Sikh war veteran writes to President Bush

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Fatehpal Singh-Tarney

On 12 November 2008, Sikh Vietnam War veteran, Sardar Fatehpal Singh-Tarney who became a Sikh some 20 year ago wrote passionately to the current and outgoing President of the United States, President Bush about the discrimination faced by a Sikh prisoner, Jagmohan Singh Ahuja who is in Duval County Jail in Jacksonville, Florida.

On or about July 1, 2008, Sikh prisoner Jagmohan Singh Ahuja suffered an egregious violation of his religious rights when jail officers forcibly cut his hair in Duval County Jail. It is against a Sikh's religious practice to cut his/her hair, as kesh (unshorn hair) covered by a dastaar (Sikh turban) is one of five articles of faith which a Sikh must keep at all times. Jagmohan was recently informed by prison officials that his hair will be cut again, and he immediately contacted United Sikhs to help stop the continued gross violation of his dearly held religious beliefs.

As yet Fatehpal Singh has not received a reply to his letter. A copy of his letter is displayed below:

Sikh Vietnam War veteran writes to President Bush 14 November 2008 by Fatehpal Singh-Tarney

President of the United States
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

November 12, 2008

Dear President Bush,

I refer to this letter as ‘the old college try!’ I know that someone will read it and I hope it will be a person of conscience who will, in turn, pass it on to someone else, and that it will eventually find its way to your desk.

I am a decorated, combat-wounded, Vietnam War veteran. I have been a registered Republican all my adult life. There have been times, under both Republican and Democratic leadership, that I have had reservations about certain policies and decisions of my government. However, I have never been ashamed of my country until now.

About twenty years ago, I converted to the Sikh religion, which originated in northern India about 500 years ago. We Sikhs respect all the world’s religions and simply ask that our faith be respected in return. Uncut hair is a central requirement of our faith. Uncut hair is considered by us to be a very special and sacred gift from God. The history of the Sikhs is full of sacrifices which Sikhs made for their uncut hair. These sacrifices included unspeakable tortures and death. In order to keep our uncut hair clean and tidy and to maintain its spiritual purity, a turban is required to cover the hair. Sikhs consider the turban to be a crown. For a devout Sikh to use a razor would be a great sin. The hair gives us a special connection with God and was a symbol enabling Sikhs to preserve their separate identity from the majority populations of India: Hindus and Muslims. The flowing beard of a Sikh is a blessed symbol and is considered a thing of beauty.

It is generally accepted that Jesus Christ kept his hair uncut. The story of Samson in the Old Testament, a man of great strength and courage, points to the fact that human hair is a great source spirituality and power if it is kept uncut. Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, graphically depicted the suffering and death of Jesus. How would devout Christians have felt, if the Romans had also humiliated Jesus by cutting off his long hair and beard? This is how Sikhs feel now. Just because uncut hair is no longer significant in modern times as it was in Biblical times for most Christians and Jews, does not mean it is unimportant to people of other faiths.

Some time ago, a Sikh man, Jagmohan Singh Ahuja, who is incarcerated in the Duval County Jail in Jacksonville, Florida, had his religiously-mandated hair cut off. Hair does not interfere with any routine activity, and poses no danger to the person or anyone he may come in contact with. Of course, there are security concerns in a prison situation. Please note that no one is questioning Jagmohan Singh’s incarceration. However, imprisonment should not entail religious humiliation. The American Constitution protects freedom of religious expression for everyone. The Duval County authorities claim that the hair of prisoners is cut in the interest of security. The idea that contraband can be hidden in the hair and beard is an excuse – not an explanation. All body parts, internal and external, are often probed for contraband in prisons, so why is long hair an exception to standard procedures? I am informed that the hair of women inmates in Duval County is not cut. Surely, women prisoners are capable of concealing contraband in their hair as well as men. It is not as though we are referring to thousands of inmates. We are talking about a very small number. Moreover, aren’t the chances of rehabilitation better when authorities respect the religious principles of inmates? Most people think so.

I contacted Florida Governor Charlie Crist about this matter and was very disappointed in his response. His office told me that the Duval County Jail’s hair policy is a local matter outside of his purview. Many elected officials have signs on their desks saying, ‘The buck stops here.’ This is not a local matter; it is a violation of our First Amendment right of freedom of religious expression. Of course, certain First Amendment rights are lost when one is in prison, but not freedom of religion. If inmates can litigate over bad food; poor cell accommodations; inadequate law books in the prison library, etc. they have not lost all their First Amendment rights.

The Duval County authorities say that they are not violating the First Amendment because they are ‘equal opportunity’ barbers. They will cut the hair of Sikh men; devout Muslim men; Orthodox Jewish men, et al. In other words, they claim that they are not discriminating against any specific faith, but treating all faiths alike. Discrimination against those faiths that require uncut hair is discrimination and a clear-cut violation of our First Amendment rights. I strongly suspect that the intransigence of Duval County on this religious issue is part of a post-9-11 pattern, which does not help us either at home or in the world at large.

You once said that you and your administration ‘would sprint to the finish line.’ I admire you for having said that. Here is an opportunity to do something consistent with that approach. You have an opportunity toward the end of your presidency to correct a terrible injustice and do something very humanitarian that will impress both Americans of conscience and faith as well as people around the world. I do not know the terminology or the process, but surely some kind of executive order can be issued by you that says something like, ‘Anyone incarcerated in America will have their religious rights safeguarded per the American Constitution.’

These are troubled times for our country. Shouldn’t all Americans make special efforts to convince the world that we respect all cultures and religions including those from the East?

With great respect, I implore you to correct this injustice.

Very sincerely yours,

Frank Paul Tarney
a.k.a. Fatehpal Singh-Tarney
USMC Service # 203055

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