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Sikh Representation In UK And Politics


UK Sikhs have yet to present a united front to the government regarding Sikh issues and concerns.

This article looks at three main categories (groups) in the UK claiming to represent Sikh issues to the government. The first group is centred around either Sikh “independence” movement, or independent Sikh “identity” objectives (the distinction is important); the second around “dera” type of “spiritual head” sects; and the third centred around individual activists – usually accusing each other of “self promotion” - who have the government’s “ear”.

The Kirpan ban at Heathrow Airport , 9/11 (September 2001) saw the turning point in UK Sikh politics in connection with representation of Sikh issues to the government. Almost overnight, without any consultation, Amritdhari Sikh workers were banned from wearing the Kirpan in “restricted zones” at Heathrow and other UK airports under “Heightened Security Measures”. The formal date for implementing these measures was 26 September 2001.

The Kirpan issue exposed lack of transparency in UK Sikh affairs. Someone advised the government soon after 9/11 (September 2001), that Sikhs can wear miniature wooden or plastic Kirpan. This infuriated Sikh organizations. It was never revealed who was consulted and gave that advice but the meetings that followed resulted in the setting up of some sort of open British Sikh Consultative Forum (BSCF) on 6 July 2002. Many important UK Sikh organizations interested in interface between the Sikhs and the government were represented at that and some later meetings. The main aims of the Forum and a prioritised “Sikh agenda” were agreed. The BSCF could have evolved over a period of time into some sort of umbrella body to discuss and agree issues of common concern to all UK Sikhs; but that was not to be. Soon a competing registered organisation by the same name was set up. Thus the opportunity for forming a united Sikh front on Sikh issues was lost.

To understand the current position regarding UK Sikh representation, we need to look back at events triggered by 1984 invasion of Darbar Sahib by Indian troops.

1984 events in India impacted directly on UK Sikh affairs. Many important Gurdwaras were taken over by youngish Sikhs supporting the independent Sikh homeland cause. They had much support from the Sangats (Gurdwara congregations) as a reaction to Darbar Sahib invasion and November 1984 mass killing of Sikhs in Delhi and many other Indian cities. As elsewhere, many in this mass movement were driven by “qaomi josh” (Sikh national sentiments) and, despite displaying visible Sikh identity, had little knowledge of Sikh ideology or tradition. Some, who became prominent later, were clean shaven before they joined the movement. This broad coalition of Sikh organisations started losing credibility for a number of reasons, not least of which was the negative image of some opportunists amongst them, who had taken charge of Gurdwara resources without any accountability to the Sangats. In later years, there have been some moderating educated influences at work in this category regarding presentation of Sikh grievances with greater stress on UK/European Sikh issues. Many mainstream “Sikh identity” supporters, albeit, not necessarily subscribing to the political objective of Khalistan, tend to be closer to this broad category. Other moderate groupings are content to join them on issues when it suits them. This is the first broad category with claim to mainstream Sikh representation.

The second faction seeking Sikh representation is centred around the “dera” or “sant” tradition. The most prominent centre being Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha, which has done much good work in many fields. Sant Amar Singh based at Wolverhampton has own following and has led in the area of Sikh schools in UK. The interests of this group can be distinguished from other groups. Essentially, they would like to promote own type of Sikhi in the “sant” tradition (not quite in line with Sikh Reht Maryada), whereby “sangats” are centred around individual “spiritual heads”. The latter would therefore expect to be regarded as representing the UK Sikhs when talking to the governments of UK and Europe. It suited the interests of this group to support the formation a “membership” type of “British Sikh Consultative Forum” to challenge representational credentials of others. Some organisations have become attached to this forum. In some areas like government restrictions on visas for Gurdwara granthis, representation made by this grouping conflict with other groups which support immigration of qualified bilingual, Panjabi and English speaking granthis only. On the question of Sikh monitoring, a divisive issue, the stand of Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha, although generally supportive, has never been very clear. This is the second broad grouping claiming Sikh representation.

The third category in the Sikh representation politics is centred around individuals, and is probably the most successful to date. The most influential is the Network of Sikh Organisations due to the personal contacts of the founder and director, Indarjit Singh through his interfaith involvement for many decades. The government and the media prefer to deal with individuals with experience of presenting issues and arguments in the accepted format. That is understandable. However, due to lack of any genuine teamwork bringing together complementary skills and knowledge, or covering a wider spectrum of Sikh viewpoints, can work against broader community interests and effective representation of community concerns at grassroots level. Compromises are expected by the establishment, and can be made knowingly or unwittingly.

To some extent, the cyber forums and the All Party Parliamentary Group for UK Sikhs have taken over as open forum facilities for discussion of Sikhs issues. Regrettably, on the question of a united front by UK Sikhs to safeguard their interests and to seek joint direction on many questions requiring interpretation of religious ideology, seems unlikely in the foreseeable future. In the meantime, there are many local and project based organisations doing much good to promote Sikh education, heritage and identity through local initiatives.

Gurmukh Singh

Some notes:
After Sikh representations the Amritdhari Sikhs at the airport were allowed to wear Kirpan with 3 inch blade, and later, via European legislation, this length was reduced to 6 cm i.e. about 2.5 inches. Kirpan is allowed in public places including the law courts but there are no nationwide guidelines. The present situation is that there is a half hearted attempt by the government to address this issue. Otherwise, wearing the Kirpan is a defence against carrying an offensive weapon but not a religious “right” of the Sikhs.

Sikh monitoring remains a highly divisive issue.
Sikh monitoring in the UK should have been a logical next step to the House of Lords Mandla case decision in 1983. The Sikhs have been accepted an “ethnic” (non-racial) minority – a “qaum” if you like - so that Sikhs are protected as a distinct group under the Race relations law.. .
Indarjit Singh, most influential in government circles through his interfaith work, supports monitoring of Sikhs on the basis of “religion”, which is a voluntary question in the national census. Otherwise, the routine monitoring at local and national level public and private sectors follows the same racial and “ethnic” (non-racial religio-cultural) categories as the national census. Due partly to internal Sikh divisions on the question of monitoring, the Sikhs are not shown as a distinct category for this purpose. Therefore, there is no consistent basis for Sikh monitoring to ensure a level playing field and equal treatment in different spheres.