Protesting two recent attacks against Sikh public school students, hundreds of Sikhs, in an action organized by the Sikh Coalition and the victims’ parents, marched through Richmond Hill, the heart of the Sikh community in New York.
The protest covered a distance of 11 blocks, from the Sikh Cultural Society to Richmond High School, where one of the attacks took place earlier this month.
Traditionally, both Sikh men and women do not cut their hair for religious reasons (though that has changed in India over the last several decades).
"Kids are kids. They pick on anything. The religion requires us to stand out. They pick on things that make you stand out," said Amardeep Singh, the legal director of the Sikh Coalition, which was founded post-9/11 to handle bias attacks against Sikhs. (Bullying of course is a widely recognized problem, that does not necessarily stop at graduation.)
There have been at least three reports of haircutting attacks against Sikh students in public schools in the last two years.
- The event which triggered today’s protest took place on June 9 when Gurprit Kaur, a student at Public School 219 in Flushing, Queens, had her hair surreptitiously cut by another student in Spanish class. The attacker had previously harassed Gurpit. "She had been taunting the victim saying, ‘I’m going to cut your brother’s ball off, referring to the top knot of hair," said Mr. Singh. "Once we found out this incident occurred, we decided to get out in the streets."
- On June 3, Jagmohan Singh Premi was injured after being punched in the face when another student intentionally attempted to remove his patka, a small turban, at Richmond Hill High School. He suffered a facial contusion and a possible orbital fracture of his left eye as a result of the attack, the coalition said. This attack triggered a meeting with Joel Klein, the school chancellor, who promised to create a policy to better track bias attacks.
- In May 2007, Vacher Harpal, then 15, was forced into a bathroom at Newtown High School in Elmhurst where his turban was torn off and his hair cut. Umair Ahmed, 17, was found guilty of the bias attack in March.
The coalition issued a report called "Making Our Voices Heard: A Civil Rights Agenda for New York City’s Sikhs"[pdf] earlier this year that estimated that some 60 percent of Sikh students had been the victims of harassment or violence as a result of their Sikh identity. The coalition wants the Department of Education to train teachers on the particular dangers faced by Sikh students.
Some claims of hate crimes against Sikhs, however, have turned out to be false. In Lodi, N.J. in 2004, two Sikh teenagers who told the police they were attacked by five men who yanked off their turbans and cut off their hair fabricated the story to hide the fact that they had cut their own hair, according to the police.