Members of Congress, Sikh community celebrate Vaisakhi on Capitol Hill

NBA player Satnam Singh is chief guest at Vaisakhi event honoring “Sikhs in Sports.”

Rep. Jim Costa greets NBA player Satnam Singh at the 2017 Vaisakhi celebration on Capitol Hill on April 5, 2017.

WASHINGTON, DC:  Vaisakhi celebrations began early this year with influential lawmakers felicitating and partaking in the major Sikh festival ahead of its actual date on April 14.

Congressman John Garamendi of California, Democratic Co-Chair of the American Sikh Congressional Caucus, introduced a House Resolution (H.R. 189) on March 10, “recognizing the historic, cultural and religious significance of the festival of Vaisakhi.” On Wednesday, March 5, at noon, the Resolution was read on the House Floor by Rep. Patrick Meehan, R-PA, Co-Chair of the Congressional Sikh Caucus.

Later that evening, the lawmakers joined their colleagues and some 100 activists of the Sikh community for a reception in the Rayburn House Office Building organized by Friends of the American Sikh Congressional Caucus, spearheaded by Harpreet Singh Sandhu, in conjunction with the Sikh Caucus on Capitol Hill.

Satnam Singh, the first Indian basketball player to be drafted into the NBA was the chief guest at the event titled, “Vaisakhi with Sikhs in Sports.”

Garamendi, who represents a large Sikh community in his district, which includes Yuba County in northern California, among others, spoke of the many challenges affecting American Sikhs particularly in the wake of the recent US election and the protracted divisive presidential campaign leading up to it.

“The harsh rhetoric of this last campaign is spilling over into all kinds of issues that affect this community in a very negative and harmful way,” he said. Among the issues, he mentioned discrimination, immigration, and a cut in the State Department budget which, he told the gathering, “would affect each and every one of you because you want your family to get a visa to visit the United States.”

The lawmaker underscored, “We need to have continued information from you about what is happening in the community. So make sure that we know that,” he said.

Rep. John Garamendi, Co-Chair of the American Sikh Congressional Caucus, addressing compelling issues affecting the Sikh community at a Vaisakhi event on Capitol Hill on April 5, 2017.

Looking around the packed room in the Rayburn Building, Meehan marveled at the “vitality of the community.” He told the attendees, “You must take the time to make sure that your issues and your concerns are before the people who can make decisions to help you.”

Rep. Jim Costa, D-CA, was also heartened to see the strength of the Sikh community and diversity in the room and, in his remarks, he dwelt on the importance of immigrants.

“I represent a rich and diverse District and a significant part of that diversity and mosaic of cultures that come from all around the world is the Sikh community which contributes and makes a difference every day and improves the quality of life,” he said.

“America is a land of immigrants — past and present — and with every generation of immigrants, America becomes a better country, a better place to live because you add energy, you add excitement, you add a sense of strong family values,” he told the gathering. “We are all immigrants. I am a second-generation (American). From my heart, I understand the story of the immigrant because it is my story, it’s your story!”

The lawmaker spoke of challenges facing the Sikh community particularly since the 9/11 terror attacks and bemoaned that “a backlash has developed toward immigrants.” Referring to the rise in hate crimes against Sikh Americans, he said, “It’s one of the reasons that the Sikh Caucus is so important because you help me raise the understanding of these challenges.”

He pledged to “continue to be an advocate for issues affecting the Sikh community,” including Sikhs serving in the US Armed Forces with their turbans and beards.

In brief remarks, Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-VA, told members of the Sikh community: “As a member of the American Sikh Congressional Caucus, it is an honor to work with you.” Referring to the diversity of her District which includes Loudoun, Clarke and Frederick counties as well as parts of Fairfax and Prince William counties, she said, “Our door is always open and I look forward to continuing our friendship.”

Harpreet Sandhu recalled that when Comstock was informed about the Sikh Caucus her immediate reaction was to ask, “Am I on it? If not, put me on it,” she said.

Satnam Singh, the first Indian basketball player drafted into the NBA, is flanked by Sikh Americans at a Vaisakhi celebration on Capitol Hill on April 5, 2017.

Satnam Singh, a center for the Texas Legends, endeared himself to all at the Vaisakhi event with his humility and down-to-earth demeanor. Speaking in Punjabi, he told budding athletes to “always respect your parents.”

“Wherever I have reached today, it is because of my parents’ blessings,” he said. “Sports, whether it is basketball, football or any other game, is very important in life.”

The star of the aptly-titled documentary, One in a Billion, recommended training kids from a young age. “Those who live here are very lucky as they can avail of all the opportunities,” Satnam noted, admitting it was much more difficult for him to come from a village in Punjab and undergo intensive training in the US.

Among other athletes honored at the Vaisakhi celebration were: Mohinder Gill, world-class triple jumper of the late ’60s and early ’70s; Sofia Walia, the first Sikh to play hockey at Rutgers University and in the big ten; Sumeet Gill who currently plays volleyball at the University of Oregon; Jasraj and Harpreet Sandhu, seasoned tennis players; Harman, Jasjeet, Dilavar and Avleen Wariach — teen tennis players.

The text of the House Resolution recognizing the significance of Vaisakhi reads as follows:

Whereas Vaisakhi has been celebrated in the Punjab region of South Asia for centuries and today is also celebrated in communities throughout India, in the United States, and around the world;

Whereas Vaisakhi is an annual festival celebrating the Spring harvest season;

Whereas Vaisakhi is of particular significance to the Sikh religion and is one of the most important dates in Sikh history;

Whereas, for Sikhs, Vaisakhi commemorates the creation of the Khalsa, a fellowship of devout Sikhs, by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699; and

Whereas Vaisakhi celebrates community, prosperity, and continued progress in the year ahead.

Now, therefore, be it Resolved that the House of Representatives:

(1) recognizes the historic, cultural and religious significance of the festival of Vaisakhi;

(2) recognizes the significance of Vaisakhi to Sikh communities in the United States and around the world; and

(3) expresses its respect for all communities that celebrate Vaisakhi.

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