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December 28, 1999
Sikhs Complain Their Reputation Was Hijacked
J M Shenoy
Between the first flash of news of Indian Airlines hijacking and the confirmation that the hijackers are Kashmiri secessionists, many Sikhs across North America were furious at the media attention directed against the community.
Many Sikh community leaders got calls from the local media asking for their reaction, even as they were saying the identity of the hijackers was not known. They became even more furious when The New York Times ran a front page report on Saturday by Susan Sachs which began this way: 'Five Sikh men said to be armed with grenades, rifles and knives hijacked an Indian Airline jet yesterday'.
But way down in the story, The Times spoke of the possibility of the men belonging to a Kashmiri outfit. And yet, it said the BBC had reported the men were Sikh.
"This is the worst kind of stereotyping and lazy assumption," said Deepan Singh, a New Yorker active in the community. "How did they reach this conclusion? It is horrible, the way the story is written."
He was reminded of the Oklahoma bombing a few years ago that left over 200 people dead, and how the media had rushed to speculate that it could be the work of Arabs, and thousands of Arab Americans and Arab immigrants in and around Oklahoma City had become suspect in the eyes of their fellow citizens.
"I don't feel like going to Jackson Height this week," Deepan Singh said late on Friday evening, referring to the shopping district in Queens that has over 100 South Asian shops and restaurants. "I know people are talking about the hijacking, and I don't like them to think one of us did it."
Echoing the sentiments of some of his friends, Deepan Singh said he felt the reputation of Sikhs was being hijacked by the media.
As the story was breaking, Dr Rajwant Singh, president of Sikh Council on Religion and Education, was busy contacting editors and Indian community leaders. First, he condemned the hijacking, and if the Sikhs committed it, he said the hijackers deserve condemnation, too.
In letters sent to a number of publications, Singh, who also heads the Maryland-based Guru Gobind Singh Foundation, asserted: "This reprehensible act of terrorism is neither condoned by Sikh teaching nor by Sikh masses anywhere in the world."
But Rajwant Singh also wondered from where the media was picking up the information. He pointed out that just because an official in the United Arab Emirates, where the plane had stopped for refueling, had said that two of the hijackers wore turbans it did not mean they were Sikhs.
"Besides Sikhs, many other ethnic nationalities and religious groups wear turban," his letter said.
The media had reached the conclusion even though not a single passenger had been interviewed, Rajwant Singh noted on Friday night.
Now that the identity of the hijackers is known, say many Sikh leaders, the media should do some introspection.
"We are equally perturbed with the media's accusation at any particular group for committing an act of terrorism without proper evidence," Rajwant Singh added.
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