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Queens Chronicle

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

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Posted: Thursday, October 23, 2008 12:00 am

Senator Barack Obama’s campaign has missed some opportunities to connect with the Indian-American community, but interviews with residents and community leaders show that he is likely to receive the majority of the Sikh vote in Richmond Hill.

The 3,000 who live in this neighborhood form a close-knit community practicing Sikhism, a religion distinct from Islam and Hinduism, 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 Nov. 4. Like others in the community he is most concerned about the economy, as many Sikhs work lower-paying jobs in construction, own small businesses or, like Walia, drive cabs.

For Ishprit Kaur, an 18-year-old student at Hunter College, the economy is also the key issue. Kaur said she will vote for Democratic nominee 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.

Yet the most popular politician among Sikhs in Richmond Hill is Senator 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. As a senator Clinton has done much for the Indian-American community, and Sikhs in particular.

India Abroad, a weekly newspaper for Indian expats, reported in March 2006 that Clinton joked during a fundraiser that 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 what it said was the expense of protecting American jobs.

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

Many Sikhs in Richmond Hill migrated to the U.S. in the early 1980s, as tensions escalated in their homeland between Hindus and Sikhs. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by Sikhs in 1984, after she had desecrated the Sikh Golden Temple. Immediately following her death, a gruesome massacre occurred in which many Sikhs were killed.

Since Sept. 11, an increasing number of Sikhs have experienced discrimination in the United States. Because of their turbans and beards, many Sikh men have been falsely associated with Muslim extremists. 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 too 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 claimed. 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.

Bal thinks that if Obama wins, he will connect better with foreign cultures than did President George 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, while some Sikhs face discrimination, bigotry against African-Americans is common within their community, said Valarie Kaur, a 27-year old filmmaker from California. 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.

Kaur is known for her documentary film “Divided We Fall,” about hate and violence in the U.S. in the aftermath of Sept. 11, and for her efforts to enhance political activity among Sikhs across the country.

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

In the past, Sikhs have not been overwhelmingly supportive of the Democratic Party. While some are still undecided, Sikhs from older generations tend to vote Republican based on their conservative ideas on economic issues. Yet even some Republican Sikhs 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, she said, “he switched parties because he saw that the Bush administration or a potential McCain administration failed to hold those values.”

Like many Sikhs in Richmond Hill, Kaur’s relatives are increasingly positive about Obama. “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.”

Welcome to the discussion.