Harninder Gill said the annual Sikh parade, which will be held April 17 this year in Selma, is more than a colorful tradition; it’s an opportunity to educate and celebrate their peaceful culture.
Given the rash of recent hate crimes misdirected toward the Sikhs amidst anti-terrorism sentiment, Gill said educating the community about their faith is crucial.
“It’s ever so important right now with what’s going on in the world,” he said.
Gill said that attacks by terrorists around the world have mistakenly led some to believe Sikhs who also wear turbans and do not cut their hair as part of the faith have anti-American sentiments as well.
Sikh spokesperson Ike Grewal said the opposite is true, as their faith is based on a concept of equality, peace and a high work ethic.
“The Sikhs are not radicals. We get mistaken for other identities. We are not radicals. We are not terrorists. We are peace-loving and work hard for the American dream,” Grewal said in an earlier interview.
Despite this, Fresno’s Piara Singh was attacked this past September because of his appearance. Amrik Singh Bal was run down with a car in December by two men who are being charged with a hate crime. And most recently, on April 5, a 70-year-old Sikh man and his 69-year-old wife were robbed at knife point in a Fresno neighborhood near a recently opened Sikh gurdwara, a place of worship.
During the Selma City Council meeting on April 4, members of the Sikh Center of the Pacific Coast came to seek a fee waiver in advance of the parade.
“We need to not only educate our communities around us but also to our next generations about who we are and where we come from and what the message is. That’s our purpose,” Gill said.
The council unanimously approved the fee waiver, stating that not only does the event bring business to Selma, it also helps promote a peaceful faith that adds to the community.
Councilwoman Yvette Montijo said she’s attended the parades before and was impressed with the Sikh community’s generosity and welcoming spirit.
“There’s no question the Sikh culture and religion is part of the very vibrant tapestry of cultures in our Valley," she said.
The parade celebrates Vaisakhi as the beginning of the Khalsa, or pure ones, that laid the foundation for their faith. The celebration is expected to draw 10,000 visitors to Selma.
Gill and Gurnek Nagra told the City Council that the custom involves bringing Sikhism’s Holy Scriptures, the Guru Granth Sahib, on a float through the streets while singing devotional hymns. Vegetarian food will be given away at the Sikh Center and along the parade route.
“All the participants are singing holy hymns behind it. So it’s two things: food for the body and food for the soul. That’s what we preach,” Gill said.
Mayor Scott Robertson said he was aware that Sikhs have experienced discrimination and said the event helps dispel misinformation that has led to hate crimes.
“It’s important to educate others and I think the parade definitely does that,” he said.
The event requires the closure of Highway 43, and aside from California Highway Patrol and Selma Police officers providing escorts and traffic safety, Fowler ROTC students will also help direct traffic.
The parade will wind from the Sikh Center at 2211 S. Highland Ave., travels north and then heads west on Rose Avenue. The procession will continue north on Thompson Avenue, go around Selma High School and the Floral Memorial Cemetery. It will return with participants walking south on Thompson and returning to the gurdwara.
Nagra added that the Sikh community members demonstrate aspects of their faith by providing food to Fresno’s Poverello House for the entire month of November. Locally, they also serve food at the Sikh Center in Selma throughout the year.
“We are part of the Selma community and we’re proud of that,” Nagra said.
Grewal said that their generosity is based on a teaching of one of their gurus, Guru Nanak Dev ji.
“His teachings include helping the needy and the poor,” Grewal said. “The guru not only preached this, but himself practiced it during his time. Guru Nanak Dev ji taught the Sikhs that all human beings, regardless of skin color, wealth, caste and gender, are created equal.”
Mayor Pro Tem Jim Avalos described the parade as advocating for both the city and the Sikh culture. He commended the Sikhs for the growing attendance, cleanliness and peaceful atmosphere of the parade.
“They reach out in their celebration to the community to come out and acknowledge their church and the free festival that’s taking place. Where else can you go to an event where there’s no cost in food and it’s all you can eat and drink? They’re a fine folks and people come from all over,” he said.
Sikhs first came to California in 1899 in San Francisco. They worked on railroads and lumber mills before turning to farming by 1910 in the Sacramento, San Joaquin and Imperial valleys. The first Sikh temple in the United States was built in Stockton in 1912.
A Sikh Center flier distributed during the previous parades states that Sikhism was founded in India in 1469 by Guru Nanak. Nine prophet teachers, or gurus, who succeeded him added to their beliefs. The word ‘Sikh’ means disciple or student. There are 22 million Sikhs worldwide who trace the origin of their faith to Punjab, meaning the ‘Land of the five rivers’, located in Northern India.