Where Unity Is Strength
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Last week we were celebrating the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall; a physical structure designed to keep the people of Eastern Europe isolated from the freedom and democratic values of the West.

This week is inter-faith week; a week in which we question equally divisive, barriers of belief between religions. Barriers built on claims of exclusivity and superiority seen in the use of language to denigrate those of other beliefs or ways of life. Today, we are all too aware of the way in which words can be used to promote active hatred and the mindless killing of thousands of innocents, as seen in the Middle East and many other parts of our world.

In the past, talking about distant religions in a disparaging way, though wrong, was fairly harmless and gave us a perverse sense of unity based on the superiority of our way of life over that of others. Today such thinking is food and sustenance for the fanatic. In our smaller and interdependent world, recognising that, that we are all equal members of one human family has now become an imperative.

Sikh teachings remind us that our different religions are different paths to responsible living and must all be respected. Religious teachings are not mutually exclusive and frequently merge in shared truths and a heightened understanding of our own faith

A popular Christian hymn states:

To all life Thou givest; to both great and small

In all life Thou livest the true life of all

The lines have a striking parallel in Sikh scriptures

There is an inner light in all

And that light is God

The Sikh Gurus frequently used parallel teachings in different faiths to emphasise important commonalities and shared values.

Today religion finds itself confined to the margin of society as a cause rather than a cure for hatred and violence. We see this in governments focussing huge resources on programmes to combat religious extremism. And yet…… if religions work together to live common core teachings of right, wrong and responsibility, who knows? Instead of programmes like ‘Prevent’, we might even have government programmes called ‘Enable’ to embed these values in daily living as the founders of our faiths intended. Not easy, but events like inter-faith week are at least a step in the right direction.

Lord Singh: ‘We need to place ourselves in the position of the patient.’

Lord Singh of Wimbledon, the Director of the Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) has once more challenged measures proposed by the government in the Assisted Dying Bill.

In a debate last Friday Lord Singh stressed ‘we need to place ourselves in the position of the patient.’ This follows from earlier statements in the House, where he viewed the bill as a ‘flawed’ attempt to show compassion to the few, whilst neglecting compassion to many others. The Bill is a Private Members Bill (PMB) put forward by Lord Falconer of Thornton, a former Lord Chancellor. If enacted the legislation would make it legal for adults in England and Wales to be given assistance to end their own lives, applying to those with less than 6 months to live.

During the debate on tabled amendments last Friday Lord Singh said:

‘My Lords, I very much agree with the sentiments expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and I agree about the importance of total independence if we must go in the direction of this legislation. However, I still have great concerns about the direction in which we are going, especially in relation to independent capacity and settled will. In everything that we do we need to place ourselves in the position of the patient. Everything we do is influenced by those around us.

A person suffering mentally or physically will undoubtedly be affected not only by the pain but by his or her view of what effects their disability is having on the lives of others. A desire not to be a burden can sometimes be induced by others, but little thought seems to have been given to that. Equally, uncaring or selfish attitudes of others cannot but have an adverse effect on one’s desire to live. I fail to understand how a couple of doctors or even independent judges can know the finer points of a family’s interactions and what pressurises the individual to say, “I wish to end my own life”.’

He added: ‘Then there are the wider effects not only on the family but on society as a whole of going in the direction of this legislation. What are we saying to future generations when we know that palliative care can do so much? However, I know that so much more has to be done to improve it. Only this week we had a report saying that only 10% of nurses felt that they were properly equipped to deal with end-of-life decisions and end-of-life care. We can do much more in this direction rather than taking the easy route, which sets a marker to future generations that says, “You can go in this direction, you can end life”. That is something that I personally find totally wrong.’

Lord Carlile of Berriew said: ‘Those of us who lie in the bath or climb out of the shower at 7.45 in the morning are fortunate to hear the wise vignettes of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, and the noble Lord, Lord Singh. We get our bonuses in this House, as we have enjoyed moments of real wisdom from both of them this afternoon, as we do fairly regularly on Radio 4.’

Lord Singh’s speech at a Parliamentary Commemorative Reception on the 10th of Nov:

sf-thumbs-main-Dr.-Indarjit-Singh

Friends, my thanks to Paul Uppal MP and Harbakhsh Singh, of the UK Punjab Heritage Association, for giving me an opportunity to say a few words.

By the time of the outbreak of the First World War, Sikhs, though only little over 1% of India’s population, made up to about 20% of the British Indian army.

By the end of the war around 130,000 Sikhs had seen active service. They fought on most of the war’s major fronts, from the Somme to Gallipoli, and across Africa. Over 138,000 Indian troops fought in Belgium and France, many of them Sikhs. More than one quarter of these soldiers became casualties.

They fought with great distinction in the freezing mud-soaked battlefields of Europe, and with equal distinction in the Middle East. In the ill-fated Gallipoli Campaign, the 14th Sikh Regiment sustained very heavy casualties.

Many plaudits were showered on Sikh soldiers by the British and their allies, and rightly so. Their courage and record in battle is second to none and we should remember them with pride. They have set the bar high and we, and succeeding generations must show we are equal to their challenge.

History records that Britain reneged on its promise of a measure of self-rule for India on the successful conclusion of hostilities and the people of the sub-continent found themselves subjected to further repression. The Rowlett Act, passed on March 10, 1919, effectively authorized the government to imprison any person suspected of supposed terrorism to imprisonment for up to two years without trial, and gave the imperial authorities power to deal with all supposed revolutionary activities.

Sikhs will note the irony of how, a little over a half century later, Indira Gandhi used almost identical repressive measures to stifle Sikh protest over the genocide of 1984.

But history can have some strange twists. The repressive legislation of 1919 and the now, universally condemned massacre, of hundreds of innocents at Jallianwalla Bagh on Baisakhi 1919, lit the torch of freedom for the sub-continent. It was a torch kept aflame by the sacrifice of many Sikhs

Friends, in the many centenary commemorations I’ve attended it was said WW1 was then considered as the war to end wars. What we need to reflect on is why didn’t it? In this centenary year of remembrance of the courage of the British, the Sikhs and others who gave their all, we need to redouble our efforts to honour their memory by working for a more lasting peace that looks beyond narrow conflict inducing national self-interest, to the well-being of all members of our one human race.

Finally, a word to the leaders of our political parties. As well as commemorating the centenary of WW1, Sikhs are, as you know, also commemorating the 30th anniversary of the state sponsored mass killing of Sikhs throughout India in 1984.There is no lack of evidence that this was a deliberate genocide, described by PM David Cameron as ‘a stain on the history of independent India’. The then Congress government role in this state sponsored genocide has been similarly condemned by India’s new PM Narendra Modi.

I know that all- important trade led to government reluctance to question the then Congress government, but a new situation now exists in India under PM Narendra Modi, who has himself sympathized with the suffering of Sikhs. I appeal to our main parties, to show similar sympathy for the genocide against Sikhs, by backing in principle at least, the establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to identify the guilty and bring a measure of dignity and closure to thousands of still grieving families of victims of genocide. Reflecting on Sikh sacrifices in WW1 it is a very small ask.

 

Today, Sikhs celebrate the birthday of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith. The Guru was concerned at the way different religions in his day, seemed to be more intent on rubbishing the beliefs of sister faiths than in living the values taught by their own.

In his very first sermon he taught that in God’s eyes there was neither Hindu nor Muslim, and by today’s extension, neither Christian, Sikh nor Jew. That the one God of us all is not interested in our different religious labels, but in how we live and what we do for our fellow beings.

With a Hindu and Muslim companion the Guru travelled the length and breadth of India, and to Sri Lanka, Tibet and to the Middle East preaching the importance of religious tolerance and a recognition of the equality of all human beings.

Guru Nanak was particularly concerned about the plight of women on the subcontinent who, as in much of the world, were treated as inferior beings. He taught that women should be given full equality with men, not simply as the wives or daughters of men, but as individuals in their own right, playing a full part in society.

Unfortunately, as we are daily reminded in the news, deep rooted cultural practices often tend to blur or subvert  the teachings of religion which challenge unthinking attitudes and behaviour. I was vividly reminded of this while working as a young mining engineer in a remote area of Bengal, I had just received news that my wife had given birth to our first child, a daughter. I was over the moon and excitedly rushed to the house next door, that of a Sikh and told him the wonderful news. Contrary to clear Sikh teachings, his culturally conditioned response was ‘never mind, it will be boy next time!’ I was not then the gentle, easy going soul that I like to think I am today, and it took great restraint not to clock him one!

Today, as we celebrate the birthday of Guru Nanak, we should all resolve to do as he did and continually challenge all forms of unjust or oppressive which often masquerades as religion, and instead focus on true religious teachings of respect for and service to all members of our one human family.

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