Why Sikh Americans feel 'stood up' by Obama
Sikh Americans have expressed their anger and disappointment over United States President Barack Obama's decision to skip a visit to the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The President's decision was revealed after US advance and security teams visited the city and met the temple authorities, leaving the impression that a visit by the US president to Sikhism's holiest shrine was imminent.
The White House travel office, in its application forms provided to the media to accompany the President as part of the White House press delegation, had also included Amritsar as part of the itinerary, reinforcing the expectation among Sikhs that Obama would visit the Golden Temple.
It became clear following a briefing on October 27 by White House officials that the President would not be making a stopover in Amritsar owing to lack of time on his schedule. But Sikh Americans have refused to buy the excuse by the White House. According to them, it is clear that the Obama may have capitulated to advise that wearing a headscarf inside the holiest Sikh shrine may lead to image issue misperceptions and give the conservative Christian right wing fodder to accuse him of really being a closet Muslim.
Reportage: Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC
Image: The Golden Temple in Amritsar
'This is disappointing'
When Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communication, was asked for the specific reason for Obama skipping the Golden Temple visit, he said, "We arrived at the scheduled we arrived at because we thought it was the best way to have a successful trip."
When asked flat out if being perceived as a Muslim theory was wrong, Rhodes said, "Yes," and reiterated, "Again, we make the decision about the schedule based on the best way to advance our goals for the trip.
Potomac, Maryland-based dentist Dr Rajwant Singh, chairman of the Sikh Council on Religion and Education, and executive director, Guru Gobind Singh Foundation, said, "This is disappointing that President Obama will not visit Harmandir Sahib ( Golden Temple)."
Image: US President Barack Obama with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
'Obama would have received a hero's welcome'
Singh said, "I am still trying to figure out as to what happened? What political considerations were weighed in to skip this visit? Which lobby would be against this? This visit was in the news for five weeks and the US embassy knew about this perception within India. Even the Indian government was under this impression that he is set to go to Amritsar and I am told that certain ministers were already assigned to accompany the President to Amritsar."
Singh said that had Obama visited the Temple, he "would have received a hero's welcome. He would have been seen as a champion of the minorities and religious diversity."
He said that he would not rest until he finds out if the decision not to visit the Golden Temple "was taken by the President himself or some aides who advised him based on some domestic compulsions."
Singh said, "I am sure his handlers and political advisors did not intend to achieve this," but predicted that "the overall effect is negative and this visit will be marred with this controversy. So, I wish this trip a success but with a reserved heart. This issue has disappointed me and many other well wishers. Not only Sikhs but all Indians and many Americans are disappointed too."
'This will be a serious setback'
Kanwal Prakash Singh from Indianapolis, Indiana, a Sikh activist and a writer, said, "The White House's action of canceling his trip would reinforce the unconscionable stereotype that all those who cover their heads in America are Muslims rather than Sikhs. Mr Obama canceling the trip to Amritsar to avoid an association with any faith other than his own can lead to further misunderstanding and perpetuation of unprovoked hostility, harassment and hate crimes, problems of mistaken identity and discrimination against Sikh Americans in the US".
"The White House canceling the US President's visit to Darbar Sahib shows a total lack of understanding and this will be a serious setback for the whole issue of honouring and celebrating diversity in America," he said.
Dr Swaraj Singh, chairman, Washington State Network for Human Rights and Chairman Central Washington Coalition for Social Justice, said, "We were very happy when we first learned that President Obama would go to Harimandar Sahib. But now we all feel let down when we heard that President Obama will not be going."
'The community obviously feels stood up'
Dr I J Singh, a Sikh writer and a commentator on contemporary Sikh affairs, made his anger over Obama's decision to cancel a visit to the Golden Temple and instead visit Humayan's Tomb, clear. "It is not a simple trade off when one realises what each edifice represents," he said.
"Harmandar Sahib is a place of worship for millions who visit it every day. It is open to all irrespective of religion or even no religion. Its volunteers prepare and feed more than 100,000 people free every day and several times that number on the holy days. Humayan's Tomb is just that -- a fine reminder of monarchical profligacy and excesses; the final resting place of a king, perhaps his lasting achievement in the sands of time," he said.
Sapreet Kaur, executive director of the Sikh Coalition, echoed similar sentiments. "The community obviously feels stood up by the President," said Kaur and added, "The administration should not have excited the community by the prospect of a visit, and then not made it happen."
'This was a unique opportunity for President Obama'
"Unless President Obama wants to be viewed by the community as the 'President who bailed on the Sikhs,' he is going to have to figure out a way to make this up to the community," Kaur said.
Manjit Singh, chairman of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund -- the oldest Sikh American civil rights and educational organisation -- said the decision by Obama "is extremely disappointing for the Sikh American community."
"This was a unique opportunity for President Obama to counter the increasing xenophobia that has pervaded the political discourse across the country over the past several months," he said.
Jasjit Singh, SALDEF's associate executive director, said, "We intend to communicate the Sikh community's disapproval to the White House regarding the failed visit and our expectation of appropriate steps to remedy this incident."