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Indians work on initiative to combat post-9/11 discriminatory backlash

By Suman Guha Mozumder in New York
September 20, 2005 01:16 IST
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On the eve of the fourth anniversary of 9/11, a young Indian-American scholar decided to travel across the US.

Her mission: to examine how the lives of religious and ethnic minorities in the US -- who faced hate crimes following the World Trade Center terrorist attacks -- have changed since that day.

Valarie Kaur is spearheading a research project titled Discrimination and National Security Initiative, an official affiliate of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University, Massachusetts, USA, a preeminent research centre on the state of religious communities in the United States.

Four years later she is retracing her steps and interviewing the same individuals she met in 2001, including the family of Balbir Singh Sodhi, the Sikh gas station owner from Mesa, Arizona who was murdered on September 15, 2001 in one of the first incidents of racial backlash after the fall of the Twin Towers.

"The human consequences of a backlash are not reduced to statistics or numbers, but are still real and should be presented to the general public and policymakers for their consideration," says Dawinder 'Dave' Sidhu, a civil rights attorney with the federal government and co-founder and co-director of the DNSI project along with Kaur.

"These human consequences of a backlash include a Sikh boy deciding to cut his hair in the hope that he will be more accepted by his peers, a Muslim couple avoiding air travel, or even families moving back to their countries of origin," explains Sidhu.

Kaur told rediff India Abroad, "Many Americans know that hate crimes took place after 9/11, but we as a nation have yet to understand the far-reaching impact of such violence or how it continues to divide us. DNSI's database and reports will work to aid scholars, practitioners and citizens wishing to respond to the problem."

A third generation Indian American, Kaur has studied international relations and religious studies from Stanford University, California, USA. She is currently studying ethics at the Harvard Divinity School, Massachusetts, on a Beinecke scholarship and the prestigious Harvard Presidential scholarship.

Sidhu, a George Washington University Law School (Washington, DC) graduate, works with the US Department of Education's office for civil rights, where he assists in the development and examination of the constitutionality of official agency policy.

Valarie and Sidhu simultaneously conceived the idea for this project. "Both of us observed first-hand the impact of the post-9/11 backlash and understood that a substantive, long-term response in the form of a dedicated research entity was required," remembers Sidhu. Although they were on separate coasts of America at the time their vision for this initiative was identical. At a chance meeting they were able to share their thoughts and collaborate effectively on the realisation of this project.

As part of the project, DNSI has interviewed a number of Sikhs, Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians, in the Washington, DC area. The respondents were queried about issues of identity, such as whether they consider themselves truly American or whether they have contemplated altering their physical appearance to avoid mistreatment.

With the guidance of Dr Diana Eck, professor of comparative religion and Indian studies at Harvard University and director of the Pluralism Project, DNSI will focus sustained attention on issues of discrimination against minority communities. Work on the report consciously began on December 18, 2004, the 60th anniversary of the issuing of a landmark Supreme Court judgement Korematsu vs United States that validated the forced exclusion of Americans of Japanese ancestry. DSNI's report is expected next summer.

"We have two goals -- first to chronicle the factual phenomena of minority communities being mistreated during times of war, and second to focus on those within these affected groups, so as to provide a 'real face' to the statistics and abstract figures that may be unearthed in the first category of research," says Sidhu whose articles have appeared in Legal Times, National Jurist as well as in The New York Times and Washington Post.

Collection of this data, he felt, would refute any suggestion that a backlash is just a product of a sensitive community's imagination or a function of a sympathetic public's reaction to a few isolated incidents.

"(In addition) we are providing these people with a forum in which they can articulate their experiences, concerns, and opinions. Indeed, behind each act of employment discrimination -- an ejection from an airplane, or verbal harassment -- is a breathing person who deserves to have their reflections understood," he said. 

Providing a historical perspective on project, Sidhu links to the present context the fact that during World War II, people of Japanese ancestry were forcibly shifted from their homes.

The internment of Japanese-Americans yields this proposition: those who are thought to share the physical appearance or religion of a people in military conflict with the US may be treated with greater hostility by the federal government and American people.

"Sixty years later, the mistreatment of certain minority communities in times of national peril has regrettably returned, with the backlash against Sikhs, Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians," he says.

The past will invariably repeat itself in the absence of any true understanding of the existence and effects of a backlash on a minority community is Sidhu and Kaur's contention.

"With an understanding of this actual phenomenon combined with an appreciation for the pernicious consequences that follow, members of certain identifiable groups will not be subject to the stigmatisation of being subversive or disloyal simply because their race, religion, or homeland is engaged in a military conflict with the US," says Sidhu.

"The fundamental American values of equality and pluralism are susceptible to degradation when the homeland or American interests are in danger," he says. "Times of war have ultimately posed the question of whether equality and pluralism are competing, if not irreconcilable, interests despite the liberal ideals that undergird the design of this nation."

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Suman Guha Mozumder in New York