For Richmond Hill’s Sikhs, Obama’s the One

By Laura Slot, published in The Queens Chronicle, September 2008

Senator Barack Obama’s campaign has missed some opportunities to connect with the Indian American community in the past, but he is likely to receive the majority of the Sikh vote in Richmond Hill, Queens.

The 3000 Sikhs that live in this neighborhood form a close-knit cultural and religious community, and many of them are supportive of Obama’s message of change.

“Obama, Obama, Obama,” said Surinder Singh Walia, a 52-year old taxi driver, when asked who he is going to vote for on November 4. Like many others he is most concerned about the economy, as he mentions competition in his business is rough and he needs to provide for his family.

For Ishprit Kaur, an 18-year old student at Hunter College, the economy is also the key issue. She said she will vote for Obama, mainly because she thinks he is “more rational” on issues like the economy and the war in Iraq. At this moment, “any kind of change will help,” she said.

Remarkably, the most popular politician among Sikhs in Richmond Hill is Hillary Rodham Clinton, even though she cleared the way for Obama in the beginning of June. “The people here loved Hillary,” said Amrik Bal, a 43-year old Sikh.

India Abroad, a weekly newspaper for Indian expats, reported in March 2006 that Clinton jokingly said during a fundraiser how she could “certainly run for the Senate seat in Punjab and win easily.”

A year later, Obama’s campaign mocked Clinton’s ties with Indian Americans in a circulating memo in which she was referred to as the Democrat from Punjab, the Sikh region in Northern India. The memo also criticized Clinton’s support for Indian businesses at the expense of protecting American jobs.

After angry reactions from the Indian American community, Obama acknowledged the mistake a week later. Now that his opponent is John McCain, Sikhs seem to have given him the benefit of the doubt.

Many Sikhs in Richmond Hill migrated to the U.S. in the early 1980s, as tensions escalated between Hindus and Sikhs. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by Sikhs in 1984, after she blasphemed the Sikh Golden Temple. It inflicted a gruesome massacre in which many Sikhs were killed.

But also in the U.S. Sikhs have experienced hardship, especially since 9/11. As a result of their typical turbans and beards, many Sikh men have been falsely associated with Taliban warriors. Sikhs never cut their hair, because it is considered a gift from God. Some women cover their heads with veils, which makes some people think they are Muslim.

Kashmir Singh, a 49-year old taxi driver, said he encounters prejudice on a daily basis. Four or five times a day people switch cars when they see him behind the steering wheel, Singh said. Not too long ago in Manhattan, a man walked up to his taxi and said to the woman he was with, “‘Oh, Osama is driving’,” Singh said. The man apologized when Singh said he had heard his comment, but they still switched cars, he said.

Bal, the 43-year old Sikh from Richmond Hill, thinks that if Obama becomes president, he will connect better with foreign cultures than George W. Bush. He said Arabs in particular may “feel more comfortable dealing with him.” Although Bal supports Obama, he thinks his ethnic background may make it difficult for him to win.

Ironically, for some Sikhs, race is a reason not to vote for Obama. Valarie Kaur, a 27-year old filmmaker from California, said the Sikh community’s main obstacle is bigotry against African-Americans and Muslims. At a recent family gathering, her uncle said he could never vote for Obama because he is black, Kaur said in an e-mail message.

Now that Sikhs themselves are victims of prejudice, Kaur said, “we have an urgent moral obligation to speak out against it.”

Kaur is known for her documentary film about hate and violence in the U.S. in the aftermath of 9/11 entitled ‘Divided we Fall’, and for her efforts to enhance political activity among Sikhs across the country.

Historically, Sikhs have not been overwhelmingly supportive of the Democratic Party. While some of them are still undecided, Sikhs from older generations tend to vote Republican based on their moral values. Even some Republican Sikhs, however, find themselves at crossroads in this election.

Kaur said her father “holds traditional conservative principles,” and has therefore always voted Republican. But for the first time in his life, “he switched parties because he saw that the Bush administration or a potential McCain administration failed to hold those values,” Kaur said.

“This is the first election where my members of my family –who hold wildly different political opinions- have come together to support a single candidate: Barack Obama,” she said. “I take it as a sign.”