif., last month said a cab driver who is also Sikh and who was beaten in November is from Elk Grove. The story failed to mention that the beating occurred in West Sacramento. Also, a caption with a photo of Bhagat Singh, 7, attending a memorial to honor the shooting victims, Surinder Singh and Gurmej Atwal, stated that the boy is the grandson of Surinder Singh. Bhagat Singh is Atwal's grandson. Also, an earlier version of this article included a headline that said two Sikh men were killed in an attack in Elk Grove, Calif. One man was killed in the attack, another was wounded.—

Days after 9/11, a Sikh gas station owner was shot to death in Arizona by a man who claimed to be "a patriot." Since then, numerous other attacks have been reported across the country.

In November, an Elk Grove cab driver, who is also Sikh, was beaten by two men who yelled anti-Muslim slurs. Two suspects were later arrested.

This time, local and state officials and emissaries of different faiths reacted swiftly.

"What occurred in our community last month is sickening," said state Sen. Darryl Steinberg (D-Sacramento), who has helped organize an American Sikh Day celebration on the Capitol steps Wednesday to honor California's 200,000 Sikhs. "There is only one response to be had. That is you speak up and you come together."

Steinberg also plans a ceremony on the Senate floor Monday to acknowledge the shooting victims.

The FBI is assisting Elk Grove police, who immediately sought to allay the fears of the town's 3,000 Sikhs and increased patrols where elders often stroll. Many, like Singh and Atwal, wear turbans over their uncut hair to signify Sikh devotion to religious faith and belief in generosity to strangers.

A $50,000 reward for information in the case has also been established, with contributions from Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Japanese American groups, and Elk Grove FIRST, whose stated vision is "the promotion of ideas that elevates community above self."

Floyd Mori, national director of the Japanese American Citizens League, flew from Washington, D.C., to attend Singh's funeral. His organization has noted similarities in the reactions to Pearl Harbor and 9/11: "A particular group of people was accused of being disloyal and unpatriotic simply because of their religion or their ethnicity.

"We have stood up very strongly in support of the Muslim and Sikh community since that time," he said. "We need to get beyond this whole thing of how we stereotype people into good and evil. We need to start being civil."

In the same spirit, the stark white Sikh Temple of Sacramento, with its cobalt blue-tipped domes and saffron flag, has become a center of community gatherings to support the victims' families and prepare for Wednesday's event.

"We've gotten so much sympathy, so many emails," said Darshan Singh Mundy, the temple's spokesman. "The majority say, 'You are bringing the community together.' "

The world's fifth-largest religion, Sikhism is based on the teachings of Guru Nanak, born in 1469, that there is one God and that humans are equally blessed with dignity and divinity regardless of gender, ethnicity or class. Sikhs make a commitment to live by the principles of honor, justice and "love for humanity."

In the early 1900s, many Sikhs began migrating from Punjab, India, to California to work on the railroads and in the orchards of the farm-rich Central Valley. They settled in Yuba City, Stockton and points farther south.

In a 1915 article in the Stockton Record, a local Sikh leader explained langar, the traditional offering of free food at all Sikh temples, saying, "The unfortunate hungry American will be as welcome as our own people."

Yet Sikhs have often found themselves targets of discrimination rather than appreciation for their open hand. They are sometimes mistaken for Hindus or Muslims and heckled for their appearance.

A survey, released in November, of 1,300 Sikh adults in nine Bay Area counties found that 10% had experienced hate crimes. The vast majority involved physical attacks, while the rest were vandalism-related.

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