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Face Off
Many foreign-bound Sikhs remove their turbans and clip their hair to escape post 9/11 racial profiling
When Harmanjit Singh Sandhu, 24, got admission to an MBA programme in a California university, it was a dream come true. But, 48 hours before he left for the US in August 2002, panic gripped the computer engineer. He feared his turbaned appearance would invite trouble in the post-9/11 US. So he cut his hair short, removed the turban, went for a clean-shaven look and applied for a fresh passport. His old passport was valid till 2010 but he wanted one with his new photo. "Cutting his hair was a painful decision but we wanted to avoid any humiliation abroad," says his father Gurmail Singh.
Sagar Annie Singh, Student in Romania: Removed his turban and tied his hair in a ponytail after he was called "Bin Laden"  Haramrit Pal Singh Kehal, Business executive: Had a hassle-free Hong Kong trip as he had shaved his beard and cut his hair

Sandhu's case is not an exception but a trend as the queue of shaven Sikhs lengthens at passport offices in Punjab. The most visible section of the Indian diaspora, the Sikhs are dashing for a passport carrying their new photo. The Chandigarh passport office received 600 such applications last year. "This disconcerting trend has been more pronounced since the September 11 attack," says Arvind Kumar, regional passport officer, Chandigarh. The two highly publicised hate attacks on Sikhs in the US linger in the memory of many foreign-bound Sikhs. That the security personnel in foreign airports are particular in frisking travellers with turbans and beards have not helped. "They suspect anyone with a beard and headgear as an Islamist fanatic," says Jasvinder Singh Osan, a globe-trotting electronic engineer who heads a software company in Chandigarh. He had cut his hair two years ago for "comfort" but retained the old passport. However, when he went to the US recently, he got his photograph changed. "I had a lurking fear that my old photo with Sikh looks could arouse suspicion," says Osan.

It seems the fears of the 1984 Sikh riots, when many had cut their hair to escape communal fury, have come to revisit. The youngsters are troubled by stories of racial profiling at the airports. The apprehensions are not entirely unfounded. Sagar Annie Singh, a medical student in Romania, took off the turban and wore his hair in a ponytail. His turbaned appearance never caused any trouble in the first four years of his stay abroad. But since September 11, the world changed for Sagar too. "Anyone sporting a turban and beard is seen as a fanatic or Taliban," he says. On the streets people taunted him, calling him "Bin Laden". "They mistake me for an Iranian or an Afghani," he says. When he came to India and applied for a new passport, however, the authorities refused to give it at a short notice. The turban trouble is more serious in East European countries which have a relatively less Sikh population than Britain or the US. Some, like Haramrit Pal Singh Kehal, a business executive in Ludhiana, say the new looks work wonders. Kehal, who went for the razor, says he "didn't face any problem on my recent Hong Kong trip".