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Senators promise to take up Sikh cause with Pentagon

May 21, 2009 02:06 IST

Several US lawmakers, who attended the annual Sikh American Heritage Dinner on Capitol Hill, organized by the Sikh Council on Religion and Education, pledged to support the Sikh community's efforts to serve in the US armed forces without compromising their religious principles, and promised to bring this issue on the House floor to press the Pentagon be more flexible in its rules and admit Sikhs in the US military.

Speaking to nearly 250 Sikhs from across the country who attended the dinner, Congressman Ed Royce, the senior Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, said, "I will work to make sure that Sikhs are admitted to serve in the US armed forces without any restrictions."

Congressman Jim McDermott, the Democratic co-chair of the India Caucus, also said he would work toward bringing this issue on the House floor to press the Pentagon to change this rule and said, "Medical professionals in the military were told they had to shave their head and take off their turban, and I thought to myself, who in the world is in charge over in the Pentagon that made that decision?  I know there have been discussions going on about the carrying of the symbolic dagger (kirpan) and all of the things that are part of Sikhism, but to say these people can't operate in the US military is just plain silly," he argued.

McDermott acknowledged that "I know there have been some difficult times and I am aware of the history of the Sikh community, but the fact is that it's important that we be allowed to be who we are, worship the way we want to, but not to have to choose, or be picked on or excluded on any basis. This country needs to be the place where everyone has the right to participate to the fullest extent possible in their life."

Last month,two Sikh American military recruits, both medical professionals already in the US Army, who had  been denied the right to report for active duty in July unless they remove their turbans and cut their unshorn hair and beards,  called on the Pentagon to allow them to serve their country without having to compromise their religious principles and remove their turbans and shave their beards.

Captain Kamaljit Singh Kalsi, a physician, and Second Lieutenant Tejdeep Singh Rattan, a dentist, said  that they had been assured by military recruiters that their turbans and unshorn hair "would not be a problem" when they were recruited to join the Army's Health Professionals Scholarship Program, which paid for their medical training in return for their military service.

Both had maintained their turbans, unshorn hair and beards throughout graduate school and during specialized Army training, and at Army ceremonies and while working in military medical facilities. But, now the Army was telling them that the recruiters' assurances were false and that they would have to forsake their religious practices if they want to go into active duty.

Kalsi said, "I was shocked to learn that the Army would go back on its promise, and tell me I would have to give up my faith in order to serve. There is nothing about my religion that stops me from doing my job. I know I can serve well without compromising my faith.I have trained in my profession as a medical doctor thanks to the assistance I received from the US Army," he said. "Now, I want to make sure that I give back to the country and the people who have invested so much in me.At a time when our troops need as much help as they can get, I cannot understand why the Army would want to keep me from serving.

"Today, I have children of my own," he said, and added, "As a father, I hope they achieve all their hopes and dreams. And, as an American, I hope they never have to choose between their religion and their country."

Rattan from New York City, while acknowledging that he was not born in the US, said, "this is now my home and I am an American, and our country was built by people like me, from different parts of the globe, from different races and religions.All of us came here trusting in the core principle of equality and that is the same right I am asking for today."

Rattan said, "As an immigrant, I hope that my desire to serve in the Army shows my commitment to my country. I am willing to lay down my life for America. In return, I ask only that my country respect my faith, an integral part of who I am. My turban and beard are not an option—they are an intrinsic part of me." He said that he had "been looking forward to my service since I first signed up," and lamented that "it is deeply unfair that the Army is now asking me to choose between my religion or my country. I know I can serve well without compromising my faith, just as thousands of Sikhs before me have done."

In 1981, the Army banned "conspicuous' religious articles of faith for its service members, and everything from a Cross for Christians or Star of David for Jews or a Crescent for Muslims or any other such article worn by US soldiers around their necks or anywhere else, had to be covered up so that they would not be seen. However, Sikhs and other soldiers belonging to other faiths who were part of the army before the 1981 rule change had their religious observances grandfathered. As a result, Colonel Arjinderpal Singh Sekhon, a physician, and Colonel G B Singh, a dentist--who were both at the press conference to support the campaign of Kalsi and Rattan--served in the Army with their turbans and unshorn hair and beards for over 25 years. Both men only retired within the last two years.

At the Heritage Dinner, McDermott reflected on his role in creating a hate-free zone in Seattle, the constituency he represents in the state of Washington, following an attack on a Sikh in the aftermath of 9/11. He said, "It is my belief that we are all one, although we may look different, or we may dress a little differently, or worship a little differently."

"Everywhere to go there are Sikh physicians in hospitals and operating all over the place, and suddenly the military gets into this thing that we are going to change that," McDermott said, and exhorted the audience to "come back to Washington,DC, be full participants in America, and never take a step back for anybody."

Royce, who last month was part of a Congressional delegation led by House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Howard Berman which also visited the Golden Temple in Amritsar during a trip to India, acknowledging the presence of Sikh in America in all professions and harking back to their advent over a 100 years ago to help his state California build its railroads, said, "If you look at who the Prime Minister of India is and who the first Asian Congressman (Dalip Singh Saund) is, your presence outnumbers your overall population both here and in India."

"It is astounding that 15 percent of the Indian Army is Sikh," he said, and added, "Leadership that your community has produced has left a mark and it continues to do so."

Royce, who was honored with the Bhagat Singh Thind Award by SCORE, said, "I want to acknowledge what you contribute to his country. Your stress on honesty, hard work and generosity is something of tremendous value and you have been mentors to many Americans." He spoke of his visit to the Golden Temple and recalled how "very fulfilling it was and where I observed the incredible vitality there and you see that also in the fields in Punjab." Royce said, "We have to do more to explain to people in America and the world, about who the Sikhs are. Many Americans might think India is a Hindu nation, but it is also important to explain how much diversity there is and how Sikhs have contributed even though you are only two percent of the population."

"Wherever you reside, I and a lot of Americans will work to make sure that Sikhs are admitted to serve in the US armed forces without any restrictions," he pledged.


Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC