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Sikh American's life turned around after false arrest

Mar 3, 2003

Seventeen months ago, a day after 9/11, Indian American Sher Singh was dragged out of a train, labelled suspicious because of his appearance, handcuffed and interrogated. Today the New Delhi-born Sikh has been entrusted with one of the most sensitive jobs in the United States -- to work with top-secret defence projects. A computer professional, Singh, 28, who is a Virginia resident, works for the U.S. military now.

Singh's work takes him inside some of the nation's most secure military installations, where he advises naval personnel on new computer warfare technology. He has watched Navy Seals train in San Diego, California, roamed the battleship docks in Charleston, South Carolina, and stood pier side in Atlanta, Georgia, as stealth submarines slipped into dry dock. The government trusts him with sensitive defence secrets.

Singh has left far behind the idea of starting his own a telecommunications company offering technical advice to home computer owners. In fact the reason he had taken the trip to Providence, Rhode Island, on that fateful day was to consult his friends on starting his own business. He was scheduled to return to Virginia by train on September 11. Then the Twin Towers exploded in flame and smoke. When Singh was arrested as one of the first detainees in a national roundup, the police confiscated the Kirpan that Sikhs carry as part of their religious tenets. He was charged with carrying a concealed knife with a blade longer than three inches.

Soon followed the backlash against Sikhs who were mistaken by their beard and turban to be followers of Osama bin Laden. He spent five hours in the Providence police station answering questions from immigration and investigators before being released. Authorities then were quick to announce that Singh had no connection to the terrorist attacks. Call it poetic justice or irony or fate, Sher Singh has discovered a new role and that is to work for religion. He now divides his time between working for the U.S. military and for Sikhism.

"If you think you have been chosen, for whatever reason, to do God's work then that's the way God wanted it," he says. "If I had my doubts about the importance of community service before, God instilled in me that importance. That is how I look at it today," he says, according to media reports here. His arrest "was a wake-up call" to North America's 500,000 Sikhs "that we hadn't been doing enough to portray to the world what our contributions have been. We had not done enough outside of our own community to make others feel comfortable with us."

Singh speaks in Gurdwaras and with police chiefs about the importance of religious tolerance. At the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) headquarters in Washington, he discussed cultural sensitivity, training with the bureau's chief of the civil rights division. Singh says, "Of late, I've been thinking about what can I do to give back to Providence because it did give me something. The chance to be a better Sikh. What you get counted for in this life is what you do for those you don't know." Singh is the youngest of two children of an Indian Air Force pilot and a teacher of English literature.



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