Once again Sikhs throughout the world are celebrating the festival of Vaisakhi, one of the most important days in the Sikh calendar. Vaisakhi is a tale of brave martyrdom followed by the challenge of new beginnings.
The story of Vaisakhi begins with the martyrdom in Delhi of Guru Teg Bahadur, 9th Guru of the Sikhs, whose 400th birth anniversary we are celebrating this month. The Guru, who disagreed with many aspects of Hindu teachings was publicly beheaded by the Mughal rulers for trying to protect the Hindu community’s right to freedom of belief and worship. The Mughal emperor then challenged the Sikhs who at that time, had no distinguishing appearance, to claim their master’s body. But in the event no one came forward. The Guru’s young son Gobind now became Guru, and as he grew into manhood, he constantly stressed that Sikhs should always be ready to stand up for their beliefs, however difficult the circumstances. Then he decided to put the community to the test.
On Vaisakhi day three centuries ago, as crowds were celebrating the gathering of the spring harvest, the Guru, sword in hand, asked for anyone willing to give his life for his faith, to come forward. A brave Sikh stepped forward and accompanied the Guru into a tent. To everyone’s dismay, the Guru then emerged alone, his sword apparently covered with blood, and asked for a second volunteer. After five Sikhs had come forward, the Guru again emerged from the tent. To everyone’s joy he was now followed by all five Sikhs who were clearly alive and well and dressed in turbans and other symbols that have ever since formed a uniform or badge of Sikh identity.
The Guru was clearly overjoyed. The infant Sikh community had proved its courage and he was now confident that it could now continue to flourish, if it remained true to the teachings of our Gurus and the Guru Granth Sahib, while being on its guard against those who wish to distort or destroy the independence of Sikh teachings.
We have survived many direct challenges before. Today the threat is from India’s PM, Narendra Modi, a lifetime follower of the RSS agenda to turn India into a Hindu State. Disguised as praise for Sikh teachings, and aimed at absorbing Sikh teachings into Hinduism, it poses an insidious threat. The clue is in the PMs own words.
He writes – “our Sikh Guru tradition is a philosophy of life in itself.”
What does an extremist Hindu leader of a supposedly secular country that has passed discriminatory laws against Muslims, mean by ‘our’ Sikh Guru?
Guru Arjan emphasised independent Sikh identity when he wrote:
‘I neither keep the Hindu fast; nor the Muslim Ramadan. I serve the one God who is both Allah and Ram.’
The Guru taught that Sikhism cannot be caged in Hinduism or any other belief system. On this anniversary of Vaisakhi, we should pledge ourselves to resist both threats and blandishments; and live and promote Sikh teachings of equality, tolerance, and freedom of belief in a world that has lost its ethical direction.
Lord Singh of Wimbledon, Director, Network of Sikh Organisations
NSO submission to APPG for the Pakistani Minorities inquiry into Abduction, Forced Conversions and Forced Marriages of Religious Minority Girls and Women in Pakistan
The Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) is a registered charity no.1064544 that links more than 130 UK gurdwaras and other UK Sikh organisations in active cooperation to enhance the image and understanding of Sikhism in the UK.
For the sake of brevity and convenience, we have used headings in the APPG briefing document. We are grateful to former councillor/detective Gurpal Virdi for his input.
Human Rights Organisation/NGOs/Faith and non-faith based groups, Experts
i. Name and organisation? What is the nature of your work on the topic? Do you work with the victims and their families? How many victims or their families do you work with? What assistance do you provide?
Over the last few years, the NSO has followed cases of forced conversion and written about the forced marriage and abuse of religious minority girls and women in Pakistan. This is an issue that has an impact on all non-Muslim minority girls in Pakistan – predominantly Hindu and Christian girls, but it has also impacted the minority Sikh community too. One of the most high-profile cases in recent years has been the case of Jagjit Kaur.[i] She was alleged to be kidnapped at gunpoint from her home in Nankana Sahib (Lahore), converted (given the Muslim name Ayesha) and married to a Muslim boy.[ii]
In many cases the victim’s family face legal challenges, intimidation and according to Professor Javaid Rehman from Brunel University, ‘local authorities, especially police, particularly in the Punjab province, are often accused of being complicit in these cases by failing to properly investigate reported cases or prosecute offenders’.[iii] Legal petitions filed in court from the family members of the accused boy/men, often follow a similar pattern with statements alleging the girl(s) converted and married of their free will. This makes it difficult, if not impossible for the victim families to get access to justice through the courts. Many come from poor backgrounds, and do not have the necessary resources to defend their rights.
According to the academic research on this matter, we understand that approximately 1,000 women and girls from religious minorities are abducted, forcibly converted to Islam, and then married off to their abductors every year in Pakistan.[iv] Our Director Lord Singh of Wimbledon has raised the treatment of minorities in debates in the House of Lords. In a debate on 2nd July 2019 ‘Pakistan: Aid programmes and Human Rights’ – our Director said:
‘Minorities are frequently allocated menial tasks such as the cleaning of public latrines. Homes of minorities are frequently attacked and women and girls kidnapped and converted or sold into slavery. I have at times questioned the appropriateness of Pakistan, with its ill treatment of minorities, still being a member of the Commonwealth, a club of countries with historic ties to Britain. Members are required to abide by the Commonwealth charter, with core values of opposition to, “all forms of discrimination, whether rooted in gender, race, colour, creed, political belief or other grounds”.’[v]
ii. What, in your opinion, are the weaknesses and limitations of the existing laws?
The APPG briefing paper outlines the existing laws including the Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929 of Pakistan, and in Sindh – the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act 2014. It says, ‘In another major province, Punjab, the Punjab Marriage Restraint Act 2015 kept the legal age of marriage at 16 years. In 2018, the chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology announced that a nikah (Islamic marriage) can be performed at any age but the couple can only live together after the age of 18.’ The difficulty here is changes to Pakistan’s law designed to safeguard minors and criminalise those that marry underage boys or girls, although well-meaning conflict with some interpretations of sharia being propagated by influential preachers and Islamic organisations.
Although we submit this isn’t limited to the issue of forced marriage and conversion of minority faith girls only, it has been seen most prominently with the backlash against Pakistan’s Supreme Court decision in the Asia Bibi blasphemy case. Both Bibi and the Supreme Court justices’ received death threats because of the decision to free her.[vi] The courts make important rulings, and some influential clerics push back. The late Khadim Hussain Rizvi, leader of the hardline Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) party (whose family was given condolences when he died by Imran Khan),[vii] was a pro-blasphemy law campaigner.
He can be seen in footage giving a speech in which he says keeping relationships with ‘kaffirs’ (a derogatory term), or non-Muslims should be treated like one’s relationship with a toilet.[viii] The dissemination of this kind of doctrinally motivated hatred against non-Muslims by pro-blasphemy clerics in Pakistan serves to incite hatred against non-Muslims and dehumanises them. Whilst laws designed to safeguard against child marriage are indeed a welcome step, do they make a difference in real terms with this backdrop? We believe the problem is compounded because there appears to be little done to address hate speech against non-Muslims. The propagation of this hatred sows the seeds of prejudice, and facilitates the ongoing issue of abduction, forced conversions, and forced marriages of religious minority girls/women in Pakistan.
iii. What, in your opinion, is the problem with implementation of the existing laws that should have protected the victims?
The APPG for the Pakistani minorities 2019 report Religious Minorities of Pakistan: Report of a Parliamentary visit (27 September 2018 – 3 October 2018), cites a report produced by the Commonwealth Initiative for Freedom of Religion or Belief (2018):
‘the police will often either refuse to record an [First information Report] FIR or falsify the information recorded on the FIR, thus denying the families involved the chance to take their case and complaints any further. The lack of an FIR or the misrepresentation of information means that the family are unable to seek further justice in law courts, as an FIR is the vital first stage in the Criminal Procedure Code. Police are also often lethargic in attempting to recover a girl who has been abducted, thus allowing the conversion and marriage to take place. Both the lower courts and the higher courts of Pakistan have displayed bias and a lack of adherence to proper procedures in cases that involve accusations of forced marriage and forced conversions [and in such cases] the judiciary is often subjected to external influences, such as fear of reprisal and violence from extremist elements.’[ix]
We believe this sums up the plight for minorities in Pakistani, in their inability to obtain justice through the legal system. Unless the status quo is changed both in the way the police and judiciary deal with such cases, the ill treatment of minorities will continue unabated. The flaws in the existing system, along with the bias in favour of the accused abductors, is likely to not only further embolden perpetrators, but gives them the reassurance they need that they will be granted impunity for their actions.
iv. How, in your opinion, could the Federal and Provincial Governments improve the laws to eliminate the issue of abductions, forced conversions and forced marriages?
We believe the way to tackle this is two-prong, looking at both shifting societal attitudes, as well as training and education for officials. Firstly, there must be meaningful effort to reduce societal hatred and hostility towards non-Muslims. Second there must be training for officials to highlight their obligations when it comes to the rights of non-Muslim children.
Rather than reinventing the wheel, there have already been some meaningful recommendations put forward for the attention of the Pakistani authorities by this very APPG in their 2019 report. Some examples which would encourage better treatment of minorities in Pakistan:
ban all discriminatory employment advertisements reserving low-paid or menial
jobs for non-Muslims only and introduce financial penalties for breaching the
More broadly speaking there should be the requirement of mandatory training programmes for the police, social workers, the judiciary on the rights of children and their responsibility to safeguard those rights which are enshrined under Pakistan’s constitution and the law, moreover, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and within international human rights law.
vii. What, in your opinion, are the effects of such abductions, forced conversions and forced marriages on a) the victims and b) their families?
Although we have not conducted any direct victim assessments, it is clear the impact of these heinous crimes is severe for the victim and their families. Those who try to fight back through the legal system often face intimidation and threats. The family of Jagjit Kaur were reportedly threatened.[xiii] It is difficult for us to fathom the upheaval and chaos the families and victims go through. Tweeting about the case of Simron Kumari, Veengas a Sindh based journalist and founder of The Rise News, writes, ‘parents have been raising voice for their daughter since 2019. Now, Simron Kumari who was abducted and converted to Islam. Family seeks help but who will listen to their anguish. You cannot do justice to mothers. I request you (sic) that if you have heart then feel their sorrow.’[xiv] In the same thread she writes, ‘Unfortunately, Urdu Elite Media don’t cover Forced conversions issues as they should have covered. Majority of minor girls being abducted & converted to Islam.’[xv] According to another report, a father of two Hindu girls kidnapped in Sindh, protested outside a police station and said, ‘You can kill me. I will never tolerate this. My daughters have been abducted—I had patience.’[xvi]
ix. How can the Home Office be persuaded that the presumption in any such victims case, if applying for asylum in the UK, should be that they have been persecuted for their faith?
Country policy and information notes on Pakistan, which are published by the Home Office should be updated to include information about the persecution of minority faiths in Pakistan on the issue of abduction, forced conversions, and forced marriages. There should be an understanding of the issue at hand amongst Home Office staff, not least immigration officials – so they can make the appropriate assessments for asylum applications.
JOINT PRESS RELEASE: GLOBAL SIKH COUNCIL & NETWORK OF SIKH ORGANISATIONS UK
We are writing to express our admiration and full support for hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers and their supporters from all walks of life. Despite the winter cold, and police oppression, they have been demonstrating for the months against unjust laws that threaten their livelihoods. Their courageous stand against injustice gives hope for an end to the systematic erosion of democracy in India.
India’s abuse of human rights The farmers’ cause is just and is fully supported by leading figures in the judiciary, high-ranking civil servants, university and college lecturers, trade unionists, Indians abroad and government spokesmen in the UK and Canada. As a UK spokesman put it, ‘the right to peaceful demonstration is a basic human right’. The response of the Modi government to this basic human right has been widespread use of tear gas, water cannons, and police brutality against peaceful protesters. There is now a call for India to be expelled from the Commonwealth for its flagrant abuse of human rights.
Many will be unaware that Narendra Modi is a supporter of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a fascist group modelled on the Hitler Youth Movement. In 2002, he was Chief Minister at the time of the infamous Gujarat ‘riots’, which led to the slaughter of thousands of Muslims. For some years he was barred from entry to the USA and UK. Today, RSS thugs or ‘goons’ are collaborating with rogue Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters and are being given a free hand to beat and maim peaceful protesters including women and the elderly. The farmers’ peaceful protest has captured the world’s admiration in the way it looks to the wellbeing not only of the protesters, but also in the way food and medical assistance is offered to the attacking police.
On India’s Republic Day (26 January), India’s compliant police following orders, removed barricades and opened the large steel gates to the Red Fort to allow known BJP activists to enter as supposed farmer activists to enable the government to smear the protesters as anti-national. Brave reporters in India’s tightly controlled media, who drew attention to this absurdity or questioned government action have been harassed and arrested. Many have had their social media accounts blocked and some have disappeared without trace.
The farming laws India’s farmers have long been exploited by greedy middlemen. The Modi government saw this an opportunity to ‘reorganise’ farming. These laws blatantly allow billionaire businessmen who are also party supporters to control the supply and distribution of agricultural produce throughout the country in a way that would leave farmers virtual serfs on their own land.
• The laws were rushed through Parliament with no time given for proper scrutiny or debate. • They laws are clearly unconstitutional. The Constitution states that agriculture is a devolved responsibility of individual States, not the central government. • The laws have been condemned as unconstitutional by senior members of the judiciary. • The laws abolish the minimum support price given to farmers. • The laws allow for no right of appeal. • Two close billionaire friends of Modi, with a pre-knowledge of the government’s intentions, brought huge sites in Punjab to build giant silos for the long-term storage of grain allowing for price rigging and manipulation. • Today, in Modi’s India, 1% of India’s population owns nearly half the country’s wealth.
Erosion of democracy in Modi’s India We are deeply concerned by the government’s dismissive attitude to the requirements of its secular constitution and the human rights of its people. The Citizens Amendment Act, in its appeal to majority bigotry, deprived more than a million Muslims of their citizenship with Home Minister Amit Shah referring to Muslim refugees as ‘termites’. This was followed by the repeal of Article 370 placing Kashmir under military rule.
The highly respected human rights organisation Amnesty International has been expelled from India to prevent it reporting on the growing abuse of human rights. Amnesty commented, ‘It is a dismal day when a country of India’s stature, a rising global power and a member of the UN Human Rights Council, with a constitution which commits to human rights and whose national human rights movements have influenced the world, so brazenly seeks to silence those who pursue accountability and justice’.
Urgent action required India’s farmers’ brave stand against injustice is fast becoming a people’s movement for the restoration of democracy and human rights in India. We pledge them our full support. Those of us living abroad have a particular responsibility to support a movement that has at least 67 lives lost already through cold weather and lack of medical supplies.
While calling on governments around the world to condemn India’s repressive behaviour, we urge Mr Modi to commence urgent talks with farmer’s leaders to meet their genuine concerns.
Lord Singh of Wimbledon CBE, Member of House of Lords UK Parliament – Director, Network of Sikh Organisations (UK)
Lady Singh, Kanwaljit Kaur, President Global Sikh Council
Today we are commemorating the martyrdom of the 9th Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur who on this day in 1675, courageously gave his life defending the right of freedom of belief of those of a different faith to his own.
The Mughal ruler Aurangzeb, in his determination to extend Islam to the whole sub-continent, was forcibly converting large numbers of Hindus in Kashmir. In desperation the Hindu leaders asked Guru Tegh Bahadur to intercede on their behalf. They said, we know that you and earlier Sikh Gurus have always stood up for the rights of all people, will you appeal to the Mughal Emperor to stop this forced conversion?
The Guru knew that such an appeal would almost certainly cost him his life. But true to Sikh teachings on freedom of belief he set off for Delhi. The Emperor refused to change his policy and instead offered rich gifts to the Guru to convert to Islam. When Guru Tegh Bahadur refused, his close disciples were martyred, and he was publicly beheaded in the centre of Delhi. His crime, defending the right to freedom of belief of those of a different religion to his own. In his writings his son Gobind Rai (aged 9 at the time of the martyrdom), later to become known as Guru Gobind Singh wrote, ‘he laid down his head but not his principles.’
The universal right to freedom of belief is emphasised in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, written in the aftermath of the Second World War. Article 18 reads, ‘everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.’[i] We all applaud its lofty sentiments, but all too often put these important principles below trade and economic interest.
Guru Tegh Bahadur set the bar high when on a cold winter’s day, he gave his life in the defence of human rights and gave stark reality to Voltaire’s words: ‘I disapprove of what you, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’
Unbelievably, the BBC tried to prevent the story of the Guru Tegh Bahadur’s supreme sacrifice being broadcast two years ago, in an extraordinary fit of political correctness. Thousands of Sikhs and people of other faiths wrote to the BBC in protest, and the incident made it on the front page of The Times along with an Editorial which asked the then Director General to reconsider the ‘shabby treatment’ of our Director – his fellow peer.[ii] Sadly, the usually vocal Sikh Federation UK were totally silent; not a peep. Their unhealthy obsession with narrow exclusive identity politics, has blinded them to the universality of Sikh teachings on the need to stand up for others.
On this anniversary of Guru Tegh Bahadur’s courageous martyrdom, we are reminded that we still have much to do to understand and live true to our Gurus’ powerful teachings – they are teachings for not only Sikhs, but for the whole of humanity.
Above image: Gurpreet Anand – Sikh Council UK (left) with orange turban on KTV programme ‘Sangat Di Kachehri’ – 10th Oct 2020
It has been brought to our attention that Gurpreet Anand of one of the two simultaneously existing Sikh Council UK’s, made a series of inaccurate and misleading statements about anti-Sikh hate crime on a programme called ‘Sangat Di Kachehri’ on KTV on 10th Oct 2020. The interview (which we have on file) was conducted in Punjabi by the host, and the responses were given by Mr Anand in both English and Punjabi (at times both together). For the purposes of this article we have translated his words into English.
He began by saying when he and his colleagues met the police (presumably post 9/11) to quantify how many attacks on Sikhs there had been, they were informed they cannot tell them, because the police do not count Sikh victims of hate crime. This may well have been the case, but Mr Anand does not clarify when the said meeting took place, the full details of the conversation, and who exactly provided them this information. We wrote to the Sikh Council UK to ask them for these particulars, and what Mr Anand and his colleagues had done since to make sure Sikhs were recorded appropriately. We had no response.
To set the record straight, hate crimes against Sikhs are currently recorded under both religion and race, and we successfully lobbied for the disaggregation of ‘Islamophobic hate crime’ – so that these figures are transparent to include a breakdown of all faiths and none in this category by the Home Office. The latest Home Office statistics have just been reported. The number of religious hate crimes recorded by the police in 2019/20, included 202 incidents recorded against ‘Sikh’, which is 3% of all recorded (perceived) religious hate crimes in England and Wales.[i] A 7% rise from the previous year as observed by Dr Jhutti-Johal from the University of Birmingham.[ii] Hate crimes where the victim is of a Sikh heritage can of course be recorded under different flags aside from religion, e.g. if they become victim of a homophobic attack, or if they are targeted in a racially aggravated attack.
In the interview segment, Anand suggests Sikhs are still not counted properly, and oddly appears to conflate the Sikh Federation UK’s (SFUK) census tick box debate, inferring that if there was a Sikh ‘ethnic’ tick box this would go some way in solving the Sikh hate crime problem. This is misleading and indicates a very poor understanding of hate crime, which is recorded by the police on a perception basis. How does a Sikh ‘ethnic’ tick box in the census change an individual’s perception? The answer is, it does not. Besides, Sikhs are already recorded as victims of racially or religiously motivated hate crime (or both) based on perception of the victim, or any other person. The issue he miserably fails to grasp is the solution to the problem is not in belittling others, but (i) improving religious literacy (for ‘mistaken identity’ attacks in particular) and (ii) encouraging people to report all incidents in the first instance.
We have made some guides to assist the community in this regard with a project funded by the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime and facilitated by Galop. Can Mr Anand tell us what happened to the Sikh Council UK’s failed Sikh Aware (hate crime monitoring platform), and why no one has been held accountable for it? He may say this was under a previous administration, or the responsibility of the other concurrently existing Sikh Council UK. He may say this matter does not therefore concern him. We are not entirely sure which of the two coexisting Sikh Council UK’s we should talk to, nor we understand are the government.
He then goes on to make a veiled reference to us, saying these other Sikh organisations are debating whether Sikhs should be counted or not. Again, this is peculiar, and he appears to be ignorantly conflating the SFUK’s Sikh ‘ethnic’ tick box issue with perception-based hate crime reporting, when the two are separate and distinct. He says ‘we say [The Sikh Council UK he heads] we should be counted. We should know what’s happening with our ‘kaum’ and what problems there are’. Notably, the use of ‘kaum’ mirrors the language often used by the SFUK.
Anand should be aware, it was the NSO who discovered Sikhs and others are being recorded under ‘Islamophobic hate crime’ – something appreciated by Christians, Hindus, Atheists and others. It was the NSO that pushed back against Action Against Hate (2016) for marginalising the non-Abrahamic faith communities in favour of Abrahamic faiths. It was the NSO that then influenced (through giving oral and written evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee) policy when the government made a commitment to support Hindus and Sikhs in reporting hate crime. It was the NSO that has worked alongside Galop over the summer and collaborated with other organisations, the police and policy makers in #TogetherAgainstHate2020. We could go on.
Mr Anand boasts, ‘we are looking to get things done’, then refers to an APPG for British Sikhs Zoom meeting on anti-Sikh hate crime in which he participated. He later refers to other Sikh organisations, and asks the presenter if they are ‘democratic’ and ‘transparent’, then asking him if the NSO has ever come on his show? We asked The Sikh Council UK if Mr Anand was suggesting we are not ‘democratic’ or ‘transparent’, they did not respond. To set the record straight, we are happy to debate Mr Anand, but were not extended an invite to KTV, to have a right of reply. It’s important to note that Mr Anand’s friends, both in the SFUK and Preet Gill MP have previously ignored the offer to debate the ill-conceived Sikh ‘ethnic’ tick box with our Director, Lord Singh on more than one occasion.
Most shamefully of all Mr Anand failed to mention that in November 2008, the NSO organised the screening of the UK premier of Valarie Kaur’s film Divided We FallAmericans in the Aftermath in Central Gurdwara (Khalsa Jatha) London with a Q&A afterwards, with one Mr Anand. He can be seen giving an interview following the screening here.[iii]
We asked the Sikh Council UK to comment on why Mr Anand did not mention this given it was germane to the interview segment related to anti-Sikh hate crime, but they did not get back to us.
Last month we reported that we had produced hate crime guide to help signpost members of the Sikh community to organisations who can support them, as well as encouraging victims to report incidents to the police. We additionally produced a second guide designed to support organisations supporting Sikh victims.
The guides have been complied as part of a project, Together Against Hate, co-ordinated by the UK’s only specialist LGBT+ anti-violence charity Galop. The project has been funded by The Mayor’s Office for Policing And Crime (MOPAC).
Following a number of requests from gurdwaras and consultation with members of the community we have now translated the guides into Punjabi as well. We believe this step will ensure the important message of reporting incidents to the police and knowing where to get help and advice, will reach a much wider audience.
The Punjabi guide for individuals can be downloaded here:
This advice is primarily for the 130 NSO gurdwaras and other affiliated Sikh organisations. Please feel free to share it with other gurdwaras and groups.
Around 17th March 2020 many places of worship including churches, mosques and synagogues made the difficult decision to restrict or hold back services due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This followed direction from the Church of England (CoE), the Muslim Council of Britain, and the Office of the Chief Rabbi. The CoE recommended live stream sermons as an alternative to worship in church. At the same time, the Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) gave advice along similar lines to gurdwaras we collaborate with. On 20th of March we announced:
‘Many gurdwaras have already taken steps to curtail or completely stop services. Although it’s not an easy decision to make, following discussion with medical professionals some of whom are at the frontline of tackling the disease, we have concluded UK gurdwaras should seriously consider temporary closure of normal gatherings to prevent transmission of Covid-19.’
We followed this up with telephone calls to individual gurdwaras and management committee members.
Filling the gap caused by the temporary closure of gurdwaras
Our gurdwaras provide two main functions:
1. Congregational prayer or prayer in the sangat, which enhances individual prayer.
2. Strengthening Sikh community cohesion and a commitment to service, through langar (free kitchen) and social activities. The Covid-19 pandemic should be seen as a ‘chardi kala’ (high spirits) opportunity by Sikhs, to look afresh at the teachings of out Gurus, individually and within the family, and to reflect on how these can help us in our journey through life. The internet can help us through the establishment of a virtual congregation. Sikh women’s groups have already taken a lead through the establishment of Zoom facilitated Sukhmani Sahib prayer and similar initiatives. A gurdwara in Reading is now relaying kirtan (devotional hymns) from members’ homes to a wider audience in a way that keeps the local congregation together.
When is it safe to reopen gurdwaras?
The government is hoping that that places of worship will be able to function normally by 4th July 2020 (subject to scientific recommendations.) The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government taskforce have stressed it has to be a ‘phased and safe reopening of places of worship’. Unfortunately, the politically driven taskforce concept fails to understand the very real differences between Sikhism and the Abrahamic faiths, as well as different degrees of risk from Covid-19. We are sadly aware of the controversy surrounding the appointment of a Sikh ‘faith leader’ to the government taskforce, his resignation following community disquiet and the related harassment. The unseemly jostling to replace him has also been regrettable. It appears the government has been playing musical chairs with ‘prominent’ Sikhs.
Gurdwaras have a responsibility to follow government guidance. Before considering reopening gurdwaras it is important that management committees firstly follow existing government advice on mass gatherings and social distancing to help prevent the transmission of Covid-19 and control the spread of the virus.
One size does not fit all
We must also remember what applies to the CoE or synagogues may not necessarily apply to gurdwaras – the setting, environment and practice are different, as is the congregation’s demographic. For example, we have higher risk congregations in gurdwaras than most churches. As BAME communities and the over 70s are higher risk groups, gurdwaras need to be especially mindful. Many of the congregation who visit gurdwaras are almost always from the BAME community, being predominantly of Punjabi heritage. They also include a larger proportion of the elderly who are likely to have risk factors like diabetes and heart disease.
Other factors to consider
We must also factor in risks associated with the preparation and distribution of langar, and our ability to be able to socially distance in langar halls, as well as the Darbar hall. This may not be possible in all gurdwaras, due to limited space and it may not be feasible to create one-way systems for queueing as we have seen in supermarkets and in some gurdwaras. The installation of further sinks and facilitates to allow hand washing, and the availability of hand sanitising equipment should also be considered carefully when planning for a phased reopening. We should respect local autonomy in ensuring gurdwaras only open with necessary preparedness.
Specific suggestions to minimise risk of Covid-19
Write to gurdwara members and place notices reminding those wishing to attend for private prayer or services that they must be responsible for their own head covering and that scarves, dupattas or rumals will not be provided.
A recommendation that sanitising hand gel is applied as soon as practical on entering the gurdwara premises. (although we are cognisant some gurdwaras may not want to install alcohol gel dispensers on their premises, it will ultimately be their personal decision based on pragmatism, and the overriding objective to deal with Covid-19 in order to safeguard the community).
Ensuring adequate hand washing facilities and (or) a supply of sanitising hand gel at convenient points.
Disposable paper towels or air dryers that do not have to be operated by touching or the press of a button.
Bags or bins to collect disposable paper towels.
Reminders that members and visitors walk in the gurdwara keeping to one side, without coming in contact with other worshippers.
On entering the Darbar hall, individuals should respect social distancing rules and bow before the Guru Granth Sahib without touching the ground with their head or hands, and then move to a place in the congregation respecting social distancing requirements. Two-meter gaps to guide the sangat could be marked on the floor with masking tape.
We have given advice on funeral arrangements separately here.
The congregation’s health and safety are paramount
We believe gurdwara management committees need to consider the health and safety of the congregation (sangat) above and beyond anything else. A phased and managed reopening of gurdwaras in line with government guidance, but taking special precautions as mentioned previously is paramount. Although the financial implication of lockdown and the restrictions on gurdwaras is regrettable, this is a secondary issue and should under no circumstances be the primary focus of management committees. The most important thing is the health and safety of the sangat. Gurdwaras that choose to compromise on this may well be held accountable.
Disclaimer: This document is advice for UK gurdwaras affiliated to the NSO rather than strict guidance and should be treated as such. All gurdwara management committees ultimately have a duty of care to the congregation, they must follow government guidance and we recommend they also consider our advice carefully in looking to the safety and well-being of the congregation.
Peers debated the contents of draft Census (England and Wales) Order 2020 in the Lords earlier this week. The flawed Sikh ‘ethnic’ tick box argument was raised following a debate in the Commons last week in which Labour party politicians briefed by the Sikh Federation UK (SFUK) cited questionable statistics.
Our Director, Lord Singh who has been a prominent opponent of the SFUK’s tick box campaign told peers about the misunderstanding of the Mandla case from the 1980’s which SFUK rely upon and for which he was expert witness.
He said, ‘The law then protected ethnicity, but not religion, against discrimination. The Law Lords ruled that as most Sikhs in the UK then were born in Punjab and had Punjabi ethnicity, Sikhs were also entitled to protection. The criteria of birth and origin would not be met today, as most Sikhs are born in the UK, nor is such a convoluted protection necessary. The Equality Act 2010 gives full protection to religion.’
He went on, ‘The politically motivated federation falsely claims mass support, with questionable statistics. The ethnicity argument was discussed at the large gurdwara in Hounslow, in front of ONS officials, and was firmly rejected, yet the federation includes Hounslow among its supporters. Many Sikhs and people of other faiths are appalled at the way in which some politicians, anxious for votes, are willing to trample on the religious sensitivities of others and accept as fact the absurdities of those who shout the loudest. I urge that we look to what the different religious groups actually do for the well-being of their followers and wider society.’
Supporting Lord Singh’s position on the issue, Former Bishop of Oxford and crossbench peer Lord Harries of Pentregarth, said: ‘I believe that Sikhism is a great and very distinguished world religion. I do not think there should be any blurring of that fact and I worry that putting this in the ethnic minority category will somehow diminish what Sikhism has to offer as a world religion.’
Once the Order has been approved, Census Regulations will be laid before Parliament. According to the House of Commons Library, ‘the ONS aims to publish an initial set of census reports one year after it has taken place, and to make all outputs available within two years.’
We hope the British Sikh community can now move on from this debate and focus on the uplifting teachings of our global world religion, and all it has to offer today’s fractured society.
There is general guidance for Sikhs at a time of bereavement detailed in the Sikh Code of Practice (Sikh Reyat Maryada).
This will need to be amended/adapted in view of the necessity of limited contact to ensure safety in the current pandemic. General Sikh practice is described first, followed by specific suggestions to meet the current emergency.
BEREAVEMENT GUIDANCE FOR NORMAL TIMES
(a) No rituals derived from other religions, or from any other source, should be performed when a death occurs. Solace must be found in reading the Guru Granth Sahib and meditating on God.
(b) Deliberate exhibitions of grief or mourning are contrary to Sikh teachings. The bereaved should seek guidance and comfort in the hymns in the GuruGranth Sahib and try to accept God’s will.
(c) A dead person, even one who dies very young, should be cremated. However, if arrangements for cremation do not exist (e.g. at sea) the body may be disposed of by immersion in water.
(d) Cremation may be carried out at any convenient time whether day or night.
(e)For baptised (amritdhari) Sikhs, the five Ks should be left on the dead body, which should, if possible, be cleaned and clothed in clean garments before being placed in a coffin or on a bier.
(f) Hymns should be said as the body is taken to the place of cremation.
(g) A close relative should initiate the cremation and those assembled should sing appropriate hymns from the GuruGranth Sahib.
(h) The cremation ceremony is concluded with the Kirtan Sohila prayers and the saying of the Ardas.
(i) Prayers for the departed soul should then be commenced at the deceased’s home or at a convenient Gurdwara. These prayers should commence with the usual six stanzas of the Anand Sahib, the saying of Ardas and distribution of Kara Prashad, and should be continued for about ten days. The near relatives of the deceased should take as large a personal part in reading and listening to recitals from the Guru GranthSahib as possible.
(j) The ashes of the deceased may be disposed of by burial or by immersion in water, but it is contrary to Sikh belief to consider any river holy or especially suitable for this purpose.
(k) The erection of a memorial in any shape or form is contrary to Sikh belief.
GUIDANCE ON BEREAVEMENT DURING THE PANDEMIC
While we should bear the above guidance in mind, social distancing requirements will result in only a few close relatives of the deceased being present. In some circumstances no one may be able to attend. We should bear in mind that funeral rituals are designed to help surviving relatives and friends accept their sad loss in a dignified and contemplative way. This helps us understand that the soul has left for its heavenly abode and that the physical body of the deceased is no more and should be disposed of in a hygienic way, preferably by cremation.
Prayers in remembrance of the departed can be done at home by the family members or remotely (via video-telephony apps) with other friends and relatives participating. A donation to an appropriate charity in memory of the departed should also be considered. A full service in memory of the departed can, assuming pandemic restrictions are eased, be held on the first anniversary of the bereavement.
The NSO is
saddened by hearing about the death of Mr Manjeet Singh Riyat (52), Emergency
Medicine Consultant at University Hospitals of Derby and Burton, who passed
away yesterday (Monday 20 April) after contracting COVID-19 at Royal Derby
was a widely respected Accident & Emergency (A&E) consultant who played
a lead role in developing the Emergency Medicine Service in Derbyshire over the
last two decades. He was widely respected amongst his peers and seen as a role
model in the British Sikh community.
Boyle, Chief Executive of the hospital, said:
‘I want to
pay tribute to Mr Manjeet Riyat, who has sadly passed away. Mr Riyat, known to
his colleagues as Manjeet, was a widely respected consultant in emergency
medicine nationally. Manjeet was the first A&E consultant from the Sikh
community in the country and was instrumental in building the Emergency
Medicine Service in Derbyshire over the past two decades. He was an incredibly
charming person and well loved. Manjeet knew so many people here across the
hospital, we will all miss him immensely.’
Our Director, Lord Singh said:
‘Manjeet Singh Riyat embodied everything a Gursikh should be. Although he was a leader in his field, he was always ready to work at the sharp end of A&E, setting the highest standards of care and inspiring all those who worked with him. Sadly, his dedication to duty cost him his life. May Waheguru bless his soul. Our thoughts are with his wife and family. May Waheguru help them bear their sad loss.’
leaves behind a wife and two sons
At this time
of national crisis, we also pray for the health and safety of the hundreds of
doctors and care workers working tirelessly to help COVID-19 victims.