As a crowd of 15,000 people lowered their heads at the Tampa Bay Times Forum Building Aug. 29 evening, Ishwar Singh, president of the Sikh Society of Central Florida, made history as the first-ever Sikh American to deliver an invocation at a national convention.
“Almighty God, we call you many names but you are one. Keep your divine hands over all the delegates and candidates as they help steer the future of this great nation. Remind us of our purpose to love and serve one another and create a more peaceful world,” said Singh, who shared the platform with several amputees who had lost limbs in American wars.
Singh asked for protection of law enforcement and for residents of the Gulf Coast, who were bracing for battle against Hurricane Isaac.
In an interview with India-West after delivering his invocation, Singh said he was asked by Ajit Singh Randhawa, father of South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, to deliver the invocation on the third night of the convention. “After the Wisconsin shootings, the (Republican) party wanted a Sikh to deliver the prayers, so they approached Nikki Haley who asked her father,” said Singh.
The Indian American Haley was born in the U.S. to a Sikh family, but now identifies as a Christian. Haley delivered her speech at the RNC on Aug. 28, highlighting her immigrant background (see separate story).
“There are a lot of people in this country who don’t know what Sikhs are. When I accepted the invitation to speak, I was thinking I could teach 10, maybe 15 people about who we are and our belief that God is one and we all share the same God,” Singh told this newspaper.
Knowledge about the Sikh community and its practices could not have prevented the Oak Creek, Wisc., gurdwara massacre, said Singh. On Aug. 5, Wade Michael Page, an alleged neo-Nazi, killed six people during morning services at the temple before committing suicide. “White supremacists are only looking for one thing: the color of your skin,” Singh told India-West, adding that he did not believe the Sikh community had been particularly targeted by Page.
Satwant Singh Kaleka, president of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, who died a hero while trying to save others from Page’s gun, was a good friend, said Singh, noting that Kaleka was a deeply religious man who died in accordance with the edicts of his faith.
Singh credited Simranjeet Singh, Deeptej Singh and civil rights activist Valarie Kaur with helping him write the speech. But in a CNN interview after Singh’s invocation, Kaur denounced the inclusion of Singh in the RNC lineup as a hollow gesture.
“If (Republican presidential challenger) Mitt Romney and Republican leaders want the historic Sikh invocation to be more than tokenism — and are serious about preventing another Oak Creek — they cannot continue to let hateful speech within their own party go unchecked,” stated Kaur, director of the documentary, “Divided We Fall,” which examines racial bias against Sikh Americans in the aftermath of 9/11.
“GOP leaders have not only stood silent while fellow Republicans fan the flames of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim bias, they have given them the megaphone,” said Kaur in the CNN interview. “Singh will speak on the same stage as Sheriff Joe Arpaio, infamous for shaming and rounding up undocumented immigrants, saying that it's an honor to be compared to the KKK. Newt Gingrich, who is presiding over ‘Newt University’ at the RNC, has compared Muslims to Nazis.”