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"Do I Have a Bias?"

by DAVID BOGNER

 

Jackie Mason is famous for one of his trademark stand-up routines which, if not actually racist (debatable), certainly is close enough to racism to make people look around carefully at who is sitting nearby before laughing too loud. 

In this routine, he justifies being wary of encountering certain minorities on the street at night with the back-handed statement, "Nobody ever crossed the street to avoid a group of Jewish accountants".

I mention this joke because I experienced something during my last business trip to India that left me with a similar 'vibe'.

I was waiting in the line for the security check at the Chennai (Madras) airport before an internal flight to Mumbai (Bombay).  Posted on the wall a few yards before the X-ray machines and metal-detectors was a fairly typical poster listing all manner of objects and substances that were prohibited beyond that point. 

Most of the items on the poster were pretty much what you would expect; guns, explosives, spray cans, knives, etc. ... and a few, like the prohibition of carrying a Cricket bat onto the plane, were uniquely Indian.

But near the bottom of the poster was a small statement that advised members of the Sikh faith to inform security personnel if they intended to board a flight carrying a kirpan.  I had never read or heard the word kirpan before, but this wasn't particularly surprising, as I had never had a reason to look too closely at the Sikh religion or culture. 

But since a kirpan was mentioned on the security poster of potentially dangerous stuff, I decided to spend my wait-on-line time trying to reason out for myself what it might be, using only what I did know about Sikhs.

I looked around the airport for a Sikh (there were plenty to choose from) on which to focus my staggering powers of deduction, and quickly settled on a tall, be-turbaned gentleman a few people behind me in the slow-moving line.  To my foreign eyes, he looked remarkably like all the Sikhs I used to see driving cabs around New York City (how's that for a knee-jerk prejudice?). 

Turban?  Check.  Beard?  Check.  Loose-fitting clothing?  Check.

I knew, from having  watched "The English Patient" with Zahava, that underneath those turbans was almost certainly a whole lot of uncut hair. 

Now we were getting somewhere! 

As I snuck surreptitious peeks at my Sikh neighbor in line, I began to reason that something must be holding all that hair in place under there... perhaps a big hair pin of some sort???! 

As I passed through the security checkpoint, I was silently congratulating myself on having figured out the mystery of the kirpan so quickly.  It had to be a hair pin!

Once inside the gate, though, I started wondering if that was really it.  I looked around and saw that several of my fellow travelers were availing themselves of the WiFi in the waiting area so I took out my laptop and googled "Sikh" and "Kirpan" to see if I could shed any light on the subject.

The following Wikipedia entry jumped out at me:

Five Ks

The Five Ks, or panj kakaar/kakke, are five items of faith that some Sikhs wear at all times at the command of the tenth Sikh Guru, Gobind Singh, who so ordered at the Baisakhi Amrit Sanchar in 1699. They are Kesh (uncut hair), Kanga (wooden comb), Kacchha (specially-designed underwear), Kara (iron bracelet) and Kirpan (strapped sword). The five Ks are mainly for identity and representation of the ideals of Sikhism, such as honesty, equality, and the concept of a "warrior saint or saintly soldier", meditating on God and protecting the downtrodden.

Holy cow... A sword?!!

I had actually been correct in assuming that there was something holding all that hair together under the turban (the wooden comb or kanga... not the kirpan), but somewhere on the person of the traditional Sikh passenger with whom I would be sharing an airplane was a small ceremonial sword. 

Strangely, the idea of this tall, bearded Sikh having a hidden sword on the flight really didn't bother me... and this is where we come back to Jackie Mason's Jewish accountant joke.  You see, other than some sheltered suburban idiots who, through the fog of their post-9/11 hysteria, couldn't differentiate between the appearance of a Sikh and an Afghanistani Taliban, it would be an odd thing to see someone actually cross the street to avoid a bunch be-turbaned Punjabi Sikhs.

Further googling reinforced this, when most of what I could find about Sikhs spoke of a people almost universally known for honesty, bravery, loyalty and obedience to a completely inoffensive faith.  In fact, one entry I found that was meant to illustrate the latter attribute was a story from the Indian period of the British Raj (likely apocryphal) about a Sikh soldier in the British Army who allegedly starved to death because nobody came to relieve him on watch and he refused to abandon his post to forage for food.

It isn't exactly surprising, then, that a Sikh character ("Punjab") was selected by the creators of "Little Orphan Annie" as Daddy Warbuck's faithful bodyguard and fearless protector of the title character.

But getting back to the airport and the hidden kirpan/sword, I started thinking about the thinly veiled prejudice that allows Sikhs to travel within India (one would assume) with a large knife, and others not.  A few more google searches turned up news stories about Sikhs who had bumped up against airline security regulations in the post-9/11 world in various places in the world.  In most cases, the issue of the kirpan was handled quite amicably, with the offending weapon being slipped into the checked baggage or handed over to the cabin crew for the duration of the flight.

But that really wasn't the point for me.  The heart of the issue was that I really had no personal problem with a Sikh boarding my plane with a sword... but I would refuse to fly with a similarly armed Muslim. 

Can you imagine what the world of travel would look like today if, like Guru Gobind Singh, Mohammed had commanded his followers to always carry around a sword (rather than simply instructing them to spread Islam via that particular weapon)?  I imagine in that scenario that even the most strident civil libertarians might give the nod to curtailing a few religious freedoms in the name of arriving at one's destination in one piece.

I'll be the first to admit that many prejudices are not only baseless and wrong, but that they tend to throw up impregnable barriers to understanding and coexistence.  But just as at the heart of many jokes there is a kernel of truth... so too, at the heart of some prejudices there can be found a legitimate shred of common sense. 

Call me a bigot, but I choose to recognize as an acceptable prejudice that not everyone should be allowed to carry a sword (ceremonial or otherwise) onto an airplane.  Oh yeah... and for the record, I wouldn't cross the street (or skip a flight) to avoid a Sikh.

Take from that what you will.

 

COMMENTS

* Great post, Dave. Very informational and a good read, as well.

Posted by: val | May 29, 2007 6:02:23 PM

 

* Personally I have always been slightly nervous about the followers of Teddy Roosevelt. That stick they carry looks awfully dangerous. ;)

It is a good post with good points in it. When we look at the history of actions of various groups it is hard not to react in certain ways.

Posted by: Jack | May 29, 2007 6:12:35 PM

 

* I used to live in a place in California, USA called Yuba City...

Which was largely settled by Sikhs... love 'em! Good folks!

I used to work out with a Sikh guy and his son at the gym... his name was Bupi, which was short for Bupinder.

I trust them with swords too.

I've also noticed that a huge number of Sikhs seem to identify with Judaism and the State of Israel strongly.

Again, good folks... menschen if I do say so. And I'd gladly make that generalization! Omayn!

Shalom,
Posted by: Maksim-Smelchak | May 29, 2007 6:48:59 PM

 

* As I understand their faith, Sikhs are bound to defend the weak. I feel safer with an armed Sikh aboard my plane.

Posted by: antares | May 29, 2007 7:23:02 PM

 

* I never knew any of this.
Thanks.

Tho I still quiver with fear when I see those Jewish accountants in large groups.
oooo scary...

Posted by: weese | May 29, 2007 8:17:04 PM

 

* Sikh and you shall findh. ((groaaaan))

Posted by: Elisson | May 29, 2007 9:47:14 PM

 

* I believe most people wouldn't mind sitting on a plane next to a Skh wearing a kirpan but there you go. Common sense seems to be out-of-fashion.

Posted by: Ilana-Davita | May 29, 2007 11:58:47 PM

 

* Sikh neighbors down the block here in the heavily Orthodox Pico-Robertson area of Los Angeles. Fine people, great neighbors, who often say "Good Shabbos" to yours truly. Awesome white outfits with that great accessory: the often jeweled and lovely kirpan. Gotta get me one.

Posted by: Robert J. Avrech | May 30, 2007 12:07:31 AM

 

* A Sikh of my acquaintance was on the streets of Delhi after Indira Gandhi was assasinated, fighting Hindu mobs alongside other Sikhs. Outnumbered, of course, but as the Sikh expression has it, 'panch main parmeswar' ("where there are five, there is God"). Fearless. A former airforce pilot. Other than having since then gotten five phd's in scientific fields, he's the most well-adjusted person I know.

I've worked with many Indians over the years. Sikhs and Gharwalis are absolutely top-notch. Splendid fellows.

Posted by: Back of the Hill | May 30, 2007 4:03:49 AM

 

[Courtesy: www.treppenwitz.com]

Conversation about this article

1: Sadhana Kaur (Los Angeles, U.S.A.), May 30, 2007, 6:17 AM.

It's a delight to get an insight into the thought processes of one who stands on the proverbial "other side". I really appreciate your honesty, your sensitivity, and your deep sense of basic, human decency.

2: Farid Kaur (Vancouver, Canada), May 30, 2007, 5:28 PM.

Undoubtedly, public security is of paramount importance. But, no matter what degree of heightened vigilance is warranted, there is never any real need to be disrespectful of anybody's rights or beliefs. Sure, it requires a bit of an extra effort, but every bit of it is worth it, in the best interests of all. Anything short is, on the part of those who hold power in any given situation, as a result of intellectual dishonesty and moral irresponsibilty. Mr Bogner has shown how one can work one's way through such a dilemma and come out of it honourably and still walking tall. I should add that of course I do not expect every front-line security pesonnel to be going through this internal dialogue. But certainly, policy-shapers and decision-makers must go through this exercise, no matter how many times it needs to be done. Thank you for this wonderfully thought-provoking piece.

3: Gurmit Singh (Sydney, Australia), May 30, 2007, 5:46 PM.

Indeed, A Khalsa Sikh should have the right to wear his kirpan at all times. But, the right comes with obligations and responsibilities. The person must indeed be living up to the Khalsa principles. The clank of multiple and over-sized karas, the exaggerated blue bana, the distrust of other faiths (these are but a few examples)... none of these is in accordance with the stark simplicity of Sikhi. You can't seek the privileges of Sikhi and yet contravene its very basic principles! First and foremost, let's live as true Sikhs ... the rest will follow as 1, 2, 3!

4: Bimal Deep Singh (Noida, India), May 30, 2007, 8:50 PM.

This is a great article and shows how others perceive Sikh identity. Sikhs are always known as followers of peace and truth, but they are equally potent in fighting against injustice and tyranny. I was saddened by the few incidents of violence against Sikhs after 9/11, which I consider anomalous. But, we need to remember that every great race has to face such turbulence, before it can become bigger and better. As the world progresses further, Sikhs are increasingly known for contributing conspicuously in all sectors of the economy. The best examples are the successful businessmen and entreprenuers across the diaspora. I wish Sikhs everywhere will first rule the hearts of people wherever they've made it their home. Then truly, "Raj Karega Khalsa".

5: Kuldeep Singh Wadhwa (New Delhi, India), May 30, 2007, 10:10 PM.

Enjoyed reading the article. Hats-off to the writer who has tried to paint the real picture of the Sikh and tell the world what Sikhs really are. Believe me, if politicians did not muddle things, Sikhs and their Guru Granth would wow the world with their extraordinary message of equality and selflessness. After all, it is every Sikh who prays each day for "Sarbat Da Bhalla" - the welfare of all Humanity. We should all pray for good leadership and guidance to the community - it is the burning need of the times.

6: Jag Singh Khalsa (Australia), May 31, 2007, 3:02 AM.

It is amazing how you have managed to learn so quickly about us. The miracle of Google and the internet! All I want to add is that the Kirpan is the gift from our Elders which makes India what it is today - free! It symbolizes the obligation of each Sikh to protect the weak, serve the needy and to fight tyranny and oppression - the very messages that seem to have been forgotten in modern-day India and around the world.

7: Pritam Singh (Toronto, Canada), May 31, 2007, 6:20 AM.

Thanks for the wonderful article. The recent situation in India around Gurmeet Ram highlights the problems being debated by David and his readers. I believe this was the perfect opportunity for all Indians to have stood up against the rogue. After all, Guru Gobind Singh had sacrificed his all for the greater benefit of mankind. Sadly, once again, Indians have remained mute through this one as well, while Sikhs alone have protested against the outrage. Shame! And a pity.

8: Manjit Kaur (North Potomac, MD, U.S.A.), May 31, 2007, 6:59 AM.

I would like to applaud David Bogner for this wonderful article. I'm dazzled not only by his desire and persistence to find an answer, but also by the marvellous world of W.W.W. which led him to the information he sought, and then allowed him to share it with others. There is a lot to be learnt about our Articles of Faith. Hopefully, we can all contribute our share in, first, educating ourselves, and then, the world ... but with due humility that should automatically come with being a true Sikh. Along with the excellent article, I enjoyed the magnificent feed-back with the variety of perspectives on how Sikhs are perceived around the world.

9: Satwinder Singh (Dublin, Ireland), May 31, 2007, 2:18 PM.

Thanks for this wonderful article. Sharing has great power: the power to change minds and perceptions. David's understanding of the Sikh faith and the 5K's has influenced so many people and reinforced the positive image held by others. No doubt, education and awareness of Sikhism hold the key to some of the major problems facing the diaspora. But who do we expect will deliver those ... if not we ourselves?

10: Param (London, England), May 31, 2007, 2:39 PM.

What an awesome article....Love, Light and Blessings!

11: Gurjit Singh (INDIA), May 31, 2007, 9:24 PM.

It's great that more and more people today are getting a better understanding of Sikhs and Sikhism, and can easily differentiate between the taliban and Sikhs.

12: Sukhvinder Singh Riat (Gurgaon, India), May 31, 2007, 10:47 PM.

Thanks for such a thought-provoking article. It is pieces like this one that will help clear many of the misunderstandings from the minds of people who do not know much about this faith. I hope and pray that a similar understanding will come to the people of the other faiths in India about Sikhs - where we are plagued by much misinformation. Thanks, David, for your thoughtful and balanced observations.

13: Jashandeep Kaur (Bathinda, India.), June 01, 2007, 5:30 AM.

Though I'm not an Amritdhari Sikh yet, I'm proud to be a Sikh. It pleases me to no end that there is growing awareness about what makes a true Sikh.

14: David (Milano, Italy), June 01, 2007, 9:24 AM.

Great post. Sikhs are quite tolerant people. This is why the kirpan looks protective, not dangerous. As a Christian, I feel quite comfortable with them. When you see a Sikh on the street, you actually want to join up with him, not to cross the street!

15: Roopinder Bains (Surrey, British Columbia, Canada), June 01, 2007, 12:18 PM.

The word kirpan is derived from two words: "kirpa" = grace, "an" = honour. The kirpan confers grace and honour on the one who wears it.

16: S.P. Singh (Chandigarh, India), June 02, 2007, 2:01 AM.

Like many of those who have taken the trouble of posting their reaction, I too appreciate the article, but I notice a disturbing similarity in all the comments posted on the side. Whether all the comments received had this similarity or whether the common thread of "the piece is great and the image of the Sikhs thus projected is good", is possibly because of the selection by the editors at sikhchic.com, is besides the point. But what I do really want to underline is the lack of attention paid to the moot point brought up by the author: What if other prophets in other faiths had instructed their followers similarly?

17: Roma Rajpal (Santa Clara/USA), June 04, 2007, 9:07 PM.

David, awesome article! You make a great point. It is indeed frightening to think of the scenario where anyone and everyone would have the right to carry a sword on the airplane.

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