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Strangers Defend Racially Attacked Sikh
By RAY SANCHEZ
Newsday, Mar. 3, 2003
"The 7:54 p.m. Huntington train out of Penn Station delivered Gurpreet Singh into the not-so-secret American campaign against people who are Muslim or presumed to be Muslim. Standing with five or six riders on the Long Island Rail Road some nights ago, Singh noticed a man staring at him. 'I felt very uncomfortable,' the 24-year-old technology consultant said. 'I'm a very friendly and social guy. I walked over and said, 'Hello.' He replied by saying, 'Where you getting off?' I said, 'Syosset.' He said, 'Good.' ' Singh asked, 'You happy about that?' 'Yes, I am,' said the man, who was wearing a long gray overcoat and sipping from a can of Budweiser in a brown paper bag. Singh estimated there was maybe a foot or two between them. 'I turned toward him just to let him know I'm not afraid,' he said."
"Ten minutes passed when Singh decided to stroll to the other end of the car. The man followed him. 'He shoved me with his chest,' Singh said. 'He stared down at me.' The man told Singh, 'I want you off this train!' Singh walked back to the other end. 'Get off the train!' the man shouted. Now another man got up and offered Singh the seat next to his. 'He won't bother you here,' said the stranger. The man doing the staring now moved closer to Singh. The train was near Carle Place. The stranger confronted the man with the Budweiser."
" 'Leave him alone,' the stranger implored. 'He didn't do anything to you.' 'I can't believe you're defending these Muslims,' said the man with the Bud, his voice rising. 'Don't bother him,' the stranger said. 'Stay away.' 'Don't you know what they did to us?' the man with the Bud said angrily. 'How could you defend them?' 'You don't even know that he's a Muslim,' the stranger shot back."
"Singh is neither Arab nor Muslim. He is a baptized Sikh who was born in Afghanistan and raised in Flushing. He is a graduate of New York University. 'I have a long flowing beard and I wear a turban,' he said. 'I'm proud of it. Some people see photos of bin Laden on T.V. and associate that to mean that anybody who wears a turban and a beard is a Muslim and potentially a terrorist.' Since 9/11, a pall of suspicion has been cast over Arabs, Muslims and even people from South Asia, such as Indians and Pakistanis, who often are mistaken for Arabs. There have been assaults and murders. Hundreds of discrimination cases against employers have been filed. While there has been no widespread eruption of hatred or vengeance, American attitudes toward Muslims and people of South Asian descent have become more negative and mistrustful. The principles of liberty and freedom do not apply."
"Singh knows this. Several months after 9/11, a man on a train laughed before telling him, 'You have guts walking around looking like that.' For a week after the terrorist attacks, Singh stayed home from work. 'I was scared for my life,' he said. Last year, another stranger on the L.I.R.R. offered to fight two men who were harassing him. Now, on Wednesday night, the train was stopping at Carle Place and the argument was becoming heated. 'I want you off the train,' the stranger told the man with the Bud. 'I could do whatever I want,' the man with the Bud said."
"Singh remembered that his heart raced. 'I told myself I'm not going to be afraid of this guy,' he said. 'In my mind ran the history of what the Sikh people have gone through in the past. The Moghuls back in the day said, 'I will give you a price for any Sikh head.' How brave the Sikh were back then. How could I be fearful?' The stranger tried forcing the other man off the train. There was pushing and shoving. 'Here was this man who I don't even know defending my right to be on this train from someone who is clearly a threat,' Singh said."
"Singh thought about using his kara - a steel bracelet and one of the five articles of the Sikh faith - to defend himself. 'The bracelet is a reminder to be good, truthful and righteous,' he said. He decided against it. The struggle between the two men held up the train. The doors could not close. 'Please let go of the doors,' said another passenger, joining the fracas. 'We all need to get home.' 'Look,' the passenger assured Singh's protector, 'I will make sure he won't be harmed.' An L.I.R.R. worker arrived. The man with the Bud was talked into riding in the next car."
"Singh could see the man staring him down from afar. At Hicksville, another stranger approached Singh and offered to block the doorway if the aggressor tried to enter. 'Another random guy,' Singh said. Then the police arrived. They asked Singh whether he wanted to file a complaint. 'I'm going to do it because I'm tired of this,' Singh said. When cops asked for witnesses, three people stepped forward. The harasser received a summons with a date to appear in court. 'That was amazing,' Singh said. 'New Yorkers, you know, Americans are willing to defend your rights.' "