UK Census 2021: The Question of Ethnicity

Insert: One of the promotional material from a UK-based Sikh organisation
By Baldev Singh Dhaliwal | OPINION |

Now that the UK Census for 2021 are fast approaching, the Sikhs are being advised by the leading UK organisations, to write SIKH under “Other”. For some time now there has been a concerted push and demand by a majority of UK Sikh organisations (debated on Sikh networks) to obtain a dedicated SIKH tick box on the Census form under Ethnicity. As that has not been successful, now the advice therefore is to write SIKH under “Other” on the Census form. The reasoning remains the same.

At the peak of that previous debate about getting a dedicated SIKH tick box I had put forward my reasoning as a Sikh Australian, which I re-produce below.

Every time the Census time comes around, we, the Sikh Australians, are divided as to what a Sikh should write under the question of ANCESTRY, which is the equivalent of UK’s ETHNICITY question. Perhaps to be divided, by now, is an established Sikh trait!

What has puzzled me somewhat though is as to why a Sikh writing down “Sikh” under the ETHNICITY question (in UK) or therefore the equivalent question ANCESTRY (in Australia) is committing some sort of a sin against Guru Nanak’s Sikhi principles, as is being repeatedly suggested. If so, many of us have been committing that sin every time we have filled the census form and by that same reasoning continue to do so when we think of Sikhs as some sort of an identifiable group.  Yet fill that census form and answer the ethnic question truthfully we must, by ticking a box or writing under other, as our civic responsibility.  Wonder why this issue of somehow transgressing from Guru Nanak’s Sikhi principles has risen only since the push for a “Sikh” tick box under the ethnicity question?

Regarding the SIKH tick box: To me asking for the provision of a Sikh tick box under the ethnicity question is doing what we have been doing before, only better. It gives a clear choice for those in doubt. One will always have the choice to tick some other box or write what they wish under “other” as before, if they so wish.  Sikhs have always been responsible citizens of the countries they have lived in. By demanding a Sikh tick box they were simply exercising their legitimate right. With the Sikh tick box the outcome might be a better demographic picture of the community for monitoring, access & equity and other similar purposes. In my opinion it would have been irresponsible not to push for that right. Accurate statistics and numbers do matter.

Most Sikhs, believe that they are a distinct identifiable group (more than a religion) under whatever name; Panth, Qaum or Nation. If it was not clear before, Guru Gobind Singh Ji left little doubt about the Niara Khalsa and Panth! The question does come to mind: Were the Sikh regiments formed just on the basis of religion or was there more? As regiments in the name of religion are generally not heard of. I could be wrong.

Just to recap on the Ethnic question [which really should be the main focus], the definition of Ethnicity, for the purpose, is provided under the UK Government Web Archives:

Department of Health

National standards for ethnic group and related matters

What is an ethnic group?

  1. Ethnicity is complex to define as it is multi-faceted. Importantly, ethnicity is subjective: a person should self-assign his or her own ethnic group. While other people may view an individual as having a distinct ethnic identity, the individual’s view of their own identity takes priority. Features that help to define ethnic group are as follows:
  • a shared history;
  • a common cultural tradition;
  • a common geographical origin;
  • descent from common ancestors;
  • a common language;
  • a common religion; and
  • forming a distinct group within a larger community.

I suspect in the Mandla case the Lords elaborated and applied the above National Standards, in the case of the Sikhs. Guided of course by community mentors plus their own knowledge about the Sikhs particularly in regards to the Sikh Regiments. 

In reference to Australia, the Australian census pamphlet starts in bold print, “Your community is counting on YOU”. Clearly drawing one’s attention to the importance of the Census. The pamphlet explains, “Information provided on the Census form helps to provide an accurate picture of their communities.  Census information also assists in the fair allocation of government funds to ethnic communities.” Then the pamphlet draws one’s attention to the most important questions, these being of language, ancestry and religion.

So for the purpose of the census the term “Ancestry” (in Australia) simply means an identifiable, meaningful group with common characteristics, for the purpose of collecting demographic information essential in developing policies and services, for monitoring purposes, for distribution of resources, special needs, issues etc. In the case of UK (or for any other country) it would be no different.

Ethnicity question in UK and Ancestry question in Australia clearly are for the same purpose. The authorities are looking for meaningful identifiable groups. And the Sikhs fit into that requirement. Seems a no brainer! The argument that if the Sikhs unite under that group it will somehow compromise Guru Nanak’s Sikhi principles is simply pointless and a red-herring!

 Somewhere, Dya Singh of Australia wrote, “If you are not counted, you don’t count” 

 Regarding the UK forthcoming Census I can add, “As a Sikh if you write anything other than SIKH under Ethnicity you are helping to score your own goal.”

[Baldev Singh Dhaliwal JP-Ret’d British Telecom engineer settled in South Australia since 1986, and involved with community cohesion, Sikh welfare and advancement. He received the South Australia Governor’s Multicultural Award for 2011]



UK Census: Now, which boxes shall I tick? (Asia Samachar, 28 Feb 2021)

Kithe Likhia (Where is it written)? (Asia Samachar, 23 June 2018)

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