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Last Wednesday the NSO held its UK Parliament Week event in the House of Lords with guest speakers Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi MP, Mandip Sahota and Gurpal Virdi.

The NSO was an official partner with UK Parliament Week in a year we commemorate the centenary of women’s suffrage and the right for women to vote in Britain.

Opening the event Lord Singh told the audience, ‘everyone of us can make a real difference in not only articulating our concerns but also making others aware of our incredibly modern religion and we’ve failed to do this properly.’

Giving an example of how individuals can make a difference, he described how he used a pen name ‘Victor Pendry’ to highlight discriminatory treatment of Sikhs in Punjab, at a time when the largely Hindu owned media in India automatically rejected anything coming from a Sikh.

Dhesi the MP for Slough, highlighted the importance of being proactive and talked of his efforts to lobby (cross-party) for The National Sikh War Memorial Trust (NSWMT). He talked of how ‘socially minded activists’ also have a key role in today’s digital age.

Echoing these views, Mandip Sahota Strategist & former Civil Servant said, ‘We’re all change-makers – so it’s important to understand how to navigate structures of power. This is your Parliament.’ She was clear that ‘megaphone diplomacy’ has its place, but conversations in private are sometimes also as powerful and that we must build relationships to succeed.

Summing up, she emphasized effective engagement is achievable, but we must be strategic, clear and ambitious.

Gurpal Virdi, former Councillor and Community Activist, gave pointers on how to get involved encouraging people to join local resident’s groups. He said, ‘You’ll need to start building your profile with local people and working out your position on local ‘hot’ issues such as crime, traffic, the environment and schools.’

Lord Singh concluded the meeting by saying, ‘I urge you all to get fully involved in understanding strengthening and improving the democratic process in this country, in a way that is consistent with Sikh teachings.’

An attendee e-mailed the NSO following the event showing appreciation, ‘for hosting and delivering a wonderfully enthused and innovative meeting.’

You can access the UK Parliament Week resource produced by the NSO in partnership with UK Parliament Week here.

 

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY – 22/11/18

November 22nd, 2018 | Posted by Singh in Current Issues | Thought for the day - (0 Comments)

This weekend, Sikhs will be celebrating the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh faith. He lived at a time of conflict between the two main religions of the subcontinent, Hinduism and Islam, with each claiming superiority of belief. An important thrust of his teaching was to show that despite superficial differences, both faiths recognised common ethical values of truth, justice and responsibility. He also emphasised the oneness of our human family and the dignity and full equality of women.

Guru Nanak, born in Punjab, taught that the one God of all people is not in the least bit interested in our different religious labels, but in what we do for wider society.  Yet five and a half centuries on, in the same Punjab, the 9-year incarceration on death row of a Christian, Asia Bibi, and in Myanmar the appalling persecution of the Rohingya remind us that religious bigotry is still very much with us.

We claim to live in more enlightened times and yet in many parts of the world, religious bigotry continues to grow at an alarming rate, often leading to horrendous conflicts and the death of innocent people a situation made worse by the ready availability of guns and the trade in arms.

Religious bigotry will not go away by itself. It has to be challenged by the adherents of all faiths and by wider society. Faiths that seek to teach us how to live must be open to question and criticism. This was the approach adopted by Guru Nanak when religious rituals and superstitious practices had virtually obscured ethical teachings that are the essence of true religion. Importantly, he did not rubbish cultural practices that attach themselves to, or distort religious teaching, but in a manner reminiscent of the sermons of Jesus Christ, questioned their relevance.

When I speak to young people in a gurdwara, I say that if something said by a priest in a gurdwara defies common-sense, question it. Religious texts referring to challenges faced by a community thousands of years ago, need to be placed in the context of today’s times if they are not to be misused. Only then can religion become a true force for good in our troubled world.

 

 

Jallianwala Bagh massacre April 13, 1919

In a debate earlier this week Lord Ahmad asked Her Majesty’s Government what initiatives they had in place to commemorate the contribution to the Great War of people who came from what is now Pakistan, or in other words undivided India.

The contribution to the war effort of all faiths was duly acknowledged by Lord Bourne, who said: ‘Hindus, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Jains, Baha’is and people of all faiths and none, fall side by side with their Christian and Jewish comrades on the fields where they fought and died together.’

Whilst reflecting on the British Indian army’s contribution, Lord Singh took the opportunity to ask the Minister to address historic wrongs of Empire.

He said, ‘My Lords, undivided Punjab played a substantial part in the greatest volunteer army in history. One of the reasons that was done was because people were promised a substantial measure of independence following the end of the war.’

He went on, ‘Instead, there was fierce repression under the Rowlatt Act and, following that, in the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of several hundred unarmed civilians. We British are justly known for our sense of fair play and justice. Given that, should we not now make an unequivocal apology to the people of the subcontinent?’

Asia Bibi

We are disappointed in the government’s decision not to grant Asia Bibi asylum. In the spirit of justice, religious freedom and defending those persecuted by extremists, Britain has a moral obligation to show the world we respect and uphold human rights and will give sanctuary to those oppressed overseas. In this regard, we cannot think of a more deserving case than that of Asia Bibi, and request the Home Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office rethink their position.

Network of Sikh Organisations

 

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 4.0

The Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) has requested the BBC to acknowledge a glaring omission following a segment [57:13-57:54] in its Cenotaph television coverage today in which David Dimbleby forgets to mention Sikhs amongst the 22 faith leaders in attendance for the centenary commemorations.

During the coverage of Remembrance Sunday, he said:

“There are 22 faith leaders here today”.

Dimbleby then goes through the names of faiths being represented as they appear in the footage, listing them one by one – “Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Jain, Baha’i, Mormon, Humanists and Spiritualists”. He forgot to mention Sikhs, despite our Director Lord Singh’s clear presence.

The omission which may have been inadvertent, has resulted in several complaints to the NSO. Given the size of the Sikh community in Britain, as well as the fact that today’s Remembrance Sunday commemorations marks one hundred years of the end of the Great War, we believe the inordinate contribution of Sikhs deserved recognition. To illustrate why, at the outbreak of hostilities in the Great War, 20% of soldiers in the British Indian Army were Sikhs, despite comprising less than 2% of British India’s population.

In the circumstances the NSO feels the BBC should make an urgent correction.

Solidarity with the Jewish community

October 28th, 2018 | Posted by Singh in Current Issues | Press Releases - (0 Comments)

We would like to pass on our deepest condolences to Jewish communities around the world for the terrorist outrage in Pittsburgh, which resulted in the killing of 11 innocent worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue on Saturday.

Anti-Semitism has no place in any civilised society, and we are saddened by these terrible events in the US. The Sikh community in the US has also faced hate filled violence since 9/11. In 2012, six worshippers were murdered by a white supremacist gun man in a gurdwara in Wisconsin.

During what are increasingly polarised times for all faiths, we stand in solidarity with a religious community we have always viewed as our older brothers and sisters.

Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO)

(above) Sikhs participating in a vigil following the Wisconsin gurdwara massacre in 2012

This week the government announced a ‘refresh’ of Action Against Hate (2016) their four-year hate crime action plan, to ‘address specific concerns across all 5 monitored strands of hate crime.’ New measures like a Law Commission review into whether additional protected characteristics like misogyny and age should be legislated for, and ministerial round tables to specifically address Muslim and Jewish concerns headlined. However, despite being subject to serious violence and hostility since 9/11, the ‘refresh’ has managed to marginalised British Sikhs yet again. This has been particularly galling for the NSO for the following reasons:

  • Our Director has expressed Sikh concerns in numerous debates in the House of Lords
  • We’ve provided detailed evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee on hate crime and violent consequences over two consecutive years (2017/18)
  • We’ve written about the issue in the print media and discussed it on BBC Radio
  • We unearthed data (through FOI) showing significant numbers of non-Muslims and those of no recorded faith are being recorded as victims of ‘Islamophobic hate crime’ by the MET police, and gone onto successfully push for disaggregation of religious hate crime
  • We’ve got a correction from the Evening Standard reporting on increased ‘Islamophobic hate crime’ in London, to clarify the attacks, in accordance with the FOI data are not solely against British Muslims
  • In partnership with Hindu groups, we lobbied the government to address reporting issues for Hindus and Sikhs, and they responded with a specific policy (announced in January 2017) to help both communities report hate crime via True Vision

Although Sikh groups like the NSO, The Sikh Council, The Sikh Federation UK and City Sikhs have all expressed concerns about Action Against Hate (2016) when it was first published, the ‘refresh’ makes it clear the government is unwilling to address the wider ramifications of Islamophobia on Sikhs, or the ‘Muslim looking other’. A simple acknowledgment that Sikhs face Islamophobia would have allayed concerns. Like us, many will be right to ask the government why ministerial ‘round tables’ are the preserve of Jews and Muslims, and why the True Vision project announced in 2017 has still not been implemented.

Earlier this week Lord Singh contributed to a debate following a motion tabled by minister Lord Bourne, ‘That this House takes note of the challenges posed by religious intolerance and prejudice in the United Kingdom.’ The debate coincided with the launch of the government’s ‘refresh’ of Action Against Hate (2016) their four-year hate crime plan.

The NSO has historically pushed back against government policy in this area, primarily because we believe the focus on religious groups is far too narrow, and all faiths should be treated with parity when it comes to tackling prejudice. In response to the government’s announcement of a ‘refresh’ to Action Against Hate (2016), Lord Singh expressed his disappointment at the continued marginalisation of non-Abrahamic faiths, including Sikhs. He highlighted the continued backlash Sikhs have faced since 9/11 with personal anecdotes, whilst referring to the government’s inordinate focus on Jews and Muslims said, ‘Why the disparity? To echo Shakespeare: if we are cut, do we not bleed?’

During the debate Lord Morrow (DUP) independently referred to Hardeep Singh’s efforts (our Deputy-Director) in unearthing FOI data from the MET police (2015/16) which showed significant numbers of non-Muslims and those of no recorded faith, are recorded as being victim of ‘Islamophobic hate crime’.

In response to Lord Singh’s speech Lord Cormack (CON) said: ‘Lord Singh of Wimbledon, has given us several thoughts for the day in that rather splendid speech, the subtext of which was that hostility is bred from and fed by ignorance.’

Winding up the debate for Labour peers, Lord Griffiths referring to Lord Singh’s speech saying, ‘I take the point of the noble Lord, Lord Singh, that we must be careful to be more inclusive when we mention those who are on the receiving end of prejudice and discrimination—represent a broad canvas.’

He went on to congratulate the NSO’s Director on his criticism of superficial interfaith dialogue, and said: ‘Indeed, I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Singh, who came nearest to where all my thoughts were as I prepared for this debate. It is true that those conferences and symposia, those seminars that you go to, full of blandishments and fine words unrelated to causes, are about ephemeral and marginal issues. I am so pleased to hear that said. I would not have had the courage to say it, but I am delighted to have the courage to echo it. We must find a way to get to the core of the things we need to discuss together, the things beneath all the things that happen on the surface.’

We reproduce Lord Singh’s speech in full below:

‘My Lords, I want to thank the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, for initiating this important debate. I shall take my cue from the noble Lord, Lord Patten, and be a little controversial. ​

I read the Government’s half-time review of their hate crime strategy and find it disappointing in that it completely fails to address the underlying causes of hate crime—for much of this evening, we have done the same—and, while repeatedly addressing the concerns of the Abrahamic faiths, virtually ignores the equally real suffering of other faiths. The review details some 20 initiatives to protect against anti-Semitic and Islamophobic hate crimes. A condescending reference to occasional round-table meetings with other faiths is no substitute for action. Why the disparity? To echo Shakespeare: if we are cut, do we not bleed?

There are no comparative statistics on hate crimes suffered by different religions to justify partiality. Figures presented to justify additional resources for the Jewish and Islamic faiths come from those communities. Chief Superintendent Dave Stringer of the Met has made it clear that a significant proportion of hate crime recorded as Islamophobic is against other communities. The noble Lord, Lord Morrow, referred to a freedom of information request made by my colleague, Hardeep Singh, which showed that there is no clear definition of whom hate crime is committed against.

Many of the hate crimes described as Islamophobic are directed against Sikhs out of ignorance or mistaken identity. In the States, a Sikh was the first person murdered in reprisal after 9/11, and six worshippers in a gurdwara there were shot by a white supremacist in another mistaken-identity killing.

The day after 9/11, I was going to a meeting with the then CRE at Victoria. As I came out of the station, two workmen digging the road looked at me in a hostile way. Fortunately, their lack of religious literacy saved the day. The elder turned to the younger and said: “He’s not a Muslim; he’s a Hindu.” I did not argue the point.

Few Sikhs have not been called “bin Laden” at some time or other, and some have been violently attacked. We heard about the gurdwara in Leeds being defaced and partly burned and, only a couple of months ago, a gurdwara in Edinburgh that I had recently visited was firebombed.

I do not in any way begrudge the protection that Jews and Muslims receive against hate crime. The Jewish community has suffered grievously from anti-Semitism, and Muslims are suffering hate crime today. I have always had a warm working relationship with both communities. All I ask is that the Government are a little more even-handed to non-Abrahamic faiths in both policies and resourcing.

Let me now turn to the important causes of hate crime. Prejudice, in the sense of fear of—or irrational, negative attitudes to—those not like us, is not something found only in others; it is common to all of us. The existence of heathens in distant lands gave us a perverse sense of unity and superiority based on a shared, irrational dislike of those not like us. We find this again and again in literature. John of Gaunt’s speech in “Richard II”, with its reference to,

“This precious stone set in the silver sea”

  Against the envy of lesser breeds’,

simply an example of how we viewed foreigners. Some on the leave side of the Brexit debate will probably say Shakespeare did not go far enough! ​

Today, the one-time distant foreigner, with a different culture and religion, can be our next-door neighbour, and it is imperative that we set aside our own prejudices and see people as they really are, equal members of one human family.

It is equally important that we look openly and honestly at prejudice embedded in religion. What generally passes for religion is, in fact, a complex mix of superstition, rituals, culture, group history and uplifting ethical teachings. While ethical teachings are easy to state, they are extremely difficult to live by, so we tend to focus on other things.  Often we have a perverse, unifying but naive, belief—we find it again and again in different religions—that the creator of all that exists has favourites and takes sides, regardless of merit. As Guru Nanak reminded us:

“The one God of us all is not the least bit interested in our different religious labels but in what we do to serve our fellow beings.”

This bigotry of belief is widespread and is often found in religious texts. As a Sikh, I feel that the ultimate blasphemy is to say that texts condoning the killing or ill-treatment of the innocent are the word of God. Such beliefs lead to horrendous crimes and savagery—not only between faiths, but even within the same faith—and to increasingly familiar terrorist outrages in the name of religion. It is important to understand that religious extremists and far-right extremists need each other to thrive.

Today, despite all the lip service paid to interfaith understanding, there is virtually no dialogue between faiths to explore and understand their different religious teachings, with each remaining smug in its beliefs. I have been a member of the government-funded Inter Faith Network of the UK since it was founded in 1987 and am a member of other bodies committed to religious dialogue. Meetings rarely go beyond pious statements and academic discussions on safe peripheral concerns, with members going back to their congregations to stress the exclusivity and superiority of their teachings. Looking at an internet learning site about Islam, I was startled to see a colleague saying that he felt sorry for people of other faiths because they were “all going to hell”. I once attended a meeting of the Three Faiths Forum where Christians, Jews and Muslims were talking in a superior way about the three monotheistic faiths. According to the opening line of the Sikh scriptures, there is one God of all humanity. We need to learn a little more about each other to combat religious prejudice.

It is not all up to the Government. People of religion have a common responsibility to look afresh at negative cultural practices such as discrimination against women and others that attach themselves to religion. Religion will become more relevant if we separate dated culture from abiding ethical teachings. Secular society, which sometimes shows an aloof superiority to warring religions, should also encourage more open dialogue.

With the best of intentions, we skirt around questionable beliefs and practices by using coded camouflage words to address symptoms, rather than looking to the underlying causes of violence and hatred. Words such as “Islamist”—insulting to Muslims—“radicalised”, “extremist” or “fundamentalist” are loaded ​euphemisms or vague innuendos, devoid of real meaning. The absurdity of such language is illustrated by the true story of a visit to my home by two Scotland Yard officers following my criticism of the Indian Government’s involvement in mob violence against Sikhs. The men from the Yard asked if I was an extremist or a moderate. I replied that I was extremely moderate. They then asked if I was a fundamentalist. I replied, “Well, I believe in the fundamentals of Sikh teaching, such as the equality of all human beings, gender equality and concern for the less fortunate. Yes, I suppose I am a fundamentalist”.

If religions presume to tell us how we should live, move and have our being, they must be open to discussion and challenge. The same openness is absolutely essential in combating prejudice and working for a safer and more tolerant world.’

The APPG for British Sikhs has over the Past 12 months made successful efforts to keep Sikhs in the Lords excluded from its deliberations. By chance I learnt of Tuesday’s AGM and accompanied by Lord Suri, attended the AGM to try to get the Group to issue a statement of concern over the bullying attitude of the Department for Education (DfE) in giving of a 2-week ultimatum to withdraw funding and move to a closure of a Sikh school, Seva School in Coventry unless it agreed to be run by Nishkam. Nishkam is a group regarded by many Sikhs as outside mainstream Sikhism, with a spiritual Head to whom some followers owe total allegiance.

Lord Suri and I were surprised at the poor attendance at the AGM, with one MP brought in for a while to make a quorum. After Preet Gill MP asked the 5 MPs present to confirm her as Chair, I spoke about the widespread concerns of parents, governors, staff, the Council of Gurdwaras in Coventry, the Sikh Council and the Network of Sikh Organisations and others. I also mentioned that an earlier complaint made by me of racist behaviour towards the school (in which Sikh teachings were labelled extremist and negative) had been upheld in an investigation by Sir David Carter a top civil servant with the DfE, with a promise of more supportive behaviour by the minister Lord Nash.

Unfortunately, the harassment has continued culminating in a 2-week ultimatum of a cessation of funding unless the school agreed to be run by Nishkam.

Preet Gill MP seemed irritated by both my presence at the meeting, and because I had raised an issue about which she had clearly not been briefed by the Sikh Federation UK, the official secretariat of the APPG. She expressed her admiration of Nishkam. However asking a mainstream Sikh school to join Nishkam with its different ethos, is like asking a Church of England school to join a group led by Jehovah’s Witnesses. She then queried my credentials in raising the widespread concerns of the Sikh community. Ignoring the need for urgent action, she said that she would have to carry out her own investigation and consult local MPs, as if their views counted for more than those of the Coventry Sikh community and two national Sikh bodies.

Lord Suri and I, were perhaps, even more disappointed by the mute subservience of the 5 MPs. There was no discussion about the DfE’s bullying and racist behaviour, or the need for government to understand a little about Sikhism and the Sikh community. The MPs expressed no sympathy or concern over an issue affecting Sikhs and the education of our children.

Lord Suri and I left the meeting with the knowledge that the APPG exists only to further the interests of the Sikh Federation UK, and not those of the wider Sikh community.

Lord Singh of Wimbledon

Sikh man being surrounded and attacked by mobs in 1984.

Earlier this month the Director of the Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO), Lord Singh of Wimbledon highlighted India’s persecution of Sikhs in 1984 during a debate on international declaration of genocides.

The debate in which many peers contributed was in relation to Lord Alton’s question to Her Majesty’s Government, ‘what steps they are taking to change the way formal international declarations of genocide or crimes against humanity are made and to further the expeditious prosecution of those responsible.’

Many of the contributors raised the genocide committed by ISIS against the Yazidis/Christians, and referred to the ongoing crisis in Burma. Genocides in the 1990s like those in Rwanda and Srebrenica were also mentioned during the discussion. Referring to the 1984 Sikh genocide and pointing to conflicting government trade interests, Lord Singh said an independent arbitration of the determination of genocide could be made by the High Court as suggestion by Lord Alton.

He said, ‘Every year we commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day and remember the systematic killing of and brutal atrocities against the Jewish community. Every year we remember and say “Never again”, but since the end of the Second World War we have seen many more systematic attempts to eliminate whole communities simply because of a difference of religion or culture. Worldwide revulsion at such inhuman behaviour led to the 1951 UN convention on crimes of genocide, including incitement to group murder.’

He went on: ‘By any measure, the deliberate mass killing of Sikhs in 1984 meets the necessary criteria, yet no action has been taken against government Ministers seen inciting rampaging mobs. The 30th anniversary of these killings coincided with the announcement of UK government support for an inquiry into the mass killing of Tamils in Sri Lanka. In a debate in this House, I asked for a similar inquiry into the mass killing of Sikhs in India and gave details of the scale of the atrocities: state-controlled All India Radio constantly repeating a message inciting people to kill Sikhs, the use of municipal buses to ferry groups of killers around New Delhi, the beating and burning of male Sikhs and the gang-raping of women and young girls. I concluded by asking Her Majesty’s Government to support the establishment of an international inquiry into the killings. But India ​is an important UK trading partner, and the curt answer from the Government was that that was a matter for the Indian Government.’

He continued. ‘Despite the setting up of the International Criminal Court in 2002 to prosecute genocide, offenders continue to escape punishment. Only countries that sign up to the ICC can be prosecuted, and some, such as the United States and India, fearing possible prosecution, simply do not sign up to membership. Other drawbacks are that the ICC cannot investigate crimes committed prior to its establishment, and there is no proper mechanism for pursuing possible genocide committed by militant groups such as Daesh against the Yazidis and other minorities in Syria. As has been mentioned, Governments are reluctant to raise questions of human rights abuse with important trading partners. We must face reality. Even when ethically untenable, considerations of so-called strategic interest in trade tend to trump abuse of human rights. The only long-term strategic interest for us all is to move to a world free from such recurrent genocides. To do this, we must take responsibility for examining possible genocide away from the conflicting and understandable pulls of government and give it to a wholly independent arbiter, such as the High Court, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. I strongly support his wise and far-seeing lead.’

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