A Path Divided

Years ago, a dispute over money and power split the Valley's Sikh community. Then one of their own was gunned down after September 11. Will the bloodshed be enough to put them back on the same path?

"He went outside and sat in his truck watching me the same way. . . . I put my wife on the other side of me and told her to go straight to the car. He came up to me." Sevak imitates the man's swagger and gruff voice. "'Where are you from, man?'

"I bucked up on my heels and gave it right back to him. 'I'm from Phoenix, man, where are you from? I went to Brophy; where'd you go to school, man?'"

The guy looked befuddled, Sevak says, and fired back, "'Well, why you got that thing on your head?'

Well-wishers made this makeshift memorial in front of Balbir Singh Sodhi's Mesa gas station soon after his murder.
Dan Huff
Well-wishers made this makeshift memorial in front of Balbir Singh Sodhi's Mesa gas station soon after his murder.
"What I love is the reality of being a Sikh," says Hari Simran Singh Khalsa.
Kevin Scanlon
"What I love is the reality of being a Sikh," says Hari Simran Singh Khalsa.

"I told him, 'I'm a Sikh, it's part of my religion, it's what I do.' He chilled."

Around the same time Sevak was explaining the nature of his faith in the parking lot of Blockbuster, Balbir Sodhi stepped outside of his gas station to tend to a small flowerbed he'd planted.

That's when police suspect that Francisco Silva Roque, a 42-year-old airplane machinist, pulled up behind Sodhi and fired several shots. At least one bullet hit Sodhi in the back and knocked him to the ground, killing him. Next, Roque allegedly drove to and shot up a home he had recently sold to an Afghani family. Witnesses say he showed up at a Mesa bar, Papillons Too, around 5 p.m., too drunk to be served. His wife picked him up from the bar, and he was arrested later that night at his home. On the way to the police station, he told officers that he was "standing up for his brothers and sisters." Roque has been charged with murder and has pleaded not guilty.

Balbir's murder made international headlines, and the community of Valley Sikhs that for decades had been inward-focused and self-contained suddenly found itself the subject of a flurry of attention. Since his death, Balbir Singh Sodhi has come to be something of a poster child in the mainstream media -- not only as a reminder of the hatred and violence that September 11 brought home, but as a representative of the Sikh faith to an audience that knows little if anything about the religion. But despite news to the contrary, there is no single Sikh community in the Valley.

Balbir and Sevak were both part of a religion that is at odds with itself. Split into two gurdwaras, or temples -- one led by white American-born Sikhs, the other consisting of Indian-born immigrants -- Valley Sikhs have found themselves divided not by issues of faith but by differences in custom, language and the practicalities of organized religion. In one camp are Americans who converted to Sikhism some 30 years ago, many of them members of '60s counterculture drawn to the faith's teachings of compassion and spiritualism. Alongside them are immigrants from half a world away, where being a Sikh has for decades meant being oppressed by the Hindu-dominated Indian government, and where adherence to the creed comes hand-in-hand with ostracism and persecution. Together, the faith these two groups share is, at 20 million followers, the fifth largest in the world, and although it borrows traditions from both Hinduism and Islam, its teachings are its own. Chief among its tenets is tolerance for all religions, a notion that "all paths lead to God." And yet, for the past five years, there is no single path that leads to a united Sikh temple in Phoenix.

It wasn't until September that it began to look like that might change. To the men Balbir and Sevak encountered on September 15, after all, it mattered little which temple they prayed at or where they were born. That day, despite quiet struggle within the faith, the Indian and the American were both just Sikhs. And from that realization came a new -- but tenuous -- connection between these two cultures: For the first time since a rift over money and control splintered the community in 1996, a joint Sikh Task Force has been created, formed to identify the Sikh faith to a nation of terrorism-addled onlookers who have trouble seeing beyond turbans and beards. But the challenge that still faces Valley Sikhs in undertaking this task force will be one of self-discovery: In order to identify themselves to the secular world, they must first agree on who they are.

It will be a difficult charge for a community in which even the significance of Balbir's death remains a source of debate. For some, he has become a martyr. "My mother says he died in the way of the guru," Lakhwinder says. But for others, he's a fallen friend, not a saint. "He's not a martyr," says Ranjit Bisla, one of the patriarchs of the Indian Sikh community. "He doesn't come close to being a martyr. How can you be a martyr when you get shot in the back?"


For the past five years, the two forefathers of the Sikh community in the Valley have been praying at separate temples. Darshan Teji and Ranjit Bisla, who worshiped together for more than two decades, remain friends today, but both acknowledge that more secular matters have put distance between them.

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