A Sikh man who was recently ambushed, beaten up and told to return to his country said he believed that the very thing that may have prompted the assault also protected him from further harm.
“My turban really saved me,” Surjit Malhi of Turlock, Calif., said in an interview on Monday.
Mr. Malhi, 50, was putting up political campaign signs near his home, about 60 miles east of San Jose, on July 31 when, he said, two men came up behind him and accosted him. They threw sand in his eyes so he couldn’t see, he said, and struck his head and back with what appeared to be a stick and a belt.
“You don’t belong here,” he said they told him.
His truck was also vandalized. A photo posted on Facebook shows the white pickup defaced with a similar message: “Go back to your country.”
Sheriff Adam Christianson of Stanislaus County said his office was aggressively investigating the case and looking for suspects.
“It’s a despicable hate crime,” the sheriff said. “There is no room for this in Stanislaus County or anywhere else in the United States of America.”
Representative Jeff Denham, Republican of California, released a statement on Monday condemning the attack, which occurred in his district. Central California is home to a large Sikh community, and Mr. Malhi leads a group of Sikh volunteers for the congressman’s campaign.
“Inciting violence because of race, religion or political beliefs should never be tolerated,” Mr. Denham said. “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.”
Mr. Malhi came to the United States from India in 1992 and is now a permanent resident, he said. He is married with four teenage children, owns a small trucking business and is known locally as a community and political advocate.
He said he got involved in politics after witnessing corruption in his home country.
“We enjoy the freedom we never had in our own country,” said Mr. Malhi, who said he supports Republicans. “So this is why I’m running around, so I can feel I’ve done something for the country too, for America. I’m not living free here.”
He said he was placing campaign signs for Mr. Denham and the local district attorney when he was assaulted. While he still feels sore from the attack, he said a CT scan showed that his brain was not seriously injured. He said his turban acted “like a helmet, but stronger.”
Turbans represent a commitment to gender and racial equality, as well as religious tolerance, said Gurwin Singh Ahuja, co-founder of the National Sikh Campaign.
“Sikhs wear their turbans to signal their readiness to protect people from injustice,” he said. “It’s very ironic that these people chose to attack him for how he looks, when in fact, how he looks represents the highest ideals of our country.”
Mr. Malhi said the attack had not lessened his patriotism. “Whoever did this, they are not truly American,” he said.
Over the weekend, he said, a group of people from his CrossFit gym visited him. They put flowers in his yard. They tidied up his American flag, which hangs outside his house. Afterward, they all had pizza for dinner.
That, he said, is what it means to be an American.