Where Unity Is Strength
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On 23 July 2018 the APPG for British Sikhs, which is run by the Sikh Federation UK, announced they had written to 250 gurdwaras asking them if they supported their campaign for a separate Sikh ethnic tick box for the 2021 census. They say they received just over one hundred responses, confirming: ‘in a remarkable show of unity all 112 Gurdwaras, that include the largest Gurdwaras in the UK, have indicated they are in favour of a separate Sikh ethnic tick box.’

The figure of 112 was reported in the Times and has been something referred to in a number of articles in the mainstream media. We now have concerns about whether or not this number is accurate. A tweet by @SikhFedUK on 23 August 2018 (above) suggested Hounslow gurdwara (Alice Way) were one of the 112 that wrote to the APPG for British Sikhs in support of the ethnic tick box.

We asked Hounslow gurdwara if this was the case or not. The Joint General Secretary told us: ‘I was surprised to hear that allegedly, Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha Hounslow had changed its position on Sikhi not being an ethnic group. Having checked with the President and the General Secretary today (both copied on this email), I confirm that we stand with the NSO and have not changed our position. We are of the view Sikhi is a religion made up of diverse ethnicity which cannot be classed as a single ethnic group.’

We have asked the Sikh Federation UK for comment, but they haven’t yet responded.

Interestingly, when Dr Jagbir Jhutti-Johal from the University of Birmingham raised legitimate questions in an article titled ‘Sikh ethnic tick box in the 2021 Census and a question about research and methodology’, she was bombarded with vitriolic tweets, some deliberately tagged into her employers. Given what we now know about Hounslow, should the secretariat to the APPG for British Sikhs not urgently release the list of 112 gurdwaras, briefing supplied and responses received?

article from archive following Mandla in 1983

Difficulties

Supposed support by MPs and the APPG for British Sikhs

Speaking to a number of MPs, including some of those who have given support to the Sikh ethnic tick box, confirms that few have any understanding of Sikh teachings against artificial and divisive groupings of our one human race; nor were they clear of the supposed benefits of describing Sikhs as an ethnic group. Those who signed did so because they were told that this is what their Sikh constituents wanted.

Supposed support in the Sikh Community

Gurdwaras are generally unaware of the pros and cons of ethnic monitoring. Some, that have voiced support for a Sikh ethnic tick box, say they did so because they are stridently opposed to the alternative of describing themselves as ‘Indian’, because of still lingering anger over the state-sponsored genocide against Sikhs in 1984. Many others are of the view that calling ourselves an ethnic group as opposed to Indian is a step towards creating distinct ‘quam’ (national) identity and the creation of a separate Sikh State in India.

While the emotive appeal is very real, it has nothing to do with the 2021 census. It also ignores basic Sikh teachings on the absurdity of creating artificial divisions in our one human family – particularly in the pursuit of supposed material gain. It should also be remembered that some of the organisations lobbying for support for a Sikh ethnic tick box, like the Sikh Federation UK, and the Sikh Network, etc, are all run by the same small group of people, who also have a dominant voice in the Sikh Council.

Reality of support in the Sikh community

The overwhelming attitude of most gurdwaras to a Sikh ethnic tick box in the census is a lack of understanding and relevance. If told that that a Sikh ethnic tick box will benefit the ‘quam’ (Sikh nation), they will probably quickly sign support and get back, to what they regard as, the more important business of providing a service to their sangat (congregation). If however, the real pros and cons are explained and discussed, interest is more sustained, and attitudes are often quite different.

At the suggestion of ONS officers, a meeting was arranged in Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara Hounslow, with a representative of the ONS present. Presentations were made by the NSO and the Sikh Federation UK and, after discussion for more than an hour, the proposal for a Sikh ethnic tick box in the next census was totally rejected by members of the Gurdwara Committee.

The Sikh ethnic tick box proposal has also been totally rejected in other gurdwaras, where both the pros and cons have been explained and discussed by Committee members, most recently at the gurdwara in Edinburgh.

Suggestion

The only real way to assess whether Sikhs in the UK are prepared to over-ride essential Sikh teachings for unquantified material gain, is by open public debate monitored, and perhaps presided over, by the ONS. Unfortunately, this repeated suggestion by the NSO has been met with personal abuse from the Sikh Federation UK in its different guises.

My repeated request to be allowed to address the APPG for British Sikhs (from which I and other Sikhs in Parliament have been excluded) has also been consistently ignored, as has my request for open debate on any London Sikh TV Channel, Why? My hope is that we show that we are mature enough to discuss such issues rationally and respectfully, always bearing Sikh teachings in mind.

Lord (Indarjit) Singh of Wimbledon, Director Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO)

As many will know we have strenuously opposed the Sikh Federation UK’s (SFUK) ill conceived campaign to classify ‘Sikh’ as an ethnicity for many years.

In recent months this increasingly divisive debate has become the subject of significant mainstream media coverage, including an article in the Times last month. The  article ‘Sikhs may get ethnicity status’ instigated another flurry of debate and conversation for and against.

Meanwhile during this period, some exchanges on social media turned rather unpleasant, troubling and on occasion personal. Our Director responded to the Times article with a letter (below).

 

To help provide a summary of arguments against we refer to the following Q&A and a short summary below. We have spoken to many Sikhs who are undecided whether the SFUK campaign is a good idea or not, and this is largely based on not understanding the issues at hand. Some elements are admittedly complex. We hope the explanation below which has been shared with key stakeholders and decision makers, provides absolute clarity for those grappling with this important issue. In short Sikhism is a great world faith open to all, it is not an ethnic group.

(more…)

(Above: Afghan Sikhs carrying a coffin of one of the victims of the Jalalabad suicide bombing)

Following the deadly suicide bombing in Jalalabad targeting Afghanistan’s Sikh and Hindu minority the NSO has flagged its concerns with the government and taken steps to raise the issue with the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for International Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB).

You only have to look at the declining numbers of minorities to realise the gravity of persecution they face in Muslim majority Afghanistan. Prior to the collapse of Kabul government in 1992, there were 220,000 Sikhs and Hindus in the country, and today only 220 or so families remain. Sikhs and Hindus need police protection to cremate their dead as it is deemed offensive to Muslims, they are forced to pay the jizya or ‘tax of humiliation’, and are fearful their women and daughters will be kidnapped and converted to Islam.

Afghan Sikhs we’ve spoken to in London have told us it is now time for Sikhs to leave Afghanistan and seek sanctuary elsewhere. The victims of the Jalalabad attack included Awtar Singh Khalsa who had planned to stand for parliament in elections this October.

In light of this most recent atrocity, our Director Lord Singh has asked the government 1. What discussions they intend to have with the Afghan authorities to safeguard the security and right to freedom of belief 2. What representations they intend to make to the government of India to encourage them to grant asylum to victims and families 3. Whether Britain intends to offer asylum to the families of those who were killed. We will be sharing the response received from Ministers.

We’ve also contacted the APPG for FoRB to ask them to follow up on this issue and include the persecution of Afghanistan’s minority faiths on the agenda for their next meeting.

News of the Jalalabad attack comes in the wake of a case highlighted by Justice Upheld involving a Pakistani Sikh forced to go on the run having received a fatwa (to kill him) by the Taliban. His only crime in the eyes of Islamists – the setting up of a Sikh school in Peshawar.


This year we’ve partnered up with UK Parliament Week 2018 , an annual festival that engages people throughout the UK with the work of Parliament. Take part by holding an event, explore what Parliament means to you and encourage your community to get involved in democracy. Sign up and receive a free kit, complete with resources to help you plan your event or activity.

It’s both a pleasure and duty to join you and support the movement of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) and millions of Iranians in your efforts to free Iran from suffering and tyranny. I say duty because I speak as a Sikh, and Sikhs have a responsibility to speak up against tyranny, oppression and religious persecution wherever it occurs.

We are in France, the land of Voltaire who famously remarked:

‘I may not believe in what you say, but I will defend to the death you right to say it’.

Nearly a century before Voltaire, Guru Tag Bahadhur, 9th Guru of the Sikhs gave that noble sentiment practical utterance when he was publicly beheaded for defending the right to freedom of belief of Hindus, people of a different faith to his own, against forced conversion to Islam by the Mughal rulers.

Sikhs and the people of Punjab, have always had close cultural and trade links with Persians and Iran. The Persian language Farsi was at one time the court language of Punjab and Farsi was used in the compilation of some Sikh scriptures.

There was once a prosperous Sikh community settled in Tehran. I have no idea of what has become of it. I have many Iranian friends and feel for the suffering of the people of Iran, under the vengeful, cruel and intolerant rule of religious extremists. Brutal crackdowns and torture have become the norm for those expressing dissent. Iran now leads the world in the use of the death penalty.

In recent weeks, we have seen growing riots and unrest over food shortages and a plummeting currency with brutal repression by a paranoid regime.

All religious minorities, including co-religionists suffer persecution. Sunnis are not allowed to build mosques, Baha’is expelled from university because of their faith. Kurds and Arabs suffer discrimination, and there is continuing concern about the small and once thriving Sikh community.

As a Sikh, I do not go along with religious states. No religion has the right to impose its values on others. Religious values become meaningless if imposed by force. Religious leaders who use compulsion to impose their ideology are simply brutal dictators who bring uplifting values of religious teaching into disrepute.

I see a welcome glimmer of hope in work of the NCRI led by Maryam Rajavi, who has constantly worked for a better future for Iran. I am heartened by her 10-point plan for open democratic government where rights of all people & all faiths are respected.

The Plan reminds me of the Sikh Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s enlightened rule in Punjab in the 1800s. He stressed his Sikh belief in the equality of women. He included Muslims and Hindus as advisers in his government and spent large sums of money building and beautifying places of worship of other faiths. He abolished the death penalty and brought peace and prosperity to long-suffering Punjab.

There is a striking similarity with the enlightened and far-sighted 10-point Plan of the NCRI. It will bring peace, harmony and prosperity to a land that has known only suffering in recent years, and with God’s grace, I look forward to it becoming a reality in the near future.

Lord Singh’s speech 30th June at Free Iran Gathering 2018, Paris.

Sikh prison chaplains at the residential training event at the Prison Service College

Sikh Prison Chaplaincy Service UK had their National Training Conference last week on the 14-15th June 2018. It was a two days residential workshop, held at the Prison Service College, Newbold Revel, Rugby.

The event was organised in Partnership with Prison Service Chaplaincy HQ.

It was held under the leadership of Lord Singh, the NSO’s Director and Mike Kavanagh the Chaplain-General of Prisons.

Prison Chaplain Gagandeep Singh – the Deputy Director of the Sikh Chaplaincy Service and the Reverend Phil Chadder (Training & Development Officer) helped organise the event. Guest speakers and trainers included two Sikh Prison Governors and a Chaplaincy HQ Advisor. Ajmer Singh (Midlands and North Area) also provided his valuable input to make the event a success.

Although the work of The Sikh Chaplaincy Service often goes unnoticed, The NSO is proud of their on-going commitment and contribution to the community.

The excitement and wall to wall press coverage of the football World Cup, has temporarily diverted our attention away from appalling suffering in Yemen, Syria and much of the Middle East. Former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly’s famous saying that football is more important than life or death, has a ring of momentary truth for many.

It is much easier to lose ourselves in the excitement of England’s thrilling victory last night over Tunisia with Captain Harry Kane’s winning goal in injury time, or Christiano Rolando’s hat trick in Portugal’s earlier match against Spain, and other highlights of the tournament, than come to terms with the continuing suffering in the Middle East, made worse by Saudi Arabia’s attack on the Houthi rebel port of Hodeida, now mostly under Saudi control. Peace imposed by force, simply tilts things in favour of one of the combatants, and can even add to suffering and a heightened sense of injustice.

Guru Nanak, reflecting on similar suffering in 15th century India, courageously declared that: the one God of us all, looks beyond supposed superiority of birth or creed; that we all belong to the same one human family of equals, all deserving the same rights. God, he taught, is not interested in religious or other labels, but in what we do for our fellow beings.

Following the suffering of the second world war, the UN Declaration of Human Rights carried similar sentiments The Security Council was created to ensure such rights were respected. The tragedy of politics today, is those charged with keeping us to norms of civilised behaviour, without taking sides, (referees of political foul play) are often active offenders, sometimes taking sides to further their own self-interest. It is worth reflecting that much of the weaponry fueling conflicts across the world is supplied by members of this peace keeping body.

Football may at times be fractious, and has its own share of problems, but in football and sport generally, there is genuine respect for different teams, as well as for members of different faiths within teams. The world of sport readily accepts, what the former Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks called: the ‘dignity of difference’, and has a lot to teach the world of politics.

My computer and I are not the best of friends. It frequently accuses me of being a robot, or not even knowing my own date of birth! Fortunately, when it is in one of its really ratty moods, I can usually re-set it, back to a date when it was working properly, or make it behave itself, by closing it, and restarting.

It’s far more difficult to see what we can do about an increasing human ‘rattiness’ in discussion and behaviour towards those who do not share our opinions or prejudices on Brexit, immigration or anything else. A little re-setting of the tone of debate towards respecting the sincerely held beliefs and opinions of others is clearly needed.

I believe, religion in its true essence, is supposed to help us to do just this, and help us develop more tolerant attitudes to those who may not share our views. But, unfortunately, over the centuries, religions themselves, have displayed intolerance and violence, not only to others, but even to members of their own faith.

This week Sikhs are commemorating the martyrdom of Guru Arjan, the 5th Guru of Sikhs, who literally gave his life trying to end fractious in-fighting between religions, by building bridges of understanding and respect between them. Guru Arjan was the founder of the famous Golden Temple in Amritsar. To emphasise Sikh respect for the followers of Islam, he asked a Muslim saint, Mia Mir to lay the foundation stone. The Guru was a prolific poet and scholar and the main compiler of the Sikh holy scriptures, the Guru Granth Sahib. In it he also added verses of Hindu and Muslim saints to emphasise important commonalities.

Guru Arjan was well aware of the dangers of emphasising tolerance and respect in an age of bigotry. He was arrested by the country’s rulers and tortured to death in the searing heat of an Indian June. In traditional commemoration of Guru’s martyrdom, and in the spirit of his teachings, Sikhs make no show no anger or bitterness Instead, sweetened cold drinks are served to all who pass by Sikh homes or gurdwaras.

Guru Arjan gave his life for interfaith understanding, and tolerance and respect for the sincerely held beliefs of others. His life serves as an inspiration not only to Sikhs, but for all seeking to nudge society in a less fractious direction.

We pass our congratulations to our colleague Rosalind Miller who was awarded a British Empire Medal (BEM) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List 2018 for her services to interfaith. Rosalind has worked as a Development Director, for Islington Faiths Forum and has been committed to interfaith work for many years.

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