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Last week Conservative peer Lord Naseby asked Her Majesty’s Government what measures were being taken to ‘combat extremist propaganda released through multimedia channels, particularly social media, videos, the internet and other online sources.’ The focus of Lord Naseby’s question was limited to online activity, however the NSO acknowledges the issue is not limited to this alone, but is far more complex.

Pointing to issues beyond the internet and specifically interpretation of religion, NSO Director Lord Singh said, ‘My Lords, does the Minister agree that what generally passes for religion is not only ethical guidance for sane living, but a sometimes oppressive culture and a shared history often bent or moulded to dislike or hate others?’

He went on, ‘It is such material that is used to radicalise people. Does the Minister agree that there should be open debate about these things and that this aspect of religion should not be protected by political correctness if we want a truly healthy society?’

Minister of State Baroness Williams said, ‘Lord Singh, as always, makes insightful points.’ She added, ‘The Prime Minister said the other day that we must be prepared to have difficult conversations and I totally agree.’

The European court of justice’s (ECJ) recent ruling on religious symbols which grants companies the right to ban employees from wearing visible religious symbols will not apply to the UK according to a government Minister.

Europe’s highest court decided on cases involving two Muslim women and their right to wear headscarves at work. The court ruled the garments could be banned, but only as part of a broader policy for all political and religious symbolism in the workplace.

Minister of State, Baroness Williams of Trafford confirmed the ECJ  decision would not have a bearing on the UK, she said: “We will protect and uphold the freedoms that have been allowed in this country, as we always have done. It will not affect our domestic law.”

Lord Singh said, “I thank the Government for the clarity and forcefulness of the Statement protecting religious minorities. The law in Europe seems to be in a mess because of the two conflicting judgments. They are conflicting because if the Human Rights Council says that people have the right to manifest their religion, that should be absolute. Otherwise, it becomes very difficult.”

He went on: “Who decides? In France and Belgium, the Governments overrule that judgment. Sikh schoolchildren cannot go to a public school with a turban and people who want a passport photo have to take their turban off. This is just absurd. I do not know whether there is anything the Government can do to explain that absurdity to those in Europe.”

The full debate can be read here.

The extraordinary contribution of Indian soldiers to the Great War effort was highlighted with launch of the ‘Legacy of Valour’ exhibition in Parliament last week.

The exhibition marked the inordinate contribution of 1.5m Indian soldiers who fought in the many theatres of war during 1914-18. The exhibition launch last Monday was attended by His Excellency Mr. Y.K. Sinha (Indian High Commissioner), Baroness Flather, Lord Singh of Wimbledon and Reading West MP Alok Sharma.

Organiser Inderpal Singh Dhanjal said that the overwhelming reaction of those who attended the opening ceremony was that it was both inspirational and informative. Mr Dhanjal said attendees told him the exhibition “must be shown in other cities to educate and raise awareness of the sacrifices of Sikh and other Indian soldiers in WW1.”

Although the exhibition in Parliament is now closed, Mr Dhanjal informed the NSO he is in negotiations with interested parties and will be organising another viewing in the South East.

 

 

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.

CoxLast week saw the second reading of Baroness Cox’s arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill, which aims to protect the rights of women under Sharia courts operating in Britain.

Baroness Cox who has long fought for human rights said, “we must not condone situations where rulings are applied which are fundamentally incompatible with the laws, values, principles and policies of our country.”

She went on, “Muslim women are today suffering in ways in which would make suffragettes turn in their graves.” The proposals in her Bill have been described as a “lifeline” for vulnerable women, some of whom had provided evidence of their plight to an All Party Parliamentary Group on “Honour” Based violence.

Baroness Cox described Sharia councils as “a rapidly developing alternative quasi-legal system, which undermines the fundamental principle of one law for all.”

Lord Singh the Director of the Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) thanked Baroness Cox for her tireless work in supporting vulnerable members of society across the globe.

He said, “negative attitudes to women, all too evident in Islam, have become embedded in religious texts, which, as we have heard, give less weightage to the word of a woman, and lesser inheritance rights. There are also particular problems with attitudes to divorce. These negative attitudes prevent Islam from playing its full part in social improvement. I have many Muslim friends and most are happily married and a credit to society. But sharia law and divorce are heavily weighted in favour of men and are at variance with the law of this country.”

He went on, “we cannot have a parallel judicial system, particularly one that discriminates against women. We have today heard many examples of the weightage against women in the proceedings of sharia courts and the resulting suffering. We have heard the concerns of our Prime Minister, Theresa May, when as Home Secretary she referred to wives being left in penury and a supposed right of husbands to chastise their wives.”

Lord Singh said the proposals in the Bill would not only “safeguard the position of women in the Islamic community”, but also “leave Islam stronger and better able to play its full part in the world of today.”

The full debate can be viewed here.

Yesterday, a Department of Health taskforce published a report recommending sweeping changes in the funding and operation of mental health provision for children and adolescents. The report follows a series of Times articles on a growing epidemic of mental health problems in children and adolescents resulting in a huge rise in children resorting to self-harm and exhibiting symptoms of anxiety and depression in schools.

Many are seeking treatment for mental health problems in hospitals, or worse ending up in prisons. In one of these articles, the columnist Libby Purves highlights the urgent need for parents, to re-set their priorities and recognise the ground realities of pressures on their children.

Her comments reminded me of a story of Guru Nanak meeting with a group of people in a mountain retreat searching for an understanding of God. They greeted the Guru with the words ‘ how goes the world below’ the Guru was not impressed and told the group that God was not to be found in the wilderness but in the service of family and wider society.

Today there’s not much wilderness left for retreat – selfish or otherwise – but it is all too easy to spend all our time on personal pursuits or lose, ourselves in the virtual wilderness of the internet to the neglect of those around. Worse, in the absence of comfort and support from parents, children may look to friendship, love and support on internet chat lines oblivious to the dangers of grooming, blackmail and the hurt that can be caused by on-line bullying.

While yesterday’s promise of enhanced provision will help, Sikh teachings and those of sister faiths suggest that the real remedy lies in the home.

Reflecting on parental responsibility, Guru Nanak reminded us that the birth of a child comes with an attached responsibility for the child’s care and comfort that continues even if parents split. It is the family rather than on the internet that children should share both triumphs and concerns and receive time consuming but necessary encouragement and support. Today, obsession with personal fulfilment has replaced a search for God. Our different faiths remind us that both personal fulfilment and God can be found in looking beyond ourselves to the care and support of those around us.

One of the first Sikh Prisoners in British jails was Shahid Udham Singh, a friend of my parents. Udham Singh was hanged in Pentonville prison in 1940 for shooting Sir Michael O’Dwyer at a meeting in Caxton Hall, London. O’ Dwyer was Governor of Punjab at the time of the infamous Jallianwala Bagh massacre. He was regularly visited in prison by my father Dr Diwan Singh who would travel up from Birmingham.

In the 60s and 70s the hippy movement was in full swing and long hair became fashionable. Restrictions on long hair in prisons led to a problem for the Church of England (CoE) Chaplaincy, with some inmates claiming that they were Sikhs and should be exempt from the requirement to keep their hair short.

Although the law stated that it was a wholly Church of England Chaplaincy, there was some provisions for other Christian denominations and for Jews.   With some people now calling themselves Sikhs, the Chaplain General realised that he needed guidance on other faiths. He invited myself and a Muslim from the Regent’s Park Mosque to join us at the quarterly Chaplaincy Council meetings. (A few years later we were joined by a Hindu and a Buddhist).

The meetings were conducted around a long table and we were made to sit at one end while the agenda was being discussed at the other end. If we raised any issue or concern, the Chaplain General would look at us in a hostile way. Fortunately we both had thick skins!

By the middle of the 80s, the number of Sikhs in prison had increased significantly from a handful to nearly 300 (now more nearly 800) mainly due to political agitation connected with the attack on the Golden Temple and the mass killing of Sikhs throughout India in 1984.

I felt every Sikh in prison should receive regular visits and support. I persuaded a few friends around the country to act as contact points or Regional Managers and it was their duty to find granthis or other retired people to visit prisons in their area. Much later, and with great difficulty, I got agreement from the Chaplaincy Council for the Sikh Chaplains to be paid for travelling and attendance time.

There were many battles with the Chaplaincy Council over bringing in Krah Prashad and occasional langar for Sikh Services, and over the right of Sikhs to wear karas and a turban, and for Sikh Ministers to wear a kirpan. Eventually it was agreed that a kirpan of up to six inches in length, could be worn by the Sikh minister providing it was concealed from view.

Respect for other faiths improved considerably with the appointment of a new Chaplain General, William Noblett in the 90s. He had lived in India and had a great regard for Sikhs. On our first meeting he greeted me with Sat Siri Akal and a big smile. William was determined to change the Anglican Chaplaincy to a Multi Faith Chaplaincy.

For the first time we were invited to the Annual Chaplaincy Conference with the designation of Faith Advisors. Additionally, we were allowed a Sikh Training Day. We also began having Sikh Chaplaincy meetings at our own expense. The Home Office gave each Other Faith Chaplaincy a small annual grant, currently £17,000 (less than the cost of a part-time secretary) to manage spiritual and pastoral care for every Sikh in every prison and young offenders institution in the whole of England and Wales. The grant helps pay a small part of the office and administrative expenses, with the Director, Deputy Director and Regional Managers all working without payment. Sikhs are now ahead of other chaplaincies in also extending chaplaincy services to Scotland, with the help of resources from the Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO).

Much has been achieved with the recognition of special provision for religious festivals. We have also compiled Prison Service Instructions (PSIs) giving an outline of the Sikh faith and faith requirements. Another area of progress is that we now have three full-time and one part-time salaried Sikh chaplains.

Progress has not however been uniform. The Prison Chaplaincy is only advisory and is not a part of the management structure of the Prison Service. When a Sikh Minister at one prison was summarily dismissed, I was told I could not be given the reason because I was not a paid employee! I upset the new Chaplain General by appealing to the Head of the Prison Service who finally condescended to tell me that the Minister’s kirpan had fall loose and he was seen picking it up from the floor. He, like all other Sikh Chaplains at the time and most still now, was a ‘Sessional Chaplain’ paid only for the hours he worked with no employment rights of appeal.

There have also been some self-created problems. There was a court appearance with a Sikh prisoner threatening to go on a hunger strike for special facilities. I attended court to assist him and saw him being slipped a packet of cigarettes by a friend. There are warnings not to bring in food from outside. Despite this, a well-meaning chaplain inadvertently brought in drugs laced samosas. Another Sikh Chaplain was caught smuggling drugs in his turban.

Dietary Problems

We have worked to ensure that the Sikh Chaplaincy PSI contains accurate information on Sikh dietary requirements in accordance with the teachings of the Gurus and the Sikh Reyat Maryada. The PSI, in line with the Sikh Reyat Maryada, explains that Sikhs do not eat halal but other than this the eating of meat or vegetarianism is an individual choice. The PSI also explains that many Sikhs will not eat beef and a fewer number will not eat pork.

Pressure from the significantly more numerous Muslim inmates has led to the frequent serving of halal meals. Patient negotiation with the Head of Prison Catering with veiled threats of resorting to Equalities legislation has resulted in an acceptance that if halal meat is provided, there must also be a non-halal meat option; something sadly still not yet achieved in schools and public services catering.

Whereas langar used to be brought in from gurdwaras, the official prison line now is that it must be prepared in-house to meet health and safety requirements for which they are ultimately responsible. They have agreed that this can be done by the Sikh prisoners or under the supervision of Sikhs. Some prisons however, still raise no objection to langar being brought in from outside. Some Sikhs are vegans and we work with prison catering to accommodate their needs.

More recently, a member of a Sikh sect says that he will not eat food cooked or served by those outside his sect, including the sharing of krah prashad. He also insists that he can only eat food cooked and eaten in an iron vessel. Unfortunately some outside members of his sect claim that this amounts to religious discrimination, misquoting Gurbani and the Reyat Maryada to justify an exclusiveness that goes against the whole thrust of Sikh teachings on equality. We have managed to help this individual by securing an iron bowl and spoon and a supply of cereals and he is happy with this. While we will continue to help, we are not prepared to bend Sikh teachings as some would like. One Sikh website has suggested that ‘Lord Singh has refused to support an Amritdhari Gursikh in practicing Sikh teachings.’ The same website declined to publish a reply and an offer to discuss the issue on any Sikh TV channel.

Other Challenges

There are still many other challenges. The main language now spoken by Sikh prisoners is English, with many Sikhs (mostly non-practising) being sent to prison for drink and drugs offences and crimes of passion. Some Sikh chaplains still have a poor command of English, and there is a need for more focussed recruitment. Some Managing Chaplains who are all non-Sikhs, to save money, try to pressurise Sikh Ministers to forgo their statutory weekly visit and come in fortnightly or once a month. We believe this is unfair to Sikh prisoners and are working to stop this. We are also pressing for Sikh chaplains to be accorded the same hours for religious teaching and prison duties as is given to those of the Christian and Muslim faiths.

Conclusion

I am concerned at the growing number of educated young Sikhs who seem to believe that they are doing their bit by looking for faults in the work being done by others trying to live our Gurus’ teachings. My message is emulate, and hopefully surpass their work, for the benefit of our community.

In conclusion, I would like to express my grateful thanks to the Sikh Chaplaincy team, particularly to Honorary Deputy Director Inder Singh Chawla, Gagandeep Singh Recruitment and Training Manager, and all the Regional managers and chaplains for their unstinted and selfless support in this important seva to vulnerable members of our community. Thanks to their enthusiastic efforts, and that of all Sikh chaplains, hundreds of Sikhs have now turned their lives around and are making a valued contribution to society.

Lord Singh, Director Network of Sikh Organisations

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