Komal Sahi was at home on the night of April 15, 2021, when news of a shooting at the FedEx ground operations facility in Indianapolis, where her mother had started working the week before, began to circulate.
“It was just so shocking,” Sahi, an immigration attorney in Indianapolis’ suburbs, said. “There were a lot of Sikhs working in that warehouse.” My mother said something to the effect that you make friends because you work with people who are like you. It was a neighborhood. “Everyone knew someone who worked there,” says the narrator.
A 19-year-old gunman fatally shot eight people at the facility shortly after 11 p.m. that night, four of whom were from Sikh families. “That was all anybody could talk about” at Sahi’s aunt’s house the next day, even though Sahi’s mother was off duty that evening. And the general consensus was that it was a hate crime.”
Some still question investigators’ conclusions that the attack was not motivated by bias but rather a premeditated “act of suicidal murder” by a former facility employee a year later, as the community remembers the lives lost and grapples with its collective trauma.
Matthew Alexander, 32; Samaria Blackwell, 19; Jasvinder Kaur, 50; Amarjit Sekhon, 48; Jaswinder Singh, 68; Karli Smith, 19; and John “Steve” Weisert, 74 were among those killed, in addition to Chohan’s grandmother, Amarjeet Kaur Johal, 66. Several months after the shooting, Indianapolis police said white supremacist websites were discovered on the shooter’s computer during a mental health check at his home in early 2020, but a subsequent FBI interview determined he was not motivated by racial extremism.
Since Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh entrepreneur in suburban Phoenix, was murdered four days after the terrorist attacks by a revenge-minded white mechanic who mistook him for an Arab Muslim, many in the American Sikh community have been on edge. Then, in 2012, a white supremacist opened fire at a temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, killing seven Sikhs before turning the gun on himself. Hate crimes against Sikhs have increased every year since the FBI began tracking them in 2015, increasing by 68 percent from 2019 to 2020, or from 56 to 94. During that time, anti-Muslim hate crimes have decreased.
In addition to the pandemic and anti-immigrant rhetoric stirred up during the Trump administration, Kaur attributes the rise in anti-Sikh hate crimes to a willingness by more victims to come forward and report attacks.
Sikh men in Queens, New York, were assaulted in two separate attacks this month, and both are being investigated as possible hate crimes. A man assaulted a Sikh taxi driver at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York in January. A hate crime charge was filed against the assailant in that attack.
Singh stated that he was determined to show locals that he could not only fit in, but also that he could help elevate the city from obscurity to national prominence. He claims that other Sikhs who arrived after him followed his lead in civic engagement, and he is now an architect, artist, and Sikh community leader.
Sikhism is the world’s fifth most popular religion, with over 25 million adherents. It originated in Punjab, in northern India. Sikh men wear beards and long, uncut hair under their turbans.
The Sikh community in Indianapolis was still small two decades ago, with few temples, but the recession of 2008 brought a new influx as struggling Sikh farmers in California sold their land and relocated to the Midwest, which was more affordable. Many people with little or no education found work in logistics and distribution centers that had chosen the heartland because of its central location.
More than 5,000 Sikhs live in the Indianapolis metro area, with 10,000 estimated statewide, and “communities like Greenwood and Plainfield look like where I grew up,” said Sahi, the immigration attorney, who moved to the area as a 10-year-old from Brampton, Ontario, a Canadian city with a large Sikh population. “When you go outside, you see people who look like you.”