As he has for the past two years, UC Davis student Harsimran Singh arrived at the local Amtrak station early Saturday morning to take a bus to Sacramento, where he would then board a train to visit his family in Selma, south of Fresno.
Like always, Singh traveled with the five mandatory articles of his Sikh faith, including a kirpan, or religious sword, a symbol of a Sikh’s commitment to protect the weak and promote justice that is typically worn inside a sash. Singh wore his sash over his shirt and underneath his jacket.
“I had no inkling to the situation being any different from before,” said Singh, 20, a junior studying managerial economics at UCD. But as the time came to board the bus for its 5:55 a.m. departure, the bus driver was nowhere in sight.
Eventually, Singh spotted the driver across the street from the Second Street bus stop, shortly before two Davis police cruisers rolled up. Police records show officers received a call at 5:47 a.m. reporting a “subject with a knife trying to get on the bus — driver requests he be checked before letting him on the bus.”
The two officers spoke with the driver before walking over to Singh. One pulled out his flashlight and shone it in Singh’s direction.
“Do you have a dagger on you?” the officer asked, according to Singh, who said he replied by explaining the kirpan’s religious meaning and that his faith prohibits him from removing it from his body.
Singh also said when he put his hand on the nine-inch-long sword to show it to the officer, he was instructed to “put your hands away from the weapon.”
The officers then informed him he would be unable to board the bus without first removing the kirpan and placing it in a checked piece of luggage, said Singh, who noted he’s traveled on Amtrak buses and trains without a problem for the past two years.
“I was stupefied,” said Singh, who canceled his travel plans. “I’m not going to compromise my faith just to make the bus driver happy.”
Davis police Lt. Glenn Glasgow referred questions about the incident to Amtrak, which issued the request for Singh to stow his kirpan.
Amtrak spokeswoman Vernae Graham confirmed that the bus driver called police upon seeing the unconcealed kirpan, and that he indicated he would transport Singh if he placed the item in his backpack and stored it in the bus’ baggage compartment.
“The passenger refused to do so and was denied boarding as a result,” Graham said, adding that Amtrak personnel have encountered similar situations in the past and are given discretion on how to handle them.
“Preferred bus policy is that weapon or weapon-like objects are secured in the baggage bin,” Graham said. “Ultimately the driver, like the train conductor, is responsible for the safety of his passengers.”
Amrita Singh, a spokeswoman for the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund in Washington D.C., said the Sikh community is no stranger to encounters with law-enforcement regarding kirpans. In some cases, she said, Sikhs have been arrested and charged with carrying a concealed weapon.
Often, she said, the situation is diffused by a representative of SALDEF or other Sikh organization reaching out to offer education about the kirpan’s meaning and importance, and she noted that may be the appropriate course of action in this case as well.
“There are still public accommodation laws,” Amrita Singh said. “If the bus company’s policy does not allow for a kirpan, maybe that’s something they could think about.”
As for Harsimran Singh, the UCD student said he will think twice about traveling by Amtrak in the future. But he also hopes that by speaking out, he will foster a greater understanding of his faith, and bring attention to what he believes to be an increasing mistreatment of Sikhs in the United States.
“Anybody is a potential threat,” he said. “What makes me a potential threat, just because I’m practicing my religion?”