Where Unity Is Strength

Background: Iain Bell Deputy National Statistician for Population and Public Policy at the Office for National Statistics (ONS) had been invited to the gurdwara over the weekend to discuss concerns felt by the committee over attempts to categorise the Sikh community as an ethnic group. This was as a private meeting to be held with a few members of the committee. An invitation had also been extended to Lord Singh of Wimbledon. As he was not a member of the committee, he first obtained clearance from Iain Bell that it would be OK for him to attend.

On the day of the event a number of people from The Sikh Federation (SFUK) turned up uninvited at the gurdwara demanding to be heard. Ian Bell felt he’d already heard the SFUK’s views on a number of occasions, and wanted to hear the views of other parts of the Sikh community. The President of Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha Hounslow generously allowed in individuals from the SFUK to join the meeting.

Iain Bell proceeded in giving a short presentation about the census and its importance. The meeting was then opened for general discussion. In an abuse of hospitality, the SFUK began recording proceedings and taking over the meeting, stating Sikhs were an ethnic group and must be monitored as such. Lord Singh of Wimbledon explained that the House of Lords in 1983 had allowed for Sikhs to be counted as an ethnic group solely for protection under the 1976 Race Relations Act. This this was done because there was then no protection against religious discrimination, but the situation today was different because all religions are protected by legislation. He explained that Sikhism was a world religion, which should not be confined to those of Punjabi ethnicity.

Iain Bell confirmed that there was no substantial under-recording of Sikhs in the response to the question on religion. In response to a question on the possible misuse of data, he also confirmed that that there were rigid checks in place to prevent this.

Lord Singh, emphasised that all Sikh organisations should use their influence to get the fullest possible response to the religious question. He reminded the meeting that at the time of the 2011 census some Sikhs had ill advisedly campaigned against identifying Sikhism by Sikhs as a religion.

In reply to a question Iain Bell of the ONS explained the importance of ethnicity in providing appropriate medical and other services to those from different parts of the world. Members of the Hounslow gurdwara management committee were unanimous in their view that Sikhs were members of a world religion that was not limited by constraints of ethnicity and people could be Sikhs from different ethnic backgrounds. Some of the arguments advanced by SFUK, varying between the questionable and ludicrous are given below:

  • One gentleman stated that he had seen figures that gave the Sikh population in Hounslow as 25% and he felt it should be higher. The gurdwara president who explained that the Sikhs formed no more than 10 per cent of the population of Hounslow corrected him. (We have since corroborated this with official ONS figures.)
  • Another argued that ethnic monitoring was necessary to protect Sikhs against discrimination, but failed to explain where such discrimination was taking place.
  • Another argued that the Sikhs should be given a favoured status because of the contribution Sikhs had made to Britain over the years.

Some of the arguments used by those who felt Sikhs should be recorded as a religion only are given below:

  • Ethnicity is linked to genetic makeup and that trying to tie religion to ethnicity leads to absurdities. A Committee member asked the SFUK, does a person’s ethnicity embody DNA change if he or she converts to Sikhism? This was met with silence from the SFUK representatives.
  • The Sikh Gurus have always taught against dividing people into different groups and races, emphasising we are all members of the same one human race.
  • Guru Nanak travelled the length and breadth of India and to different countries to emphasize the universality of Sikh teachings. People from any part of the world can become Sikhs.
  • No evidence had been produced to show that Sikhs would gain in any material way by being classified as an ethnic group, but even if there were, it would be wrong to try and gain material benefits by compromising Sikh teachings.
  • Lord Singh reminded the meeting that the Mandla case in the early eighties was fought to protect the rights of a Sikh schoolboy to wear Sikh religious symbols. He explained that ethnic monitoring could prevent such protection. He gave the example of a large organisation like the BBC being shown to have the right number of ethnic Sikhs, masking possible discrimination against those that wear Sikh symbols.
  • Lord Singh said there was considerable discrimination against Sikhs in the provision of services by the government and various government bodies. Communities like Jews and Muslims were being given additional resources, not as a result of ethnic monitoring, but because of effective lobbying, (neither community is categorised as an ethnic group by the census). Today, hate crimes against Sikhs are still being recorded under the ‘Islamophobic hate crime’ category by forces like the MET and other agencies. Ethnic monitoring cannot help remove this blatant discrimination.

In response to calls from SFUK members to arrange more meetings, Iain Bell said that he would like to reflect on what he’d heard, and if whether or not an effective case had been made for a Sikh ethnic tick box or not. Members of the gurdwara committee made clear they saw no sense and only confusion in a separate Sikh ethnic tick box. Bell confirmed the ONS had received legal threats from certain sections of the Sikh community if the ‘ethnic Sikh tick box’ wasn’t included in the 2021 census.

The meeting concluded with the President Gurmit Singh Hanzara and all present thanking Iain Bell of the ONS for coming to Hounslow from South Wales on a Saturday, and wishing him by a comfortable journey back home.

Satvinder Singh Joint General Secretary at Hounslow gurdwara said:  ‘Gurdwara, Sri Guru Singh Sabha Hounslow (SGSS) held a successful meeting on 16 December 2017 with the Office of National Statistics (ONS). The object of the meeting was for SGSS Managment to understand the overall situation and provide its view, which was in the main generated via a previous internal meeting.’

He went on: ‘In view of continued progress on the issue of ‘authenticity’, the Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) not only kindly accepted our invitation to attend but also helped immensely by providing structure and input to the event. We are most thankful to Lord Indarjit Singh and the NSO for their contribution and assistance.’

On Monday evening representatives from the NSO participated in an Office for National Statistics (ONS) meeting in London regarding the Sikh Federation UK’s ongoing lobbying for the inclusion of a Sikh ‘ethnic’ tick box in the 2021 census.

Notably, the ONS informed audience members they had widely consulted Sikh groups, namely the Sikh Federation UK, the Sikh Network and the APPG for British Sikhs. To anyone outside the Sikh community this would on first inspection appear to be something of a community wide consultation. However the truth is all the aforementioned groups are in reality inextricably linked. Perhaps unbeknown to the ONS, Dabinderjit Singh is an advisor to the Sikh Federation UK, founder of the Sikh Network, and the Sikh Federation UK is the current secretariat to the APPG for British Sikhs. Preet Gill MP, Chair of the APPG remains an active board member of the Sikh Network. We take the view that this has therefore been far from a representative consultation with British Sikhs, but rather with the Sikh Federation UK, its affiliates and friends.

At the start of Monday’s discussion, our Director Lord Singh asked the ONS if they had taken into consideration Sikh teachings, and specifically the edict of Guru Nanak who rejected the labeling of individuals on caste, ethnic, race or any other lines of perceived difference. Sikh teachings emphasise the equality of all human beings. Lord Singh provided a robust Q&A on ‘Sikhs and ethnicity’ to the ONS at the meeting, which can be read here.

During the event another NSO delegate raised the issue of evidence-based research on South Asians (Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans) that shows they are at more risk of strokes and heart attacks. He said healthcare professionals offer advice on lifestyle modification and prophylactic therapies, and ethnicity is an important risk factor for them to consider. We take the view that in such cases involving cardiovascular risk, it would be irresponsible and furthermore dangerous to deny one’s Indian heritage. The risk factor for a Sikh convert of Caucasian heritage would of course be different. We are confident the ONS will take this into consideration.

After careful deliberation, we’ve decided to speak out about some further concerns. In short, we were taken aback by the conduct of some of the delegates at the meeting. Amrik Singh, Chair of the Sikh Federation UK openly boasted that his organisation had previously sued the ONS, spending £10,000 in doing so. He did not however clarify the outcome of the litigation. After the event, some delegates (who have chosen to remain anonymous) informed us how the meeting environment had made them feel intimidated. One was aggressively told to ‘shut up’ in Punjabi. We are aware that some individuals subsequently flagged concerns with the organisers. Regrettably, our Director was also heckled and jeered for simply putting forward his point on Guru Nanak’s teachings.

Embarrassingly others accused the ONS of being like some kind of modern day extension of the British Empire, and playing ‘divide and rule’. An attendee told The Sikh Council supremo Gurmel Kandola to leave the room for not respecting the meeting format. Another supporting the Sikh ‘ethnic’ tick box proposal, oddly suggested that the whole idea of Sikhism as a great world religion was an invention of the British. There appeared to be significant numbers of Sikh Federation supporters at the meeting, but regrettably very few Sikh women. We would like to take the opportunity to commend the ONS for their patience, expert facilitation and professionalism at an event fraught with difficulty and tension from the outset. They themselves faced significant vitriol from some of those present.

Importantly, the ONS shared their own quantitative research on the Sikh ‘ethnic group’ question, which was conducted with Sikhs in both Hounslow and Wolverhampton this year. These areas were chosen because of their sizeable Sikh communities. Summarising their findings the ONS concluded, there was no indication that the inclusion of the proposed box ‘provides any additional information over the religious question about the Sikh population’. Moreover they said the research, ‘indicated that the religious affiliation question better captures the size of the Sikh population’.

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