“Go back to your country!” two men yelled at Turlock resident Surjit Singh Malhi last week as they beat the 50-year-old Sikh and vandalized his pickup truck on a roadside near Keyes last week.
But America is his country, the president of the R. Millennium Transport trucking company said Monday, sitting in his Geer Road office. Though born in Punjab, India, Malhi has lived in the United States more than 25 years, raised four children here with his wife and says he has no other allegiance.
So much does he love America and his community that, even though he’s not yet a citizen and thus unable to vote, he was out putting up signs for a few local political campaigns when attacked.
Shortly before midnight July 31, Malhi was alone near the intersection of East Keyes and Foote roads. He was reattaching a bungee cord that secured the campaign signs in the bed of his pickup. The big signs blocked his view of two men coming around the back of the truck.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Modesto Bee
The first thing they did was throw sandy dirt in his eyes, obscuring his vision. He was hit on the head and body by a wooden stick and something he couldn’t identify, Malhi said. They cursed at him and told him he didn’t belong here. And they spray-painted a white nationalist symbol and the words “Go back to ur country” on his white pickup.
It was all over in less than a minute, Malhi estimated. He didn’t get a good look at the men, who wore hoodies, nor at their vehicle, he said.
The turban he wore probably saved him from greater injury, or even death, Malhi said. He was wearing the same style, a warrior turban, on Monday, and explained that it has more padding than other turbans. Often, a warrior turban even includes a protective iron ring beneath some of the fabric, though he didn’t include one that night.
Malhi also noted that he wasn’t carrying the sword of his faith, a kirpan, when he was attacked. Probably just as well, though, he said. With dirt in his eyes, he wasn’t able to defend himself well, and one of the men might have taken and used the blade.
Until a week ago, Malhi said, he never thought anything like the attack would happen to him. His years in this country have been overwhelmingly positive, he said, as he flipped through a 2017 yearbook of his and his fellow Sikhs activities and accomplishments.
Pages of photos of volunteer efforts at events like the Hughson Christmas parade and the Turlock community Christmas tree lighting. Sikh Awareness Day. Santa Rosa and Detwiler fire relief work. Meal service at the Turlock Gospel Mission. Pictures with Stanislaus County DA Birgit Fladager, Sheriff Adam Christianson, Supervisors Terry Withrow and Vito Chiesa, U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham.
Now, he’ll be more alert and careful — no more putting up signs alone in the dark. But he’s not going to be fearful, Malhi said. “My heart is with America, with the American people. I feel very safe.” For every person like his attackers, so many more people have shown their support, he said.
A group of 50 or so from CrossFit ParaBellum turned up at his Turlock home Sunday to clean his truck (there’s no sign of the spray paint) and his front and back yards. “This gets my heart,” Malhi said of the surprise visit.
Asked what he had to say to his attackers, Malhi added, “I want to let them know if you are American, be a true American. If you love your country and love America, you should not do that. If you have any problem, you can come front and talk. Do not attack people.”
In an email to The Bee on Monday, Fladager said, “It’s unbelievable that people are capable of such terrible conduct, especially when motivated by racism or religious intolerance. I have confidence that the Sheriff’s Department will conduct a thorough investigation and find those responsible.”
Monday afternoon, Denham issued a statement on the attack. It reads, in part, “Surjit is a respected leader in our community and a proud American. He will continue to chair our Sikhs for Denham coalition. Inciting violence because of race, religion or political beliefs should never be tolerated. This is the third incident in less than two weeks where a member of my team has been a target and it must come to an end. We will continue to foster a campaign of inclusiveness and advocate for a free and civil exchange of ideas.”
The Sheriff’s Department has called the attack on Malhi a “heinous” hate crime. Department spokesman Sgt. Tom Letras said anyone with information about the crime is asked to call Detective Ken Barringer at 209-525-7038. Or people can contact Stanislaus Area Crime Stoppers at 209-521-4636. Callers can remain anonymous and may be eligible for a cash reward. Tips also can be submitted via www.stancrimetips.org or by downloading the P3 app on a mobile device.
Thanks for your strong interest in local journalism. We rely on readers like you more than ever before, and we currently offer free access to five stories a month. We hope you see value in supporting us further with a digital subscription to help ensure we can provide strong local journalism for many years to come.