A s southeastern Wisconsin’s Sikh community heals from the mass shooting that killed six of its members at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek Aug. 5, local Sikh business owners are calling for public awareness about Sikhism and its distinctions from other religions.
“We have to take this tragedy as an opportunity to educate people at large about Sikhism and religious intolerance,” said Dr. Bhupender Saini, a trustee for the Sikh Religious Society of Wisconsin in Brookfield.
Saini, who is the founder, chairman and part owner of a group of 30 clinics called Advanced Pain Management, started his company in 1998. He has lived in the Milwaukee area since 1984, when he emigrated from India.
While Saini said he has not felt threatened or discriminated against by patients at his practice, he has faced public prejudice for his appearance.
“At the end of the day, it can happen to anybody,” Saini said. “If you look different, there are people who are going to dislike you just for your appearance – for what you look like.”
In some cases, he has been targeted with derogatory remarks about his turban.
One incident turned physical. Saini was attending a conference in Oklahoma and came across a brash bartender at the bar of the hotel hosting the conference. When the bartender, a young female, started criticizing Saini’s turban, he left the bar and walked outside the hotel. The bartender followed him and grabbed his turban from his head. According to Saini, Sikhs do not like to remove their turbans in public, and it is disrespectful for someone else to do so.
“The bad part is that nobody in that area came to my rescue,” Saini said. “There were other people there. I felt bad on that part also. If I see something wrong done to somebody else, I will intervene.”
Another member of the Sikh business community, Kanwarjit Bajwa, owner of Guru Beer & Liquor in Milwaukee, has experienced similar discrimination. Although most of his customers respect his turban, his beard and his culture, some presume he is Muslim and, after drinking too much, address him as “Habib,” a common Muslim name.
“Most people think we are Muslim,” Bajwa said. “We are not.”
“The schools should give more education about the various religions and backgrounds and how they dress up and stuff like that,” Bajwa said.
As Milwaukee’s Sikh community of more than 600 families moves forward, Bajwa, who serves as chairman of the board of trustees for the Oak Creek Sikh temple, said members will be busy preparing for memorials and cremations. They also will continue receiving dignitaries from India.
Dr. Agit Divgi, a retired oncologist who practices Hinduism but is very open to the concept of Sikhism, will rely on his inner faith to forge ahead.
“Keep your faith, and faith will take us forward,” Divgi said.
“You certainly hope that something good will come out of this,” Saini said. “And with more awareness there will be less discrimination and, if anything, it will be an advantage to people like us. So I still see there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”