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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.

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Q&A SIKHS AND ETHNICITY

October 26th, 2017 | Posted by Singh in Current Issues - (0 Comments)

Protest in London following Court of Appeal decision in Mandla v Dowell Lee

Q: What is ethnicity and why is it important?

A: Ethnicity refers to shared hereditary characteristics like environment, culture, religion, diet etc. Some of these factors are reflected in our DNA and the degree to which people from different cultures in different parts of the world are affected by certain diseases and ailments. For example, people from the West Indies are more prone to sickle cell anaemia. People from Punjab are more likely to suffer from heart and liver disease than people in the West.

Identifying ethnicity is particularly helpful in the planning of medical services to meet the needs of immigrants from different parts of the world.

Q: What is the link between ethnicity and religion?

A: Religion is considered relevant to ethnicity because those sharing a religion in a particular part of the world, often share a common diet and lifestyle.

Q: What was the Mandla Case and why is it sometimes mentioned in Sikh discussions on ethnicity.

A: The Mandla Case was fought in 1982. It concerned a Sikh schoolboy Gurinder Singh Mandla who was being denied entry to a school wearing a turban on the grounds that it was against the school rules. The Head agreed that it was religious discrimination but not against the law. At the time there was no law against religious discrimination.

Q: The 1976 Race Relations Act protected people against discrimination on the grounds of race, nationality and ethnic origin, but not against discrimination on the grounds of religion.

A: The then Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) wanted to try to prove that Sikhs were a race. In a meeting in my house with representatives of Bindman and Partners (solicitors for the CRE), the Barrister Harjit Singh and myself, I advised against the use of race as the concept of different races was against Sikh teachings, which emphasise we are all members of one human race. Instead we agreed to go for the less rigid concept ethnicity, on the grounds that most Sikhs in the UK at the time came were born in the Punjab, spoke Punjabi as their first language, shared Punjabi culture and common diet.

The case went up to the House of Lords where the Judges ruled that for the purpose of protection against discrimination, we could be considered an ethnic group.

Q: Does this mean that Sikhs are a distinct ethnic Group?

A:  No. It simply means that Sikhs from any part of the world, including converts of any ethnicity, are entitled to protection against discrimination while in the UK as if they were a distinct ethnic group. We still retain the ethnicity with which we were born. Our DNA and susceptibility or relative immunity to some diseases cannot be changed by legislation.

Q: Are there any advantages in writing ‘Sikh’ in the ethnic tick box?

A: It is claimed that monitoring will result in improved opportunities in employment and in the provision of services to the Sikh community. In reality, ethnic monitoring can only provide a broad snapshot of relative disadvantage. There is no evidence of any community actually benefitting from ethnic monitoring. On the other hand there is clear evidence of Jews and Muslims using political lobbying to enhance their position.

Q: Are there any disadvantages in writing ‘Sikh’ in the ethnic tick box.

A: Yes. Firstly, If a large employer, like the BBC were monitored to see if they were employing an acceptable quota of Sikhs, it might be shown that they were employing an acceptable number of ‘supposed ethnic Sikhs’. It would not reveal any discrimination against visible identity Sikhs. It should be remembered that the Mandla Case was fought to protect Sikh identity. Practicing Sikhs and non-practicing Sikhs would be seen as one and the same.

Q: Shouldn’t non-practicing Sikhs be protected by law.

A: Of course. As Sikhs we should be committed to protecting all people against discrimination, religious or otherwise. However, in reality, Sikhs without a visible identity, suffer no more discrimination than say, Hindus and Muslims. We should not compromise the Gurus’s teachings to give additional protection to those not committed to Sikh teachings.

Q: Why do you feel strongly against Sikhs calling themselves an ethnic group.

A: In the 60s I saw a Daily Telegraph crossword with a clue-4 letters; a Punjabi Hindu, The answer the next day was ‘Sikh’. In schools nothing was known about Sikh teachings and we were described as martial race or tribe. Hindu leaders insisted that Sikhs were simply a sub-set of Hindus.

Some of us worked hard to show that the uplifting teachings of our Gurus constituted a distinct religion that in its tolerance and respect for different beliefs had much to offer today’s world. Through broadcasts and the media, in interfaith meetings and in lectures across the world, including the Vatican, and in discussions on the school curriculum, we managed to get Sikhism recognised as one of the six major religions of the world.

Sikhs in the UK, Canada and many parts of the world are competing successfully without ethnic monitoring. It is sad to see some people, for questionable motives trying to reduce us to some sort of ethnic tribe to be monitored and counted like some sort of endangered species.

Sikhs should focus on trying to ensure that all Sikhs enter ‘Sikh’ in the religious tick box with pride in our Guru given identity.

Lord Singh of Wimbledon

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