How 9/11 spurred New Jersey’s Sikh attorney general into public service

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal speaks during a news conference announcing pollution lawsuits filed by the sta...

(RNS) — Last January, Gurbir Grewal became New Jersey’s attorney general, making him the nation’s first Sikh to serve as a state’s chief law enforcement officer and lawyer, a recognition of New Jersey’s status as one of the most culturally diverse places in the country.

Although Grewal, 45, says his faith is not the primary driver of his work as attorney general, its core teachings of service, justice and kindness align well with his progressive approach to policy.

One can hear this conviction when Grewal speaks about justice for all, especially for the marginalized, as he does often. In just over a year in office, Grewal has already taken part in dozens of legal proceedings against the Trump administration, each of which confronts discriminatory, inhumane or inequitable policies...

...Are there any particular Sikh teachings that you lean into as a source of support or guidance?

For me, it all goes back to the Guru Nanak’s radical egalitarian vision. I see that as the foundation of our religion, and I find so much inspiration in that. It’s central to who we are as a community, especially if you look at the origins of Sikhi.

I also really love the line from the Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh scripture) by Bhagat Kabir, where he says, “Sura so pahichaniai jo larahi deen ke het purja purja kat marai kabhu na chaadahi khet.” (“One is called a warrior who fights for the oppressed; one who is slashed and annihilated — yet never abandons the battlefield (of justice).”

That’s been an inspirational teaching to me about what it means to commit to something. The message I take away from this for myself is to have the strength to fight injustice and to fight bigotry and to fight intolerance. Whenever I hear these lines, I feel empowered...

...How have those experiences shaped your life and career?

The trigger for me was 9/11. At the time, I didn’t have a passion for public service, I hate to say. I was very content then. I went to a decent college, went to a decent law school, and landed a decent job at a law firm. I was just enjoying where I was.

And then a tragedy befalls this country, and I found that I didn’t have the luxury to grieve like the people around me. Immediately in that moment, I was reminded that I was the other. And this was a real point of introspection for me. I was in my mid-20s, felt like I was a part of American society — and yet people on television kept showing people who looked like me, saying we were responsible for the tragedy.

And when they showed Americans, they never showed anyone who looked like me. Especially when they showed public servants, including firefighters and police officers. For me, that was a wakeup call to do something. That’s when I really started to think about what we should be doing.

On the night of 9/11, my mom told me to just get groceries and stay in that night. She thought that would keep me safe. But honestly, that didn’t feel right. That’s not who we are as Sikhs. Our Sikhi teaches us that we stand out by design, so that we’re ready to step up in moments like this one.

It was then that I began to feel passionate about public service. I felt a desire to serve others and began thinking about what opportunities would be good for me. I also realized that public service would help show other Americans what Sikhi is all about. That’s how it all started...

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