By Michael Salerno
For Hometown News
PORT ORANGE -- A drive-by shooting on the Dunlawton Bridge is being considered a possible hate crime as the victim was likely targeted because of the turban he wears that is traditional to his religion.
The victim, Kanwaljit Singh, is a Sikh. The Sikh religion, originating from a region in South Asia that includes parts of India and Pakistan, is more than 500 years old and practiced by more than 700,000 people in the U.S. As part of the religion, members must keep their hair long as a symbol of respect for the pure human form and wear turbans to keep the hair tidy.
But, as Sikhs stand out due to their turbans, they have also been the target of discrimination and violence, such as the Feb. 23 shooting of Kanwaljit Singh, 46, who recently opened a convenience store on the beachside. Police said the suspect vehicle pulled alongside Mr. Singh's vehicle and fired multiple shots into the left driver's door, then fled the scene. He was struck in the upper thigh and lower torso, while his son was uninjured.
Central Florida Sikhs have been working to educate the public on their religion to prevent future incidents from happening.
One of them is Navtej Khalsa, southeast regional director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, an organization that works to protect and promote civil rights of Sikh Americans and educate the public on who Sikhs are. Mr. Khalsa said Sikhs have been the victims of hate crimes since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as some people incorrectly associate them with Muslims.
"Sikh men stand out because of their turbans and beards," Mr. Khalsa said. "About 99 percent of people you see with turbans in the United States are Sikhs. They are the only ones that are required (by their religion) to wear a turban. Others may wear them for cultural reasons, but for Sikhs it's a part of their identity."
He said some of the principles of the Sikh religion are living by honest means, belief in one God, equality and helping the less fortunate -- principles that differentiate them from other religions, such as Hinduism and Islam, according to SALDEF.
Ishwar Singh, president of the Sikh Society of Central Florida (unrelated to Kanwaljit Singh), said he believes those who commit acts of hatred against others based on race or religion must be corrected, although he also does not want to discredit the people he's dealt with in the past who are respectful to Sikhs.
"We are to educate the bad apples who have hate in their mind, to see that is not the way to go in our society," Ishwar Singh said. "We want to clean the prejudice in our society ... for all of us."
Mr. Khalsa agrees.
"We are not born hating something, it is basically a learned behavior," he said. "What is overriding and important is learning tolerance and overcoming ignorance. Children should be able to learn that in school."
Mr. Khalsa couldn't specify how many hate crimes against Sikhs SALDEF has tracked in Central Florida, but he acknowledged the Port Orange shooting is not the first case of discrimination against Sikhs in the area. He cited a 2007 incident where a man from India traveling on foot to Orlando International Airport walked into a bank asking for help, but was instead arrested for suspicious activity following what the local media described at the time as a "standoff."
Mr. Khalsa, who knows Kanwaljit Singh and his family personally because they attend the same Sikh temple (known as a gurdwara), said he's kept in touch with the family since the shooting occurred. He said it had negative financial effects on the family because it sidelined Kanwaljit Singh from his job and resulted in high medical expenses.
"The family basically is going through a tough time financially with the loss of income from his business," Mr. Khalsa said. "He was the breadwinner of his family."
Members of Kanwaljit Singh's family could not be reached for comment.
Meanwhile, investigators with the Port Orange Police Department and the FBI remain on the lookout for the shooter.
Capt. David Meyer, an investigator with the Port Orange Police Department, said the vehicle where the bullets were shot from is likely a dark blue or black Chevrolet S-10 or GMC Sonoma style truck, with the license plate on the right rear bumper.
With no clear motive, investigators believe the incident was likely a hate crime.
"I can say the victim's vehicle was definitely targeted by the suspect or suspects in this," Capt. Meyer said. "Could it lend some credence that this is a hate crime? Most definitely."
Anyone with information is asked to contact Detective Jeff Wenzel at (386) 506-5884 or firstname.lastname@example.org.