BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — Kern County’s Sikh leaders shared with 17 News they have faced threats tied to their ethnicity over the last several weeks.
Concerns over the Sikh community’s safety come as tensions between India and Canada are escalating, following the assassination of a Sikh activist in Canada, allegedly orchestrated by the Indian government.
While Kern’s Sikh community said oppression against Sikhs is nothing new — many sought refuge from genocide and persecution in the Central Valley — fears have escalated recently, as threats in the very places Sikhs thought they could be safe have also increased.
“Time has stood still for Sikhs around the nation, around the country, locally,” said Bakersfield Ward 7 Councilmember Manpreet Kaur, a Sikh-American.
Kaur was referring to the June killing of Sikh activist, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian citizen. She noted the Indian government will even threaten citizens of another nation, if they are for Sikh sovereignty.
“There’s somebody whose life can be taken at the place where you worship, and you go every day, that is a threat, that is an emotional burden that people carry with them every day,” Kaur said.
Kaur’s family, like many others, immigrated to the Central Valley seeking political refuge.
Local experts often estimate there are 30,000 to 40,000 Sikhs in Kern, but Raji Brar, co-founder of Bakersfield Sikh Women’s Association, told 17 News the number goes up daily.
Brar also said refugees seek opportunity and safety in America.
But alarms have been sounding over safety in Sikh communities, with some, including those in Bakersfield, receiving warning texts from the FBI.
“It’s your everyday person [getting warnings],” Councilmember Kaur said. “Folks who are seeking to quiet down the Sikh voice and the Sikh call to having sovereignty, they don’t discriminate as to who they’re going to target.”
“Locally, there are constant questions of who is attending our congregation,” Kaur said. “Are some of these people dressed up as Sikh, but are they actually just watching what we’re doing as a community?”
Lawmakers like Kaur are no exception to threats.
After her comments addressing the current dangers against Sikhs during a City Council meeting was posted online, amassing quite a bit of attention, Kaur said she’s been receiving threatening and hateful comments.
California Assemblywoman Dr. Jasmeet Bains is another victim of attempted intimidation, after introducing a bipartisan resolution to recognize the 1984 violence against Sikhs in India as a genocide.
The resolution passed unanimously in both the state Legislature and Senate, though there had been an unsuccessful attempt to pass it back in 2015, when neither Dr. Bains nor anyone else of Sikh decent were not yet an Assemblymember.
Using her medical background, Dr. Bains explained the first step to healing is acknowledgement and that following her resolution’s passage, victims of that time period called to express their thanks, saying what had happened to them was finally being recognized.
But with the resolution came threats.
“I started getting threatening phone calls,” the assemblywoman said. “Directly after that in June, we hear about a Sikh activist being gunned down in Canada, that was ordered by the Indian government … Directly after that, I had four Indian men come into my office and threaten me.”
She detailed the individuals pointed their fingers at her face and said they’d do whatever it’d take to “go after [her]… and this is an open challenge to you, Dr. Bains.”
On the tensions between Canada and India, Dr. Bains said it’s a matter of time before a similar situation may hit America.
“There’s got to be some questions as to what is happening,” she said. “How much interference are we going to allow from a foreign government on U.S. soil?”
“The fact that the Indian government paid people to come to Canada and assassinated a Sikh activist should be enough to have everybody come together and say this is wrong, and for it to get the recognition that it needed.”
Bains and Kaur both described the recent reports of violence against Sikhs validation of the Sikh existence and struggles.
“We exist,” Dr. Bains said. “We’re your doctors, your farmers… And we deserve to feel safe.”
Councilmember Kaur emphasized local law enforcement needs to understand the Sikh and Sikh Americans’ different but very present reality. She also said the Sikh community needs to know to reach out to law enforcement when they need help.
Both these lawmakers have made history.
Kaur is the first Sikh Bakersfield councilmember, while Assemblywoman Dr. Bains is the first Sikh and South Asian female on the California State Legislature.