The tenet that looms largest in most motorcycle clubs is a fanged, unshakeable loyalty. In Skip Hollandsworth’s 2007 story about the notorious Texan motorcycle club the Bandidos, he notes, “They defend one another. They watch each other’s backs. That’s part of the brotherhood.” But that model of displaying loyalty — often through violence and a decidedly us vs. them mentality — is a world away from the ethos of the bikers who make up the Sikh Motorcycle Club of the Northeast.
The club, which is based in New Jersey, is one of several similar groups around the United States and Canada, although it’s an independent entity. It was founded in 2012 by five men: KJ Singh, Raja Singh, Barninder Singh, Kiratbir Singh, and Daman Singh. (Traditionally, Sikh men take the last name “Singh” and women take the last name “Kaur.”)
Since the club's conception, membership has swelled from the initial five to the current roster’s 28. The whole crew doesn’t ride together very often: Most just come en masse to the Sikh Day Parade in New York City each spring. This year, the club has had three official rides, and there is a core group of six or seven riders who generally show up.
It’s not that the members of the Sikh Motorcycle Club aren’t loyal to one another. But their truest devotion is to something less earthbound. The reason clubs like the Hells Angels or the Bandidos exist is largely for those who don’t fit into society to find a path, a purpose, and a brotherhood in one another. (It’s no coincidence that Bandidos sometimes refer to their weekly chapter gatherings as “church meetings.”) And for these Sikh bikers, their faith is what answers those desires.
In Sikhism there is a concept called sangat, meaning a fellowship of Sikh men and women who meet religiously. Barninder Singh, one of the club’s founders, thinks of sangat as a way to make sense of faith and the way it is lived. “Because you pray together, it elevates you more than praying by yourself,” he said. This club is, for him, a sangat: a place where he can ask his fellow riders how best to tie a turban to ensure it fits underneath his helmet. How to keep his sons connected to a creed he does not want them to forsake.
Faith and riding are ostensibly personal affairs. But there is a reason bikers come together to ride; a reason worshippers congregate to celebrate, pray, and mourn. For Barninder, riding was never a way to make him more religious. “At the end of the day, it’s my journey,” he said of his faith. “The one thing I can say is wholly mine.” But it helps to be around people who, through ways implicit and explicit, remind him why he has chosen the life he has.
Sikhism is the world’s youngest major religion, founded in Punjab, India, 1,469 years after the birth of Christianity. It is monotheistic, and has one central religious scripture: the Guru Granth Sahib. The Sikh edict dastaar binaa nahee rehnaa translates to “never be without the turban, wear it always.” Sikhism asks its followers to leave their hair uncut as a way to respect what God has created, and so turbans serve a dual purpose: to accommodate long locks of devotion, and to turn observant Sikhs into walking symbols of their faith.
Sikhism is the fifth largest religion in the world, but remains largely a mystery to Americans, who frequently confuse Sikhs with Muslims due to similarities between the turbans worn by Sikh men and women and the head wraps worn by some members of the Taliban.
The first victim of a deadly hate crime after 9/11 was a Sikh man named Balbir Singh Sodhi. The perpetrator mistook Sodhi for a Muslim, and would later justify his actions by telling police that he was a patriot. In 2012, a man entered a Sikh house of worship in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and opened fire, killing six people and wounding three. In 2017, at least three Sikh men have been killed and another wounded in apparent hate crimes. Wearing a turban in the United States means living with the weight of its fabric, and recognizing that it can all too often be turned into a target.
Exactly what makes someone “American” has been debated since the nation was a borderless, lawless dream. And we have always lived in a world where that definition has life and death consequences. But in a political landscape in which white supremacy has come back into vogue and the president of the country refuses to denounce it, being able to claim the label feels newly urgent.
There are many things that Sikhs have carried with them into the present from the 1400s. But chief among them is this: “Sikhs have been a minority everywhere,” Barninder said. “Even in India, even in Punjab.” Especially in the United States. Practicing Sikhs are never at risk of blending in. For the devout, their turbans — if nothing else — will always set them apart. And that is so much of the reason they wear them.
On an overcast morning in April, rain was falling as the bikers of the club, clad in their leather vests, gathered on 37th Street to pray before the Sikh Day Parade in Midtown Manhattan. They had just finished vying for space to tie their turbans in front of the decorative mirrors of a Chinese restaurant. Now, the bikers straddled their bikes and lined up in formation on the road. Driver’s licenses and Harley Davidsons, the latter freshly rubbed down and glossy, had been checked and cleared by the NYPD earlier that morning.
But as the members waited to take their place between two floats, an officer informed them that they would not be allowed to ride if they didn’t wear their helmets. Although motorcycle riders are required by law to wear a helmet in New York state, for the past six years club riders have traveled in the parade at a leisurely pace (“nearly walking the bikes,” Barninder said) with nothing on their heads but their hair and their turbans. But this year the NYPD refused to budge.
Some members wanted to ride without their helmets and deal with the consequences. Others suggested they just comply with the officers and put their helmets on, which would have required first unwinding and then reconfiguring their turbans.
The riders ultimately chose to park their bikes and walk down Madison Avenue, rather than remove their turbans. “We wanted [the kids] to see us as Sikh bikers, not just bikers,” said Barninder. He believes that motorcyclists should always wear helmets while riding; all of the bikers had ridden into the city wearing their helmets, and all would ride out the same way. But he also felt strongly that wearing helmets in the parade, and obscuring the riders’ faces and turbans, would defeat the purpose of the club’s participation.
At the parade we had to make a choice to be Sikh or be on our bikes,” Barninder said. “[Being] Sikh was more important.”
When Barninder rides to the Glen Rock gurudwara, the young boys in the parking lot of that house of worship become magnetized, pulled in by the chrome of his Harley Davidson. They gather around as he drives in, clamoring to touch and sit on the bike. When he first started riding his bike there, Barninder’s admirers looked surprised when he took off his helmet; he could tell they had expected someone clean-shaven. Most of the boys had never seen a practicing Sikh own outright this particular piece of Americana. “Their biker cousin is someone who has shaved,” Barninder explained, “or their biker uncle doesn’t have a turban anymore.”
Barninder is Indian by birth, American by choice, and Sikh by both. He came to the US when he was 18 to visit his family during summer vacation. He had no idea that by the end of the summer he would enroll at Kean University in New Jersey, abandoning his college dorm and starter motorcycle in India. Though Barninder was fluent in English, his accent plagued him as he tried to fit in.
“When you talk like this,” he said, affecting a thick Indian accent, “I realized it was a barrier.” He started watching American TV, learning to chameleon his voice. Now, his accent — the one that had put off his first-generation wife, Amrita, when they met — is gone. It has been papered over with the American vowels that come so naturally to his three young sons: Amolak, 8, Ajaivir, 5, and Japnaam, 3.
Barninder had been vocal on Facebook in the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election, not comprehending how Trump’s Sikh supporters could rationalize voting for a man whose vision of America seemed to have no place for them. He has no desire to ever visit the South, because, to him, the region symbolizes the racism that he and his family have more or less managed to avoid in the small-town shrubbery of New Jersey.
Barninder practices boxing and Shastar Vidiya, a Sikh martial art designed specifically for combat, with his two older sons. He owns registered handguns, and a trip to the shooting range is a normal Sunday morning activity. It is important to him that his kids feel capable and confident in their abilities to defend themselves. And he is trying to teach them what parents all over the country teach their children: to be kind, hardworking, and brave. But he watches the news. He knows how damning it can be once others deem you an outsider in America. And he wonders how to teach his children not to live their lives constrained by that fear.
So he shows them that a slice of wholehearted Americana joy can be theirs; he cuts through the Catskill Mountains on a Harley Davidson on the last day of summer, leather vest emblazoned with the colors of the Sikh Motorcycle Club, hair dutifully unshorn.
The members of the Sikh Motorcycle Club love to ride, to practice what KJ Singh, another founding member, calls “wind therapy.” One bright morning in early June, three members met in front of a gurudwara in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. In true Indian fashion, the other half of the group trickled in slowly. As the early arrivals waited, they prayed and ate the rotis and lentil curries provided as part of the gurudwara’s langar, a vegetarian meal cooked by volunteers. Once the whole crew was assembled, the riders helped one another program location details into iPhones and clambered aboard their bikes.
They rode for hours, past large swaths of rolling green fields and Shell gas stations and dappled, densely wooded back roads. As they drove their Harley Davidsons through small, sleepy suburban towns, the scene could have made for an edgy take on a Norman Rockwell painting. When they wear their helmets, clad head-to-toe in jeans and leather, the riders’ beards are the only thing that make them identifiably Sikh.
Harjot Singh Pannu doesn’t twist or tuck his beard away when he rides; it flies in the headwind like gray gauze. “I love it,” Harjot said. “People look at my beard and wish they have a beard like that.” When he rides, and the wind runs through his hair, he said, “to me, that’s like living with nature.”
The bikers ride together in a single line, with more experienced riders in front and at the tail end. These riders haven’t taken the mufflers off their engines; they don’t cut in front of cars; they don’t claim the road. They just ride. They are happy to travel past mountains and hay bales and the occasional American flag, hung across a highway overpass or planted in green New Jersey grass.
On the road, there are no group prayers, no scriptures to follow. But there is a clear, calm, quiet focus. There is the wind and a line of unyielding gray. There is this brotherhood. It is the ordinary things that we make holy.
After the ride to Nazareth, members assembled on the lush lawn outside Manpreet Singh’s house, a few feet away from where his daughter’s first birthday party was in leisurely progress. With a table of curries separating them from the rest of the guests, the men sipped soda flavored with the bright tang of masala and discussed their club’s requirements for entry. They were debating who had the right to wear the Sikh Motorcycle Club’s vest and official logo, known in biker circles as a club’s “colors.”
“I said, ‘Dude, you’ve got to shape up — you drink and you trim [your beard]!’” Raja Singh grinned as he recalled how one hopeful but errant biker had asked year after year when he could don the club’s vest. As the club’s roster has expanded, so, too, has the conversation over who to let in. Originally, the Sikh Motorcycle Club had gone by a different name: Khalsa. It is a name used for those who have gone through amrit, Sikhism’s formal initiation ceremony. But the founders soon worried that would prove too restrictive. (Amrit is a commitment that has as much to do with lifestyle as it does faith; Barninder remembered one devout woman he knew who delayed the ceremony for years because she could not get used to wearing Sikh-style kachera instead of Western underwear.)
The most famous motorcycle clubs fashion power from their lawlessness, reveling in the fact that they submit to no authority, no higher power. But religion, in its practices and through its demands, requires submission — and the members of the Sikh Motorcycle Club are very conscious of being law-abiding citizens: husbands, fathers, and men of god.
On the lawn, the bikers expressed a range of opinions about how orthodox riders should be, and how closely they should adhere to the rahit-nama, Sikhism’s code of conduct for worship and moral behavior, which includes prohibitions against alcohol, drugs, and sexual promiscuity. Raja asked if they wanted to let in members who drank — what would happen if a rider got intoxicated and brawled with someone while wearing the club’s colors?
The bikers are very aware of the authority they themselves possess. How, they wondered, would Sikh children know to be proud of their religious and cultural heritage if they saw a biker wearing the club’s emblem who broke its rules, who had shaved his beard, who didn’t wear a turban — who didn’t look Sikh?
KJ is not particularly fussed about measuring anyone else’s devotion. But he understands why the others would want to control the club’s image. Though riders of any faith and religiosity are welcome to ride with the club, he said, “because you’re not following what we’re trying to teach the kids, you can’t wear the patch, you can’t wear the vest.”
The genesis of the riders’ faith, however, is steeped in rebellion. Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, left the Hindu faith in part because he became disillusioned with the inequalities he thought it perpetuated, and many of Sikhism’s practices were founded to disrupt the caste system. Langar, the free meal provided in gurudwaras, is eaten on the floor, suggesting equality among all congregants. (In Hindu rituals, higher-caste members often sit elevated from their lower-caste counterparts.) Taking the same surnames is another way of erasing caste distinctions, resisting an established social order that Sikhs found untenable.
Which is part of the reason why saroop, the Sikh appearance, the beard and the turban, is so important for Barninder. “Being visible, you can't get away from your own bad deeds. It's like this shield that prevents you,” he said. Looking Sikh keeps him being Sikh. Which means, he said, “being part of whatever society or culture you’re in, but still being a lighthouse. Saying, ‘If you need help, we will help you.’”
It is part of what Barninder does not want his children to forget, the reason he has their room painted in Sikh colors: half orange, half blue. The reason a painting of Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Sikh guru hangs above his living room sofa. Ajaivir, Barninder’s 5-year-old son, is aware of the painting’s message, even as he monkeys around on the couch beneath it. “It reminds us of our culture,” he told me seriously. “It reminds us to be good to people. Like, if a poor person came into our house, we would give them things.”
Most of the bikers are men with families, and many have young kids, which is another reason the club doesn’t meet very often, and usually never for trips longer than a day. Whether it’s because they’re held back by convention or simply a lack of interest, there are few women in the club. During the parade, daughters of members walked alongside them; some of the wives will occasionally ride.
Riders joke frequently about how their wives hate their bikes and threaten to steal their keys. Amrita, Barninder’s wife, had obtained her motorcycle license right before she became pregnant with her first child. Now, eight years later, she doesn’t feel comfortable riding. She worries about what would happen to her children if she ran afoul of a sharp curve or an errant piece of gravel. “I don’t love that he rides,” Amrita said of Barninder’s penchant for the road. “But he loves it, and I love him.”
A few weeks into the school year, Amrita and Barninder went to Amolak’s third-grade class and Ajaivir’s kindergarten one to speak about Sikhism. They talked about the significance of the turban. Amrita responded to a comment about Amolak’s hair looking like a girl’s by reminding the class that man buns are now in fashion. She told both classes that there’s no significance to the color or patterns on a turban, and that anyone could make requests if they wanted her sons to wear a certain color. That evening, after a family trip to Ikea, Amolak informed them that Jessica had requested he wear a pink turban to school.
Two days later, during a typical Sunday morning breakfast of scrambled tofu, vegetables, and homemade bread, Amolak eagerly reflected on all the ways he and his father were similar. "We both like Coke and play the tabla and we have the same workout routine," he said, eyes shining.
Was he also going to ride some day?
“Yes!” came the resounding, joyous cry from all three brothers.
Barninder had joined a local motorcycle meetup group prior to helping found the Sikh Motorcycle Club. He enjoyed his time there, intrigued by the people who showed up — a retired grandmother, a trucker, a housewife — and he got a biker nickname: Bar None. “They treated me really nicely,” he recalled, “but I never felt as connected to them as I do to [the Sikh motorcyclists].” He still remembers being worried about taking his family to meet anyone in the group, unsure if the respect they extended to a fellow biker would also be extended to his brown, Sikh family.
But in the Sikh Motorcycle Club, he said, “You have a level of comfort with this group you don’t have with any other.” Amrita and Shelly, Daman’s wife, get along so well they joke about being a couple. Their kids — Amrita and Barninder’s three sons and Shelly and Daman’s three daughters — love to play together. And Barninder said that being around others who look and eat and pray like his own family helps to keep the specter of hate, and the fear of discrimination, at bay.
“A lot of people define being American as assimilation,” Barninder said. “[But] we look the most different of anyone. To say we’re going to assimilate in any culture is a misnomer.”
Amrita, who moved to Connecticut from New Delhi when she was 8, wants her sons to be accepted, to be considered as normal “as Joey next door.”
“They are normal,” she said. “They just look different.” But she does not want their acceptance to come at the price of what makes them who they are.
“The idea is not to assimilate,” said Barninder, “to become like someone else. The idea is not to say, ‘I'm like you, you should like me.’” After all, he said, at the end of the day, “Being a gun owner, being a biker, these are not the things that make you American.” ●
Teresa Mathew is a writer and photojournalist focusing on race, religion, and resilience.