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India reacts with grief, outrage over Wisconsin killing of Sikhs

August 6, 2012 |  7:27 am

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NEW DELHI -- India reacted with grief and outrage at the news that at least six Sikhs were killed when a gunman attacked them Sunday in their Wisconsin temple as they prayed and prepared food.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, himself a Sikh, said in a statement Monday that he was shocked and saddened by the news and extended his condolences to the families of the victims.

“India stands in solidarity with all the peace-loving Americans who have condemned this violence,” he said, adding that he hoped “such violent acts are not repeated in the future.”

PHOTOS: Gunman opened fire at Sikh temple

On Sunday, a gunman said to be tattooed, white and in his 40s opened fire on worshippers at a suburban Sikh gurdwara, or temple, in Oak Creek, Wisc., before he was shot dead by police. His motives were not clear, although local police labeled it a case of “domestic terrorism.” Initial reports were that he acted alone. The FBI has launched an investigation.

India has a growing problem with gun violence, and ranks second worldwide in absolute numbers of civilian guns at 40 million, according to gunpolicy.org, a website hosted by the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney in Australia. However, guns and ammunition are strictly regulated in India and their numbers and use pales beside America’s estimated 270 million firearms. India has more than 3 guns for every 100 people, compared with about 89 guns per 100 Americans, the world leaders.

“The gun culture in America is a bit disturbing,” said Rohan Sabharwal, 23, a Sikh dressed in an orange turban shopping in a Delhi market. “It’s a sad, regrettable thing to have this happen.”

At the Golden Temple in Amritsar near the Pakistan border, one of the Sikh religion’s most sacred shrines, officials said they were planning a three-day prayer vigil in honor of the victims. “We are still in shock after the incident,” Avtar Singh, the president of the trust that runs the temple, told local media.

Protesters Monday in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir blocked a national highway and waved banners calling for stronger U.S. gun laws. And Sikh parties pledged to mount a peaceful demonstration in front of the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, as U.S. Ambassador Nancy Powell visited New Delhi's largest Sikh gurdwara in a show of solidarity over what she described as a "ghastly act of violence." 

As part of their religious heritage, Sikh male Indians wear long beards and turbans to cover their uncut hair. Since Sept. 11, 2001, however, Sikhs and other South Asians have been the victims of mistaken identity, starting just four days after the World Trade Center attack when a Sikh gas station owner in Mesa, Ariz., was mistaken for an Arab Muslim and killed.

Since then, according to the Sikh Coalition, a New York-based activist group, there have been some 700 cases of random violence, killings, vandalism, bullying, beatings and intimidation against the Sikh community in the U.S.  

Arvinder Kaur, an English professor at Post-Graduate Government College for Girls in Chandigarh, said her American Sikh relatives don’t wear turbans so they are better able to blend in.

“But I’m concerned for them,” she said, although she’s not going to cancel a planned trip to the U.S. “We can’t be scared. We can’t let these people get away with this kind of discrimination.”   

About 3,000 Sikh families live in southeastern Wisconsin, according to the local Journal Sentinel newspaper, part of the estimated 250,000 to 500,000 living in the United States and 25 million worldwide. Sikhism, a monotheistic religion founded in the Punjab region of India in the 15th century, broke with Hinduism partly over its opposition to the caste system. The first U.S. gurdwara was established in Stockton in 1912.

The Sikh’s headgear has also created misunderstandings with U.S. airport security. In late 2010, a senior Indian diplomat was told he had to remove his turban, a request that Sikhs consider offensive. After a 30-minute standoff, the diplomat’s identity was verified and he was allowed to proceed without a body search, but the incident made headlines in India.

Sikhs for Justice, which describes itself as a U.S.-based human rights advocacy group, said in a statement that it was donating $10,000 to the badly wounded Wisconsin police officer who risked his life in the attack and likely saved many other Sikhs. The officer was taken to a Milwaukee hospital and is expected to survive.

But the group also said the U.S. needed to do a better job protecting Sikhs and members of other religious minorities. The U.S. claims “to be [a] savior of religious minorities across the world but has miserably failed to protect the religious minorities at home,” the group said, adding that more training was needed to create awareness about religious minorities. 

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-- By Mark Magnier

Photo: Indian Sikhs shout slogans during a protest in New Delhi on Monday, expressing anger over Sunday's killing of six Sikhs at a temple in Wisconsin. Credit: Manish Swarup / Associated Press.

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