For the first time in US history, the Census Bureau will count Sikhs as a “separate” ethnic group. This is an important step towards establishing a separate identity from the composite category of “Asian Indians” for people of Indian origin who are widely known as Indian Americans.
Some experts believe the decision potentially gives ammunition to Sikh separatists promoting the idea of Khalistan from the comfort of their homes in the United States, Canada and other Western countries.
Others point out that there is no reason to worry and that a count will help Sikhs become less “invisible” in the context of US government policies.
The Census Bureau is currently engaged in a 10-year tally by mail, phone and online, and the process is expected to wrap up September 30. Sikhs will be allowed to “identify” if they write “Sikh” in response to the race question and will be counted separately under a unique code. Also, they will fall into the broader category of ‘Asian’ and not ‘Asian Indian’, as was the case in the 2010 count, when ‘Sikh’ was considered a ‘religious’ response. “.
A DECADE CAMPAIGN
Sikh community activists have been campaigning for a separate category on the Census Bureau form for more than a decade on the grounds that they needed an accurate count to better serve their members, access federal funds and engage more their political representatives effectively. But mostly to protect Sikhs from hate crimes following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when Sikhs were targeted because of their appearance.
The Census Bureau’s decision, announced in March, was made after years of research and outreach, officials said. But some experts have criticized the process, warning of long-term political and social implications extending well beyond US borders. In fact, extending as far as India via Canada and Britain. They say it is another blow to the already fractured “Indian” identity abroad.
Sikh community leaders have made a conscious and discernible effort to create a distinct identity in the post-9/11 United States, raising awareness while delicately distinguishing themselves from Muslim Americans who may also have beards. Sikh spokespersons have gone to great lengths to insist that Sikhism is sui generis and completely separate from Hinduism.
A Sikh boy marches in the annual Sikh Day Parade in New York City. (Photo: Reuters File)
THE STRUGGLE IS BEARING FRUIT
The Census Bureau’s decision is therefore seen as a huge victory by Sikhs who were one of the first Indian immigrants to arrive on American shores more than 120 years ago. At first, they suffered constant discrimination as they struggled to establish themselves as farmers. Considered Hindus by immigration officials and denied citizenship along with other Indian migrants, Sikhs have struggled for a long time.
“Sikhs have borne the brunt of hate crimes and prejudice, especially since the tragedy of 9/11. Sikh children in schools across the country are bullied twice as much as the national average,” said Gundeep Singh, media coordinator for United Sikhs. The Sikh Coalition, an outreach organization, recorded more than 300 incidents of hate crimes in the months following the September 11, 2001, attacks by al-Qaeda.
The main arguments for a separate count revolve around the fact that census data is used to allocate $675 billion in public funds to schools, roads and parks and distribute seats in the House of Representatives. Additionally, without a definitive number, Sikhs cannot engage political leaders to advocate for better services, community leaders say.
Although a reliable count is needed – the number of Sikhs in the United States ranges from 500,000 to one million – some scholars have questioned the Census Bureau’s process and its understanding of the complexities involved. An academic who studies immigrant communities said the whole exercise “has largely slipped under the radar”.
There’s a difference between posting a notice in the Federal Register seeking comment and actively reaching out to various stakeholders, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The process risks being misinterpreted as a covert operation where the Census Bureau had already made its decision without consulting a full spectrum of experts and voices from the Indian community,” he said.
The decision has the potential to become a crisis down the line. “It’s a ticking time bomb. They uncritically adopted a position that could lead to more separatism,” the academic said.
The Census Bureau solicited public comment, but most of the responses submitted focused on creating a category for the Middle East and North Africa. Bureau officials insisted on having met with the leaders of the main Sikh umbrella organisations, which represented “dozens and dozens of regional and local communities”.
By law, the US Census Bureau is not allowed to ask about religion, so it would be illegal to classify Sikhs as a religious group. It appears the Bureau has found a workaround by labeling Sikhs an “ethno-religious” group. Officials said the Census Bureau has always collected data on ethno-religious groups at the request of people who wish to “identify” as a particular community.
“It’s not validation, just verification,” one official said. The demands of the Sikh community were “very personal and very passionate”.
The initial petition to the Census Bureau was submitted by an organization called “United Sikhs” and ten other organizations, including a few separatist groups such as Sikhs for Justice, Voices for Freedom and the Khalistan Affairs Center.
A United Sikhs lawyer said that given the importance of the issue of a census, various Sikh organizations have come together to raise awareness.
Devesh Kapur, a professor of South Asian studies at Johns Hopkins University and co-author of “The Other One Percent: Indians in America,” said the Census Bureau’s decision “has the potential to give some ‘oxygen to extremists in Khalistan who are struggling with declining support’, but the community has bigger issues to address.
Devesh Kapur, professor of South Asian studies at Johns Hopkins University. (Photo: sais.jhu.edu/)
THE ECONOMIC RESULT
Kapur also said that this decision could “divide the Indo-American community, especially the second generation. The very things that you do for identity politics, we are different, we are apart helps group cohesion but it risks make the group more insular.This insularity can have costs on the economic results.Group cohesion is therefore a double-edged sword.
Research for the book showed that Punjabi speakers in the United States have the lowest income and education compared to other sections of the Native American community. “We don’t know what the reasons are, but it’s something to consider,” he said.
Nirvikar Singh, a distinguished professor of economics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and one of the co-authors with Kapur, had a different view. He said the decision to count Sikhs separately was “no big deal” and should not cause concern. “Like anything else, the American Indian is a construct.”
Asked if the move could inadvertently boost Khalistan sentiments, Singh said he thought the Indian government was “a bit paranoid” about the issue.
“All the major Sikh civil rights organizations in the United States supported this change for purely American reasons. They are not interested in Indian politics per se. There is really no reason to s worry,” he added.
KC Singh, a former Indian ambassador, said: “Sikhs just want their religious identity to be recognized as distinct.” Commenting on BJP-RSS attempts to use religion to woo Indians abroad, he added, “You cannot have it both ways i.e. using religion to woo the Diaspora and then oppose if part of the diaspora does exactly that”.
(Editor’s note: A comment from the lawyer for “United Sikhs” was added to the copy after it was published)
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