Arguments for and against a Sikh ethnic category in UK Census

Sikhs are neither a religion nor an ethnic group. They come in all shapes, colours and sizes and Sikhs are spread across the world. Sikhi is a philosophy, a technology and a way of life. – GURNAM SINGH

By Gurnam Singh | UK | OPINION |

Like most other developed countries, in the UK we have a census every 10 years. The next census in England and Wales will be in 2021. According to the UK National Office of Statistics (ONS), the purpose of the census is to provide an accurate estimate of all the people and households in order that public policies and provisions can be developed to meet the diverse needs of the population.

Information gleaned from the census enables various governmental, both central and local, to develop policies, plan and run services, such as schools, health services, roads and libraries, decide how to allocate funds to make sure public funds get to where they are needed most.

In the UK, various Sikh organisations have been fighting a campaign for greater recognition of Sikhs, who they feel are largely ignored when it comes to allocation of services.

Historically, it is true that UK Sikhs have tended to be subsumed within a broader ‘South Asian’ or ‘Indian’ category, and it has been the contention of some Sikhs that we deserve to be classified as a separate ‘ethnic group’. Their primary arguments are that Sikhs meet all the necessary criteria to be defined as an ethnic group and that already in UK law there is recognition of this fact.


The key legal justification centres on The Mandla v Dowell Lee judgement in the House of Lords in 1983 which asserted that within the terms of the 1976 Race Relations Act Sikhs, given their sense of ‘shared history’, ‘cultural traditions’, ‘common geographical origin’, ‘common language’ and ‘common religion’ Sikhs, like the Jews, can be considered both, a religion and an ethnic community. Such a conception, it is argued, is consistent with the ‘miri piri’ concept that Sikhs are both a ‘dharam’ (religious community) and ‘Kwom’ (Nation).

Over the years, particularly in the post 1984 period, Sikhs in the UK and arguably across the world, have become more politically active, especially around the issue of Sikh human rights, discrimination and Sikh identity.

In the UK this has led to various concessions by the UK government, one being that a separate tick box to record Sikh identity was introduced in the 2011 Census, though this was placed under the category of religion/faith. Within the ethnic category, there is no reference to Sikhs and this forms the crux of the argument made by the Sikhs Federation.

The 2011 UK Census recorded about 430,000 Sikhs based on a question about religion, which it was not compulsory to answer. However, though it is unclear how they arrived at this figure, the Sikh Federation claim that the actual figure of Sikhs living in the UK is between 700,000 to 800,000.

After going through a series of consultations with Sikh groups, the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) decided that there was not a case for including a Sikh box in the ethnicity category. Clearly unhappy with this outcome the Sikh Federation launched a campaign arguing that this was in fact illegal, given historic precedent and appealed to the High Court. Lawyers representing the federation argued in the court that because not all Sikhs identify as being religious, but as ‘ethnic Sikhs’ the census would in fact be disenfranchising them. Moreover, they argued that the Government had already acknowledged in writing that Sikhs were experiencing “significant disadvantage” in terms of employment, housing, health and education, and that having data on the ethnically Sikh population would help public bodies to “better meet the needs of the Sikh population”.

In the light of the above arguments, it needs to be noted that, though there is a significant groundswell of support for the Sikh Federation position, it is not universal and significant individuals from various sections, such as Lord Indarjit Singh, have made arguments, ranging from ‘there was no need for a separate box because we are already counted under the religion category, to it would be misrepresentation of the teachings of the Guru of ones to become separated off.


I will come back to these arguments later but there is a need to consider the broader context of this struggle for recognition which, within political theory, can be understood as a case for of ethnic mobilisation, which has been widely documented by the British Sociologist, John Rex. For Rex the key issue is not authenticity of identity but political mobilisation, where identification is simply a proxy for organising people with a shared interest.

Coming from a cultural theory perspective, this mobilisation around a sense of shared identity for political purposes, is, what Indian literary critic and theorist Gayatri Spivak terms a strategic essentialism. This refers a political tactic in which a specific group mobilises on the basis of shared cultural and/or political identity to represent themselves. Though major differences may exist between members of these groups, and amongst themselves, they engage in continuous debates, this concept, enables such groups temporarily “essentialize” themselves and to bring forward their group identity in a simplified way to achieve social justice. However, what has transpired over the past 30 years is that rather than promoting general human and social rights, as Spivak herself acknowledges in her 2008 book Other Asias, it became deployed in nationalist enterprises to promote ‘non-strategic’ essentialism. This unleashed all kinds of dangerous ethno-religious nationalism across the world, with Hinduva and Islamist fascism being the most obvious examples.

In much of my writing and research on racism and anti-racism, I have constantly argued against the dangers of this kinds of identity politics, and I see the clamour for religious recognition as an example of this. In India and much of the Middle East, religion-based identity politics has and is tearing the people apart. And for centuries in Europe religion has been an excuse for all kinds of horrors, the Nazi Holocaust being the most notable example. And so, though I recognise the rights of all people and groups to choose whatever labels they wish, I do feel that religion generally is an unhelpful category for developing social policy and can be divisive.


We have all this year been celebrating the 550th anniversary of Guru Nanak, and arguably the most powerful messages to come out has been is that Nanak was opposed to religious divisions and labels that ended up dividing people. When he said there is “No Muslim, No Hindu”, I believe he was highlighting the dangers of creating binary identities. And it is a fact that the followers of Nanak came from all traditions and none. Even today, especially in West Panjab, we see many Muslims and Sindi Hindus claiming Nanak as one of theirs.

Ethnically, no doubt Nanak was a Punjabi, but his teachings were advocating a universalist philosophy. And so as a Sikh or follower of Nanak I feel blessed to have been given the responsibility and honour of both adopting this philosophy and sharing it with the world.

Sikhs are neither a religion nor an ethnic group. They come in all shapes, colours and sizes and Sikhs are spread across the world. Sikhi is a philosophy, a technology and a way of life. It is an invocation to fight for social, environmental justice, human rights and equality. It is a belief system that promotes a social life, honest living and redistribution of wealth.

Because Sikhi rejects the idea of a God sitting in judgement dishing out punishments, it is NOT a religion. Sikhi advocates the belief that all of nature is divine and the our purpose is to live a life in balance with the laws of nature. Sikhi advocates healthy eating and exercise for the body and education and reflection for the mind (naam simran). Sikhi is an invitation for anybody who believes in these ideals to work together for the betterment of the planet.

To classify Sikhi as a religion or ethnic category is to insult the universalist expansive philosophy of Nanak. Panjabi is a culture, Panjabis are an ethnic group and Panjab is a nation.

So, if we need a tick box, then perhaps we should ask for a Panjabi tick box. We are NOT Indians but Panjabi. Those who live in the UK are British Panjabi’s. Our mother tongue is Panjabi. Ask yourself, what was Guru Nanak’s ethnicity?

The answer is simple, he was a Panjabi, but his philosophy had no limits.


[Gurnam Singh is an academic activist dedicated to human rights, liberty, equality, social and environmental justice. He is a Visiting Fellow in Race and Education at University of Arts London and a Visiting Professor of Social Work at University of Chester as well as a presenter at UK-based Akaal channel]

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


The need to recognise Sikh ethnicity (Asia Samachar, 31 July 2019)


ASIA SAMACHAR is an online newspaper for Sikhs / Punjabis in Southeast Asia and beyond. Facebook | WhatsApp +6017-335-1399 | Email: | Twitter | Instagram | Obituary announcements, click here |


  1. Thank you Dr Gurnam Singh ji.
    The “spirit” of the discrimination law has been interpreted by the Law Lords and Sikhs qualify as a distinct people with common theo-national origin. Future Sikh generations and all those who join the group (stress) share that origin. That is the UK law and is not being disputed even by the Office for National Statistics.
    The Sikhs do not lose the optional religion box, so there is no disadvantage. Yet, they also get recognised, counted and monitored to address policy for the first time as a distinct group because only ethnicity (qaumi part of one’s identity) is used by thousands of public bodies.. The Jews prefer to keep a low profile. The Policy Studies Institute papers in the past have gone into these questions – I was involved in discussion from the NEDO – National Economic Development Institute – perspective in early 1980s. Regards.

  2. This article reminds one of the arguments for and against unilateral disarmament.
    At mundane level Sikhi is a religion and Sikhs have the characteristics of a distinct community (as also confirmed by the Sikh Reht Maryada -see below). Sikhs are an “ethnic” group as defined by certain characteristics by the Lords in 1983. Those who jump to the conclusion that “ethnicity” means race (only) should read the dictionary definition and the characteristics listed by the lords. Nations too fall into this definition and “Indian”, “Pakistani”, “Bangladeshi” etc are ethnic categories in the UK. So, at present manyu Sikhs – over 83,000 in the last Census wrote “Sikh” against “Other” & got lost in figures.
    Therefore, under the UK statistics gathering system the Sikh argument is that if you are not counted and monitored for what you are (a Sikh) you do not count!
    Over 20 million British people did not show their religion in the 2011 Census – the religion question is optional and the very first box under “Religion” is that of “No Religion”!!! So, optional “religion” count is not reliable and religion is not used for collation of statistics and monitoring to ensure a level playing field by thousands of public bodies in different fields.
    The second part of the Sikh Reht Maryada refers to Panthic organisation and life (rehni) – Facets of Corporate Sikh life. Every Sikh is a member of the corporate entity of the Panth and works towards Panth di Chardhi kalaa.
    Yet, we know that Sikhi at the highest spiritual level is not a dogma based religion and a Gurmukh is a universal being.
    I am sure readers will come to own conclusion regarding such debates in diaspora countries to safeguard Sikh rights while aiming for unity through respect for and recognition of diversity.
    This is an issue for all UK Sikhs not just one organisation like the Sikh Federation UK. About 140 Gurdwaras and organisations like the Sikh Missionary Society UK are listed as supporting a Sikh tick box. I represent none (stress).

Comments are closed.