N.J.-Pa. Sikh veterans march in national Independence Day parade to combat discrimination

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Nineteen-year-old Sikh airman Jaspreet Singh will march in the Independence Day Parade in Washington D.C. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Nineteen-year-old Sikh airman Jaspreet Singh will march in the Independence Day Parade in Washington D.C. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A New Jersey-based Sikh veterans organization has rallied a contingent of servicemen who practice the South Asian faith to march in Washington D.C. Independence Day Parade. But while the large event has drawn attention for the inclusion of tanks and fighter planes, the Sikh-American Veterans Alliance is marching with a more peaceful goal in mind.

Lt. Col. Kamal S. Kalsi, a prominent Sikh veteran and physician from N.J. who co-founded SAVA, said he was invited to march with another group, the Sikhs of America, three years ago in an effort to promote diversity and inclusion in the military. But as hate crimes have risen nationally, he said their participation has taken on a new meaning.

“Sikhs have born much of the backlash of that post-9/11 hate,” he said. “Over the years that has calmed down, but in recent years we’ve seen a resurgence of that hate activity. And we’re pushing back in a productive and positive way.”

Many practicing male Sikhs wear a turban and a full beard for religious reasons, features that have sometimes drawn prejudiced comments or even violent attacks in the United States. 

Kalsi said he had personally been subjected to slurs and other forms of casual abuse. The decorated soldier views participation in the D.C. parade as a national stage to highlight Sikhs as ordinary, patriotic Americans. 

“We want to show Sikhs are part of the fabric of America,” he said. “We try to stay away from the political noise and there will be a lot of that this year. We want to maintain a positive message, that diversity is a core American value.”

Kalsi said most of the dozen or so expected participants in the Fourth of July event will hail from New Jersey, New York or Pennsylvania, a tri-state region that is home to one of the largest concentrations of Sikh residents anywhere in the United States.

Amn. Jaspreet Singh, a mechanic assigned to the 87th Logistics Readiness Squadron at the Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst is one local recruit for the SAVA march. On Wednesday afternoon, he was coming off duty and preparing a crisp uniform for the impending parade, his first as a member of the armed forces.

“You educate people just by being out there,” he said. “By representing who you are and being yourself, people realize ‘I’m just like that person, there’s not that much difference between you and I.’”

But Singh said that while the group was marching as a Sikh-American organization, its message was not intended to apply solely to members of that community. He described it as a broader call for respect and inclusion of all faiths and people.

The airman gave up his beard and turban to serve in the Air Force — the military branch introduced a religious exemption for a Sikh airman just last month — but he’s working with SAVA to apply for an accommodation for his religiously-mandated turban and beard. He described his current duties, in part, as an extension of the faith. 

“Service before self, excellence in all we do, integrity first,” he said. “As an airman, we’re taught to live by that. “In some sense, that’s what I used to live by, because of my religion, before the military.”

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