San Jose Sikhs lead effort for state recognition
Surjit Singh Bains is a board member at the Sikh Gurdwara San Jose. More than 20,000 Sikhs reside in Santa Clara County. Photo by Loan-Anh Pham.

    California Sikhs have received statewide recognition, and San Jose’s own Sikh community played a crucial role.

    The state Assembly approved a resolution earlier this year to recognize and promote understanding of the ethnic and religious group that totals more than 20,000 residents in Santa Clara County and more than 200,000 statewide, according to census data. The state Senate is expected to take up a corresponding resolution next year.

    Assemblymember Ash Kalra, author of the resolution, said it affirms Sikhs as part of a distinct ethnic and religious minority, and serves as a starting point for people to learn more about the community. Kalra represents District 25, which includes a large part of San Jose and parts of Santa Clara.

    Sikh Gurdwara San Jose, also known as Sikh Gurdwara Sahib, is the largest Sikh temple in the world outside of India.

    “We literally have a point of national and even international significance right here in our hometown,” Kalra told San José Spotlight. “That’s why working with the San Jose Gurdwara and getting this resolution passed has extra significance.”

    The Sikh Gurdwara Sahib in San Jose is the largest Sikh place of worship in the world outside of India. Photo by Loan-Anh Pham.

    San Jose Sikh leaders worked with other Sikh community members in the Central Valley to draft the resolution, before working with local lawmakers to move it forward.

    Surjit Singh Bains, a board member at Sikh Gurdwara San Jose, said the inspiration for the resolution came from similar legislation in other states, including Pennsylvania. The legislation carries Sikh principles such as equality and sharing resources, Bains said, while also instilling a sense of belonging for younger Sikh Americans.

    “All people, all over the U.S.A., Northern California and other states, they will know who we are,” Bains told San José Spotlight.

    Sikhism originated in India’s Punjab region and is the world’s fifth largest religion. There are more than 750,000 Sikh Americans living in the U.S., the resolution notes. The primary language for the Sikh community is Punjabi.

    Ragini Kaur, Bay Area community organizer for the Jakara Movement, said Sikhs—largely an immigrant and refugee population—still face discrimination and violence. The Jakara Movement is a nonprofit that advocates for health, education and political power in the Sikh community.

    A 2012 mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin by a white supremacist killed six, and another victim died of related injuries in 2020. Less than a decade later, a 2021 shooting at an Indianapolis warehouse resulted in nine deaths, including the shooter. Four of those killed were Sikh. Taptejdeep Singh, a 36-year-old VTA worker and member of the Sikh community, died in the May 26, 2021 mass shooting at the light rail train yard in downtown San Jose.

    The lack of awareness about Sikhs also leaves a gap in resources, Kaur said. Language-accessible resources for Sikhs remains limited, she said, which exacerbated housing and job issues for the community during the COVID-19 pandemic. The California Employment Development Department has Punjabi resources for topics such as unemployment insurance and paid family leave, but lacks translated resources for topics such as job training and payroll taxes.

    “If there is nothing available in Punjabi to the residents of California, then they suffer. They do not know their own rights. They do not know what’s available to them,” Kaur told San José Spotlight. “Your physical and mental health is impacted, your livelihood.”

    Sikh Gurdwara San Jose President Bob Dhillon said legislation needs to be paired with a growth in the Sikh community’s political voice. Dhillon is a former city council candidate who ran for the District 4 seat in 2015. The seat was eventually secured by Manh Nguyen. Sikh community leader Sukhdev Bainiwal is supposed to be in the running for an appointment to the open San Jose City Council seat in District 8.

    “We want equal representation in government,” Dhillon told San José Spotlight.

    Kaur said the resolution is a start, but organizing and action is crucial to make change for the Sikh community.

    “Hopefully, this is a step that would help us create a better structure for Sikhs in the state of California, and even the United States,” Kaur told San José Spotlight.

    Contact Loan-Anh Pham at [email protected] or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.

    Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story misreported the number of Sikhs across California.

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