Sikhs and UK Census 2021: The struggle to be counted continues

By Gurnam Singh | OPINION |

The case for a separate Sikh ethnicity tick box in the UK 2021 Census, was last week dismissed by the English High Court in London. Handing down his judgement on 6 Nov 2020, Justice Akhlaq Choudhury ruled there was no case to answer.

The case, which has cost an estimated £200,000 funded mostly through television appeals, was brought by Sikh Federation UK (SFUK) against the UK Cabinet Office. The charge was that for its failure to incorporate a separate Sikh ethnicity tick box in the next census in 2021, the government had acted illegally.

The judgement ruled that the census, as currently designed, does not prevent anybody identifying themselves ethnically as Sikh as a write-in option. Accordingly, the Cabinet Office had not acted unlawfully, as the SFUK had alleged, and the census, which has already received parliamentary approval, can proceed in 2021 as scheduled.

Though I have never been fully convinced about the need for a separate ethnicity tick box for Sikhs, I have reconciled myself to the view that, for strategic purposes, it probably does more good than harm to have one! This whole affair has been extremely divisive for UK Sikhs and I do hope we can move forward with a unified voice.

For some years the Sikh Federation UK (SFUK) have been campaigning hard to establish a separate category for Sikhs under ethnicity. On the other hand, there have been some Sikh groups who have opposed their stance, arguing that Sikhs were not an ethnic group and that such a label would be in contradiction of the universal teachings of Sikhi.

Though the opponents of the SFUK position may well feel vindicated by this ruling, it would be wrong to make cheap political capital about what is a serious issue for Sikhs; that is the importance of being counted. Therefore, I think this decision should not be seen in terms of winners and losers.

Actually, despite the ruling, the campaign led by SFUK, has not been a failure but, as well as achieving some limited policy concessions, has resulted in a lot of awareness raising about the importance of Sikhs being counted.

An example of this policy success is the decision made by the Scottish government to make some concessions earlier this year. So in the 2021 Census in Scotland, though Sikhs have not been given a separate category under ‘ethnicity’, for illustration purposes, the term ‘Sikh’ is referenced. In effect this is an implicit recognition of Sikh ethnicity, something that no doubt sticks in the throat of Hindutva nationalists who have consistently sought to diminish the Sikh identity.

Despite theological and political differences, I think most Sikhs can agree that we need to work together to ensure our civil, social and human rights, both in the UK and throughout the world. We are small in number in most places and in a climate of fear and fear and hate caused by COVID 19 and the ascendancy of right wing authoritarianism, there was never a more critical time for us to unite.

And so, I appeal to all Sikh factions to put down your/our petty differences and work towards to ensue UK Sikhs are given due recognition by public bodies. Hence, it is imperative we launch a huge awareness campaign about the Census in 2021 to ensure Sikhs tick the religion box and also register their nationhood under the ethnicity box.

Those opposing a separate box have been arguing there is no need to for this as there is already a box under religion. The advocates for a separate ethnicity box have argued that, as significant numbers of Sikhs do not associate with being religious, sole reliance on the religion box this will result in significant undercounting.

But we call agree on one thing, namely, that ALL Sikhs are counted and perhaps if we can work together, we may just be able to manage this, even with a system is not quite what we might desire.

And if we can get an accurate measure of the actual Sikh population, which at the moment is estimated to be anything between 400,000 and 700,000, then we can make the case to the Government that religion should be given the same status as ethnicity when deciding the social needs of Sikhs.

Sometimes in life one has to take two steps back in order to one step forward. Also in struggle, even in defeat there can be much learning. The problem for Sikhs is that our disunity means that governments can easily play a divide and rule strategy. So let us all make a pledge to support each other, and if we cannot do this, at least to not oppose each other.

[Gurnam Singh is an academic activist dedicated to human rights, liberty, equality, social and environmental justice. He is an Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Warwick, UK. He can be contacted at]

* This is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.



Sikh ethnic tick-box court case in UK (Asia Samachar, 28 Oct 2020)

Sikhs to be counted in United States 2020 Census (Asia Samachar, 16 Jan 2020)


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