The Wages of Health

Manmeet Kaur and Prabhjot Singh made a commitment to serving their community. Despite enduring a terrifying act of violence, they haven’t broken it.

by Paul Hond Published Winter 2013-14
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As Kaur set Hukam in his crib, her phone rang. The caller, she saw, was her husband’s walking companion. She answered.

The friend was calling from the street on Central Park North. He told Kaur that Singh had been attacked by a large group of young men on bikes. The youths punched him, knocked him down, and kicked him repeatedly. Thankfully, some passersby — an elderly man, a nurse from St. Luke’s, and one or two others — intervened, scattering the assailants and preventing a bad situation from getting far worse.

Kaur was frightened, worried. But she wasn’t shocked. Singh had been assaulted in 2003 and 2005, though not as badly. The possibility of violence was a daily fact.

Kaur’s worries only grew when she looked down at Hukam. In a few years, he, too, would have a turban on his head. Every Sikh man Kaur knew had been bullied, harassed, intimidated. What kind of world awaited her son?

She got a babysitter and rushed to the emergency room at Mount Sinai, where Singh lay on a bed, bruised and bloodied. His jaw was fractured, his teeth knocked loose. Kaur held her husband’s hand.

The next morning, Kaur and Singh rented a car and drove up to Albany, where Kaur had a family friend who was a maxillofacial surgeon. Singh’s teeth needed to be stabilized. It was only by a family connection that Singh was able to receive, on a Sunday, immediate, first-rate care.

That same day, Simran Jeet Singh, a PhD candidate in Columbia’s Department of Religion and a close friend of Prabhjot Singh, wrote a piece for the Huffington Post titled “Hate Hits Home.” In it, he described what had happened to Prabhjot — and what had happened to thousands of Sikhs across the country since September 11, 2001. Prabhjot Singh, a wire in his jaw, was hardly alone.

Simran Singh’s article circulated fast. As Kaur and Singh drove back home from Albany on Monday, the phone calls started. Media requests. Reporters in the lobby. Cameras.

The attention was intense and new for the young couple. But there was no question about how they would handle it.

The convergence of social elements — Sikh doctor/Ivy League professor is attacked in Harlem by a group of African-American teens shouting “Osama!” — offered news outlets from New York to Delhi any number of story lines. Some found it poignant that Prabhjot Singh and Simran Jeet Singh had, a year earlier, coauthored an op-ed in the New York Times called “How Hate Gets Counted,” in response to the August 2012 handgun attack on a suburban Milwaukee temple that left six Sikhs dead before the white-supremacist shooter turned the gun on himself. Singh and Singh argued that the tendency of law enforcement and the media to portray the numerous attacks on Sikhs as cases of mistaken identity intended for Muslims ignored the history of violence against American Sikhs over the past hundred years. They called on the FBI to begin tracking anti-Sikh violence.

Now, a year later, Prabhjot Singh spoke out again, this time in the September 24 edition of the Daily News. “Even more important to me than my attackers’ being caught is that they are taught,” he wrote. “My tradition teaches me to value justice and accountability, and it also teaches me love, compassion, and understanding. This incident, while unfortunate, can help initiate a local conversation to create greater understanding within the community.”

“If someone went through this and feels angry or upset,” says Singh, “I would never rob that person of his or her authentic emotions.”

Kaur added her perspective on the news website the Daily Beast: “In the Sikh spirit of chardi Kala (joyous spirit), and as the mother of our one-year-old boy, I want to work with our neighbors, local and global, to help create an environment in which our son has nothing to fear. My husband and I both live and work in Harlem and have devoted our careers to addressing conditions of poverty that are often drivers behind sad events like this.”

These responses brought fresh attention to Singh as the enlightened doctor who, in the face of hatred and violence, had sounded a healing note.

A week after the attack, Singh came downstairs from his apartment to meet a reporter. He was still in pain, but recovering. In the lobby, the concierge, an offensive-tackle-sized Latino man, seeing Singh for the first time since the incident, approached him with open arms and an expression of regret-filled sympathy.

“Dr. Singh,” he said, and drew the frail-looking physician into an embrace. “I’m so sorry for what happened. I got your back, Dr. Singh. I got you.”

“Thank you,” said Singh. “Thank you.”

“I apologize for those kids. If I had been there —” The concierge broke off.

“It’s OK,” said Singh.

Later, upstairs, seated on an orange couch in a sunny, white-walled room, Singh cleared up a misconception about his religion that had been swirling since his statements.

“On a public basis, there has been a strong emphasis on the peaceful orientation of Sikhism,” he said. “Although that’s foundational, an important part of Sikhism is that, in order to keep peace and pursue justice and equality for all — not just for Sikhs, but for humanity — it is crucial to engage in appropriate force when necessary.

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