The Molloy-Franco name-calling of New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal is part of the media misrepresentation of Sikhs.
By Harpal S. Mangat, MD
Two mid-day radio hosts were taken off the air on July 25, after they repeatedly referred to New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal as “Turban Man.” Grewal, — the nation’s first and only Sikh American state attorney general — wears a turban.
The “Turban Man” comments by hosts Dennis Molloy and Judi Franco reflect not only ignorance but a fundamental failure of the educational system to teach National, State and Local Government (NSL) in high school.
Franco, who hails from San Francisco, has Sephardic Jewish roots. Sikhs, like my great grandfather, came in through Angel Island off the coast of San Francisco in 1893 to become loggers in Bellingham, Washington State, before the first Sikh American pogrom drove them to Vancouver.
It was similar to what happened to the Sephardic Jews as they fled to England after the Spanish Inquisition. Men from Asia built the West, but a Federal statute forbade them to bring in their womenfolk. This continued till 1966 when it was repealed.
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Molloy would be aware of the Easter Rising of 1916 in Ireland. The bullet wounds still line the pillars of my medical school, Royal College of Surgeons.
In 2015, at the centennial anniversary of the Easter Rising, there was a poetry reading in Dublin at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. The poetry of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde was read along a backdrop of the images of World War I, where Irish mothers had to give up their sons to feed the Fields of Flanders.
Similarly, Sikhs fought along the Irish for freedom in Europe. They also served, like my grandfather, on the eastern front of British Indian Army in Basra Iraq. In 1919, the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, like the Easter Rising, ignited the Indian Independence movement.
In the fight for India’s freedom, over 70 percent of the martyrs were Sikhs.
During World War II, most of the fighting done in Burma against the Japanese was done by Sikh soldiers. The Japanese hated Sikhs with turbans so intensely that they killed local Sikhs much like the Nazis did with the Jews.
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In 1919, Dalip Singh Saund, a fellow Sikh American, migrated to the United States to enroll for his PhD in Berkley California. When he graduated in 1924, the Immigration Act, also known as the Johnson–Reed Act, was made a United States federal law.
The sweeping legislation set quotas for immigrants from different nations and provided funding for enforcing bans on non-white immigrants, much like ICE today. One of its main goals was to decrease the number of immigrants from Southern Europe — specifically Italians — Roman Catholic countries and Eastern Europe, and the immigration of Arabs and Jews.
The act also prohibited immigration from Asia. Soon courts would rule that Indians were not white and, therefore, could not immigrate to the United States.
Despite all this, Saund became the first Asian American Congressman in 1956, laying the foundation for the Act’s repeal. From the Sikh faith, he fought for the equality of men and women and championed women’s rights, leading to his sponsorship of many federal laws.
He suffered a stroke, as he was preparing to run for the Senate, on a flight from California to Washington, DC. (The tragic accident precipitated the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) to carry oxygen on all flights, which is now a global requirement.)
A portrait of Saund adorns the Capitol building in Washington. A film was made on his life, and its producer Samantha Chang has embarked on a program to make his life story a mandatory requirement of NSL classes.
Gurbir Singh Grewal’s turban is a crown that fights for justice. The Molloy-Franco narrative fulfills the media misrepresentation of Sikhs, expanded by the Bush-Cheney agenda for Halliburton’s profit at the cost of all Americans. The events of 9/11 and the media’s representation of all turbaned people as terrorists has traumatized may Sikh American children unnecessarily, as they have had to endure taunts of Osama from elementary to high schools. This unchecked bullying at school has lead to the dehumanization of all bearded brown people in the United States.
The dehumanization aspects of the Molloy-Franco comments are hallmark of the ignorance that needs to be eradicated. Grewal is more than qualified to be the attorney general of New Jersey. The Grewal clan was one of the Missls of the Ranjit Singh’s empire that extended from Punjab to Kabul and Ladakh. The demise of that empire led to my great grandfather coming through Angel Island.
Currently the Sikh American population is the most prosperous in the nation, wealthier than Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jewish population together. Every day, Sikh Americans play important roles in every walk of life, be it entrepreneurs or actors, engineers or cops. There were many physicians who worked tirelessly during 9/11.
There is an old Iraqi saying, “If you do not know where you come from, you are a bastard.” I would encourage Dennis Molloy and Judi Franco to recognize their own history, as well as the Sikh American narratives and devote air time in eradicating ignorance they have unwittingly fallen prey to. The state of New Jersey should adopt the Maryland model which teaches high school teachers cultural diversity of the six major religions, that was spearheaded by Sikh kid to kid (SK2K)
In summary, “Sikh and yee shall find the very best in all Americans irrespective of color or creed.”
(Harpal S. Mangat, MD, is in Practice in Maryland. He is an Assistant Professor at Howard University College of Medicine.)