FRESNO -- An 82 year-old Sikh man was beaten with a steel pipe outside a Fresno temple in what police believe is a hate crime, setting the Central Valley’s well-established Sikh community on edge.
Piara Singh, strong for his age and universally known as baba-ji -- Punjabi for grandfather -- spends the nights at Nanaksar Sikh Temple to watch over the grounds and the preparation of the free daily meals that Sikh temples traditionally serve to anyone who is hungry.
On Sunday morning about 7, Singh, in traditional dress as always, left the temple grounds for a morning walk, according to his nephew, Charanjit Sihota.
Singh’s son, Kawal Singh, was driving to the temple to pick up his father when up ahead he saw a man jump off his bicycle and beat Singh with something metal. He honked the horn and called 911.
By the time family members reached Singh, he was lying in a pool of blood, his head injured and lung punctured.
Police arrested Gilbert Garcia, 29, on charges of assault with a deadly weapon. Those charges were elevated to attempted murder.
“This was a very vicious, brutal beating,” said Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer.
Sihota said that Garcia fled and police found him hiding behind a neighbor’s lemon tree. Sihota was told that when Garcia was arrested he shouted that he hated “those people” and wanted to bomb their temples.
Family members said they were meeting Wednesday afternoon with FBI agents who are investigating the case as a federal hate crime.
The Sikh community has endured a string of attacks since 9/11, including a mass shooting at a temple in Oak Creek, Wis., in August. Many of the men wear traditional turbans, making them a visible target to attackers who perceive all Muslims as extremists and who do not know that Sikhs are not Muslim.
But the attacks came as a particular shock to the Central Valley, where Punjabi farmers and business owners have been an integrated part of the community for 100 years.
The distinctive lines of Sikh temples rise at regular intervals along miles of fields; turbans are as common as cowboy hats at agricultural shows.
“The Sikhs are hard-working, peaceful, benevolent people,” said Dyer. “They’re part of our valley."
Dyer held a meeting Tuesday night with hundreds of Sikh and other community members to reassure them that Singh’s beating was an isolated incident.
At the same time he urged caution and for everyone to watch out for their Sikh neighbors.
“There are others out there just as ignorant and hateful as the one we arrested,” he said. “We need to take care of one another.”