The Sikhs bid for separate ethnic identity in U.S. Census raises questions and concerns

Swaranjit Singh Khalsa, a Sikh community leader in Connecticut, is waiting eagerly for filling out the 2020 Census questionnaire when it arrives by mail in March.

It is not that Khalsa has never filled out census forms during earlier population surveys, but this year Khalsa and other Sikhs living in the U.S. are particularly excited about the decennial exercise, because the 2020 Census is expected to include, for the first time, coding for Sikhs, which means that Sikh Americans will be counted as a separate ethnic group.

Traditionally, Sikhs have been classified as Asian Indians, but in the 2020 Census questionnaire, a Sikh can self-identify and check the box under the category of Asian and also as Sikh.

The announcement was first made last month by the advocacy group United Sikhs, quoting U.S. Census deputy director Ron Jarmin as telling the group after a meeting with them in at San Diego State University on Jan. 6, that the community would be counted as a separate ethnic group if they self-identify themselves as Sikhs in the census form.

Although the Census Bureau had not made any official announcement related to the issue on its website at press time, many people not associated with the advocacy group confirmed this was going to be the case.

Meera Anand, Census 2020 Senior Fellow at New York Immigration Coalition, said that based on her conversation with census officials, it is her understanding that if someone writes Sikh under ethnicity question in the form, s/he will be recognized as such.

“Actually, one can write anything in the response box for the question, but it will be recognized and will be taken cognizance of, if the word Sikh is written because Sikhs have been given the code,” Anand told India Abroad.

Historical Background

Sikhs have been demanding accurate census counting of members of the community and a recognition of their distinct identity for a long time, especially since census under federal law cannot ask any question on one’s religion. They have also not been happy being classified as Asian Indians under the race category in the census. The reported change in the 2020 Census giving them a code that helps their being counted as a separate ethnic group has naturally delighted the community. Some consider the decision as a milestone in their long struggle for recognition.

“In the upcoming census, people from the Sikh community will have the ability to provide their detailed identities, have them coded and potentially be tabulated for the first time in a census,” Nicholas Jones, director and senior advisor of race and ethnic research and outreach in the Census Bureau’s Population Division in Washington D.C., told India Abroad in a telephone interview.

Jones said this is not the first time that such a coding is being given to a community in a census, although it is the first time for the Sikh community. He said in similar ways someone, for example, might report s/he is Chinese, but s/he also might want to write a particular identity that U.S. recognizes as being part of China. “Historically, we have tabulated those responses under the larger nationality because separately the numbers are too small but collectively it helps us have a better or fuller understanding of the Chinese community in the U.S.,” Jones said.

In the early 1900, there was actually a category under race and color called Hindu and in the late 1800s there was tabulation for the first time on Japanese and Chinese populations in the United States.

“The Sikh community arrived in the U.S. a long time ago like the Japanese, but they were not a separate category at that point. Population categories, however, have continued to evolve in the U.S. over the past two centuries. We have started tabulation, say for example, for Pakistanis or Cambodians or other groups in the U.S. as also details for Hawaiians and Samoans and detailed tabulation for Hispanic population groups like Mexicans, Dominicans or Salvadorians,” Jones said.

Traditionally, government-defined racial categories have included only white, black, Asian, American Indian or Pacific Islander.

The law prohibits the Census Bureau from asking a question on religious affiliation of a person. The classification has at times raised questions like, for instance, whether being Hispanic is a matter of race, ethnicity or both.

Jones said that the question of giving a separate code to Sikhs has been discussed for about a decade. In 2008/2009 the Census Bureau leadership was approached by community organizations like United Sikhs, Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund and other advocacy groups, including the Sikh Coalition.

Their leaders showed strong interest in being counted as an ethnic group and met with then Census Bureau director Robert M. Groves conveying their concerns about not being recognized in census as a distinct group, and being lumped with Asians.

“We have been continuing to hold meetings with the community that explained to us how important this was for the community to be accurately counted as a separate group in the census,” Jones said.

Case for Separate Ethnicity

Sikhs say because there is no question in the census relating to one’s religion and they are grouped under the broad category of Asians along with other Indians, the census figures have not reflected their actual numbers leading to undercounting of the population and incorrect estimate of the number of victims of violence and hate crimes against the Sikh community.

They point out that given that census data also determines Sikh representation in voting and election and in commercial sectors and decides how federal funds are allocated for the Sikh community on things like roads, schools, education, Punjabi language and hospitals, it is extremely important to have their separate and proper count.

Khalsa, who is a director of the United Sikhs, Connecticut chapter, said the community has launched a campaign across the U.S. to educate members how to fill out the census forms to ensure that they self-identify themselves as Sikh in the write-in space for detailed information provided under Question 9 that asks about a person’s race.

Jaspal Singh, a member of Gurdwara Sachkhand Darbar Hamden in Connecticut said they were putting up tables in their gurdwara to inform their congregation how to fill up form correctly during 2020 Census.

Members of the community say that the demand for inclusion of a separate Sikh ethnicity, which they say has been supported by some lawmakers in the past as well, came primarily from a sense of undercounting and frustration at not being recognized as a separate ethnic group.

“We are glad U.S. government showed solidarity with Sikh nation by recognizing Sikhs as separate ethnic group, but it’s very sad that Indian Constitution still considers Sikhs as part of Hinduism and imposes threat to Sikh identity,” Manpreet Singh, a member of World Sikh Parliament, said in a statement, according to Khalsa.

In 2013, Congressman Frank Pallone, Jr. from New Jersey sent a letter to then Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker to formally request that the U.S. Census Bureau act to include the Sikh community in census reporting data as currently the bureau does not collect data on religious affiliation in its demographic surveys or decennial census.

Pallone asked that the bureau introduce a separate code on official forms for those who write in “Sikh” as their ethnicity, which would allow the bureau to develop a more accurate number as to how many Sikhs are living in the United States.

Pallone said taking those steps would allow the federal government to better consider the needs of the Sikh community when allocating resources and facilitate proper recognition of the community’s contributions to the country.

“It’s clear that a separate code is needed to ensure an accurate count of Sikhs in the United States, recognizing a unique identity,” U.S. Census Deputy director Ron Jarmin told United Sikhs after a follow-up meeting between Census Bureau leadership and United Sikhs at San Diego State University last month.

Some members of the Indian American community, however, questioned the need for a separate ethnic group for Sikhs.

“So far, we do not know if the Census Bureau will create a sixthseparate ethnic category or simply provide a box to check in or give a write-in option. If a separate sixth category or a separate box is created, hundreds of other ethnic groups/subgroups may make similar demands as the U.S. has migrants from all over the world with different ethnic backgrounds,” Dr. Bharat Barai, a Chicago-based medical doctor and supporter of Prime Minister Modi, pointed out.

Jones admitted that there could be groups in future from any country/region asking for such separate identity because that is something that has happened historically in the two centuries of census enumeration. “The information that we provide to the public has a very nuanced and detailed understanding of that diversity,” he said, adding that despite unique codes ultimately the population is tabulated under a larger umbrella category.

Other Communities

In the past, many in the Jewish community have found that the only choices in the census form — “white, black, Asian and American Indian or Pacific Islander” for race, and “Hispanic/Latino” under ethnicity, don’t quite fit the way many American Jews see themselves.

In response to three decades of lobbying by Arab American organizations for a designation that better represents them, the Census Bureau was to test in 2015, a new category, “Middle East-North Africa” or MENA.

But in 2018, the Census Bureau shelved the MENA idea, when Karen Battle, chief of the bureau’s Population Division, explained at a public meeting on 2020 Census preparations that more research and testing was needed before it could be introduced.

The bureau declined any action on MENA even though researchers at the bureau concluded in a 2017 report that “it is optimal to use a dedicated “Middle Eastern or North African’ response category” on the 2020 Census questionnaires. “The inclusion of a MENA category helps MENA respondents to more accurately report their MENA identities,” the researchers were quoted as saying in an NPR report.

The American Sikhs’ efforts for a separate Sikh ethnicity recognition comes at a time when similar such demands are being made in countries like U.K., where the issue has divided even Sikhs themselves.

Recently, the High Court in London dismissed a judicial review application brought by a British Sikh group for a separate Sikh ethnicity check box in the next U.K. Census in 2021. Sikhs are recognized in U.K. as followers of a separate religion in the optional religious question that was introduced in the 2001 Census.

British newspaper reports, quoting Sikh Federation U.K. that claims the backing of hundreds of U.K. gurdwaras, said last month public bodies tend to only reference the ethnic groups used in the census and demand a separate Sikh ethnic check box to ensure Sikhs have fair access to all public services.

The issue triggered a war of words between different British Sikh groups, with the Network of Sikh Organizations (NSO) saying that Sikhs are adequately recorded in the census under religion, and the Office for National Statistics (ONS) made the right decision in rejecting the Sikh Federation UK’s calls for a Sikh ‘ethnic’ check box.

The NSO, a British Sikh group led by Indian-origin peer Lord Indrajit Singh, took a different stand on the issue, saying that the occasion of the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak should be reflective of his principles of one common humanity, away from “artificial labels” like caste, denomination, status and ethnicity.

“Sikhs are adequately recorded in the census under religion, and the ONS made the right decision in rejecting the Sikh Federation UK’s calls for a Sikh ‘ethnic’ check box,” an NSO spokesperson told

Dr. Jagbir Jhutti-Johal, a senior lecturer in Sikh Studies at the University of Birmingham wrote in a post on the university’s website that it is difficult to see what additional benefit that data collected through a Sikh ethnic check box would bring, noting that faith data in public institutions such as the NHS is already collected and is likely to provide a richer source of information.

The Numbers in the U.S.

Although there is absence of census data exclusively on Sikhs in the U.S., the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life’s 2012 survey of Asian Americans found that about 1 percent of Asian American adults identify themselves as Sikhs. In addition, U.S. census figures indicate that Asian Americans make up about 5.5 percent of the total U.S. adult population. Its estimate, culled from different sources, was that there would be approximately 200,000 American Sikhs of all ages. But it noted that 200,000 figure should be considered a rough estimate and more likely “a floor than a ceiling.”

Sikh advocacy groups, however, say the estimate does not reflect the actual numbers and is far from true. They claim at present the number would be about one million, if not more. “We arrive at this one million figure on the basis of the number of about 500 gurdwaras in the U.S. and the number of people who go to each of these gurdwaras,” Khalsa said.

People like Barai wondered how the reported move to give Sikhs a separate ethnicity will benefit the Sikhs beyond just giving an accurate count of Sikhs living in the U.S. “I have seen reports that it will help prevent ethnic discrimination, bullying and hate crimes. However, any discrimination based on person’s race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability is already illegal in U.S.,” Barai told this correspondent. He added there are federal laws to also protect against discrimination in education, employment, jury service, travel, accommodation, housing and religious places.

Barai noted that Sikhs have earned respect as hard-working, self-made and proud people in the U.S. “It will be interesting to see how this proposal goes through the government rule-making process and Census Bureau plans to implement this change,” he said.

The Sikh identity issue and their efforts at getting recognition, by fellow Americans as well as the U.S. government as law-abiding citizens, who look different because of wearing their articles of faith, came under sharp focus after the 9/11 when Sikhs suffered hate crimes all across the country.

In the years since then, violence against the community has not decreased much. According to FBI data released in November 2019, hate crimes against Sikhs in the U.S. tripled, from 20 incidents in 2017 to 60 incidents in 2018.

It said Sikhs faced the third largest number of hate crimes after Jews and Muslims in 2018, with law enforcement agencies reporting a total of 7,120 such crimes.

Jasmit Singh, advocacy director of the United Sikhs, told this correspondent that census data would help track and measure hate crimes against the community and ensure that the Sikh community is accurately represented once Sikhs are counted as a separate ethnic group. He, however, did not explain how.

“This is a historic announcement which is the result of some 25 years of advocacy by the United Sikhs group at the national level on behalf of the Sikh community. Being involved in this civic engagement will help ensure an accurate count of Sikhs in the U.S.,” Jasmit Singh said.

Some Concerns Over the Move

Some members of the larger Indian American community believe that defining Sikhs as a separate ethnicity will come with its own challenges, similar to the ones faced by the Jewish community, among which there are some who like to identify them as an ethnicity, although Jews are a multi-racial, multi-ethnic community.

They also feared that Sikhs bid for separate ethnicity may also give some kind of an impetus to Sikh separatist aspirations in India, the home country for most U.S. Sikhs. They feel there might be some political agenda of some U.S.-based Sikhs behind the demand for a separate Sikh ethnicity.

During last year’s ‘Howdy, Modi!’ event in Houston, Texas, where there were hundreds of protesters denouncing the Modi-Trump public show, there were reportedly some Sikh separatists among the protesters.

It is also believed in certain quarters that Sikh separatists have some presence in Canada and that separatism may now be beginning to move to the U.S. from that country.

In an opinion article in The Washington Post in May last year, columnist J. McCullough wrote that although violent extremism of so-called Khalistan separatists in Punjab province remains a matter of worry in India, it has receded in recent years.

McCullough noted that India often claims that the movement is only kept alive by hostile outside forces, mainly in Pakistan and some in the Sikh diaspora in Western nations.

Asked to comment on the concerns that the demands for a separate Sikh ethnicity in the U.S. may actually be a stepping-stone for Sikh separatism in India, Khalsa said these kind of fears have no basis in reality and are simply untenable.

“The Sikhs’ efforts at getting recognition as a separate ethnic group is entirely an American issue, purely a question of identity for hundreds of thousands of Sikhs living in the U.S. This has nothing to do with any kind of separatist movement here or in any other country for that matter,” Khalsa said.

In a 2018 scholarly paper titled “Shifting U.S. Racial and Ethnic Identities and Sikh American Activism,” Prema Kurien, professor of Sociology at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, New York, noted that there are several factors spurring mobilization around race and ethnicity.

She said in the article published by Russel Sage Foundation Journal of Social Sciences and posted on Johns Hopkins website, that although ethnicity is usually understood as referring to national background, majority and minority status within the country of origin can profoundly affect the attitude of immigrant groups towards their homeland and consequently ethnic identity and political activism in host countries.

She noted that discrimination against Sikhs in India during and after Indian independence in 1947, and attacks against Sikhs in India beginning in 1984, however, led to the rise of a Sikh separatist movement which in turn led to a campaign by many Sikh Americans in the second period of activism to disavow an Indian identity and mobilize as Sikh nationalists.

The third period, she said, came in the wake of September 11, 2001.

A post-9/11 backlash against men with turbans and beards sparked a movement to be recognized as an American religious group deserving of accommodations for its articles of faith, as well as an ethnic group distinct from Indian Americans in the U.S. census.

“My work on Indian American activism shows that factors in India as well as in the U.S. shape activism.

“Sikhs are also a very distinct minority in the U.S. due to their articles of faith and distinct appearance. Sikh children have been facing bullying in schools, and adults have been dealing with a variety of harassment, including violent physical attacks, job discrimination and mistreatment by the TSA, among others, particularly after 9/11.

“Sikhs have been very active in trying to get their history and religion included in U.S. school textbooks, so people gain a better understanding of the community.

“It has been most frustrating for the group that there is no accurate count of Sikhs in the U.S. since the U.S. census does not count by religion and other surveys that do have largely ignored Sikhs,” Kurien told this correspondent.

She said the proportion of Sikhs within the Indian/South Asian population is very high in the U.K. and Canada where religion is or has been counted unlike in the U.S.

“I think it is all these domestic factors, some particular to the U.S. where there is a much greater level of ignorance about the group than in Canada or UK, that are the primary reasons that they have mobilized around a census designation. Getting a designation as a distinct ethnic group will allow Sikhs a more accurate count, more recognition of their special needs, as well as access to resources and services,” Kurien said.

“U.S. Sikh organizations are also closely linked with those in Canada and the U.K. so naturally ideas and strategies flow through these links,” she said in response to a question.

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