Joti Kaur Rekhi: Two Sikhs Compete to Make History in NYC Council Primaries

“We’ve never elected a South Asian to City Council. We’ve actually never had a Sikh Punjabi [elected] in all of New York State either,” said Jaslin Kaur

Joti Kaur Rekhi
June 15, 2021 | 5 min. read | Original Reporting

With a week to go until the New York State Primaries, voters are seeing several Punjabi names on their ballots. 

In City Council District 23, which lies in the eastern portion of the borough of Queens, three Democratic candidates of Punjabi descent are running for New York City Council - Jaslin Kaur, Hapreet Singh Toor, and Sanjeev Kumar Jindal.

The seat has historically been filled by a white male. Barry S. Grodenchik has been in office since he was first elected in 2015 and is not seeking reelection. Prior to that, Mark Weprin held office since 2009, after his brother, David vacated the position.

“We’ve never elected a South Asian to City Council. We’ve actually never had a Sikh Punjabi [elected] in all of New York State either,” said Jaslin Kaur. “New Jersey, California, even Canada are eclipsing us with so many of these historic wins. And in the world’s borough, in Queens, it’s a shame that we haven’t made that mark yet.”

If elected, Kaur would be the youngest woman and the first Sikh to be in the Council. Something she does not take lightly.

“To have a Kaur in office is something that’s so transformational and I’ve gotten so many messages from young Sikh women who are excited to see that a Kaur got endorsed by AOC and Bernie. That’s something that’s so important to them,” said Kaur.

She was recently endorsed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT).

“It just shows what’s really politically possible: If you step up to the plate and have the courage to stand up and represent your community, then the right people who have been fighting for dignity their entire lives will also follow too.”

Kaur is one of two Sikhs running in District 23. If elected, Harpreet Singh Toor would be the first turban-wearing Sikh elected to City Council.

“You go to any corner of the world, people know the name of the President of the United States and next, they know the Mayor of New York City,” said Toor. “Being a Council Member will carry a huge value for our community.”

This is not the first time a turban-wearing Sikh is running for Council in District 23. Satnam Singh Parhar was one of six Democratic candidates running for City Council in the 2015 Primary.

Toor also ran in a special election in a different district in 2010 after the sudden death of Councilman Thomas White. Although he lost, he said he learned a lot and took the years between to help with redistricting.

“I still remember in 2010, there was a gentleman who contributed to my campaign that I had a one-on-one with. He told me that there were certain things that I need to compromise on to succeed politically. To me, he was trying to say that if I go clean-shaven, I will be more successful, politically,” said Toor. “My turban and my beard are part of my story.”

Toor arrived in America before the Sikh Genocide of 1984 in Punjab. The woman he would marry sponsored him.

“I challenged some of the people in power there [in India] openly and my parents were concerned about it,” said Toor.

He felt frustrated when Gurdwara leadership ignored him when he tried to get them involved in what was happening back at home in India.

His frustrations only grew as he was consistently turned down after countless job interviews.

“I called my mom and told her that I’m not getting a job here and I don’t want to go clean shaven, so I’m thinking of coming back. And my mom said to me, ‘Harpreet I have never seen you giving up on anything in my life, why would you do it now? Fight it out like you always do,’” said Toor.

Like Toor, Kaur’s parents immigrated to America from Punjab. She too felt and saw firsthand the frustrations they dealt with as well and has turned frustration into action.

Kaur’s father is a yellow taxicab driver. Her mom is a grocery store employee. They have been struggling financially with the aftermath of the taxi medallion crash of 2014. She has watched neighbor after neighbor be priced out of her life-long home in Eastern Queens.

“I wanted to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. I was very tired of waiting for elected officials, going as far back as the Bloomberg era, to give us the debt relief that we need and deserve,” said Kaur.

Although Kaur and Toor both belong to the same community and faced similar discrimination and obstacles, campaigning has exposed some critical differences. 

In a statement, Kaur alleges Toor hassled her campaign volunteers and told media that he is the only Sikh running. She also claims both he and Sanjeev Jindal have been misogynistic and intimidating.

“I said that I’m the only Sikh with a turban running,” said Toor. “I told one of her followers that she definitely has gone through some racial profiling or anti-Asian hate. But, unless someone looks at her in the face, they don’t know who she is. For me, you can look at me from behind and you know who I am. When I’m walking, and people haven’t seen my face, they’ve said [racist] things to me,” he added.

Sanjeev Jindal’s office did not respond to multiple requests from Baaz for comment.

Kaur did not expect her statement to travel so widely on social media and said she decided to post it in order to protect the integrity of her campaign.

“This was a culmination of so many instances and I couldn’t in good faith take these instances quietly. I think often so many Sikh women are pressured to be quiet, to be compliant, and to just dig into their heels and take these critiques of their character. That’s not the example that I want to set for future generations and that’s not the example I want to set for my community,” said Kaur.

She said she has also been asked by well-known Sikh leaders to sit down with the two other candidates and reach a compromise resulting in only one candidate continuing their race.

“My intention is not to split South Asians in my district. My intention is to stand up for the integrity that I think all campaigns should hold,” said Kaur. “I’m not here to negate anyone’s personal experiences. I’m not here to make attacks, I’m here to bring together  a community that has been ignored and making sure that we can continue fighting for each and every one of us with integrity and dignity for all.”

“It’s a sad situation that we have three candidates of Punjabi descent, but it is what it is,” said Toor. “But on the other hand, I am happy that we have so many candidates of Punjabi descent who not only dreaming of, but are running,” said Toor.

Early voting will continue until June 20. The Primary Election is on June 22.

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Joti Kaur recently obtained her MSc in International Public Policy from UCL in London. Her research focused on the disappearances and extrajudicial executions that occurred in Punjab following the Sikh Genocide of 1984. Prior to returning to school, she worked as a local television reporter for five years. Advocating for others has always been at the core of her work. She remains a voice for the voiceless. You can find Joti on Twitter at @ThisIsJoti.


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