By Ankita Rao

Sikh Community Seeks Just Treatment in Airports

It began in San Francisco airport in 2007 with one Sikh man’s refusal to remove his turban.

“It is part of our dress code, an integral part of our body,” says Kuldip Singh, the director of United Sikhs, a nonprofit advocacy and humanitarian assistance group, and an IT consultant.

For Kuldip Singh, his turban was also part of post-9/11 racial profiling and airport screening procedures.

He was asked to remove his shoes, belt and kara, a steel bracelet worn by Sikhs, at the security checkpoint because of revised screening procedures. But Kuldip, a regular traveler and U.S. citizen, had not been informed of a change in policy.

After passing through the metal detector, he was asked to take off his turban.

“My turban is my religious mandate. It is my identity, my pride; it is everything to me,” he says.

Kuldip remained calm and asked for an alternative — screening in the explosives trace-detection portal, or “puffer,” machine but was rudely denied. He was led to a private screening area where the officer was “patting as if I was a threat to the country.”

Kuldip was the first to report unjust screening practices by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), a sector of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Within the next week, 60 more cases were reported.

By mid-2008, the Sikh community had begun urging the TSA to allow Sikh passengers to pat down their own turbans and be screened by air puffer machines. The changes were made on paper, however they have not been consistent in airports.

The Sikh community has been no stranger to racial profiling and hate crimes after “War on Terror” became a household term.

Balbir Singh Sodhi, a gas station owner in Arizona was the first victim killed as a result of hate crimes, in 2001. In 2008, three Sikh musicians were escorted off of an airplane after boarding because of nervous passengers.

While there have been no actual findings of Sikh terrorists or reports of crimes by Sikhs, their turbans continues to attract negative attention.

Jaspreet Singh, a New York-based staff attorney for United Sikhs, has been working with the TSA at the national level to correct the inconsistent screening policies. Since 2007, he has issued press releases and reports to highlight the issue.

“A part of being secure is making sure your policies are implemented at every level, everywhere collectively,” he says.

A new TSA policy instructs security officers to treat the turban the same as any bulky clothing, but Jaspreet’s firsthand experiences tell otherwise. TSA officers have pulled him out of line, patted him from head to toe and led him to the holding box for extra screening.

Kuldip Singh says the mindset that a turban means “terrorist” is wrong and must be changed. He recognizes that some confuse the Sikh turban with those worn by men in the Middle East but says the ignorance applies to all people.

“Why is there hate against Muslims or any other community?” he asks. “They are like every other person.”

He recalls feeling harassed at the time of his screening and says policy makers do not take into account the victimization of the minority group.

“They [the policy makers] did not…talk to any Sikh.”

The TSA has justified its actions by saying security officials are looking for an improvised explosive device, a bomb that can be the size of a pen.

“What is so different about a turban than the jacket?” Jaspreet says.

He says the racial profiling of Sikhs is distinct because it is religiously oriented, and he believes the problem occurs one hundred percent of the time that a man with a turban travels. Jaspreet thinks the extra attention might simultaneously reinforce fear in the public, while assuring them that security measures are being taken.

“It is ignorance, in my opinion. Keeping the public ignorant doesn’t help security,” he says.

United Sikhs continues to seek equal rights and security for their community members through national policy and legislation.

Along with the Sikh Coalition, a community-based civil rights group, United Sikhs urges the community to be aware of its rights in airports — the right to wear their turbans, not be profiled and ask for privacy.

Those feeling singled out are advised to remain calm, write down the officer’s identifying information, and report the incident to one of the Sikh organizations or the TSA.

In the Sikh religion, the turban is a reminder to be responsible for one’s actions, help those in need and stand tall against all odds.

Kuldip Singh and Jaspreet Singh have taken on the mission of seeking equal rights not only for Sikhs but also for other U.S. citizens who face discrimination based on their ethnic, cultural or racial identities.

“We look at it [the turban] as the crown,” Jaspreet Singh says. “A king is responsible for their peers — it is both a gift and responsibility.”

Ankita Rao is a freelance writer, yoga instructor and Indian food lover. She will graduate from University of Florida this December with a degree in journalism and religion.