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Vaisakhi 1699, the Birth of the Khalsa, inaugurated by Sikhism's 10th Guru, Gobind Singh

Vaisakhi 1699, the Birth of the Khalsa, inaugurated by Sikhism’s 10th Guru, Gobind Singh

Full Speech given by Lord Singh of Wimbedon at MoD Vaisakhi reception (13-04-16)

I would like to start by thanking the MoD for hosting us in this august and historic building, and to Mandeep Kaur, our Sikh chaplain to the armed services for her hard work organising the function.

Vaisakhi is a traditional spring festival in northern India celebrating the gathering of the winter harvest, and, like spring festivals everywhere, a time for new beginnings. Appropriately, the spring festival of Vaisakhi was chosen by Guru Gobind Singh to formalise Sikhs as a community of equals, ready to stand on its own without the guidance of further living Gurus. History records that on that historic Vaisakhi day in 1699 he tested the resolve of Sikhs, to stand up and be counted and be ready to give their all upholding the egalitarian teachings of Sikhism, no matter how daunting the challenge.

To his delight, Sikhs proved equal to the challenge. It was then that he gave us a distinctive identity to tie to us to a public commitment to live by, and if necessary die for, Sikh values which are universal values of selfless and responsible behaviour, codified more than 500 years ago; values that the West now call British values or European values. These are: a belief in the equality of all human beings, including the dignity and full equality of women; putting the concerns of others before our own, selfless service and, importantly, standing up for rights of all faiths and beliefs to live true to their own way of life

Today, many question the need for a visible identity? It’s divisive, why cannot you simply live by the principles of your faith; without a distinct identity? It is a question that is best answered by a question. Why do the clerics, members of the Salvation Army or members of the armed services have a distinctive identity or uniform? The reason is that the dress or uniform reminds us and others, of a code of behaviour to which we are expected to adhere, and hopefully deters us from behaviour that might bring the uniform into disgrace.

On Sunday, the BBC will be discussing the importance of the turban for Sikhs. A researcher asked me if we wear the turban and other Sikh symbols to please God. I replied, that God, the creator of all that exists, is not the least bothered by what we wear; it’s what we do and how we behave that is important. The Sikh turban does not in itself make us better people but it does tie us to ideals that benefit both ourselves and wider humanity. By the same token it’s important to emphasise, that dress codes rooted in culture that demeans women or suggest inherent superiority of a particular faith are worse than useless

We have recently been commemorating Easter, the time of the martyrdom of Jesus Christ, when Peter, one of his closest disciples, fearful for his own life thrice denied his association with Christ. A similar episode took place in Sikh history when our 9th Guru, Guru Teg Bahadhur, was tortured and publically beheaded for standing up for the right of the Hindu community to worship in the manner of their choice. It was a martyrdom unique in religious history. The philosopher Voltaire famously wrote

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

Nearly a century before Voltaire, Guru Teg Bahadhur gave that noble sentiment courageous utterance, by standing up for the rights of the Hindu community; those of a different faith to his own.

The Mughal rulers challenged Sikhs in the crowd (who then had no distinguishing appearance) to come forward and claim their master’s body. Sikhs, cowed by fear hesitated to do so and the body was removed by stealth, itself an incredibly brave action. It was this incident that years later, led The 10th Guru, Guru Gobind Singh to resolve that in future, those who called themselves Sikhs must be ready to meet the most daunting of challenges.

Sikhs are not alone in such commitment. All of our faiths remind us to put principles before expediency. It is not always easy to stand up for basic human rights against cruel authority, but, I believe this is the true role of religion. As a Christian hymn reminds us:

Though the cause of evil prosper yet tis truth alone that’s strong.

Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong.

The hymn also reminds us that despite difficulties, with true commitment and faith, each one of us can all help turn what is described as ‘the iron helm of fate’.

We are all unique individuals confronted with varying ethical challenges in the course of our life, and with and opportunities to make a difference and work for a fairer world.

A tiny personal example. I grew up in England and first went to India in the early 60s as a newly qualified mining engineer. At the time, all States in India were allowed to have their own regional language except Punjab, where Punjabi the language of the Sikh scriptures was being replaced by Hindi.

Sikhs were angry and upset by this deliberate discrimination, but had no media voice. I thought that this was unfair—worse, not a British or Sikh view of fairness! I knew a letter in the national dallies from a Sikh would never get published, so I took on the name of a pompous neighbour in England, Victor Pendry. A legacy of Raj deference ensured that my highly critical letter was published in a national daily, causing a stir in the Sikh community. My wife knew of Mr Pendry before she ever met me. A letter supposedly from my old Head, Sylvanous Jones followed supporting Mr Pendry. Using a telephone directory, in my first interfaith initiative, letters from Hindus and Muslims rapidly followed drawing attention to the injustice against the Sikhs.

The point of the story is that in different ways, we can all make a difference by standing up to political injustice, or perhaps in combatting bulling at school or the office or workplace, and in a constant striving for greater social or political justice.

And there is much to do. Today materialistic secular society has pushed religion to the margins of society as irrelevant. In a debate in the Lords, a member commented ’religion is out of step with society’. I responded that to me, it was like someone saying ‘my satnav is not following my directions’. Religion is often blamed as a cause of conflict. It is not. It is the misuse of religious sentiment to promote irreligious ends. Religions are ethical satnavs to lead to an understanding of right, wrong and responsibility, while politicians are increasingly tempted to pander to our material desires in their attempt to win votes and allegiance.

It is not easy to go against this materialistic tide with its unthinking pursuit of individual happiness to the neglect of responsibility, but the message of Vaisakhi is that Sikhs have a duty to help move society to towards more ethical or gurmukh living.

Sikh teachings suggest that that we all fall into one of three groups, distributed in a bell shaped curve, which statistician s call a normal distribution. Physical attributes like height and weight all fall into such a distribution. It’s the same with ethical or moral behaviour. At one extreme there are the mamukhs, those who selfishly only think of themselves and are prepared to lie and cheat and even kill to achieve their ends. Then there are those in the greater middle of the curve or distribution; peacefully trying to lead their lives, but rarely looking beyond themselves, and then a smaller group, the gurmukhs, selflessly trying to make the world a better place.

The challenge of Vaisakhi is for us to resolve not only to move ourselves in this gurmukh or godly direction, but to be ready to take a stand to work towards the improvement of society as a whole. In life we all get different challenges and opportunities to make a difference. As the poet Emily Dickinson reminds us:

You cannot choose your battlefields

That God does for you,

But you can plant a standard, where a standard never flew

Our Gurus required us to go beyond lip service to Sikh teachings, and to live those teachings, taking an individual as well as a collective stand injustice against any individual or group. We can all make a difference. The message of Vaisakhi is to remind us of our potential, duty and responsibility to work for the improvement of society by working for a fairer and more peaceful world. It is an uplifting message that should determine our action and reaction to the world about us.

 

Sikh temple in Britain vandalised with anti-Muslim message

Sikh temple in Britain vandalised with anti-Muslim message

Police to report religious hate crime according to religion: Sikhism will be a category

The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) have confirmed that Police forces in England and Wales will be reporting on religious hate crime according to religion, and this will include Sikhism.

Proposals set out by the Prime Minister will be implemented this year on a voluntarily basis from April 2016, however DCLG have confirmed that all Police forces will have to disaggregate their hate crime figures by religious hate crime from April 2017.

Over the last year the NSO has raised the plight of Sikh victims of hate crime, who have been incorrectly logged as victims of ‘Islamophobic crime’. Lord Singh of Wimbledon has expressed his concern with Ministers and spoken about them in a number of debates in the House of Lords. In January, following the NSO’s campaigning it was revealed that 28% of victims of ‘Islamophobic hate crime’ recorded by the MET in 2015, were in fact not Muslim at all. They comprised of Sikhs, Hindus, Christians and victims of no recorded faith.

Greg Clark, Secretary of State for DCLG recently wrote to Lord Singh, the Director of the Network of Sikh Organisations.

He said, “I understand your concerns about Sikhs being the victims of anti-Islamic attacks. In response to increased attacks on mosques and gurdwaras, the Prime Minister announced in October that new funding will be made available for the security of all faith establishments, with more details expected over the coming months.”

He went on, “This builds on existing funding for anti-Semitic attacks on synagogues. In addition to Tell-Mama which measures incidents of anti-Muslim hatred, my department is proud to fund True Vision which allows people of all faiths and backgrounds to report hate crimes.”

Lord Singh of Wimbledon said, “The government has responded positively to the NSO’s campaigning on this issue, and this is an important development not just for Sikhs, but all communities who suffer from religiously motivated hate crime.”

He added, “Greg Clark has shown the government’s commitment to treat all religious based hate crime with parity. This has not been the case in the past. We anticipate some Police forces will optionally report anti-Sikh attacks from this April onward.”

Sikh temple in Britain vandalised with anti-Muslim message

Sikh temple vandalised with anti-Muslim message (2015)

Dear Editor,

Last month it was revealed that 28% of the victims of ‘islamophobic hate crime’ offences recorded by the MET in 2015, were in fact not Muslim at all. They comprised of individuals from the Sikh, Hindu, Christian communities and those with no recorded faith. The Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) has obtained MET figures for the first 7 months of 2015, and it’s notable that in March 2015 – 34% of victims of ‘islamophobic crimes’ were non-Muslim. In July 2015 the figure was 32%. I’m sure you will agree these are not insignificant numbers.

Until now the MET have not publicly

victims of Islamophobic Hate Crime Recorded by the MPS between 1 Jan 2015 and 31 Jul 2015 (source MET FOI)

victims of islamophobic hate crime recorded by the MPS between 1 Jan 2015 and 31 Jul 2015 (source: MET FOI)

acknowledged the high number of non-Muslims who have been lumped together into this category. We believe our campaigning on the issue has been instrumental in uncovering the truth. It is clear there has been a historic lack of transparency on this issue and it’s regrettable. Moreover, Sikhs who continue to face significant prejudice since 9/11, feel like they have been simply brushed aside. Rather than being counted as a separate statistic, non-Muslims have unknowingly contributed to a figure, which until now, was assumed to be indicative of attacks solely on the Muslim community. As things stand, Sikhs, Hindus and Christians have not been given the dignity of being counted as a separate statistic. We believe hate crime should be tackled even-handedly and are pressing the government for change.

We ask you to consider the non-Muslim victims of ‘islamophobic crime’ when you cover stories about ‘islamophobia’ in the future.

Yours sincerely

Network of Sikh Organisations

(letter sent 29 Feb 2016)

Free speech has been challenged at a number of British universities over the last few months

Free speech has been challenged at a number of British universities over the last few months

The suppression of free speech in universities was the subject of a debate in the Lords this week following a question tabled by Baroness Deech.

A spate of recent disruptions at Goldsmiths, Kings College and Canterbury has put into question the notion of free speech in universities. Baroness Deech asked the government what measures were being taken to “ensure freedom of lawful speech at universities.” She pressed the Minister to speak with vice-chancellors to ensure free speech would be upheld.

Last year a video emerged of a Muslim reformer being heckled and aggressively interrupted by Muslim students at Goldsmiths. Earlier this year police were called to Kings College following reports of violent protest against a speech being given by Israel’s ex secret service chief. The meeting organised by the Israel society was brought to a halt by violent pro Palestine protesters.

The Minister agreed with Baroness Deech and said Universities have a clear legal duty to ensure legal views can be heard, challenged and debated.

Lord Singh of Wimbledon, the Director of the Network of Sikh Organisations said, “My Lords, debate should always be conducted in courteous terms but does the Minister agree that words such as “antisemitism” and “Islamophobia” and those relating to any other type of religious phobia should not be used as shields to stifle legitimate debate?”

The Minister responded thus, “we absolutely want to support students and universities in ensuring that legitimate, lawful debate and the challenging of ideas happens in our universities.”

Houses of Parliament

Palace of Westminster

A question on how the government intends to respond to resolutions made at the European Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe condemning the actions of IS as genocide was the subject of a debate in the Lords earlier this month.

Lord Alton of Liverpool (who asked the question) said it was futile for Britain to be a member of the 1948 genocide convention if it, “declines to name this horrific cruelty for the genocide that it is.” He described the horrors perpetrated by IS, including the forced conversion, abduction, systemic executions and enslavement of Christians and Yazidis.

Lord Singh of Wimbledon, the Director of the Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) said, “My Lords, when a few months ago I asked for government support for an international inquiry into supposed genocide against the Sikh community in India, I was told, in a very short reply, that it was solely a matter for the Indian Government. That was not a very Christian sentiment.”

He went on, “would the Minister agree with the sentiments of the Sikh guru who gave his life defending the right of followers of another religion to worship in the manner of their choice? Human rights abuses against anyone are the responsibility of us all, and the Government should take every measure to bring those guilty of them to justice.”

The Earl of Courtown responded thus, “My Lords, the noble Lord refers to a Question that my noble friend Lady Anelay answered. We will of course take careful note of what the noble Lord said, including how important it is that people have the freedom to worship in their own faith.”

 

Parmjeet

Parmjeet Singh

Paramjeet Singh fled from arbitrary arrest and torture in India in 1999, and in the following year was granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK after a finding of a justifiable fear of persecution if he was made to return to India.

Paramjeet is married and is the father of 4 children age 7 to 11. In December 2015 the family went on a short Christmas holiday to Portugal where he was arrested by Interpol at the request of the Indian government and is now facing extradition proceedings for his forced return to India. It seems that the Indian government had taken exception to his speaking out on human rights abuse in India. Lord Singh, for the NSO, has raised his concerns with the Minister for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and other Sikh groups have also raised concerns with both British and Portuguese governments.

In an interview on 3rd January 2015 with a Portuguese television channel outside the House of Lords, Lord Singh was asked why had Paramjeet Singh after being granted asylum, continued to attack India’s attitude to human rights instead of simply getting on with his own life.

Lord Singh responded that we all have a responsibility to condemn the ill treatment of others, and for Sikhs this responsibility is embedded in religious teachings and is obligatory.

He appealed to the authorities in Portugal not to be used like pawns in a backdoor attempt by Indian authorities to silence criticism of their human rights record, and return Paramjeet to British jurisdiction.

UK government_0

A question on the progress of a government review into funding of extremist interpretations of Islam was the subject of a debate in the House of Lords earlier this week.

A Government review announced by the Prime Minister last year is scheduled to report back by spring 2016. Analysts across government departments are looking into sources of funding, which include those from overseas.

A government commissioned report last year into Islamist organisations concluded:

“Muslim Brotherhood ideology and tactics, in this country and overseas, are contrary to our values and have been contrary to our national interests and our national security.”

In questions in the Lords, Lord Singh of Wimbledon the Director of the Network of Sikh Organisations asked Her Majesty’s government:

“My Lords, when we talk about Islamic extremism, should we not attempt to be more precise in what we are talking about? There are passages in the Koran that might have been relevant to the time when the infant Muslim community was under siege from all sides but may not be so relevant today.”

He went on, “It is important that those passages be put in the context of today. Should the Government not be working with Muslim leaders to that end”

Other contributors to the debate included the Archbishop of Canterbury.

 

 

HNY

We cannot say if a person is tall or short, thin or fat without comparing. In the same way, we cannot understand the true value of Sikhism without comparing it with other faiths. A fairly full study of other religions helped enhance my own understanding of Sikhism.

My hope is that we make 2016 a year in which we look again at the powerful and uplifting teachings of our Gurus, and make others aware of balance guidance highly relevant to today’s troubled world.

The attached table (NSO Faith Quiz [1]) was produced in October at the request of young Sikhs in Salt Lake City and California. We should encourage our children, young (and not so young) Sikhs, to complete it objectively to the best of their knowledge. The exercise will result in a greater appreciation of the richness of their heritage.

Best wishes for Guru Gobind Singh ji’s Gurpurb and a happy 2016.

Indarjit

Lord Singh of Wimbledon, Director, Network of Sikh Organisations

The Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) is pleased to acknowledge positive steps taken by the government, following its campaigning on the issue of separate monitoring for anti-Sikh hate crime.

A Home office spokesperson said, “Crime motivated by hatred or hostility towards someone because of who they or their religious beliefs are absolutely deplorable.”

They added, “We announced a new cross-Government hate crime plan. We also announced that we will work with the police to provide a breakdown of religious based hate crime as part of the data recorded by the police – this will ensure that in future there is accurate data on crimes committed against people because of their faith and race – including crimes committed against Sikhs.”

Lord Singh who has raised the issue on a number of occasions in the last year said, “NSO persistence in constantly raising this issue with ministers in the Lords and in discussion with the DCLG finally appears to be paying off.”

He went on, “The government now seem to realize the seriousness of race and mistaken identity hate crimes against members of the Sikh community.”

The Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) expresses disappointment at the government’s continuing apathy on the subject of Sikh victims of hate crime.

In October the government announced anti-Muslim hate crime would be monitored as a separate category across all police forces, providing parity with the recording of anti-Semitic hate crime.

In contrast Britain’s other minority faiths like Sikhs and Hindus are not separately tracked, although the government has given assurances it will address hate crime against all communities even-handedly.

The NSO has learnt that it is likely that Sikh victims of anti-Muslim hate crime in London are being incorrectly recorded as victims of ‘Islamophobic offences.’

The MET does not break down Islamophobic hate crime by faith group.

The NSO is pressing government officials to monitor Sikh hate crime within a separate category, to provide parity with provisions already in place for Jews and Muslims.

In a debate last week which focused primarily on concerns about violence against Muslims post Paris, Lord Singh of Wimbledon said,

“The Minister will be aware of numerous attacks on Sikhs as a result of mistaken identity. While hate crimes against the Muslim community have been monitored by every police force in the country, not a single penny is being spent on monitoring hate crimes against Sikhs.”

He went on, “the American Government are well aware of this problem which Sikhs suffer from and are taking steps to monitor that hate crime. When will the British Government catch up?”

Members of the Sikh community expressed concerns last month over a potential backlash in the aftermath of the Paris terror attacks.

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