UK Census: Now, which boxes shall I tick?

Personally, I am unsure what to put in the ethnicity box; my mind says Panjabi but my heart says Sikh. For what it's worth, I think the central problem is that Sikhs are neither a “religion’ or a ‘nation’ but a people or ‘quom’ - GURNAM SINGH

By Gurnam Singh | OPINION |

Most countries around the world categorise their inhabitants by race, ethnicity, and/or national origins, but how and for what purposes such data is collected can vary considerably. Motives can range from counting for political control, non-counting in the name of national integration, recognition of national hybridity, and development of anti-discrimination policies.

Counting for political controlling purposes is typical of colonial census administration, and the British were particularly adept at this. Additionally, we see related examples, such as apartheid-era South Africa, the Soviet Union, Bosnia, Serbia and Rwanda, where racial origins discourse was deployed, for keep population groups separated and exclusionary policies, up to and including genocide or what was euphemistically termed ‘ethnic cleansing’.

In relation to the rejection of ethnic identities in the name of promoting national unity, typically Western European nations, such as France, Germany, Italy and Spain are prominent. In these cases one also needs to note the history of state led violence, as in the case of the Nazis, and racial and ethnic divisions.

In terms recognition of hybridity, we see this in many Latin American countries, where governments take different decisions about whether to enumerate by ethnicity. However, in such cases we see a broader discourse praising interethnic mixture or hybridity.

The final category is characterised with examples from Latin America (e.g., Brazil, Colombia) and Asia (China and India), but the principal cases discussed here are those of England, Canada, and the United States. In these case ethnic census data serve as tools in combating discrimination.

Across the world, we can see any number of terms employed to categorise people, associated with ‘race’, caste, ethnic origin, religion, language, nationality, ancestry, country of birth, tribe, social status, indignity and so on. A further complication is the way in the meanings of these terms may differ across time and place; what is called “race” in one country might be labeled “ethnicity” in another, while “nationality” means ancestry in some contexts and citizenship in others. Even within the same country, one term can take on several connotations, or several terms may be used interchangeably. A further complication is the issue translation where concepts are simply not equivalent. Perhaps the best example of this concerning Sikhs directly is the concepts of quom and panth which do not have precise equivalents in the English language.

Along with the issue of definition, another important issue is one of consent, legitimacy and efficacy. Who for example, decides the labels? do citizens have a choice to refuse them?

Moreover, sociologists remind us that data collection essentialises, (reduced them to a singular entity) ethnic groups that ironically can lead to compounding of race discrimination.

Turning to the U.K. Census that is to be held on the 21st March this year, we see a strange conflation of community identity politics with a genuine attempt by the British Government to gain an accurate picture of national diversity.

Though the Census should be a non-political exercise linked to collecting data on the population in order for government and public bodies to make effective policies, over the past 30 years it has increasingly become a proxy for Indian sub-continent identity politics; it seems more like an election campaign than a data collection exercise!

Over the coming weeks, I have no doubt there will be much ‘electioneering’ with all the various ‘representative’ groups falling over each other to tell people how they should identify themselves. I thought the whole point of the census was for citizens to exercise their right to decide how they perceive their own identity, rather than be blackmailed by self-appointed leaders, who mostly have little concern about the daily struggles of ordinary citizens.

Amongst other things, we have recently seen the appearance of graphics on social media ‘advising’ members of specific communities which boxes they should tick. Amongst other things, this has sparked off a wave of politics of identity amongst the various South Asian communities settled in the U.K.. One such graphic from Vishva Hindu Parishad U.K. offers very clear advice how Hindus should identify themselves. Bizarrely, under ‘National Identity’, the graphic advises Hindus in Pakistan and Bangladesh to write ‘Pakistani Indian’ and Bangladeshi Indian’. Besides the obvious oxymoron, the implication is that ALL Hindus are in some way Indian! The irony is that, just like the Hindu faith, the mythical ’India’ they refer to has never existed as a singular entity.

In a similar vein some Sikh groups, most notably groups allied to the Sikh Federation UK, have also been seeking to influence people to tick boxes to maximise the Sikh count under religion and ethnicity. However, like voting in an election, though we should listen to all the arguments, we should not be coerced or intimidated into making choices against our free will.

And so at the moment, exercising my free will, I have decided to completely reject the Indian category. This is not because I harbour any hatred or malice towards ‘India’ or those who identify as Indians. That would be absurd. My rejection is simply because I do not feel I can identify with such a vast and diverse entity as India which only came into existence due to British colonialism.

So personally, I am unsure what to put in the ethnicity box; my mind says Panjabi but my heart says Sikh.

For what it’s worth, I think the central problem is that Sikhs are neither a “religion’ or a ‘nation’ but a people or ‘quom’. There is no English language equivalent to this concept, so, the ultimate resolution would be to have a different category, where perhaps Sikhs, Jews, and other nations that are not bounded by anyone geographical space. In truth people of the Sikh Quom are to be found across the world though for historical reasons we are concentrated in Punjab at the moment.

My position is this: absolutely make sure you tick the Sikh box in religion and Punjabi in Language. As for the ethnicity box, you decide where you fit in, though I am inclined to write in British Punjabi. But even more importantly, do NOT follow my advice but your own conscience and free will. Our identity is precious, which is why we should never allow others to tell us who we are or what we should think.

What will you be doing?

[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.



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