U.S., Politics

A look back: Sikh sightings at the national conventions

By Miya Treadwell | October 04, 2016
Ghazala and Khizr Khan with U.S. Army Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi backstage at the Democratic National Convention. Khizr Khan spoke on the final night of the convention about his son, Humayun, who was killed in 2004 saving the lives of his fellow soldiers in Iraq. He then took aim at the Republican nominee, Donald Trump, for his anti-Muslim rhetoric: “Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetary? Go look at the graves of brave patriots who died defending United States of America. You’ll see all faiths, genders

Ghazala and Khizr Khan with U.S. Army Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi backstage at the Democratic National Convention. Khizr Khan spoke on the final night of the convention about his son, Humayun, who was killed in 2004 saving the lives of his fellow soldiers in Iraq. He then took aim at the Republican nominee, Donald Trump, for his anti-Muslim rhetoric: “Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetary? Go look at the graves of brave patriots who died defending United States of America. You’ll see all faiths, genders and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing.” Trump brazenly lashed out at the Khans.

Reporting from Washington - While several turbaned Sikhs were seen participating in the Democratic National Convention during prime time, none were seen at the Republican National Convention.

The highlight of the Democratic convention was the appearance of Army Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi who wore a pink turban and stood behind retired Marine Corps Gen. John Allen as he delivered a prime-time speech in support of Hillary Clinton. Allen spoke on the final day, shortly before the candidate accepted her party’s nomination for president.

The cameras captured the Sikh soldier for nearly the entire address.

The Democratic convention was held in Philadelphia from July 25 to July 28.

“(I was) invited to lend my voice at the DNC and basically support General Allen’s remarks,” he told SFP. “It was a wonderful speech that was very pragmatic and to the point.”

U.S. Army Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi stood behind retired Marine Corps Gen. John Allen as he delivered a prime-time speech in support of Hillary Clinton on the final day of the Democratic National Convention on July 28 in Philadelphia, shortly before the candidate accepted her party’s nomination for president.

Kamaljeet Singh became the first Sikh soldier, in 2009, to be granted an accommodation to wear his unshorn hair and beard, known as Kaes, and turban, known as Dastaar, while serving in the military. The decision ended a 28-year-old ban barring Sikhs from enlisting with their articles of faith.

In November 2015, Kamaljeet Singh successfully convinced 27 retired Army and Air Force generals to ask Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to lift the decades-old prohibition against Sikhs. Gen. Allen was one of the 27 who signed the letter to Carter.

A 2011 recipient of the Bronze Star Medal, the fourth highest combat award in the U.S. Armed Forces, the Sikh Army major was invited on stage along with other veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and other retired generals and admirals.

Kamaljeet Singh agreed with Gen. Allen in asserting that the Republican nominee, Donald Trump, could not be an effective leader. For the major, Clinton is the only candidate with the understanding and demeanor it takes to run a distinct nation and its military.

“Trump has never really understood the military,” he said. “His claim that he has sacrificed for U.S. is ridiculous. The military would be jeopardized under Trump.”

About a week earlier, Trump had denigrated Arizona Sen. John McCain, a Navy veteran, for being captured during the Vietnam War.

“He’s not a war hero,” said Trump at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, on July 16. “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

Still, Trump continued to lead Clinton by 19 points among members of the military, according to a Sept. 7 NBC News poll. And he also boasted 88 military endorsements albeit they were not well-known names.

This week, Trump again raised the ire of members of the military when he made comments to suggest that soldiers who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) might not be as strong as those who don’t.

“When you talk about the mental health problems - when people come back from war and combat, and they see things that maybe a lot of the folks in this room have seen many times over, and you’re strong and you can handle it. But a lot of people can’t handle it,” he said at an event organized by the Retired American Warriors political action committee on Oct. 3.

Kamaljeet Singh was among several Sikhs sighted at the Democratic convention, including Harpreet Singh a former councilman from Richmond, California, and community activist. He was a Barack Obama delegate to the 2008 Democratic convention in Denver, and attended both inaugurations.

Rajwant Singh, a community activist and long-time Clinton supporter, was also seen at the convention. He hosted a fundraiser for Clinton in 2006 at his home in Potomac, Maryland, where she continued to refer to herself as the “Senator from Punjab as well as New York.” Candidate Barack Obama’s campaign released a memo to reporters shortly after slamming her for promoting Indian off-shoring corporations at the expense of American workers.

Sikhs were also featured in Clinton’s introductory video before her acceptance speech.

Harmeet Dhillon, a lawyer and the first vice chairwoman for the Republican Party in California, began the second day of the Republican National Convention with a Sikh invocation, Ardaas, on July 19 in Cleveland.

The Republican National Convention was held the week before the Democratic convention, from July 18 to July 21, in Cleveland. The Republican Party is not known for diversity but many Sikhs are registered Republicans.

No Sikhs were seen at the Republican convention, at least not ones with turbans.

Earlier in his campaign, Arish Singh and another man quickly escorted out of an Iowa rally in January after they unfurled a banner that said, “STOP HATE.” Trump verbally attacked his red turban. 

"He wasn't wearing one of those hats, was he?” Trump said, referring to his campaign’s red baseball caps with the “Make America Great Again” slogan. “Was he wearing one of those? And he never will. And he never will. And he never will."

The audience chanted, “USA!”

But there was a notable moment at the Republican convention when Harmeet Dhillon began the second day of the convention with a traditional Sikh prayer.

Dhillon, a lawyer and the first vice chairwoman for the Republican Party in California, said an invocation known as Ardaas. She expressed gratitude for being given such a great opportunity.

“(After being approached) I immediately accepted,” Dhillon told SFP. “I worked with SALDEF (Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund) to come up with the right text for the allotted time.”

Dhillon stood in front of an audience of Republican delegates and supporters, beginning the invocation by expressing the values that both the religion and Americans share.

“Humility, truth, courage and justice for all” are some of the values that were mentioned before she covered her hair with a blue headscarf, noting that traditionally “a Sikh always covers her head when offering this prayer.”

With heads bowed across the arena, Dhillon began to sing the Ardaas in Punjabi. She then offered an English translation that asked for a blessing of integrity for the delegates as they “perform our duty to nominate leaders to take America in the right direction.”

However, when asked about Trump's tendency to make off-the-cuff comments about certain groups of people, Dhillon declined to answer. 

"I don't want to be a part of any slandering of Trump," she said, referencing a previous SFP story written about the presidential candidate. She instead echoed sentiments similar to her words at the convention about the choice voters have in choosing the next leader of this nation.

Dhillon, who has had a lot of success as a Republican in a majority Democratic area, believes voters will make a decision based on the issues and values that are most important to them.

She concluded the prayer by saying: “Through our prophets, teachers and spiritual guides, may your name forever grow God and may your spirit be exulted and may all humanity prosper by your grace.”

Though a symbol of inclusion on the part of convention organizers, there was still a recognizable lack of diversity at the Republican convention, a characteristic that Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi said will never be in short supply under a Clinton administration.

He described Clinton as a “nerdy intellectual…in a good way” who promises to be more diverse.

“The sky is the limit,” he added. “She has a diversity platform with policy advisors from all walks of life…from every culture and religious background. I have no doubt that she is the better candidate for diversity.”