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The day after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a Sikh-American software engineer was pulled off a train in Rhode Island, handcuffed and arrested. Police had requested that he and three Southeast Asian passengers get off the train. They ultimately charged him with concealing a weapon: a 4-inch ceremonial sword, called a kirpan, which orthodox Sikh men wear as part of their religion. “As a lawyer I was horrified by this and as a Sikh I was horrified,” said Harmeet Dhillon, a senior litigation associate at Cooley Godward in Palo Alto, Calif. “This could have happened to any of our brothers, fathers or husbands.” A few days after the Rhode Island incident, the Sikh Communications Council was founded by Harmeet, her brother, Mandeep, and several Silicon Valley executives. The group provides legal advice to the Sikh community and strives to educate the public about the Sikh culture. There was “a dire need after Sept. 11 to educate the Sikh community and try to protect them from rampant misinformation and attacks, primarily against those who wear turbans,” said Mandeep Dhillon, a second-year associate at Latham & Watkins’ Menlo Park, Calif., office. In fact, the day the council was formed a Sikh gas station owner in Arizona was killed in what police say was a hate crime. The council has already made an impact. It convinced the attorney general of Rhode Island to drop charges against the Sikh software engineer. It also met with U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, who subsequently issued airport security guidelines prohibiting personnel from searching people based on their appearance or requiring men to remove their turbans without probable cause. “Mineta was interned himself during World War II, so he was extremely sensitive to people being singled out because of their national origin,” Harmeet said. Despite Mineta’s new guidelines, however, Sikhs have continued to face discrimination, the council said. A cousin of the Dhillons — who was at JFK International Airport on her way to her honeymoon — objected when her new husband was ordered by British Airways security personnel to remove his turban. The security team then forced the woman to partially disrobe. In a separate incident — but involving the same wedding — a friend of the family, who is also a family court judge in New York state, was stopped by Southwest Airlines personnel. When he refused to remove his turban, he was prevented from boarding the plane. Ordering men to remove their turbans is “like asking a woman to take off her bra,” Harmeet said. She said the Sikh religion requires men to wear turbans and also prohibits the cutting of body hair. Harmeet said the great majority of people wearing turbans in the United States are Sikhs, and she has long fought for their right to do so. During her career she has handled several pro bono cases against major corporations that barred employees from wearing turbans. Born in India, Harmeet immigrated with her family to the United Kingdom at the age of 2. Her family later moved to the United States, settling in a small town in North Carolina. Growing up there was a challenge, Harmeet said, recalling a sign posted on Highway 95 proclaiming “The KKK welcomes you to Smithfield, N.C.” Harmeet obtained a law degree from the University of Virginia Law School. Prior to joining Cooley in 2000, she had stints at New York’s Sidley & Austin and Shearman & Sterling. While in law school, she worked with the Center for Individual Rights in Washington, D.C., and the civil division of the U.S. Department of Justice. Mandeep followed his sister to the University of Virginia, obtaining an M.B.A. and law degree there. While an undergraduate, he founded a nonprofit group, the Sikh Leadership Retreat, to help first- and second-generation Sikhs develop leadership skills. He joined Latham a year and a half ago after completing law school. The two say their colleagues have been very supportive. More than a dozen attorneys at Cooley helped put together a series of memos on legal rights for the Sikh community. And Latham is representing the Sikh Communications Council pro bono. The firm is also advising a Sikh client in an employment discrimination case in which, Mandeep reports, a local security company declined to hire the individual because he wears a kirpan. In addition to the legal work, the Sikh Communications Council is working to eliminate discrimination through education. In October the group held a press conference with California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who pledged to send educational materials to schools. The council also has called for the resignation of Louisiana Rep. John Cooksey after he ran ads advocating racial profiling. The campaign followed his comment that “anyone with a diaper on their heads” meets the profile of a possible terrorist. “The thing that concerns me the most is that hate crimes continue,” Harmeet said, noting that a San Mateo, Calif., cab driver’s house was recently firebombed and a Sikh woman in San Diego was stabbed. “That’s happening here in California on a regular basis.”

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