Observant Sikh Vacher Harpal had never had his hair cut until an older teenager at his high school chopped it off in what authorities are calling a hate crime.
The older youth, Umair Ahmed, 17, violated 15-year-old Harpal’s religious beliefs by forcibly removing Harpal’s turban and cutting his waist-length hair in a high school bathroom in the New York City borough of Queens, authorities said.
Ahmed was charged on Friday with two counts under hate crime statutes: unlawful imprisonment and menacing, Queens District Attorney Richard A Brown said in a release. Ahmed, of Queens, was also charged with aggravated harassment, harassment and criminal possession of a weapon.
His sister told the Daily News that Harpal had asked Ahmed to cut his hair, because he “didn’t have a lot of friends”.
“He told my brother to improve his look,” said the sister, Nida Ilyas, 16.
But Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said Ahmed and Harpal were trading insults at Newtown High School on Thursday afternoon when the younger youth tried to apologise. Ahmed, carrying a pair of scissors, told Harpal that he would accept only a haircut as an apology.
“I have to cut your hair,” Ahmed said, according to Brown. “For what? It is against my religion,” Harpal replied, according to Brown.
Ahmed threatened to punch the younger student before dragging him into a school bathroom, according to Brown. The suspect pulled the boy’s turban off and cut his waist-length hair with the scissors while two other students acted as lookouts, Kelly said.
“The defendant is not accused of some schoolhouse prank, but an attack on the fundamental beliefs of his victim’s religion and his freedom to worship freely,” said Brown.
Sikhism requires men to wear their hair long. “When you lose your hair, for many Sikhs, it’s like dying. … You can’t hurt someone more than to cut their hair,” said Amardeep Singh, the executive director of the Sikh Coalition, a Manhattan-based civil rights group.
If convicted, Ahmed could face up to seven years in prison.
No one else was charged in the incident, according to Kevin Ryan, a spokesman for Brown.
A city Department of Education spokeswoman, Dina Paul Parks, said the agency was “shocked and dismayed” by the attack.
Another Sikh student said there was generally little religious or ethnic tension among Newtown students.
“There are no problems at this school at all,” said the student, Sukhrit Kaur, 18.