Hansdeep Singh is a 32 year old Sikh from New York, US. He is the co-founder of International Center For Advocates Against Discrimination (ICAAD), a new organisation using international law to prevent violence and discrimination against minorities. He tells us here about how his family journey, and his faith, shaped his commitment to protecting minority and vulnerable communities.
‘We settled in Delhi and within a few months, pogroms were taking place against Sikh communities’
I was born in Tehran after the fallout of the 1979 revolution. We were part of a very small Sikh community there, my grandparents having moved to Iran from West Punjab a couple of years before the partition in 1948, when they sensed that conflict was about to erupt.
So my dad was born in Tehran, too, and he became a successful businessman working as an international trader in metals and industrial chemicals. Soon after the overthrow of the Shah, when I was two months old, the government told my Dad he could maintain his position in return for handingover the financial assets of his Jewish business partners. Many of his partners had already left for the U.S. Immediately he burned every piece of paperwork that identified his Jewish partners’ assets and he too left for the US.
My mom and I followed shortly thereafter, but my parents decided to leave me with my grandparents in India for a year while they got settled in the US. In 1981, as we tried to forge a new life in the U.S., they realised the challenge of raising a son with such a unique religious identity in a country where that identity wasn’t understood. So they decided to move to India in 1984. We were en route to India via Hong Kong when news came about the attack on Harmandir Sahib, the ‘Golden Temple’, in Amritsar.
We settled in Delhi and within a few months, pogroms were taking place against Sikh communities. The attacks spread – even as far as the adjacent street to where we were staying with my grandparents. I remember the tension and emotion, but I really didn’t understand what was going on. For six months, my mom took food and clothing to displaced families impacted by the government sanctioned pogroms of November 1984.
Even though I was young, those memories and shared consciousness never leave you.
After a few years they became concerned that I would either disappear or be pulled off of a school bus. Sikhs kids were literally being pulled off school buses and killed. They decided that raising a child with a Sikh identity, where Sikhs were treated as second class citizens, was even more challenging in India, so in 1987 we came back to the U.S. As I grew up and started to ask my parents questions, I learnt how my family had constantly been on the run since the 1940s, fleeing revolutions, pogroms, or discrimination. That shared history with my ancestors became very much a part of my own experience.
I was in my second year of college, still deciding on a career, when 9/11 happened. Immediately, I began to hear stories of Sikh children in school being bullied and harassed, and their parents cutting their hair and removing their turbans because they were afraid. All the things that were integral to my – to our – identity were again not being accepted or valued. Unfortunately, the level of profiling, bullying, and hate crimes directed at the Sikh community has not abated. Just recently, on August 5, 2012, a white supremacist entered a Gurdwara (Sikh house of worship) in Wisconsin and killed six members of the Sikh community.
I felt we had come full circle. Every place my family had sought refuge had let us down. I said to myself, there has to come a time when we stop running and we actually try to engage with the issues we face and enlighten people about our identity. People may be ignorant, but we also have to take some responsibility for not getting out there and letting people know there’s no reason to be fearful of Sikhs, to those who look different. That was when I decided that to affect real change, pursuing a career in international human rights law would empower me with the necessary tools.