Where Unity Is Strength
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On 23 July 2018 the APPG for British Sikhs, which is run by the Sikh Federation UK, announced they had written to 250 gurdwaras asking them if they supported their campaign for a separate Sikh ethnic tick box for the 2021 census. They say they received just over one hundred responses, confirming: ‘in a remarkable show of unity all 112 Gurdwaras, that include the largest Gurdwaras in the UK, have indicated they are in favour of a separate Sikh ethnic tick box.’

The figure of 112 was reported in the Times and has been something referred to in a number of articles in the mainstream media. We now have concerns about whether or not this number is accurate. A tweet by @SikhFedUK on 23 August 2018 (above) suggested Hounslow gurdwara (Alice Way) were one of the 112 that wrote to the APPG for British Sikhs in support of the ethnic tick box.

We asked Hounslow gurdwara if this was the case or not. The Joint General Secretary told us: ‘I was surprised to hear that allegedly, Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha Hounslow had changed its position on Sikhi not being an ethnic group. Having checked with the President and the General Secretary today (both copied on this email), I confirm that we stand with the NSO and have not changed our position. We are of the view Sikhi is a religion made up of diverse ethnicity which cannot be classed as a single ethnic group.’

We have asked the Sikh Federation UK for comment, but they haven’t yet responded.

Interestingly, when Dr Jagbir Jhutti-Johal from the University of Birmingham raised legitimate questions in an article titled ‘Sikh ethnic tick box in the 2021 Census and a question about research and methodology’, she was bombarded with vitriolic tweets, some deliberately tagged into her employers. Given what we now know about Hounslow, should the secretariat to the APPG for British Sikhs not urgently release the list of 112 gurdwaras, briefing supplied and responses received?

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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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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