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Kanwar Singh thanked God as he stood among his fellow uniformed candidates awaiting the event that would finally make them commissioned officers. Singh, a devoted Sikh, turned to his faith in both good and bad times, knowing that devotion and prayer could get him through anything, whether it was making it through the last weeks of basic training or standing up against bigotry.

Each of the 17 officer candidates wore an Army service cap as they huddled on the wooden deck of the USS Constitution. The men had clean-shaven features, with the exception of Singh, who had a beard and a turban covering his dark hair. Minutes later, Singh took the officer's oath and saluted his former recruiter, 1st Sgt. John Helbert, who had spent years assisting Singh to this point. The August 2018 commissioning ceremony marked the end of a much longer journey than Singh had imagined.

Wearing symbols of Sikhism with pride

Singh, who is now a second lieutenant in the National Guard, had requested a religious accommodation four years prior following meetings with Helbert. Sikhs regard hair to be a sacred extension of the body and hence must stay uncut. Before his death, the tenth Sikh guru, Guru Gobind Singh, declared that uncut hair is a sign of respect for God and that turbans must always be worn to retain the Sikh’s saint-soldier identity.

Kanwar Singh asked the Army for a provision that would allow him to meet these requirements. His quest for a religious accommodation put him in Washington, D.C., delaying his commission, but he persisted with the help of the nonprofit group Sikh Coalition and his fellow Guard members.

In 2016, the Army allowed him an interim religious accommodation to attend basic combat training while maintaining his articles of religion. In January 2017, the Army issued a new directive based on the performance of previous Soldiers who obtained religious accommodations. It permitted Sikhs and members of other faiths to don articles of faith while in uniform permanently.

Singh said that if had quit then he wouldn’t have been able to serve. He further added, “Today, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of patriotic American Sikhs, Jews, Muslims, Christians, and service-members of other faiths who now have religious accommodations. That's important to us as Sikhs; it's not about us. It's also about the … broader societal good and that was important to me.”

Inclusiveness by Army and Defence 

Since then, the Army and Defense Department have revised their stance on religious freedoms. The Department of Defense issued new guidance on accommodating religious practices on September 1, 2020, stating that "sincerely held" religious views have no influence on military readiness. Moreover, according to a July directive published by the Army, commanders at all levels would be educated and instructed on the concepts, rules, and procedures about religious liberties and reasonable accommodations for religious practices.

Religious journey

Singh left New Delhi with only two suitcases and a few changes of clothing in the summer of 2007. He hoped that he would be able to practice Sikhism in peace in America, and, like millions of immigrants before him, he was drawn by the country's vast potential. In search of religious freedom, Sikhs, who were no strangers to the United States, moved to the West Coast in the early 20th century to work on the railroads and on California farms.

The colossal, cosmopolitan capital of India is home to more than 21 million people and numerous cultures. However, religious minorities there frequently experience harassment and sometimes violence for practicing their religion. According to an Indian census, about 20 million Indians practise Sikhism, but they represent less than 2% of the country's population.

Singh's family left the West Punjab region of British India in 1947 when the country was divided into India and Pakistan. The partition of Britain into two states resulted in enormous migration along religious lines. Sikhs have frequently been persecuted on religious grounds. In 1984, mobs massacred thousands of Sikhs after the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. Gandhi had ordered the Indian military to target the holiest Sikh site of devotion in Punjab.

In 2007, the perpetrators of the mass murders had not yet been brought to justice, and Singh knew he could no longer remain in such an environment. Thus, at the age of 17, Singh embarked on a voyage west that would eventually lead him to the Harvard University campus, a prestigious position at a financial services firm, and a commission with the National Guard.

Singh said, “I knew that this is a land of opportunity. You certainly have a lot more freedom here than you would where I grew up. I was really excited about that.”

He moved in with family in Richmond, Virginia, and soon made connections with other Sikh families in the region. When he graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2011 with a degree in business, he missed the excitement of living in a larger city and moved to Boston to achieve a lifetime career and academic ambition by attending Harvard University.

Passion to serve the country 

Singh desired to serve his country in a more significant way. As a member of the Massachusetts National Guard, his commitment to his chosen country aligns with Sikh values of selflessness. Military duty is highly valued by Sikhs, who encourage their members to acquire self-defense and protect others. Both of Singh's grandfathers and great-grandfathers served in the Sikh regiment of the British Army.

After moving from Virginia to Boston a year later, he felt the impact of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings through conversations with Bostonians. Singh attended a lecture by the late Arizona Senator John McCain urging students to join the armed forces at Harvard Kennedy School, which further inspired him to join the military of his new homeland.

Singh applied to the Air National Guard in the spring of 2014, but after a brief interaction with an Air Force recruiter about needing religious accommodation and several unanswered emails, he did not receive a call back.. Then, he approached a recruiter for the Army, Sgt. 1st Class Helbert, who promised to assist him in becoming a soldier. Singh remarked, "He did not give up on me."

Faced challenges because of religion 

Singh faced an almost two-year-long legal process while getting a master's degree in liberal arts from Harvard and a master's degree in business administration from the University of Massachusetts. Singh, who was awarded the rank of a specialist when he was eventually permitted to enlist in 2015, requested a religious accommodation so that he may wear the customary Sikh turban and not be required to shave his beard.

In April 2016, an Army recruitment commander asked Singh if he would shave his head and face before beginning basic training the following month. Singh refused to do so. He was asked to either serve the country or abandon his religious beliefs. 

Even though Sikhs have served in the United States military since World War I, the Army modified its requirements in the 1980s. In the past eleven years, the service has given a modest number of religious exemptions to Sikhs, predominantly in the medical field. In 2009, then-Captain Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi became the first Sikh to be given religious accommodation since the Vietnam War.

During that time, neither uniforms nor basic training could be supplied to Singh. Helbert committed to doing everything in his power to help Singh become a soldier, including assisting Singh with the proper documentation for his lodgings.

Sikhs received religious accommodation 

Following the Army's January 2017 decision on the wearing of religious objects, Singh's 2016 religious accommodation became permanent. He would now be permitted to wear a turban while serving in the Army for the duration of his career. Due to the lengthy legal process, it took Singh four years to complete basic training and officer candidate school, when students typically complete these programmes in two. Nonetheless, of the 35 pupils in Singh's class, 17 qualified for a commission.

Another pillar of the Sikh religion is that they shall overcome arduous jobs or hurdles. During the Sikh Holocaust of the 17th century, a reported 7,000 died. During the 1984 anti-Sikh rioting, at than 3,000 Sikhs lost lives in New Delhi, while tens of thousands perished throughout India.

He says, “ One of the things that we are taught is we will literally be killed for the right to practice our religion. I've always remembered that. And I've sort of always believed that as a Sikh -- you don't give up; you never quit.”

When faced with extreme adversity, such as his platoon's last ruck march in basic military training, Singh turned to meditation and prayer, conducting prayer sessions with fellow recruits.

No more an outsider 

In 2018, while Singh was travelling through the streets of Boston, a woman told him to return to his country. In his civilian and undergraduate years, he occasionally encountered racist comments. Sikhs are frequently misidentified as members of Al Qaeda or ISIS. In certain regions of the world, some are subjected to prejudice and violent violence. Singh says he has not received such treatment in the United States Army.

Since completing basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and officer candidate school in Massachusetts, Singh has not experienced discrimination in the Army. 

Incidentally, "Sikh" in Punjabi means "learner," as Sikhs value education. Singh earned a third master's degree in information technology in December 2019. His experience as a product leader and management consultant in the finance industry exemplifies the young inventive thinking the Army seeks to acquire as it develops future warfare operations.

In July 2020, he released "Camo for Military," an artificial intelligence-enabled iOS mobile software for the Air Force and Army that helps Soldiers and Airmen manage inventory, report personnel issues, and effectively communicate.

Since his National Guard commissioning two years ago, he has been awarded the Army Commendation, Army Achievement, and Air Force Achievement medals.

Everyone is identical

Singh recalls the summer he was 13 when construction workers began building his family's home in New Delhi. In the summer heat, he worked from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m., scooping dirt, laying bricks, and transporting cement. Singh stated, "That was the hardest job I've ever done."

Today, he still exemplifies the same humility by serving others, whether it is his fellow soldiers or the software engineers and product designers on his teams as a digital project manager. Furthermore, he advocates equality in both his professional and spiritual life.

To the north of Boston’s Mystic River in a plain beige brick building, Singh and other Sikhs gather to worship at the Boston Sikh Sangat, known as a “gurdwara.”. Following the teachings of the Sikh gurus, the religion's founders, and spiritual leaders, Singh requests that individuals of all backgrounds and religions dine on the floor with a basic vegetarian cuisine.

Singh once sat on the gurdwara floor with Massachusetts State Senator Jason Lewis, similar to how a king or queen would be asked to sit among common worshippers. Kindness and acceptance of others, regardless of social level or culture, are key tenants of the Sikh faith. Sikhs believe in the elimination of ego, selfishness, and pride. 

Instead of imposing his rank or management standing on others, Singh opts for meetings with open discussions as his leadership philosophy. In the Massachusetts National Guard, he serves in a programme with a focus on diversity and inclusiveness.

Sikhs believe that humans are intrinsically a part of God and that by dedicating themselves to the service of others, they can grow closer to God. Singh believes that he has made progress by applying the lessons of his faith to his duty as a soldier.


*Based on an article by Joseph Lacdan, published on U.S Army News Service, on 24th September 2020


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