Picture Above: Prabhu Singh in the wilderness near his work place
Shortly after the catastrophic events of 9/11 a Sikh, Balbir Singh, was murdered in Arizona. Other Sikhs have been severely beaten, Sikh Gurdwaras vandalized, and countless taunted with labels of “Arab,” “Osama,” and the like. The misplaced blame for terrorism on Muslims and any one appearing Middle Eastern has hits Sikhs as well. The idea of a "collective guilt" is paltry, but it is ironic that Sikhs are targeted because Sikhism is completely separate from Islam and the current conflicts in the Middle East. Some Sikhs believe that they have gotten even more discrimination than other groups because of their distinct attire of turban and beard. Challenge is not new for the Sikhs who have historically protected the religious freedom of all people against extreme odds. Additionally Sikhs have faced massacres at the hands of Mughal and Afghani invaders in 1746 and 1762, as well as British officers in 1919, communal rioters in 1947, and the modern Indian Government in 1984. Sikhs, who have always been a visible minority, have faced times when a price was placed on each head of a Sikh. Now, many Sikhs have cut their hair and have taken off their turbans to avoid discrimination.
In the remote location of Los Alamos, New Mexico, four Sikhs work at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). This high security laboratory is most recognized as the birthplace of the atomic bomb, and has been recognized as one of the premiere scientific institutions of the 20th and 21st centuries.
This laboratory employs approximately 15,800 people between staff members and contract workers and is on the cutting edge of many scientific fields from nuclear physics to super computing (source reference). It should come as no surprise that there are Sikhs working in such an institution, but what may be striking is that these are Sikhs of Anglo descent all of whom are wearing traditional turbans and unshorn beards. Their names are Sat Sangat Singh, Noor Singh, and Noor Singh’s sons – Hari Singh, and Prabhu Singh.
Each of these Sikh employees work in a separate division of the laboratory supporting a variety of projects and work being done at this large and scientifically diverse institution. Twin brothers, Hari and Prabhu Singh both received their bachelors of science in computer science from the University of New Mexico, and were hired as staff members with the laboratory after completing their masters in computer science from Colorado State University. They are both co-founders of a volunteer group called simply S.E.V.A. (Sikh Espanola Volunteer Association) which they manage in their free time from their hometown of Espanola, New Mexico.
In a time when many Sikhs are frustrated with profiling, Prabhu Singh not only keeps his hair and wears a turban, but he proudly wears the traditional Sikh attire (bana) to his work. Sikhs wearing bana are mostly found in Punjab, India, and are a rare sight in the West even amongst this minority. The following is an interview with Prabhu Singh.
SikhNet: Why do you wear bana every day?
Prabhu Singh: The Guru has honored Sikhs by giving us such a beautiful Roop (form/dress). When I get dressed in the morning I am reminded of the Guru and the great Sikh Sangat of history and of today. I feel a great sense of honor and responsibility every day to have the privilege of representing the Khalsa Panth.
SN: Did you always wear bana at work?
PS: No, I used to wear traditional western clothing. I started wearing bana to work after my last trip to India, when I was able to get enough bana to wear on a daily basis. I mostly wear Cholas as well as Kurtas and Churidars.
SN: Do you find it difficult to wear bana in this post 9-11 era?
PS: I have generally felt no difficulties in America that can be linked to 9/11. Most Americans have had to deal with extra security at airports post 9/11 and I would say that I feel profiled for extra screenings on occasion. I was in Europe shortly after the attacks of 9/11 and I faced people calling me names like ‘Osama’ and ‘Taliban,’ but I’ve never experienced that in America.
SN: Has your attire caused difficulties in a professional work environment?
PS: Absolutely not. The only mention of my attire from any of my co-workers has been compliments. One co-worker mentioned that he’d like to be a Sikh just for the opportunity to dress like me. Another co-worker joked during a meeting that I was the only person who comes ‘formally’ dressed to work. Occasionally some people will stare at me at work. I think it’s usually people from out of town, as they are often wearing suits which is more formal attire than most of the local work force wears.
SN: Do you think it’s easier for you being Caucasian to wear bana than it would be for a Punjabi Sikh?
PS: I couldn’t say. For one thing, New Mexico is very different than most other places in the United States or the world. People have become accustomed to seeing Sikhs in this area whether Caucasian or not. When I travel, I encounter a lot of stares and I have explained the fundamentals of the Sikh Dharma on almost every flight I’ve ever been on to curious passengers. Whereas Sikhs of Punjabi descent may face assumptions that they are Muslim/Middle Eastern/etc, I think that often people believe that I’m a Muslim convert. I couldn’t say which assumption is easier to deal with. Some people have given me nasty looks (presumably based on assumptions), but I just try to smile at them and everybody else. Being so visible (especially in airports) I feel like it’s my duty to maintain the utmost social graces, because I’m representing millions of other Sikhs in the world.
SN: How can Sikhs educate Americans about Sikhism, and or prevent discrimination against Sikhs?
PS: Get out and serve. Share what we have. We have such a beautiful way of life and people in this world are yearning for the type of service that Sikhs have historically been known for. Even simple actions like smiling at people can do wonders for us.
When I was in Washington DC for business last year, I rode the metro for a week in my turban and bana. I received attention from thousands of people each day. I answered questions and smiled and greeted people while riding the metro. It required no extra effort. I simply rode the metro as I was planning to do and because I wore bana, people wanted to know about the Sikh Dharma.