The Bakersfield City Council will soon decide if a new park in Bakersfield will be named after Sikh civil rights activist Jaswant Singh Khalra after a committee vote on Tuesday.
Local Sikh students and community members initially proposed naming a planned park along Akers Road in south Bakersfield after a man who has been described as the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. of the Sikh community in April.
Proponents of the name say it would signal to Bakersfield’s Sikh residents that the city welcomes the group with open arms, and would provide a place for those residents to gather.
While a majority of the speakers at the meeting supported the new name for the park, not all of the city’s residents appear to have welcomed the Sikhs into Bakersfield.
One woman who did not identify herself at the meeting said during the public comment section that people in the Stone Creek neighborhood were scared of their Sikh neighbors.
Another man attempted to link the naming of the park to acts of terrorism carried out by Sikh militants in foreign countries decades ago. The man threatened to sue the city if they named the park after the civil rights leader.
“Under no circumstances will we tolerate a local park being renamed after anything even vaguely associated with terrorism,” said the man, who identified himself as Eric. When asked by a reporter for his last name, the man said "get lost. You're from the lying Bakersfield Californian," punctuating his statement with profanity.
Neither Khalra nor local members of the Bakersfield Sikh community have been linked to terrorism by U.S. anti-terrorist organizations.
Sikhs have been the target of discrimination and hate crimes, although an exact number of incidents is not known, according to the Sikh American Legal Defense Fund.
After the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the discrimination worsened, the group noted, with perpetrators often mistaking Sikhs for Muslims.
Khalra is widely known among Sikhs for his work in the 1990’s of exposing thousands of illegal killings and cremations of Sikhs by the Indian police in Punjab, a state in northern India.
After speaking about the killings outside of India, Khalra was kidnapped and killed by the Punjab Police in 1995, according to the Supreme Court of India.
“I believe our city has an opportunity right now to embrace and celebrate the diversity and positivity that the Punjabi community has brought to it,” Ajaib Gill, who said he was from one of the first Sikh families to settle in Bakersfield, said at the meeting. “The city naming the park after Jaswant Singh Khalra will give the community a greater sense of acceptance and will be a point of personal pride for all of us.”
A park in Fresno was named after Khalra in 2017. Bakersfield would likely be the second city in America with a park named after the civil rights leader if the City Council voted in favor of the proposal.
The Planning and Development Committee, which heard the issue on Tuesday, voted to pass on two options to the full council for a vote.
Either the council could vote to name the park “JSK Park” or it could choose the name, “Unity Park,” after former Mayor Harvey Hall’s slogan, “unity in the community.”
It is unknown if a majority of the members of the City Council will support the proposed park name given the controversy that has already surrounded the issue.
In early 2018, a group of Sikh students proposed renaming Stonecreek Park, which is 300 yards north of the new location, after Khalra.
The effort was dropped after local residents opposed the name change. Some signed an anonymous online petition that claimed changing the park name would make non-Sikhs feel unwelcome.
Councilmember Bruce Freeman indicated at the meeting he would support the “Unity Park” option to avoid controversy while Councilmember Willie Rivera said he supported “JSK Park.”