The divisive UK campaign for a ‘Sikh’ ethnic tick box

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Letter from 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.

ARCHIVE: Article from 1983 following the Mandla v Dowell Lee ruling

SIKHS AND ETHNICITY

By Lord Singh of Wimbledon CBE, D Lit., DL
EXPLANATION OF ETHNICITY

An ethnic group relates to people emanating from a particular part of the world who have common physical and cultural characteristics. It became important to Sikhs in the early 80s because a School Head deliberately discriminated against a Sikh schoolboy in refusing to allow him to wear a turban at school. The Head was legally entitled to do this because the 1976 Race Relations Act, while giving protection against discrimination on grounds of nationality or ethnic origin, gave no protection against religious discrimination.

At a meeting held in my house with representatives of the then Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) and their solicitors Bindmans, I suggested that we should try claiming protection under ethnicity, as at that time, most Sikhs in the UK were born in India, spoke Punjabi as their first language and had other distinctive ways of life, including religion. Our case eventually went to the House of Lords giving Sikhs protection against religious discrimination under the 1976 Race Relations Act on the grounds of common ethnicity characteristics.

With most Sikhs in the UK now born in this country and speaking English as their first language, some of the arguments used in 1983, no longer apply. Nor are they relevant as the Equalities Act 2010, gives protection against discrimination to all religions and beliefs [the 1976 Act giving Sikhs limited protection under ethnicity, has been repealed].

FURTHER STRETCHING THE MEANING OF ETHNICITY FOR MATERIAL GAIN

Some Sikhs for two different reasons want to call themselves both a religion and an ethnic group, despite Sikh teachings to the contrary. The first reason is a somewhat naïve belief that the distinction might help Sikhs claim a separate identity and possible statehood in India. The second is, that being in both categories will assist in getting additional UK state funding over and above that given to other religions.

Leaving aside the morality of such an argument, common sense reminds us that we must compare like with like. A group which is both an ethnic group and religion must be monitored against others who are also both ethnic groups and religions. Such a category does not exist. Equally it would be absurd to try to monitor state provision for Sikhs as an ethnic category, with the existing ethnic category Indian, when the category Indian, also contains Sikhs.

The argument is also totally against Sikh teachings in which the Gurus condemned man made divisions of our one human family. To suggest a hybrid ‘(Punjabi) ethnic Sikh’ category in the census, in order to chase possible material gain denied to other faiths, is also totally contrary to the egalitarian thrust of a religion open to anyone anywhere in the world. It also defies common sense to suggest that those who embrace Sikhism and call themselves Sikhs in different parts of the world all have the same ethnicity.

MEETING LEGITIMATE SIKH CONCERNS OVER CURRENT ONS ETHNIC CATEGORIES.

One of the main benefits of ethnic monitoring is the fact that people from different parts of the world have discernible differences in propensity and resistance to certain ailments arising from genetic factors related to heredity, diet, climate and culture.

India is a vast subcontinent with many different ethnicities. Pakistani and Bangladeshi are already recognised as separate ethnicities. Recording Punjabi in the census as a separate ethnicity (the state being a similar size to Pakistan) has many attractions. For example, it will help monitor and provide services for a higher than average Punjabi propensity to kidney and liver disease, and diabetes.

Importantly, it will also obviate the need to tick Indian under ethnicity. Many Sikhs are reluctant to record their ethnicity as Indian as memories of the Indian Government perpetrated ethnic cleansing of against Sikhs in 1984 are still fresh in many Sikh minds.

It would be both more accurate, sensible and acceptable to request ONS for a Punjabi ethnic category as an option in the census, rather than trying to re-define a religion open to anyone, anywhere in the world as a contentious hybrid of religion and ethnicity.

Produced for the Network of Sikh Organisations UK, a registered body with a membership of more than 130 gurdwaras and other Sikh organisations.

 

GAUGING SUPPORT FOR DESCRIBING ‘SIKH’ AS AN ETHNIC GROUP IN THE 2021 UK CENSUS

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.

Dr Indarjit Singh, who carries the UK title The Lord Singh of Wimbledon CBE, is a Crossbench Life peer sitting in the House of Lords since 12 October 2011. 

  • This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of the Asia Samachar.

RELATED STORIES:

The spiritual, political and cultural basis of Sikh ethnicity (Asia Samachar, 29 July 2018)

British Sikhs may get ethnicity status in census – Report (Asia Samachar, 29 July 2018)

Sikhi of Guru Nanak is More Than Traditional Religion (Asia Samachar, 10 Aug 2018)

Sikh Qaumi Identity (Asia Samachar, 4 Aug 2018)

The need to recognise Sikh ethnicity (Asia Samachar, 31 July 2018)

 

[ASIA SAMACHAR is an online newspaper for Sikhs / Punjabis in Asia. How to reach us: Facebook message or WhatsApp +6017-335-1399. Our email: editor@asiasamachar.com. For obituary announcements, click here]

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