Where Unity Is Strength
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I would first like to thank the MoD for hosting this second Vaisakhi Conference, and Secretary of State for Defence Rt. Hon Michael Fallon and other guests for their kindness on joining us to celebrate one of the most important days in the Sikh calendar.

Vaisakhi, marks the first day of spring in northern India. It’s a time of new hopes and new beginnings; celebrated with colourful processions, fairs and sporting contests.

For Sikhs, Vaisakhi has an added and deeper significance. It was the day chosen by our 10th Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, to give Sikhs a distinct identity, symbolised by the turban and symbols of our faith. The question arises, why did the Guru, who taught the equality of all human beings, deliberately choose to make Sikhs distinctive and recognisable?

For the answer, we have to go back to a cold winter’s day in 1675, when the 9th Guru, Guru Teg Bahadhur, was publicly beheaded in Delhi by the Mughal rulers, for defending the right of the Hindu community, not his own religion, but that of others, to worship in the manner of its choice. It was a unique martyrdom for the cause of religious freedom for all. It was Voltaire who said, ‘I may not believe in what you say; but I will defend to the death your right to say it’. Nearly a century earlier Guru Teg Bahadhur gave that noble sentiment brave and practical utterance.

Following the beheading, the Mughal rulers challenged the followers of the Guru, to come forward to claim their master’s body. But Sikhs, who then had no distinguishing appearance, hesitated to do so. As we celebrate the Christian festival of Easter, we see a striking parallel with a key moment in Christianity with Peter’s denial that he was a follower of Jesus Christ, at the time of Jesus Christ’s martyrdom.

The tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, thought long and hard about the momentary lapse of courage at the time of his father’s martyrdom. It was on the spring festival of Vaisakhi in 1699, that he decided to put the community to the test. Amidst all the fun and celebration, the Guru, suddenly emerged from a tent, sword in hand, and asked for volunteers who would be ready to give their lives there and then, for Sikh principles.

The crowed was hushed to silence fearing anyone who came forward might be harmed. A brave Sikh made his way to the Guru’s tent. Others followed.

After the fifth Sikh, had gone into the tent in response to the Guru’s challenge, the Guru again emerged from the tent, sword in hand. This time however, he was not alone. To the joy and relief of the crowd, the Guru was followed by all five Sikhs, wearing the five symbols of Sikhism, the most prominent of which is neat and uncut hair covered with a smart turban.

The Guru gave the five Sikhs Amrit (blessing and confirmation in the new Khalsa community), and said that in future, all male Sikhs would take the common name Singh, literally lion, as a reminder of the need for courage. At the same time, he declared that all female Sikhs would take the name or title ‘Kaur’, literally ‘princess’, as a reminder of the dignity and complete equality of women first taught by Guru Nanak. Guru Gobind Singh then did an extraordinary thing. He asked the first five members of the Khalsa, now known as the ‘panj piare’, to give him amrit. In a remarkable exercise in humility, master and disciple were now one.

The Guru was now confident that the infant Sikh community could now survive and flourish without a living Guru. He added the writings of his father Guru Teg Bahadhur to the Guru Granth Sahib and declared ‘Guru Manio Granth’. That is that Sikhs should follow the teachings of the Guru Granth Sahib as they would a living Guru.

Today, on this anniversary of that historic Vaisakhi, we need to consider the implications of the Guru’s injunction, Guru Manio Granth to life in the world of the 21st century.

In giving supremacy to the Holy Granth over all living leaders, Guru Gobind Singh warned us against false prophets who would try to distort the teachings of Sikhism to suit their own ends. Sadly, today, many Sikhs are chasing after people who are doing precisely this, and looking to superstitious short cuts to a supposed better afterlife, rather than to ethical living.

Guru Gobind Singh’s injunction, ‘Guru Manio Granth’, that is follow the teachings of the holy Granth as you would the founding Gurus, warns us against this distortion and dilution of Sikhism and the need to be true to the ethical teachings contained in our Holy Scriptures. It reminds us not to be passive in our belief, but be active in living true to the teachings. The message of Vaisakhi is that we must not only believe in the teachings, but also let these infuse into the pores of our very being and influence our action and reaction to the world about us, at all times.

In short it’s not enough to simply believe in teachings on equality, religious tolerance and social and political justice as worthy ideals. The message of Vaisakhi is that we must make the furtherance of these ideals the central goal of our lives. We must work together to ensure that the light of the Guru’s teachings reach the furthest corners of our troubled world.

Sikh teachings on human rights have much to offer to a world that has clearly lost its sense of direction. A world in which greed and profit are put before human rights; a world which daily reports of neglect of vulnerable youngster and the frail elderly; a world in which members of the so-called Security Council supply more than 80% of the means of killing in a world awash with arms; weaponry all too easily available to cruel and arrogant leaders. I could go on.

In the past, in India as well as in Europe, religious leaders often amassed power and wealth for themselves, ignoring the need for fairness and justice in society while telling the poor and suffering about promised rewards in heaven. Secular society has gone the other way, arguing that religion should be a private affair and not be allowed to interfere in a materialistic pursuit of wealth and happiness in its blind pursuit of a better life, not in the hereafter, but here and now; and the result is again, power and wealth for some and suffering and cruel hardship for others.

I’ve spent some time in building and construction, but it doesn’t need a construction qualification to understand that that a structure build on inadequate foundations will inevitably suffer damage. Similarly, a blind pursuit of material happiness that ignores the need for the ethical underpinning of society, inevitably results in the cracks in society that we see today.

True ethical underpinning means that human rights, gender equality and concern for others must predicate all we do. They should not subservient to trade and the pursuit of power and privilege as they were a century ago and still are in many parts of the world. Vaisakhi reminds us, that it is the duty of us all to demolish this divide between religious teachings and secular living.

At the same time, Sikhs are duty bound to break down the artificial barriers of superiority and exclusiveness between different faiths and show commonalities far greater and more important than supposed differences.

The task of moving society to more responsible living is not an easy one. It requires the dedication and total commitment inherent in the message of Vaisakhi.

Lord Singh’s talk at the Ministry of Defence on 19 April 2017

Graphic symbols of different religions on white

[Graphic symbols of different religions]

It matters that people learn about religion. The Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) has long stressed the importance for us all to have a basic understanding of all the major faiths, which in turn, motivate the behavior and attitudes of significant numbers of people in Britain. In understanding the role of religions in society, we provide ourselves with an informed platform to better engage with others.

Last week our Director Lord Singh asked the government, “What steps they are taking to combat religious extremism and to promote a cohesive society by enhancing religious literacy at all levels of government.”

Minister of State, Baroness Williams of Trafford responded by informing peers the government is countering extremism through Prevent. She said, “We are working closely with faith groups to understand the impact of policies and to improve religious literacy in government. The Home Secretary and the Communities Secretary hosted a round table for representatives of all faiths last November.”

Unsatisfied with the Minister’s response, Lord Singh added: “The Government paper on the hate crime action plan contained no mention of non-Abrahamic faiths. That suggests something about the religious literacy there. Does the Minister agree that democracy implies being attentive to the legitimate concerns of all sections of the community, not those of a single religious or other majority?”

He went on: “Does she further agree that teachings and practices that go against human rights must be robustly challenged, but that we need to know something about what we are challenging before we can do that? Programmes like Prevent cannot be effective without such knowledge. One final point is that I have put the basics of Sikh teachings on one side of A4 at the request of the DFE, and that can be done for other faiths as well. Should that not be essential for religious literacy in government departments?”

The Minister responded thus: “He said that the hate crime action plan did not specifically refer to non-Abrahamic faiths, but the tenets of the action plan cover points on hatred on the basis of religious belief, disability, sexuality and so on. It is therefore implicit within it that, for example, Sikh communities are included.”

She added: “As for the understanding of religious literacy within both government and wider society, both the Home Office and DCLG engage widely and often with faith communities. Shortly after the referendum, I myself met people from different faiths, including Sikhs, in Manchester to discuss religious literacy, the outcome of the referendum and the corresponding hate crime attached to it.”

It is encouraging to hear the Minister often engages with faith communities. However her response didn’t acknowledge the government’s failure in including faiths outside the Abrahamic traditions in Action Against Hate – the government’s four-year hate crime plan. The NSO believes that improving religious literacy in government circles can only enhance policy development, and prevent any future exclusion of minority faiths that aren’t as vocal in their approach to lobbying.

['The Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland': image by Gryffindor under license CC 3.0]

[‘The Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland’: image by Gryffindor under license CC 3.0]

Talk given at the Palais des Nations, the United Nations Office at Geneva [22-09-16]

Friends,
It is a real pleasure to be with you to give a Sikh perspective on Religious Literacy and Freedom of Religion and Belief today. Religion is very much in the news, often for the wrong reasons. Religion, and religious bigotry are often wrongly seen in the public mind as one and the same thing. There is therefore, a clear need for religious literacy to help us distinguish between religion and the misuse of religion.

Basic literacy
Unfortunately, instead of explaining the essentials of different religions and what motivates people of faith, the inter faith industry has made religious literacy a subject for academics who voice their understanding in highly abstruse and difficult to understand lectures and seminars. We need the basics in clearly understood language.

Let’s start with Sikhism: a little known religion in the West, although tens of thousands of Sikhs gave their lives for the West in two world wars and were briefly welcomed with smiles and flowers. Today, Sikhs are confused with Muslims and often referred to as Bin Laden, although, as you will see, they are clearly two different faiths.

Sikhism is a religion with about 25 million followers that began in Punjab some five and a half centuries ago; a religion that believes in one God who is beyond birth and timeless. Teachings stress the equality of all members of our one human family, full gender equality, rejection of all notions of race or caste and a commitment to tolerance and respect between different religions; a belief that God isn’t a bit impressed by our different religious labels, but in what we do in serving our fellow human beings. That is all anyone needs to know about Sikhs and Sikhism in my understanding of basic religious literacy.

We need to adopt the same basic approach in looking at other religions, and then go on to look for and rejoice in shared commonalities, and be aware of irreconcilable differences that should be questioned, respected, or possibly be challenged.

The real purpose of religious literacy is to remove dangerous ignorance. Prejudice thrives on ignorance and leads to irrational hate. We all know that in a fog or mist, even normally familiar objects like a tree or bush can assume sinister or threatening proportions. It is the same with people of different religions or cultures when we see them in a mist of ignorance and prejudice. Remove the fog or mist of ignorance and we see them as fellow human beings.

Let me now talk briefly about Freedom of Belief. Article 18 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights declares that we all have a human right to practice and manifest our religion, and in precept at least, it is binding on all members of the UN. Unfortunately, the Declaration is often more honoured in its breech than in observance.

There are two difficulties:

1.Secular society can, at times, be antagonistic to beliefs that they may regard as a challenge to secular politics.
2. Arrogant behaviour of religions and factions in religions that look down on both other religions and secular society.

Secular Challenge
A history of oppressive religion in France at the time of the French Revolution, led to religion being seen as a threat to material progress, leading it to it being banished to the margins of society. In France and some other countries any public manifestation of religion like a Sikh turban is banned, despite France being a signatory to the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

A European Court of Human Rights ruling that discrimination against the turban is illegal, is simply ignored. Ironically France’s narrow interpretation of secularity is similar to the narrow interpretation of religion by some religious bigots. Today we need to understand that a truly secular state is one in all systems of belief can flourish and in which no religion or system of belief dominates political life to the exclusion of others.

Sikhs reflect on this discrimination against the manifestation of religious belief as we mark the centenary of World War 1, in which tens of thousands of Sikh soldiers were briefly welcomed with flowers before going on to fight and die in the freezing and vermin infested mud filled trenches of the Somme, and in Gallipoli and other battlefields, fighting for those who now discriminate against the turban. We feel particularly bad as the Sikh turban reminds us to be true to freedom of belief, tolerance and respect for others.

Demonising of religion in schools is also counter-productive. If children do not acquire some basic religious literacy in school, they will simply carry their ignorance and prejudices to adult life. In the USA which bans the teaching of religion in schools, the first person shot in revenge for 9/11 was a Sikh. This was followed by other incidents including Sikh worshippers being shot dead in a gurdwara in Wisconsin as a result of mistaken identity. Such incidents, also suffered by other faiths, result from ignorance and prejudice.

 [Above: Right to Left, Baroness Berridge and Lord Singh during panel debate]

[Above: Right to Left, Baroness Berridge and Lord Singh during panel debate]

Religious arrogance and rivalry
Freedom of Religion does not carry a right to harm or disparage others It must conform to basic human rights including full gender equality. Historical religious texts sometimes contain harsh strictures on geographic neighbours and other faiths at a time of the early development of that faith, as well as dated social attitudes. These have become embedded not only in some religious scriptures, but also in the psyche of unthinking believers.  These need to be removed or disregarded if religion is to realise its true role in society.

As a Sikh, I believe that that a major impediment to religious harmony is the claim that the one God of us all is prejudiced or biased towards any particular faith, or that ours is the only way to God. This is not only insulting but a recipe for conflict. In the same way, the killing of innocents in the name of God, is the ultimate blasphemy.

Discussion in this area is also made more difficult by a jargon jungle of pejorative language. Words like fundamentalist, extremist, moderate, terrorist or Islamist do not enhance discussion and are simply used by governments and others to smear those they do not like. Let me give an example: Many of you will be aware that in 1984 that the Indian government pandering to latent majority Hindu racism in an election year, invaded the historic Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar on one of the holiest days in the Sikh calendar, on the pretext that it housed some ‘separatists’.

Thousands of innocent pilgrims in the vast complex were brutally killed and much of the complex destroyed. The Indian propaganda machine labelled all practising Sikhs as terrorists and even sought to pressurise those like myself abroad, protesting in the media about the Indian Government action.

Early one Sunday morning two Scotland Yard police officers knocked on my front door. I invited them in and offered them a cup of tea. Somewhat embarrassed, they asked if I was an extremist or a moderate. I replied that I was extremely moderate. Then they asked if I was a fundamentalist. I replied ‘well I believe in the fundamentals of Sikhism, like the equality of all human beings and commitment to work for greater social justice, yes I suppose I am a fundamentalist.’ The two officers finished their tea and left thoroughly confused.

Negative Political Influence
Unfortunately, politicians throughout the world also show a reluctance to be even-handed in their approach to human rights and religious freedom, basing their stance on trade and power block politics. Some examples from Britain, but it’s much the same across the world. At the time of the mass killing of Sikhs in India in 1984, I went to see the British Home Secretary who I knew well and asked him why was the government silent on this near genocide. He turned to me and said ‘Indarjit we know what is going on; we’re walking on a tightrope; we have already lost one important contract (the Westlands helicopter contract) what can we do?’

More recently, a minister in the House of Lords rose to state that Her Majesty’s Government wanted an international inquiry into human rights abuse in Sri Lanka. I rose and asked: ‘will the government support a similar international inquiry into the killing of tens of thousands of Sikhs in 1984? The minister’s dismissive response: ‘that is a matter for the Indian government’. The great human rights activist Andrei Sakharov declared: ‘that there will never be peace in the world unless we are even-handed in looking to human rights’. We should heed his sane advice.

The trumping of trade over human rights was even blatant at the time of a visiting Chinese trade delegation in 2014. The Minister then responsible for trade publically stated that: ‘when we are talking trade with China, we should not raise issues over abuse of human rights’. I have cited examples from Britain, but sadly most countries in the world behave in exactly the same way.

Conclusions
Religious literacy and inter faith dialogue is a basic need for religious harmony. It is too important to be the sole preserve of so-called scholars, or religious leaders who meet and make virtuous pronouncements, and then go away to denigrate the beliefs of their inter faith colleagues and say to their congregation that they and they alone, are the one true faith.

We also need to urgently get away from arguments of religion versus secularity. They are not mutually exclusive and can be mutually enhancing. Religion emphasises responsible behaviour and secular politics emphasises behaviour that conforms to society norms. Religion emphasises ethical values that do not change with time and can or should underpin secular society. Basic religious literacy can not only show that different religions are not all that different in ethical values, but also that our shared ethical values can help make secular society more humane and caring and our world a more peaceful place.

Lord (Indarjit) Singh, Vice Chair APPG International Religious Freedom

Note: Lord Singh’s contribution was received with rapt attention and warm appreciation. Bishop Duleep De Chickera from Colombo, was moved to comment that ‘Lord Singh’s talk was so full of common sense that I wish we had him as President of Sri Lanka‘.

He was invited to join a select Panel to talk to and take questions from national representatives the next morning


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