I am thankful on this Thanksgiving Day for the freedoms that I enjoy in this great nation.
As a Sikh, I am particularly thankful to the Founding Fathers who had the vision and courage to grant immigrants, like myself, these freedoms. For those of us — or our parents — who have faced religious oppression during our lives, we can closely relate to the Pilgrims and the significance of Thanksgiving.
Freedom of religion is one of the most cherished gifts we have. The First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees the freedom of religion along with other rights.
The roots of the First Amendment can be traced back to a bill written in the latter 1770s by Thomas Jefferson that guaranteed freedom of (and from) religion and became a law in the state of Virginia in 1786.
James Madison wanted Jefferson’s view to become a law of the land and incorporated it in the Constitution in 1787. This indeed was a remarkable progressive step in those times. The First Amendment forbids Congress from making laws that would infringe of the free exercise of religion, attesting to the founders’ resolve that America be a secular republic.
This resolve was echoed by President Obama in August 2010 when he declared: “This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are.”
Let us now look at the state of the affairs in another country, India, at the time when the U.S. Constitution was being drafted. India, where I was born, was ruled by the Mughal emperors, who were Muslim invaders. These rulers had put severe restriction on religious freedoms of the Hindus, who were the majority.
There were several movements in the country to fight this oppression. Among the most powerful were the Sikhs (seekers of truth). The Sikhs were followers of Guru Nanak, a saint of the 15th century whose mission was to establish communal harmony and rid the society of the meaningless and evil customs. He was a great reformer and soon had a large following.
His popularity and the popularity of his successors became a threat to the Mughal Empire. The struggle of Sikhs to resist social injustices continued for more than 200 years, a struggle that ultimately uprooted the Mughal Empire from India. The British rule followed the Mughals, and religious restrictions were lifted. The struggle for India’s freedom continued, and the Sikhs made a major contribution to it. India became an independent nation in 1947. However, the subcontinent was divided into two nations — India and Pakistan.
Pakistan became an Islamic republic, and a mass exodus of minority Sikhs and Hindus resulted in a carnage second to that of the Holocaust of the Jewish people by the Nazis. India became a secular republic. Unlike the U.S. Constitution, the Indian constitution grants the freedom of religion but enacts its laws under the Hindu and Muslim doctrines, which leaves room for discrimination against minority religion followers such as Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists and Christians.
Today, we are again seeing a resurgence of religious fanatic movements in the Middle East, such as the Islamic State, and in other pockets of the world. These movements are the cancer of humanity. Every person of conscience and all civilized nations must join hands and nip this and other similar evils in the bud.
I am fortunate that I live in the United States, the land of the free, where I have rights and dignity. I am ever thankful for that on this Thanksgiving Day and every day.
Pushpinder S. Puri of Upper Milford Township is an active member of the Sikh community in the Lehigh Valley.