Sikhs want action on Carteret bias attacks

November 6th, 2008

By ALYSSA GIACHINO • Staff Writer • November 6, 2008

CARTERET —The Sikh community is seeking a comprehensive response to two violent attacks against their members last month, and the mayor’s office convened a meeting Wednesday to begin to address their concerns.

“We’ll hopefully get some action to prevent it in the future,” said Gurjit Chima, the daughter of the victim of the most recent assault. “This goes so underreported, I think this should be publicized. You want people to know what’s going on.”

Her father, Ajit Singh Chima, 69, was beaten in the face and kicked before dawn by an unknown attacker last week. Less than three weeks prior, a 10-year-old boy, Gagandeep Singh, was jumped while walking home from school. His turban was removed and his hair was cut off, an offense to Sikhs who grow their hair as a sign of religious devotion.

The two cases are being investigated as bias crimes by the Carteret Police and the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s office, but no arrests have been made.

The two Sikh temples have offered $5,000 toward a reward for information leading to the arrest of the perpetrator, and the legal details of administering such a reward are being reviewed by the prosecutor’s office.

In the wake of the attacks, the community is on edge. “I think everybody’s still a little wary and on-guard around here,” said community member Linda Singh. “The people I’ve been talking to are looking over their shoulder.”

Wednesday’s meeting included representatives from the Carteret police department, the board of education, the county prosecutor’s office, and the Department of Justice. There were also selected representatives of the local Sikh community and Sikh advocacy groups from New York and Washington D.C.

The meeting was closed to the public and the press. But through a miscommunication, it had been announced as an open meeting at the Dashmesh Darbar temple, so more than 15 people waited in the vestibule of the community center.

“They announced it in the temple, they said very clearly it should be open,” said Davinder Johal, a teacher. “We’re here for some reason, and we want to participate in the meeting. There shouldn’t be any more of these incidents.”

Reiman said the working group came together “to talk not only about the incident relative to Mr. Chima, but to talk about in general how we can plan to have better communication and outreach within Carteret.”

Meeting participants said they discussed expanding training for teachers and students in the school district on the Sikh religion and culture. The mayor said there would also be training for the police department.

Members of the Sikh community are often reluctant to contact the police, sometimes because of language and cultural barriers and sometimes because they are not confident in the police’s response.

Rajbir Singh Datta, director of the Washington D.C.-based Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund said, “I think the community put a lot of proposals on the table. I think the mayor’s office and the police and schools have a lot to do. And I think the Sikh community has a lot to do now. It’s a lot of responsibility on both sides to try and come together.”

Though some were heartened by the borough administration’s interest in their concerns, others were not persuaded the meeting will translate into concrete action. “We were hearing that they were a little bit skeptical,” Linda Singh said. “They really want to see something happen with this, they don’t just want an empty promise.”

Adding fuel to the community’s outrage is an article published by a small weekly paper, which began mailing a Carteret edition to borough homes in October. The issue that came out Oct. 31, five days after Chima was assaulted, confused Sikhs for Muslims in an article critical of their support for the independent council candidates in Tuesday’s election. In the eyes of many residents, the paper equated the local Muslim community with “Islamic fundamentalists” by printing an undated photo showing protesters in Iran holding a burning American flag.

“Both communities are outraged by this, especially in light of the recent hate crimes,” Linda Singh said. “Not only is this offensive to the Muslim and the Sikh community, people were concerned that the tabloid could’ve incited more violence against either one of the communities.”

She and others said they believe the paper is connected to the Democratic party and that the publication is politically motivated. Mayor Reiman said he has no relationship with the paper’s publisher.

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