It was the murder of someone she called uncle 15 years ago that turned Valarie Kaur into a political animal. In the years that followed, Ms. Kaur has emerged as an interfaith leader, an activist-lawyer and filmmaker, who keeps the focus on racism in America. But nothing may have prepared her for the support she garnered after a brief meditation that she shared at an interfaith watch night service as the U.S. turned the page to a year uncertainty. Her six-minute speech at a historic African American church in Washington has been watched 16 million times online till date.
“What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?... What if our America is not dead, but a country that is waiting to be born?” she said about the racial hostilities erupting in America. Sharing her concerns about raising a young brown boy who could be seen as a terrorist or a foreigner, she said all hope was not lost, however. “We must breath, and we must push,” she said in the speech. Like a mother giving birth.
“The response to the video has been overwhelming. I’ve received hundreds of emails, tweets, and texts from people sharing their own stories and thoughts…I've been working for social justice for 15 years but never have I seen so many people ready to take a stand. This inspires me and gives me hope,” Ms. Kaur told The Hindu in an email.
In the speech, she shared the story of her grandfather, who was detained in America as he arrived from Punjab a century ago, with a Sikh turban. It was a white American lawyer who fought for his release. That partly inspired her to be a lawyer. Ms. Kaur was born and raised in Clovis, California, a small town near Fresno where her grandfather settled. Racism hit her again 2001, this time not as a story from the grandfather.
Balbir Singh Sodhi, a family friend, was murdered in a hate crime in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Then 20-years old, Ms. Kaur drove across America to chronicle hate crimes against Sikh and Muslim Americans in an award-winning documentary film. Her drive against hate also won her her love, filmmaker Sharat Raju, now her husband. “We met when he screened his first film about a Sikh family in the aftermath of 9/11,” she recalls. Mr. Raju is the grandson of Kannada poet Gopal Krishna Adiga.
The Groundswell movement, an online interfaith community that she founded has more than three lakh members, and Ms. Kaur is a sought-after speaker on civil rights issues and internet freedom, across America. In 2015, she was honoured as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. Ms. Kaur feels the racial violence that killed Indian engineer Srinivas Kuchibhotla recently in Kansas was not an isolated incident. “Like Balbir Uncle’s murder, Srinivas’ murder is not an isolated incident. It’s part of a larger climate of fear, hate, and vitriol and foretells more violence to come. Srnivas’ murder is also the latest in the epidemic of hate violence that began in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. My solace is that millions of people are politically awakened now like never before and ready to stand in solidarity with us and other communities in harm’s way.”
Tryst with India
Ms. Kaur spent some months in her childhood in Punjab, and now returns to India often with her family and young son, Kavi. “Most of my immediate family now lives in the United States, but the stories, scriptures, and songs of India are in my lifeblood,” she said. Ms. Kaur believes the violence against minorities and the rise of nationalism in India is part of a global trend. “I see the rise of the current U.S. President as part of a global rise in far-right nationalism in countries around the world, including India.”