A Year After Oak Creek
A Sikh American Tragedy
By Anju Kaur, SikhNN staff writer, Washington Bureau
Posted: Saturday, August 10, 2013 | 03:13 pm
Reporting from Oak Creek, Wisconsin In the annals of Sikh history, which are filled with accounts of massacres and attempted genocides – including those by the Mughals during the Gurus’ times and during the Chhotaa and Vaddaa Ghallugaraas of the mid 1700s; by the British during the Punjab annexation and Jullianwaalaa Bhaag; and by the Indian government during Operation Blue Star and Anti-Sikh Pogroms of 1984 that were followed by the Decade of Disappearances until the late 1990s – the Oak Creek shooting pales in comparison. But, perhaps it cannot be compared.
Unlike other massacres chronicled throughout Sikh history, more recently during 1984, Oak Creek was not a state-sponsored act.
Wade Michael Page acted alone, the FBI concluded from its investigations. The white supremacist killed six devotees at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin on Aug. 5, 2012, and wounded two others. A police officer also was wounded.
“The US administration ended the situation…, pacifying the feelings of the Sikh community in their hour of crisis by instilling the sense of confidence and security among the Sikhs settled in the USA,” said Charanjit Singh Atwal, former speaker of the Punjab Assembly. It was “really incredible.”
Charanjit Singh was one of many public officials to speak at the Aug. 4 divaan at the gurdwara commemorating the first anniversary of the shooting. He and Taranjit Singh Sandhu, Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy of India in Washington, represented India. The rest were from various levels of the US government.
Unlike other accounts in Sikh history, more memorably during the 1984 pogroms when Indian police officers stood by and watched Sikhs being butchered in the streets of Delhi, American police officers laid their lives on the line to protect the Sikhs inside the gurdwara.
“I would also like to salute (Lt.) Brian Murphy, a heroic police officer who was shot (12) times as he responded to the horrific shooting at this gurdwara, Charanjit Singh added. “This officer has set an example of bravery and humanism by his act.”
Murphy has since retired from the Oak Creek Police Department because of his injuries, the most notable of which is a permanently raspy voice.
“As you can tell, my voice is no longer what it was, but like the other Sikh victims who lost their voice permanently, and mine, which has been diminished, that voice has been replaced by everyone here,” he said to the sangat.
Murphy earlier this year told SikhNN that he has no regrets for happened that day, even as he was lying on the ground while the gunman pumped bullet after bullet into him.
“Last year I was blessed by God to be given an opportunity to serve the gurdwara and for that I will always be thankful, regardless of what happened to me physically,” he told the sangat.
“That is the essence of chardee kalaa, to stay and be relentless, and to fight the good fight,” he added, also referring to Punjab Singh, the gurdwara’s giaanee who is still fighting to recover from his injuries.
“Brian will tell you, Sam (Lenda) will tell you, “Don’t call me a hero,”” Police Chief John Edwards said to the sangat. “One thing, looking and reading about the Sikh community, I think what fits better is the term ‘warrior.’
Officer Lenda finally shot and stopped the gunman, who then shot himself in the head.
“Those two were warriors on that day,” Edwards said, often referring to them as family. “And I think what they did, when I was looking at the Battle of Saragarhi of 1897, the 21 Sikhs who fought - those warriors - that’s what they were.”
Oak Creek is most obviously an outlier in Sikh history because it occurred in the United States.
Since the 9/11 attacks, Sikh individuals have been victims of gun violence but a wholesale massacre was never attempted until Oak Creek. And even after more than a decade of successful lobbying efforts from Sikh advocacy groups to change government policies, litigate discrimination cases, train law enforcement and raise awareness about Sikhs, hate crimes have continued to rise, especially in the last few years, according to FBI statistics.
“It is a matter of pride for me and honor for me that Sikhs in America had particularly played the van guard role in… the political progress of the USA,” Charanjit Singh said, speaking on behalf Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal. “The tragic incident in gurdwara sahib in Oak Creek was all the more painful, and it was really difficult to understand given the background of the outstanding role laid by the peaceful Sikh community in the American success story…
“This heart rendering tragedy was contrary to everything that America stood for.”
About 1,000 people, mostly Sikhs but many from the larger American community, packed the gurdwara to remember the victims and reflect on the many positive outcomes of this tragedy.