Technically, what happened to Inderjit Singh Mukker was a case of mistaken identity. The 17-year-old who leaned into his car and punched him until he was unconscious thought Mukker’s thick black beard and turban were signs that he was a “terrorist” or “bin Laden.”
But what happened to Mukker was a brutal anti-Sikh hate crime that left the 53-year-old with a fractured cheekbone, an eye swollen to the size of a plum, and his white shirt soaked with blood.
“Holy shit. Holy shit, this happened in my family.”
That’s how Harvind Kaur Singh said she felt in September after being told that her cousin was beaten only a few blocks away from his house in Darien, a suburb 25 miles outside of Chicago, where he has lived for 27 years. Mukker, held by his seatbelt, was trapped like a hamster in a cage.
“People need to always find a way to put a face on the hatred,” she told me recently, referring to the slurs that were yelled at her cousin. She ran her pink fingernails through her long, black and brown hair. “How does a 17-year-old have so much hatred in his heart?”
The attack on Mukker is the most high-profile anti-Sikh hate crime in the nation since the FBI started recording the data in 2015. This year, for the first time since 9/11, violence against Sikh Americans—who are often mistaken for Muslims by their attackers—is not just considered collateral damage in the pursuit of Islamophobia, but broken out it into its own category in federal reports.
The new hate crime data collection training manual distinguishes between anti-Arab, anti-Hindu, anti-Muslim, and anti-Sikh hate crimes. Here’s the detailed (and well-sourced) blurb for what constitutes a Sikh:
Mentioning a dastarr and kanga may not seem momentous, but consider that before this year, incidents of hate-fueled violence against Sikhs were stuffed into the numbers of anti-Muslim hate crimes. For most of the 2000s, the more than 300,000 American Sikhs in the nation were forced to grapple with a question: How do you feel like you count as a citizen when crimes against you aren’t even counted?
Everything changed on August, 5, 2012, when white supremacist Wade Michael Page opened fire at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, killing six and catapulting violence against an often ignored people into the spotlight.
“When you have the spotlight and the nation’s sympathy is with you, you essentially get one request,” said Simran Jeet Singh, religion fellow at the Sikh Coalition, a group formed to protect the civil rights of American Sikhs. Reforming the FBI statistics, Singh said, was the stricken community’s one request. Enough was enough. The FBI had essentially said attacks against Sikhs weren’t significant enough to be tracked separately, but the massacre of six innocent Sikhs proved otherwise.
Today the doors on the temple are locked, there have been $75,000 in security additions (24 cameras, bullet-proof windows, safe rooms that can house 500), and Sikh Americans have the dignity of being a statistic.
“If we were to address the ignorance, and people just knew who Sikhs were, then would xenophobia end?” asked the Sikh Coalition’s Singh. “We know from history, unfortunately, xenophobia doesn’t work that way. People who are bigoted are bigoted.”
The shooter’s motive will never be known for sure. He killed himself before he could be arrested.
Anti-Sikh sentiment was amplified after 9/11—there were an estimated 200 cases of anti-Sikh hate in the days after the terrorist attack, according to a Sikh organization—but it wasn’t born in the rubble. The price of wearing a turban was not a new phenomenon. In the ‘70s Sikhs were called Khomeini (Iran), then Saddam Hussein (Iraq), then bin Laden (Saudi Arabia), and now—for example, when aiding Syrian refugees—as ISIS. Even in India, “Sardar jokes,” which are basically blonde jokes, are rattled off at the expense of Sikhs.
Last month, a photoshopped selfie of Canadian Sikh Veerender Jubbal, making him appear to be one of the Paris terrorists, went viral. In the doctored photo, Jubbal’s iPad was changed to a Quran and his flannel shirt was now covered by an explosive vest.
The earliest case of bigotry directed at Sikhs in America can be found in the forgotten Bellingham riots of 1907 (explored here by Slate). Indian immigrants from Punjab–predominantly religious Sikhs who didn’t drink alcohol–were accused of stealing logging-industry jobs from white Americans in the Pacific Northwest. Whites rounded up hundreds of Sikhs, beat them up, and kicked them out of town. One startlingly racist front page of The Puget Sound American chronicled these “hindu hordes invading” in a story headlined “Have we a Dusky Peril?” (Image provided by the South Asian American Digital Archive.)
When police first responded to the scene of Mukker’s attack, there wasn’t an immediate understanding that racial bias was involved. To the officers it was just an incident of “road rage.”
A few days later, after outcry from the Sikh Coalition and a more thorough review of the evidence, the State’s Attorney’s Office filed a hate crime charge. (The teen also faces five counts of felony aggravated battery—one for punching a police officer who arrived at his house to arrest him). It is unlikely the case will be moved to an adult court.
Mukker’s cousin, Harvind Kaur Singh, said she wasn’t surprised that authorities had to be prodded into adding the hate crime charge. She has two daughters, 11 and 7, who keep their hair long, while her husband wears a turban. She said that the girls often ask about what happened to Mukker, who they call their uncle.
“He’s afraid. That doesn’t go away,” she said. “My kids are afraid.”
Harsimran Kaur, legal director of the Sikh Coalition, said the police’s initial oversight was telling: prosecutors and law enforcement must be culturally competent enough to understand that being told things like “go back to your country!” is evidence of bias. It’s not enough to notice that Mukker was beaten senseless. Motive matters.
To prove a hate crime, prosecutors have to show evidence of religious-fueled malice at the moment of violence. When an attacker yells a racial epithet, this becomes obvious.
“I’m appalled and disgusted by this decision,” Mukker had said before the hate crime charge. “What happened to me on Tuesday night is the definition of hate.”
Mukker hasn’t spoken much publicly since the incident, though he has returned to work now. His 20-year-old son told the Chicago Tribune, “Respect your elders and there is no point in hating.”
Family from India landed in Chicago the day after his brutal attack, a visit planned months earlier. They were shocked that something like this could happen in America. I asked whether Mukker is angry. There’s a common, though misguided, refrain for Indian immigrants in the face of racism: America will never be our country.
“It’s not the Indian in them or the faith in them that’s keeping them from being American,” she said. “It’s other people. It’s other people who are having a hard time accepting that they’re American.”