Of hate and reconciliation

The family of Balbir Singh Sodhi, who was killed in the aftermath of 9/11, remain vigilant but have forgiven the killer.

– Ritu Jha-

It’s been two decades, but Rana Singh Sodhi’s, brother Balbir Singh Sodhi, the first hate-crime victim after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on US soil says that now that the Taliban is back in power in Afghanistan, the bad memories are back – and Sikhs have become vigilant again.

Sodhi shared with indica News his views on migrating from Punjab after the 1984 riots, during which many Sikhs were killed when two Sikhs assassinated then prime minister India Gandhi, to 9/11, where Sikhs were attacked again for wearing a turban-like Osama bin Laden did.

Sodhi said that when he and his brother Balbir went shopping people yelled and threatened them, demanding that they leave the country. A similar incident happened with another Sikh who ran gas stations.

Sodhi recollected the love and sorrow people across the world expressed when his brother was murdered and said he himself has forgiven the killer. Sodhi, who is 16 years younger than his late brother, believes there is a long long journey ahead for Sikhs. He compared the struggle to create awareness about Sikhism to the work of civil rights leaders Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks.

He said that in the past few weeks since news about the Taliban has started circulating in the media, Sikhs have become worried.

“My wife gets concerned when I go out,” said Sodhi, who lives in Mesa, Arizona. “We have to plan when we go out, and try not to go out in the evening. “If we do go, we have to be very vigilant. Wherever you go, especially at night, I worry about my security. Before 9/11, I never thought about those things.”

After the terrorist attack, the local Sikhs decided to meet the chief of the local gurdwara in Phoenix and to host a press conference on Sunday, 16, 2001.

But September 15, while Balbir was instructing a landscaper on where to plant flowers outside his gas station, Frank Silva Roque, a Boeing aircraft mechanic at a local repair facility, gunned him down Balbir died on spot. The night before, Roque had told a waiter at Applebee’s, “I’m going to go out and shoot some towel heads,” and “we should kill their children, too, because they’ll grow up to be like their parents.”

Sodhi said he drove back 30 miles to see his brother, having never considered he would die in an attack.

“I never took it seriously, because I thought he was living in a safe neighborhood and never faced a threat like we did,” Sodhi said. “I thought it could be a robbery because that’s very common at gas stations. But killing … I never thought about that, you know.”

He said that the horrifying memories from 1984 flooded back.

“Some of my relatives were burned alive [during the anti-Sikh riots in India in 1984]. I’ve lost my brother, my family, [Members of] my community were put behind bars and never got justice in India,” he said.

Sodhi adding further said it was like thinking where to go now, you have already left India and here in the US you’re facing this discrimination that time.

“We came to the US in 1985, to have a better life, to be safer, but here again I lost my brother,” he said.

Asked why he decided to forgive Roque, when he had been so pleased to get justice, Sodhi said that he and the rest of the family had attended each court trial for two years.

“Yes, the jury found him guilty, then they gave him the death penalty. But my sister-in-law said she didn’t want to take somebody’s life. ‘I lost my husband. I don’t want somebody else to lose her husband.’ Those were the words she used.”

Sodhi has a new role now.

“I feel like I’m taking over my brother’s legacy,” he said, adding that the family got letters of support from around the world for over a year after Balbir’s death.

Sodhi said he got letters from the UN secretary-general and George Bush, then the president. Later, Barack Obama invited him and his wife to the president’s first state dinner.

Sodhi, who now creates awareness about the Sikh community to stop it from having to endure hate crimes, said that people from various communities are his friends today.

But there is the lingering fear that the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan could have repercussions on Sikhs here, however different the two groups are.

Discussing Roque, who finally apologized to the Sodhi family, Sodhi said that five years ago, the killer spoke with him over the phone. Earlier, the two of them had only seen each other in court.
That phone call was initiated by Sikh activist Valarie Kaur.

“I was on speakerphone and he said, ‘I’m so sorry,’” Sodhi said, “A couple of things Roque said really touched my heart. He said, ‘I’m a heart patient, and may die. When I go to be judged by God, I will ask to see your brother, and I will hug him, and I will ask him for forgiveness.’”

The Sikh Coalition is hosting a virtual commemoration of the life and legacy of Balbir Singh Sodhi on September 15, at 7 PM MST (10 PM EST or 7 PM PST) in Mesa, Arizona.