Sikhism in the United States

Members of the Sikh community of Somerville, Massachusetts.

Sikhism is a religion originating from South Asia (predominantly in modern-day India) which was introduced into the United States during the 19th century. In 2007, there were estimated to be between 250,000 and 500,000 Sikhs living in the United States, with largest populations living on the East and West Coasts, together with additional populations in Detroit, Chicago, and Austin.[1][2]

The United States also has a number of non-Punjabi converts to Sikhism.[3]

Sikh men are typically identifiable by their unshorn beards and Turbans (head coverings), articles of their faith. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and subsequent other terrorism related activities by Islamic groups, Sikhs have often been mistaken as Muslims or Arabs, and have been subject to several hate crimes, including murders. Sikh temples have also been damaged due to being mistaken for mosques.



Military service

British Veterans who fought on the Union side. (Circa 1917)
Captain Rattan, United States Army (2010)

Sikhs have served in the United States military at least as far back as the early 20th century, when one Bhagat Singh Thind, who though not a citizen joined the United States Army and served in World War I. Thind requested citizenship at the end of the war, being granted and revoked twice, before finally being naturalized in 1936.[4] Far larger numbers of Sikhs served in World War II, and all American wars following.

The ability of observant Sikhs to serve in the American military has, since 1985, been compromised by a discontinuation of exemptions to uniform standards which previously allowed Sikhs to maintain their religiously-mandated beards and turbans while in uniform.[5] Currently, a Sikh doctor, Kamaljeet S. Kalsi, and dentist, Tejdeep Singh Rattan, are the only Sikh officers to be permitted to serve in uniform with beard and turban.[6] In addition, Simranpreet Lamba was permitted to enlist, with exemption to wear his turban and beard, in 2010 due to his knowledge of Punjabi and Hindi.[7]


Many Sikhs started life in America working in lumber mills, mines, and as farm laborers, with many eventually becoming landowners. Many early Sikh immigrants were restaurant owners. In 1956, Dalip Singh Saund became the first Asian Indian-born person to be elected to the United States House of Representatives.

Elected officials


The most concentrated Sikh community in the United States has traditionally resided in agricultural Yuba City, California,[11] although this agglomeration has since dispersed as Sikhs have gained a greater educational foundation, enabling them to have now spread out to metropolitan areas all over the United States. The largest and most rapidly growing Sikh community in New York City is based in the Richmond Hill area of the borough of Queens; the majority consist of more recent emigres from India and Canada.[12] Conversely, in the Sikh Foundation of Virginia, most members comprise both recent and more established Jatt Sikhs, Ramgarhia Sikhs, and Sikh Rajputs. Most Sikhs of Española, New Mexico are non-Punjabi converts to Sikhism. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, there was an upsurge in anti-Sikh discrimination across the United States, including a number of incidents that involved physical attacks on Sikh individuals who were wearing turbans.[13] These attacks were committed because many Americans incorrectly think Sikhs are Muslim Terrorists, with the appearance of terrorists such as Osama Bin Laden being the reason for that assumption.


First immigrants

Sikhs have been a part of the American populace for more than 130 years. Near the end of the 19th century, the state of Punjab of British India was hit hard by British practices of mercantilism. Many Sikhs emigrated to the United States and began arriving to work on farms in California. They traveled via Hong Kong to Angel Island, California, the western counterpart to Ellis Island in New York Harbor.[14]

Some Sikhs worked in lumber mills of Oregon or in railroad construction and for some Sikhs it was on a railway line, which allowed other Sikhs who were working as migrant laborers to come into the town on festival days."[15]

A big effect on Sikh migration to the western states occurred during World War I and World War II, where Sikhs were recruited by the British Army to serve for them. Sikhs fought bravely during these wars and began to live in England after their serving period. Among the Sikhs who already lived in America prior to the wars, many Sikhs joined them, mainly during World Wars I and II. Among those who served in the US military include Bhagat Singh Thind in World War I.

After the September 11, 2001 attacks

Sikhs of America parade float at the 2016 Martin Luther King Day parade in Midtown Houston
Houston Sikh Community at the 2016 Martin Luther King Day parade in Midtown Houston

As a result of the September 11 attacks, some Sikh Americans have become subject to discrimination, often from individuals who mistakenly believe that they are Arab or Muslim.

Balbir Singh Sodhi, a gas station owner, was killed on September 15, 2001 due to being mistaken for a Muslim. In a 2011 report to the United States Senate, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported several assaults and incidents of arson at Sikh temples after September 11. All were labeled as hate crimes that resulted from the perpetrators' misconceptions that their targets were Muslim.[16] In August 2012, a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin was the site of a shooting, leading to 6 Sikh individuals being killed.[17] On May 7, 2013, an elderly Sikh man was attacked with an iron bar in Fresno, California in a possible hate crime.[18] On September 21, 2013, Dr. Prabhjot Singh, a Sikh professor was brutally attacked in Harlem, New York by a group of 20-30 men who branded him as "Osama" and Terrorist".[19]

A 2007 survey of Sikh students by the Sikh Coalition found that three out of four male students interviewed "had been teased or harassed on account of their religious identity."[20] In 2014, the Sikh Coalition released a national report on the bullying of Sikh children in American schools. The report found that 55.8% of Sikh students surveyed in Indianapolis reported being bullied, while 54.5% of Sikh students surveyed in Fresno, California reported being bullied.[21] According to the surveys, Sikh students wearing turbans are twice as likely to be bullied as the average American child.


In the 1960s, due to increased Indian immigration and rising interest in Indian spirituality in the American counterculture, a number of non-Punjabi Americans began to enter Sikhism. Prominent in this trend was Yogi Bhajan, leader of the Sikh-related movement 3HO (Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization), whose Los Angeles temple was the first to initiate non-Punjabi Americans into Sikhism.[3]

Some non-Punjabi Sikhs practice a form of gender egalitarianism putting them at odds with traditional Sikh practices. These may include allowing women to take ceremonial roles usually filled by men, or interpreting the rahit as requiring women to wear the turban as well, rather than the scarf commonly worn by South Asian-descent Sikh women.[22][23]

Notable Sikh Americans

See also


  1. Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs in America: A Short History, p. 120. Retrieved 2012-08-10.
  2. The Racialization of Hinduism, Islam, and Sikhism in the United States, Khyati Y. Joshi, 2006.
  3. 1 2 Ronald H. Bayor (31 July 2011). Multicultural America: An Encyclopedia of the Newest Americans. ABC-CLIO. pp. 985–. ISBN 978-0-313-35787-9. Retrieved 6 June 2013.
  4. Dawinder S. Sidhu, Neha Singh Gohil. Civil rights in wartime: the post-9/11 Sikh experience. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2009. ISBN 0-7546-7553-X, 9780754675532. Pg 137
  5. "Beard Ban Deters Chabad Rabbis From Becoming Chaplains in Army". 27 August 2005. Retrieved 25 October 2009.
  6. Michelle Roberts. "1st Sikh in Decades Graduates Army Officer School, Page 1". ABC News. Retrieved 2010-03-22.
  7. Susanne Kappler (10 November 2010). "Keeping faith: Sikh Soldier graduates basic training". Fort Jackson Leader. United States Army. Retrieved 26 December 2011.
  8. "Sikh city planner becomes Charlottesville mayor | Richmond Times-Dispatch". Retrieved 2012-08-07.
  9. Tanjua, Damon (November 23, 2011). "School Board Members Make It Official". Vernon Patch. Retrieved August 9, 2012.
  10. Dewan, Shaila & Brown, Robbie (June 13, 2010). "All Her Life, Nikki Haley Was the Different One". The New York Times. Retrieved August 9, 2012.
  11. "American Punjabi Sikhs, Yuba City, California". IIP Digital. US Embassy. Retrieved 9 November 2014.
  12. Mokha, Kavita (20 August 2010). "New Immigrants Put Stamp on Richmond Hill". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 9 November 2014.
  13. Investigating Anti-Sikh Discrimination in a Post 9/11 World
  14. The Pioneers, America, "A historical perspective of Americans of Asian Indian origin 1790-1997" 31 October 2006
  15. Sikhism in North America, America, "Sikhs in North America" 31 October 2006
  16. "Anti-Muslim Incidents Since Sept. 11, 2001". Southern Poverty Law Center. March 29, 2011. Retrieved January 12, 2012.
  17. Matt Pearce; Brian Bennett (5 August 2012). "Gunman's tattoos lead officials to deem Sikh shooting terrorism". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 5 August 2012.
  18. SF Gate (7 May 2013). "Fresno police: Sikh beating a possible hate crime". SF Gate. Retrieved 8 May 2013.
  19. "Indian Professor attacked in Columbia after being called Osama". Retrieved 23 September 2013.
  20. Sidhu, Darwinder S.; Neha Singh Gohil (2009). Civil Rights in Wartime: The Post-9/11 Sikh Experience. Ashgate Publishing. p. 72. ISBN 978-0-7546-7553-2.
  21. Juan Orozco; Carmen George (March 13, 2014). "Report: Fresno County Sikh students say they're bullied at school". Fresno Bee.
  22. Arvind Sharma (1994). Religion and Women. SUNY Press. pp. 35–. ISBN 978-1-4384-1960-2. Retrieved 6 June 2013.
  23. Dawinder S. Sidhu; Neha Singh Gohil (2009). Civil Rights in Wartime: The Post-9/11 Sikh Experience. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. pp. 56–. ISBN 978-1-4094-9691-5. Retrieved 6 June 2013.
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