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Moving from pain to action: an address to the Sikh community after Indianapolis

What have we done to fulfill our promise to make the world a better and safer place?

A body is taken from the scene where multiple people were shot at a FedEx Ground facility in Indianapolis, Friday, April 16, 2021. A gunman killed several people and wounded others before taking his own life in a late-night attack at a FedEx facility near the Indianapolis airport, police said.  (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

The following column is adapted from remarks I made on Saturday (April 17), to members of the American Sikh community and White House officials, in the wake of Friday’s shooting in Indianapolis, which killed eight people, four of them Sikhs, at a Federal Express facility. The virtual gathering, which included some who were directly affected by the attack, was organized by the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships and the Sikh Coalition. 

Last night, as I put my two daughters to bed, age 3 and age 5, I sang to them Sohila, the nightly prayer that Sikhs have sung for centuries.

As we began, I paused while reciting from the opening shabad, (a verse from Sikh holy text Guru Granth Sahib) which I’ve sung every day for years. But this night, it felt packed with new meaning.

ghari ghari eho pahucha sadare nit pavani. sadanhara simariai nanak se dih aavani.

The wedding invitations for death reach every single home — invitations are sent daily.

O Nanak, Remember the One who summons. Our day is approaching.

I held my girls tight, feeling the sharp reminder that I couldn’t ultimately protect them from death. As we continued singing, I thought about the Sikhs who been targeted in a mass shooting in Indianapolis the night before and those who would never be coming home.

Four Sikhs were killed in the attack. We grieve their loss. There were also four others killed who did not identify as Sikh — and we grieve them too.

Undoubtedly, the killer had hate in his heart. Would our authorities fully investigate the role of bias in the attack?

I thought about the long chain of violence that Sikhs have endured in this country from the time we arrived more than a century ago. When would we feel safe?

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I thought about the political violence that Sikhs have endured in India that continues to this day. What would it feel like to have a place to call home?

I thought about what my parents have endured, and what I have endured, and all those cases of violence our community has endured over the years.

Whereas I often rush through the prayer so I can complete it quickly and return to my life, this night I found myself slowing it down to a crawl, not wanting to let go of my girls.

Eventually, as we neared the end of our nightly ritual, I came to the final shabad, and felt struck by another line.

audh ghatai dinasu rainaare. man gur mili kaaj savaare.

Our time is increasing, by day and night. O mind, your affairs will be resolved in meeting the Guru.

My girls had fallen asleep in my arms, exhausted from the long day. And a tear from each of my eyes trickled down my face and into their hair.

Death is inevitable. Suffering is unavoidable.

But what have we done to fulfill our promise to make the world a better and safer place for our children?

I don’t say this as a self-indictment, though I do feel the weight of it personally. In my years of activism and social justice work, I have learned this much to be true: as individuals, we can only do so much. But together, we can accomplish anything.

This is why I’m so grateful to all of you for coming together today. We’re in real pain. We’re hurting. And at the same time, we’re not resigning ourselves to it. We’re committed to doing better.

In the Sikh tradition, we talk of collective progress through the sangat (the fellowship of those who help us learn and grow in faith). As Guru Ramdas reminds us:

Without fortune, we don’t meet our sangat — and without our sangat, we get stuck in the muck.

The lives lost in Indianapolis provide a stark reminder that while this attack disproportionately impacted our community, it’s not just about a single community. Attacks such as these impact all of us.

We are fighting for the soul of this country. The Sikh vision of community speaks to this constant effort.

That the Biden-Harris administration has amplified these themes today gives us heart in a heavy time. I want to thank them for reaching out the moment they heard about the Sikhs killed in Indiana. They did so proactively and sincerely, asking how they could help and suggesting that we organize a call with local community leaders and the Sikh Coalition.

We’re grateful for their outreach and condolences and for acknowledging our community’s pain.

And yet, we all know that acknowledging the pain and acknowledging the existence of the Sikh community is not enough. Thoughts and prayers are not enough. It’s time for action.

We must ask ourselves, openly and honestly: What actions you would like this administration to take in the wake of yesterday’s events? What would you like to see your elected officials do? 

There are no promises or guarantees, conversations about our experience are a starting point for making a difference.

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