Sikh Temple Shooting Felt Across The World

The Sikh temple shooting in Wisconsin shook up the American Sikh community, but it also shocked people in India. The Indian Ambassador to the U.S., Nirupama Rao just returned from Wisconsin, and she's been discussing the tragedy with U.S. officials. Rao talks with host Michel Martin about what role she can play in the aftermath of the shooting.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, we'll hear why and how a U.S. group got permission to raise money for rebel fighters in Syria. We'll have that conversation in just a few minutes. But first, we are going to go back to that shooting in Wisconsin over the weekend where a gunman killed six worshippers at a Sikh temple.

It is understandable that that was a major story in this country, but what you might not know is that it made waves on the other side of the globe in India, one of the ancestral homes of the Sikh people. Top Indian clerics, politicians and diplomats spoke out about the attack, with some criticizing the U.S. government for failing to stop it.

There are pictures of Sikhs in India burning American flags. Those appeared in newspapers around the world. To that end, American leaders from President Obama to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have reached out to their counterparts in India. And one person who has been at the center of these conversations is India's ambassador to the United States.

She actually just returned from Wisconsin, where she met with members of the Sikh community. And Ambassador Nirupama Rao joins us now in our Washington, D.C. studios. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us. Our condolences, though.

AMBASSADOR NIRUPAMA RAO: Thank you. It's good to be here, and thank you for expressing your condolences.

MARTIN: I did want to ask what you found when you visited the community and also other leaders, other people, in the community in Wisconsin where the shooting took place at the Sikh temple. What was the atmosphere like? What were some of the conversations that you had?

RAO: In fact, it was my first visit to Wisconsin. I'd never been there. And when this tragedy happened, I was anxious to visit the spot and to meet with the families of the victims. Now, of the six people who died in the shooting, four were Indians - Indian citizens who had come here, some a few years ago, some just recently, and they jut got caught in this and lost their lives. So there was concern - as you've just spoken about - in India. And I just wanted to meet with the families and just to share their grief and to just spend some time with them.

MARTIN: We mentioned that there's been quite a reaction in India. Could you talk a little bit about that?

RAO: Well, you know, you talked of India as one of the original places for Sikhism. I wanted to say it is the original place. Sikhism was one of the religions born from the soil of India, and India has given birth to a number of religions, as you know, Hinduism, Buddhism. Sikhism was another major religion that was established sometime in the 16th century. So it's been around for 600 - more than 600 years now.

And the Sikhs have - you know, traditionally, what does Sikhism preach? It preaches the existence of one God. It teaches universally accepted ideals of honesty, compassion, humility, piety, etc. Now, in India when the news broke of the shootings, there was obviously - people were agitated. We're an emotional people, and the first reactions are always emotional and of concern and, you know, outrage.

MARTIN: By emotional, you mean outrage. You mean anger. Is that what you mean, anger?

RAO: Well, anger in the sense - this is at the level of the people. I would say that at the level of the governments, the two governments, the reactions have been very sober, very restrained. But when it comes to people - and we live in democracies. You know, they express their emotions freely, and that's what you saw happening. You saw those pictures coming out of India.

MARTIN: You know, speaking of what's the reaction among the people, we've been following you on Twitter, and it's been quite fascinating to see some of the conversations that you're having with folks, albeit, you know, at 140 characters. One tweet was asking if you would engage in debate over gun control. And I wanted to talk about that and just say, are you surprised by that? And what other interesting conversations have you noted?

RAO: I think that question comes out of the fact that Sikhs were victims of this terrible tragedy. I really can't comment on the pros and cons of gun control because I'm a foreigner, a foreign diplomat on the soil of the United States, and I can't presume to take a position on gun control.

But I wanted to say that in India, you know, when we see violence of this nature and we see Sikhs somehow becoming some kind of collateral damage in many senses, obviously, you know, questions do arise about the use of guns in the United States and why all this should happen.

MARTIN: Sikh people in India have also experienced violence over the years, and there - I think the fact that there has been sectarian violence in India, there have been terrorist attacks in India directed at, you know, lots of people is well known at this point, particularly to this audience. So I wanted to ask: Are there experiences with addressing this in India that you think might be useful for the United States to contemplate?

RAO: You know, just as President Obama said in his message of condolence, that the Sikhs are so much a vibrant part of the fabric of your country, similarly in India, they are so much an intrinsic part of our lives in India. So, you know, we've had - yes, in the 1980s there were certain, you know, happenings, certain incidents and a sequence of events that caused troubled relations with the Sikhs, but we're over that now.

There's been a process of healing and a process of coming together once again, and that is really the story of India. I think we have tremendous resilience and capacity to heal. And I think that is really what is called for again in the current situation. We have to move forward.

MARTIN: But is there some experience that you had in that process of healing that you think would be helpful to convey? Or do you just feel that the environments or contexts are so different that it might not be useful?

RAO: The contexts are definitely different, definitely different. But I think that what must be understood is that out of the strength of Sikhism, you know, the religion, what it espouses, you know, the whole qualities of compassion and community service that it espouses, I think those are the qualities that have stood the Sikh community in good stead through the ages.

And when I visited with Wisconsin and spoke to the affected families, what struck me was their calm, their composure, their dignity, and they're wanting to move ahead. And what I heard - kept hearing was this is just one isolated incident. We don't want this to define our relations with the larger American community.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, my guest is India's ambassador to the United States, Nirupama Rao. We're talking about that terrible shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin over the weekend, the aftermath of that. The ambassador actually just returned from a trip to Wisconsin, where she met with the many of the survivors' families, and also local leaders there.

This is another issue that speaks to an American conversation, but I was interested in your perspective on it. There is a debate emerging now about whether or not something like this should be called domestic terrorism or a hate crime. And I'm wondering, what is your perspective on that?

I mean, local authorities - particularly FBI authorities on the scene - initially pointed to domestic terrorism, given what they saw initially about the, kind of, the political leanings of the person who was at the center of this, Wade Michael Page, who seemed to - who we know belonged to certain hate groups, white supremacist groups and neo-Nazi groups, you know, as it were. And some people feel very strongly it should be described as terrorism, but others feel that hate crime is more important, because it kind of broadens the conversation and implies things that people in the broader community should be doing. And I wondered if you had an opinion about that.

RAO: I know that the authorities described it as an act of domestic terrorism, and I don't really want to pick holes in that, you know, definition. But I know that the Sikh community and the - you know, I keep in touch with the Sikhs all over the country, and they have talked about the fact that they have encountered problems from time to time when, you know, in the - let's say in schools or in the workplace.

You know, so when President Obama spoke about soul searching, you know, the need for soul searching on these issues, I think he really hit the nail on the head. And as somebody said in one of the talk shows I was listening to, we need an architecture of soul searching on this. We really need an architecture, whether it's hate crime, whether it's domestic terrorism. Why is it happening? We need some soul searching. Why do acts of violence of this nature happen? We need a mature conversation on that.

MARTIN: More broadly, since you are in touch with people all around the country and you are actually very well traveled within this country, I mean given your responsibilities here in Washington as well, I wanted to ask more broadly, are you hearing concerns about - from South Asians - about their safety in the United States, about how welcome they feel in the United States, whether they are citizens or immigrants, whatever their status may be? Is that what you're hearing?

RAO: We have about three million Indian-Americans in this country today, and wherever I've gone, what struck me is that they feel very well integrated into the American fabric, into the mainstream of what this democracy is about. So I would say, as a rule, Indian-Americans have, you know - they lead stable, secure lives in your country. And I haven't got a sense wherever I've gone that they feel they're threatened or insecure.

So this incident, of course, is terribly unfortunate, but you know, when it comes to Indian-Americans and particularly the Sikhs, I think there is a term they use, eternal optimism, and I think that is the sunshine of their minds, you know, just that eternal optimism, and that's the capacity to look ahead, to heal, to be tolerant, to be understanding and to be calm and composed in the face of terrible grief or tragedy.

MARTIN: Is there any other message that you would like to leave us with, having the opportunity to talk about this, even in the midst of - again, I apologize that we're meeting under these circumstances, which is so sad. But given the opportunity to talk about what message you'd like us to draw from this, do you want to give us a closing thought there?

RAO: Well, coming from India, and especially since we are talking about Sikhs and the tragedy at Oak Creek, you know, I think we all have to be like the word Sikh means, lifelong learners about the purpose of human life and why violence is so negative and futile.

MARTIN: Nirupama Rao is India's ambassador to the United States. She was kind enough to join us here in our studios in Washington, D.C. Ambassador Rao, thank you so much for speaking with us. I hope we'll speak again.

RAO: Thank you very much.

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