For promoting tolerance, Norwich Sikh honored by FBI

Norwich — Swaranjit Singh Khalsa came to the city in 2010, not long after finishing up graduate school in New Jersey. 

Although the native of Punjab — a state in northwestern India — had obtained a master’s degree in computer science, he instead ended up in business as the owner of the Norwichtown Shell station.

Drivers would stop at his station, he said, but when they saw him and the turban on his head, they’d make a beeline for the gas station next door.

“I said, ‘There’s something wrong,'” Singh Khalsa said. “‘Maybe we should come outside.’”

It wasn’t much later that he held his first Sikh awareness day, right there at the station. Dozens of people — local residents, police officers, historians — showed up.

That, he said, was the "icebreaker."

“That was the start of my interaction with the community,” he said. “After that, people were coming in, helping out, asking me to tell them more about my religion and where I came from.”

An award he received Wednesday at the 10th annual Interfaith Spiritual Wellness Fair — the FBI Director’s Community Leadership Award — symbolizes how far-reaching his efforts have been in the years since.

The recognition is granted yearly to 56 people — one for each of the FBI’s field offices.

In April, he will travel to Washington, D.C., where he'll receive a tour of FBI headquarters and will be celebrated along with the other award recipients during a ceremony.

The vetting process for the award is extensive, according to FBI Community Outreach Specialist Charles Grady.

A community or law enforcement agency nominates the person. A special agent in charge reviews and narrows down the nominees. Members of the FBI conduct interviews to learn how much of an impact the person has made.

Singh Khalsa, Grady said, was chosen for his work with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI to help educate law enforcement officers about cultural differences in Connecticut.

“It’s all about the willingness of an individual to go over and above what’s asked and bring people together from all walks of life,” Grady said. “He was the clear choice.”

Sikhism, a monotheistic religion that emphasizes compassion and service to others, was formed in the 15th century, when divisions by caste and color produced inequality at its worst.

All were invited to join the religion, Singh Khalsa explained. All could bear weapons — a right previously reserved for kings, emperors and other powerful people. All Sikh men were given the middle or last name Singh, which means lion, while the women adopted Kaur, or princess.

“This religion was made to create equality among people,” Singh Khalsa said.

In Connecticut, the Sikh population has been growing for years, Singh Khalsa said. He pointed to the number of temples in the state — there were three, now there are five — as easy evidence of that. 

But Sikhs, whose long beards confuse some into believing they’re Muslims, have been the targets of hate crimes across the country, including the August 2012 mass shooting at a Wisconsin temple that left six Sikhs dead and four wounded.

“Sometimes it’s just the fear of the unknown,” Singh Khalsa said.

That’s part of why he got involved educating officers about not only Sikhs, but also Muslims and Arabs.

For example, he said, one of the five articles of faith all baptized Sikhs are required to wear is the Kirpan, an iron dagger that varies in size.

It’s meant to be symbolic of the struggle between good and evil, and those wearing it don’t consider it a weapon any more than those who wear a cross consider that a torture instrument.

By being educated about such things — as well as about common greetings for people of varying faiths and cultural backgrounds — officers can respond professionally and earn the trust of those who are different from them.

“When we learn, we can say, ‘Oh, they’re no different than us,’” Singh Khalsa said. “They might look different, but their values are the same. Once we have that feeling among everyone, I think it will be a good thing.”

Singh Khalsa said he largely stays away from talking politics but said education is more important than ever, and that the leader of the country sets the tone, so if they are sending a message of hate, that's what will be spread around. 

During Wednesday’s event at the Southeastern Mental Health Authority, he joined members of more than 25 faiths, as well as representatives of nonprofits and people involved in healing practices, such as acupuncture detoxification.

There, he told some of the more than 500 expected guests about Sikhism, and how Sikhs have made strides to be able to do things such as serve in the U.S. military while retaining their religiously mandated beards and turbans.

Many presenters, including Valerie Smith of the Old Saybrook Baha'i Community, said they hoped attendees would come away with a new understanding of other religions.

“I hope they learn to appreciate other religions, to get to know other religions and maybe to not fear other religions,” she said. “I think that’s really important.”


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