Thousands of California Sikhs and their supporters came out to participate in the 5th Annual Remembrance March and Freedom Rally in downtown San Francisco on Sunday. California is home to close to half of the American Sikh population, many of whom live in the Central Valley.
Marchers and supporters came from all over the Bay Area and the surrounding areas, and many of the men, women and children who marched from downtown San Francisco to Civic Center on Sunday wore brightly colored turbans or headscarves and carried signs.
The event had a dual purpose. It was in part meant to raise awareness and understanding of Sikhism, one of the world's largest religions with more than 20 million adherents.
“I’m here for the religious aspect of this, to be with my people and to celebrate the religion," said 16-year-old Parmvir Singh. Sikhs have often been the target of hate crimes in the United States, especially since 9/11, often being mistaken for Muslims.
Ravreet Singh drove two hours from Turlock to attend Sunday's rally. He says that in recent years, people in California are “beginning to know who we are and not confuse us with other religions.”
The rally also was meant to draw attention to what Sikhs see as the widespread and longstanding mistreatment of Sikhs and other religious minorities in India. In particular, participants commemorated two events in Sikh history: the martyrdom of Guru Arjan Dev Ji in the 17th century and the deadly events of 1984.
In June of that year, a clash between militant Sikh separatists and the Indian government at the Sikh religion's holiest site left at least hundreds dead, although many Sikhs put the number of fatalities much higher, in the thousands. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who ordered the attack, was killed six months later by two bodyguards, both of whom were Sikh. In the aftermath of her assassination, anti-Sikh riots killed thousands in Delhi and elsewhere across the country.
Several attendees at Sunday's rally wore t-shirts or carried flags calling for the creation of an independent Sikh homeland called Khalistan, though some in attendance acknowledged that the idea of Sikh independence is not something they see realistically happening very soon and is a non-starter for India.