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December 11, 1999


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Kirpan Victory Not All That Sweet

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R S Shankar

Gurcharan Singh When Gurcharan Singh Bhatia went to Mentor Municipal Court on December 6 to get back his kirpan that was confiscated in early September, he and other members of the gurudwara near Cleveland were happy that their religious right to carry the kirpan would be upheld.

"Thirty seven years I've worn my kirpan," Bhatia had said as he got ready to enter the court, adding that he hadn't felt like a complete person since it was confiscated. He also said he felt that god was testing him, and he was being used for a higher purpose.

"Now I can say my prayers in peace," he said in anticipation that the kirpan would be returned to him.

But Bhatia, his lawyers Geoffrey S Means and Rajesh Bagga, and some 20 Sikhs who accompanied them, would soon learn that their victory was not that clear.

They were visibly upset when the bailiff at the court ordered them to remove their kirpans. The men had no alternative but to obey the order.

"We were going to the court after having made the point that wearing a kirpan was our religious right," said Kuldeep Singh Chauhan, president of the Guru Gobind Singh Society. Bhatia is a priest at the society's temple that is frequented than 500 Sikh families in and around Cleveland.

"The authorities knew the kirpan we carry is blunt and yet they made us remove them."

Chauhan had said earlier if the charge against Bhatia of carrying a concealed kirpan was not dropped, the Sikh community was prepared to take the fight through the appeal courts -- and finally to the Supreme court.

"Our religion teaches us to stand up for the truth," he had declared.

Inside the court, Bhatia told the judge that he would henceforth display the kirpan and not hide it. After all, it was the concealment that had provoked Bhatia's arrest on September 3 when his car had bumped into that of Scott Ellis. When Bhatia, 69, got out of his car and walked to Ellis's car to apologize to him, a passenger in that car saw a bulge around Bhatia's waist and alerted the traffic police who had arrived at the scene of the accident.

Ellis thought Bhatia was hiding a gun.

When Mentor officials decided after nearly four months of sporadic discussions and appeals, including a letter from Richard Celeste, former Ohio governor and now American ambassador, to India not to prosecute Bhatia, there was at least one man who was openly angry and disappointed.

Scott Ellis said justice had been ill-served by the decision. If he had been in Bhatia's place, he would have faced a jail sentence, he said, implying that Bhatia got away because of his minority status.

Ellis also told reporters that Bhatia had suggested to him at the scene of the accident that they could settle the dispute between themselves -- with the help of some money.

He also said he was stiff scared when Bhatia's car was rammed into his. His nine-year-old son and girl friend were also scared. And they got more scared when Bhatia walked up to their car, asked him not to call the police, and said, "Me have a lot of money."

Bhatia also bowed to him, saying "Me so sorry."

"I was intimidated. I think the cops had every right to arrest him," Ellis said.

Some of Bhatia's friends feel Ellis was reacting to the incident viscerally and that he would have loved to see Bhatia fined $ 1,000, as per the law. The Sikh priest could have also been jailed for six months. But when he came out of the court, he had paid $ 100 for traffic violation.

Sikhs in other cities, who had joined a letter-writing campaign to have the case dropped, said Ellis's reaction to Sikh symbols proved that the fight is not over. Many Sikhs felt that there should be a concerted effort to educate lawmakers, law-enforcement agencies and the public across America about the significance of the turban, and the kirpan in particular. Otherwise people like Ellis would revolt at the sight of a Sikh man, they said.

"Perhaps he (Ellis) had not interacted with an Asian before," said Deepan Singh, a badminton coach in New York. "Maybe he was seeing a Sikh for the first time, and since Bhatia speaks little English, Ellis must have felt even worse. Think of the fear of the unknown."

The prosecutors were happy with the settlement. They had insisted on having a letter from Bhatia saying that he understood why the police had reacted the way they did.

Ron Graham, Mentor's prosecutor, said he did not like the word "insensitive" some Sikhs had used in describing the police action. Graham had said earlier that even he was not familiar with the tenets of the Sikh religion.

"The police officers had to react at the moment the way they did without the luxury of studying its religious meaning," he said.

Bagga says his law firm, Thomas, Hines and Flory, took up the case free of charge.

"Attorneys dream of cases like these," Bagga said. He believes that the case has been reported in over 100 newspapers across the world.

"It has implications not only to Sikhs but people of all religions, particularly the minorities."

Over a year ago when a turbaned Princeton University mathematics professor and his American wife had been refused service by a plush New York restaurant which had a no-hat sign, an Asian civil liberties organization took up the case free of charge and brought about a settlement. The restaurant now sports a sign at the entrance stating people wearing hats for religious reasons are permitted in.

About two years ago, the American Civil Liberties Union took up the fight of a Sikh couple in California whose children were not allowed to carry kirpans to school. The matter went to the court but was settled outside, with the school permitting the two students carry the kirpans as long as these had specifically dull edges.

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