Sikh Religion and Culture to be Taught in California Schools

Back to February 2013 Ed Reporter

Sikh Religion and Culture to be
Taught in California Schools

California students will study the religion, history, and culture of Sikh immigrants, according to new history and social studies standards adopted by the state. A 2009 bill to begin this curriculum was put on hold for budgetary reasons; buying revised textbooks costs money. Although the state is experiencing a budget crisis worse today than in 2009, Senate Bill 1540 passed in 2012, and was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown after Sikh advocacy groups and others pressed for action.

Legislators revived the bill partially because of an August 2012 shooting at a Temple (gundwara) in Wisconsin. A gunman with alleged ties to a white supremacist movement killed six Sikhs inside their Wisconsin gundwara in Oak Creek, a Milwaukee suburb. There is no explanation as to motive because the shooter committed suicide.

“The fact that people are mindful of the tragic consequence of not understanding one another’s cultures and respecting them was very much in people’s mind,” said California State Sen. Loni Hancock. She continued, “You can see, when our students learn what different cultural garb is and why it matters to people,” they become more accepting of those differences. (Sikh News Network, 11-28-12)

Proponents of the new standards believe that, if students learn about the beliefs, as well as the costumes of Sikh people, there will be greater differentiation between them and Muslims. The curriculum states, “The three basic principles of Sikhism are honest living, sharing with the needy, and praying to the same and one God.”

Sikhs wear turbans and beards and are sometimes confused with Muslims, but they are not Muslim. “You are literally wearing your religion on your head. You’re wearing it out of commitment to your faith and so you can be easily identified as a Sikh,” explained Manbeena Kaur,├┐education director for the Sikh Coalition, an advocacy group formed after the 9/11 attacks that brought Muslims, and by default Sikhs because of similar attire, under greater scrutiny. (Christian Science Monitor, 08-06-12)

In 2011 the National Geographic Channel, CNN, and the Financial Times each portrayed Sikhs in ways that could lead to confusion. The National Geographic Channel mistakenly pictured Sikhs in an episode titled “Inside Al Qaeda.” When Osama bin Laden was killed, pictures appearing in online editions of CNN and the British Financial Times showed a Sikh man reading about the death. CNN’s article showed a photo of bin Laden juxtaposed with that of a Sikh man. These associations could certainly lead to misunderstandings.

According to California guidelines, general and specific information about Sikhs will be taught to students from 4th grade through high school. Classroom study will likely begin before textbooks are ready, using temporary materials because textbook development takes time. Revised textbooks could have been delayed for budgetary reasons if Californians had not approved Proposition 30 in November 2012.

The newly mandated curriculum will likely spill over into other states because “California is such a large textbook market, when California adopts a framework, textbook companies develop new textbooks,” according to Sen. Hancock, quoted in the Los Angeles Times. (09-28-12)

Sikhs in California opened the first Punjabi language school in the United States (Sikh News Network, 07-12-11). The Sacramento Public Charter School is located adjacent to the Sacramento gundwara. Like other public charter schools catering to one race, ethnicity or other subgroup, it is officially open to all students. Adam Menke, the only school board member to vote against the establishment of the school, expressed concern “that the Punjabi school would not be able to attract a diverse student body that mirrors other district campuses.” (Sacramento Bee, 06-27-11)

With timing that was unfortunate for Sikhs’ public relations, in the same time frame that the new California curriculum was announced, stabbings and arrests occurred during a brawl outside the Yuba City, California Tierra Buena Sikh Temple in November 2012. Friction allegedly arose over an election dispute and involved two competing factions at the temple. The gundwara president, Rashpal Purewal, told the Sikh News Network, “I am ashamed of both sides that it should not come to this. It is very sad.” There are 4,500 members of the gundwara. (11-23-12)

There are about 600,000 Sikhs in the United States and 22 million adherents worldwide, according to the Christian Science Monitor (08-06-12).