Where Unity Is Strength

Author Archives: Pritpal

London: (17thof Dec 2013) In a debate last week led by Lord Dubs, Peers gave their views on plans to change laws in favor of “assisted dying”. The Assisted Dying Bill was tabled by Lord Falconer, it had it’s first reading earlier this year, it will go to a second reading in 2014. The Director of the Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO), Lord Singh of Wimbledon added a Sikh perspective to last weeks debate, stressing the importance to ‘accept that life is a gift from god’ whilst highlighting the ‘Sikh teachings of compassion, dignity and care for the suffering’. Please see full text of speech:

My Lords, this debate takes us into new ethical territory with complex medical, legal and emotional implications. Rational discussion is made more difficult by a polarisation of attitudes and opinions. I saw something of this about 12 months ago when I attended a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Assisted Dying. I raised some concerns and was made to feel that there was something wrong with my thinking if I could not immediately see the open-and-shut case for changing the existing law. I am also too aware of the opposite arguments, couched in religious terms, that life is a gift from God and we should never, ever, even think of curtailing it.

I served for some years as a member of the BMA Medical Ethics Committee and am well aware of major changes in society and bewildering advances in science and medicine that require us to constantly look anew at previously accepted views and attitudes. Sikhs accept that life is a gift of God to be cherished and preserved wherever possible, but we are also required to bear in mind the important Sikh teaching of compassion, dignity and care for the suffering. These two considerations are not necessarily incompatible. However, I am unhappy about a narrow focusing on individual autonomy to justify attitudes that clearly affect others. We have seen some of this today. We constantly hear the argument that we are all individuals and that our happiness and needs are all-important to the exclusion of our responsibility to others. I believe that this over-focusing on self, on me and my, is responsible for many of the ills in society today. For example, we are all aware that religious teachings suggest that marriage is a committed partnership for mutual care and support and for ensuring that children grow up as responsible adults.

What I believe to be a short-sighted contemporary social attitude encourages us to believe that it is okay to look exclusively at our rights, without consideration of the effect on others. This focusing on individual needs rather than on the family as a whole is, at least in part, responsible for the growing increase in dysfunctional families, with children frequently ending up in what we euphemistically call care, or with them mirroring the narrow thinking of their parents. A person’s decision to end their own life has an effect on friends and, importantly, on the message it can give to wider society of trivialising life. We all have wider responsibilities in all that we do.

I shall pull together these different threads in rational and compassionate decision-making to arrive at the way forward. First, we should always respect the gift of life and question the concept of autonomy. Secondly, there are times when those in ill health feel that life is not really worth living but, within a short time, they often feel that it is not really that bad. It is worse for those who find themselves with severe disabilities but, as the Paralympics showed, despite such disabilities, it is often possible to live a meaningful life. Relatives and carers sometimes find looking after someone onerous, and they can inadvertently make their feelings known to those they are caring for, making them feel an unnecessary burden. Sadly, there are others who may have more mercenary motives. A seemingly hopeless situation today may not always remain so. Huge strides are constantly being made in combating previously incurable diseases, as well as in palliative care.

In summary, while we should always be on our guard against the notion of individual autonomy trivialising life, we need to recognise that, from an individual’s perspective, life can become pretty intolerable and there is an argument for helping to end it in strictly controlled circumstances. The danger is that, if we go down this path, it could itself be a slippery slope to trivialising life, altering the very ethos on which medical care is provided. I feel, on balance, that we should leave the law as it is.

Baroness Morris of Bolton, Lord Taverne, Lord Alton of Liverpool, Baroness Warnock and Baroness Hayman and other Peers contributed to the controversial debate. Last month, three of Britain’s most senior legal authorities including Baroness Butler-Sloss, said relaxing the law on assisted suicide would amount to asking Parliament to write a “blank cheque” for euthanasia.

Notes to Editors.
1.      The Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) is a registered charity that links more than 100 Gurdwaras and other UK Sikh organisations in active cooperation to enhance the image and understanding of Sikhism in the UK.
Hardeep Singh
Press Secretary
The Network of Sikh Organisations

London: (07thof Dec 2013) The Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) has written to the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (HMDT) suggesting the inclusion of both the Sikh (1984) and Tamil (2009) genocides, on Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) on the 27th of January 2014.

In an unprecedented move the NSO wrote:

‘The list of major atrocities following the Holocaust against the Jewish people is rather selective Notable omissions are the organised mass killing of more than 100,000 Sikhs throughout India in 1984 and the more recent killing of more than 40,000 Tamils by government forces in Sri Lanka.

It’s important that we are seen to be even-handed in reminding ourselves that even those with whom we have trade and political links can carry genocide out anywhere.

The 27th of January marks the liberation of the largest Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau. The millions of people killed by the Nazi’s and the subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur will be remembered, whilst survivors of these hate filled regimes honored.

The NSO earnestly hopes the list will be amended in future years, adding both Sikh and Tamil genocides.

Hardeep Singh
Press Secretary
The Network of Sikh Organisations

London: (1st of Dec 2013) Lord Singh the Director of the Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) was invited to give a talk on the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak at the High Commission of India earlier this week. In his speech and notably his first visit to the Indian High Commission since 1984, Lord Singh reminds the Indian Government about the carnage of 1984, calling for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Please see full text of speech:

Your Excellency, Friends.

It’s a real pleasure to be given this opportunity to talk about the life of Guru Nanak, an enlightened a visionary whose teachings offer uplifting guidance to all of us today, in the UK, India and the wider world.

Guru Nanak, who lived in the 15th century was deeply concerned that people at the time were ignoring the many ethical teachings our different religions hold in common, and instead focussing on supposed differences and divisions. It was against this background that the Guru in his very first sermon said

‘Na koi Hindu na koi Mussalman’; that is in God’s eyes there is neither Hindu nor Muslim, and by today’s extension, neither Christian, Sikh nor Jew. That the one God of us all is not interested in our different religious labels but in what we do to bring peace, justice and harmony to our fellow beings.

Guru Nanak travelled widely, with a Hindu and a Muslim companion, emphasising common ethical imperatives in our different faiths, while criticising superstition and divisive practices that attach themselves to, and take us away from true teachings of responsible living and care for our fellow beings.

More than 500 years ago, he emphasise the complete equality of all human beings, laying great stress to the dignity and full equality of women; something still not accepted by many societies today. The Guru repeatedly taught the importance of respect for all beliefs.  One of Guru Nanak’s successors, Guru Arjan, our 5th Guru underlined this respect for other faiths by inviting a Muslim saint Mia Mir to lay the foundation stone of the Darbar Sahib or Golden Temple. He also included verses of other faiths which parallel Sikh teachings in our holy scriptures the Guru Granth Sahib. The following lines by the Muslim poet Kabir for example, resonates with Sikh teachings on equality. Kabir writes:‘

The same one Divine light permeates all Creation. Why should we then divide people into the High and the low?

Guru Nanak reminded us and society today needs reminding, of the importance of responsible and balanced living. He taught that we should always live by three golden rules. These are Naam japna or reflecting on ethical teachings of right wrong and responsibility to give us a focus on daily living, kirt karna or earning by honest effort and thirdly and most importantly, wand chakhna or sharing with others, not only earnings, but also, increasingly important today, out time to help others. This Seva or looking to others is a common feature of our different religious teachings.

Guru Nanak’s teachings were widely welcomed by all communities and when he died, it was said of him:

Nanak Shah Fakir

Hindu ka Guru ; Mussalman ka Pir.

That is, he was regarded as a great religious leader by both Hindus and Muslims.

Guru Nanak’s never claimed any unique relationship with God or a monopoly of truth. He welcomed and rejoiced in parallel insights into the same truths, found in different religions, constantly stressing respect for our different faiths, and reminding us that we all need to work together, focussing on ethical values of right, wrong and responsibility in our common quest for a fairer and more peaceful society.

Friends, Sikhs perhaps more than others love celebrating important days in our history, but such celebrations are of little use unless we use them to re-charge our spiritual and moral batteries to help us live true to the values and truths we celebrate.

As we celebrate this year’s anniversary of Guru Nanak’s birth, it is important to remember that a central thrust of his teachings was to promote love and understanding between different religions. It therefore pains me to see how since partition, Hindus and Sikhs have grown apart from the days when our communities were so close that many Hindu parents would bring one of their children up as a Sikh.  Sadly the two communities grew further apart following the attack on the Golden Temple and the widespread killing of Sikhs throughout India in 1984.

Friends, next year sees the 30th anniversary of that terrible period in our recent history. I will be frank. My fear is some in the Sikh community, and others in the wider community, will use the anniversary to perpetuate anger and suspicion. This will not help anyone. My hope is that all in positions of political or religious power take the wind out of the sails of such people, by openly and objectively looking at and learning from the lessons of the past in building bridges of love and understanding between followers of our sister faiths as taught by Guru Nanak.

My plea is that next year’s anniversary be seen as an opportunity to establish some sort of Truth and Reconciliation Commission that brings to justice those responsible for criminal behaviour on either side, while at the same time, highlighting the much larger, largely unrecognised role of those who stood up bravely against the killings, sheltering and shielding Sikh neighbours. I firmly believe that a long overdue initiative on these lines will heal wounds, bring closure and make incredible India even more incredible. I will be happy to elaborate on anything I’ve said. Thank you for listening to me.


Notes to Editors.

1.      The Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) is a registered charity that links more than 100 Gurdwaras and other UK Sikh organisations in active cooperation to enhance the image and understanding of Sikhism in the UK.

Hardeep Singh

Press Secretary

The Network of Sikh Organisations


November 30th, 2013 | Posted by Pritpal in Thought for the day - (0 Comments)

Over the last few days Sikhs have been celebrating the festival of Bandi Chhor, lierally the ‘release of captives’. Bandi Chhor coincides with the Hindu festival of Diwali and is linked to an incident in the reign of the Mughal Emperor Janghir who lived in the early 17th century.

By all accounts Janghir was both intolerant and cruel. Even before he became Emperor, he tried to seize the throne from his tolerant and popular father Akbar. Janghir, wary of those who might oppose his rule, arrested the sixth Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Hargobind, and a number of others and imprisoned them in Gwalior Fort.

But even the worst of us likes to be liked, and as the festival of Diwali approached he ordered the release of Guru Hargobind. To his surprise, the Guru refused to leave unless all other political prisoners were released at the same time.

Janghir decided to compromise and said that anyone who could hold onto the Gurus clothes could also go with him. He thought that at the most, two or three of his fellow prisoners would be able to go with the Guru through the fort’s narrow passage to freedom. In the event the Guru walked to freedom followed by all the 52 political prisoners holding onto tassels of varying length that had been sewn onto the Guru’s cloak. He reached Amritsar just as people were celebrating Diwali which Sikhs, like Hindus now celebrate with lights and fireworks.

The story reminds Sikhs to put the wellbeing of others before our own; in this case the freedom and human rights of the Guru’s fellow captives. This concern for others is echoed in another story of a Sikh water carrier who was dragged before the 10th Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh, accused of supplying water to enemy wounded. The Guru asked him what he had to say for himself, and water carrier replied that he saw neither enemy nor friend but suffering fellow beings. The Guru applauded his reply and gave him ointment and bandages to further his humanitarian work; work that we see today in the activities of many religious and secular humanitarian organisations, who often in great danger to their own lives, work to help others. Bandi Chhor is a useful reminder to the rest of us to make concern for others part of our daily lives.


November 30th, 2013 | Posted by Pritpal in Thought for the day - (0 Comments)

Last week, I was invited to my old school, Bishop Vesey’s Grammar School in Sutton Coldfield to give a talk on the a Sikh view on justice and human rights. In touring the school, I found this concern for human rights reflected in the very ethos of the school. It was very different from the one I knew in the late 40’s and early 50s, when the four Singh brothers were the only ones in the school who looked different.

Today in a very different world, about a third of the pupils are of minority ethnic origin. Respect for different cultures and concern for justice was seen in the many posters on the school walls, including the work of human rights organisations, and moving comments on a visit to Auschwitz. At the founder’s day service at which I spoke, as well as Christian hymns, there was also readings from the Guru Granth Sahib and the Koran. There is much to be proud about in the way we have adjusted to new cultures and different ways of life and I believe that that in this we lead much of the rest of the world.

One thing that has not changed however over the years, is the tendency of children to form their own groups or little gangs which sometimes gain added cohesion by looking down on or excluding others. Sadly religions and cultures all too often behave in the same way, exaggerating difference and emphasising exclusivity

The Sikh Gurus were very concerned about such claims and taught the importance of focussing on commonalities. Guru Nanak taught that the one God of us all was not interested in what we call ourselves but in what we do for our fellow beings. Guru Arjan gave practical utterance to the Sikh belief that no one religion has a monopoly of truth by including Hindu and Muslim verses in our holy scriptures: the Guru Granth Sahib.

Good academic results are important in schools, but due emphasis should also be placed on ensuring that pupils go out to the world with a sense of responsibility and care and compassion for people of all backgrounds and beliefs. It was encouraging to find my old school weaving this wider view of education into all they do.


November 30th, 2013 | Posted by Pritpal in Thought for the day - (0 Comments)

A couple of days ago I attended a Ministry of Justice meeting looking at ways of ensuring greater equality in the criminal justice system. We were given some impressive looking statistics on hate crime and the negative treatment of minority faiths. Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists were all covered, but when I inquired why there was no mention of Sikhs, I was told that the figures were based on complaints received and Sikhs rarely bothered to complain. At the time I thought this was simply an excuse for a flawed survey, but on reflection there’s some truth in what was said.

The Sikh Gurus taught that we should treat adversity as a new challenge. It’s an attitude of mind that has certainly come in handy over the years but it is not a valid excuse for a failure to highlight negative attitudes to Sikhs, which, from personal experience, have certainly increased since 9/11 with, some people in this country and abroad assuming turbaned Sikhs to be Muslim extremists.

When we went on to look at future policies, it was agreed that the key lay in much greater education, particularly in early schooling. Much has been said in recent days about free faith schools which fail to respect the culture of others. As a Sikh I believe that any school, free or otherwise that fails to teach an understanding of and respect for other ways of life, is a failing school and should be treated as such

Ignorance is a bit like a fog in which, like everyday objects, people from different cultures can appear frightening and menacing. Prejudice thrives on such ignorance and is difficult to remove once it becomes engrained in everyday attitudes and behaviour, making short superficial induction courses less likely to succeed.

But the responsibility for moving us to a fairer society does not just lie simply with government and bodies like the Ministry of Justice;

in the Sikh view, religions too have a real responsibility to work to remove self-created barriers of superiority, difference and exclusivity which add to suspicion and distrust at home and horrendous conflict abroad. As Guru Nanak taught, we all need to work together for greater fairness and true social justice for all members of our human family.


November 30th, 2013 | Posted by Pritpal in Thought for the day - (0 Comments)

Last week I attended the re-launch of a book by the celebrated author Patwant Singh about the life of Maharaja Ranjit Singh the charismatic first, and last, Sikh ruler of the Punjab. Ranjit Singh was an astute leader who managed to unite different Sikh factions behind him to eventually become the ruler of a vast kingdom that included the whole of Punjab before its partition in 1947 and the State of Kashmir.

Ranjit Singh, blinded in one eye through smallpox in infancy, was totally illiterate. As a child he would regularly attend the local gurdwara and was moved by the stories of the bravery of Sikhs in battle and heavily influenced by the Gurus’ teachings of respect for the beliefs of all people, As ruler of Punjab, he would refer to his loss of sight in one eye saying it was God’s purpose that he look on at all faiths with the same eye. His government included members of all communities. It was he who put the gold on the Golden Temple in Amritsar. He also built a beautiful Hindu temple on the banks of the Ganges and gave lavishly to the upkeep of mosques in Punjab.

There is a wonderful story of some Sikh villagers complaining to the Maharaja that the daily Muslim call to prayer was too loud and disturbing. The Maharaja suggested that if the villagers took on the responsibility for reminding individual Muslims when it was time for prayers, he would consider their complaint. It was quietly dropped. On another occasion he met a Muslim with a handwritten copy of the Koran which had taken him years to produce but was proving difficult to sell. The Maharaja appreciated the man’s dedicated effort and paid the astonished vendor handsomely for his work.

Ranjit Singh’s kingdom which brought peace and prosperity to Punjab, after centuries of invasions and religious conflict, came to an abrupt end with his death in 1839. Times have changed and conflicts have now become more complex with wider implications for our smaller and more interdependent world. But this brief glimpse at Ranjit Singh’s respect for difference underlines the importance of aiming at the well-being of all people in resolving conflict and bringing peace and prosperity to many suffering areas of the world today.


November 30th, 2013 | Posted by Pritpal in Thought for the day - (0 Comments)

The long wait for Kate and William and for millions of well-wishers around the world is finally over with last night’s announcement of the birth of a baby boy and welcome news that both mother and baby are doing well. All babies are special to their proud parents; all bring their own gifts of love and unique personality but this baby, third in line to the throne, will also be special to millions in many other lands. As coincidence has it, I was doing my stint on this slot at the time of the announcement of the engagement of William and Kate, and I’m delighted to offer them, and the rest of the Royal family, my congratulations and those of the British Sikh community at this joyous news.

The Sikh community in the UK and abroad have a great regard for the royal family which, given the egalitarian teachings of Sikhism and our obsession with elections, seems at first sight a little odd. But Sikh admiration for the royal family is linked to the very positive lead it has given in welcoming other communities and cultures to these shores.

In many ways the British monarchy has been years ahead of the rest of society in promoting greater inter faith understanding, with the Queen herself ensuring that annual Commonwealth Day Service in Westminster Abbey for the last 40 years has always been a multi faith event, with readings from the scriptures of all the major world religions. Since then, the royals, particularly the Queen and the Prince of Wales have graced many function of different faiths with genuine interest, charm and respect.

As with many faith communities, Sikh parents take their new baby to their place of worship, the gurdwara, as soon as possible after the birth. Prayers are said for the baby’s health, and happiness, with the proud parents being reminded to bring their child up to be a credit to the community. It’s not an easy task, particularly in today’s fast changing social environment, and it will be even more difficult for Kate and William if they are constantly in the glare of media attention.

While wishing them and their new baby every health and happiness for the future, I’m sure many will also join me in wishing them a measure of privacy to enjoy their proud status as parents. It’s something they need and deserve, and it’s the best present we can all give them.


November 30th, 2013 | Posted by Pritpal in Thought for the day - (0 Comments)

Last week, I attended the first AGM of the newly formed All Party Parliamentary Group on International Religious Freedom, set up to look at ways of protecting basic human rights in the face of mounting religious bigotry in many parts of the world, To date it has received evidence from persecuted B’hais in Iran, Muslims in Burma, Christians in North Korea and Saudi Arabia, and Hindus in Pakistan and many others. Little is now left of a once thriving Sikh community in Afghanistan. The list is virtually endless.

As a first step the newly formed Group will continue mapping the extent of religious persecution in different parts of the world, and lobby the government to take the lead in ensuring international aid is strictly tied to full observance of freedom of religion and belief as detailed in Article 18 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. It also has the difficult task of trying to ensure that we, and others do not turn a blind eye to human rights abuses in so called ‘friendly’ countries. It was the great human rights activist Andrei Sakharov who observed that there will be no peace in the world until we are even- handed in addressing such abuse.

The question we all have to ask is, why do religions which talk of peace and forgiveness, themselves promote or get actively involved in horrendous violence against those of a different faith? How can we get followers of our different religions to respect the clear teachings of tolerance and respect for others found in our scriptures?

To me as a Sikh, the answer lies in the fact that while the core teachings of religion are easy to understand, living true to them is far more demanding. We find it much easier to turn to and import negative culture into our different religions which often carries with it false and divisive notions of superiority. With the passage of time, these negative cultural attitudes to those that are different often trump underlying ethical teaching.

The Sikh Gurus observed in some memorable verses how such negative and divisive culture masked and distorted true religious teachings in our different faiths and urged drastic spring cleaning of that which passes for belief, to bring uplifting ethical teachings of responsibility and concern for others back to the fore. Much the same task faces all religions today.


November 30th, 2013 | Posted by Pritpal in Thought for the day - (0 Comments)

The First World War is very much in the news these days. Over the last week the papers have carried stories and comment over how we should commemorate next year’s centenary of a war we hoped would end wars. An article in the Sunday Times reminds us that there is no clear agreement on exactly how it started and what it meant. What we do know is that the war claimed some 16 million lives ,devastating the lives, dreams and aspirations of countless others, and that it ended with something of a controversial peace treaty that provided some with a warped rationale for renewed conflict some 20 years later.

It is right and proper that in the commemoration we remember with gratitude, the courage and sacrifice of British and allied soldiers including volunteers from the Commonwealth and subcontinent. Few know for example, that 83,000 Sikhs lost their lives in the two world wars. However, in the commemoration it’s also important that we look to the lessons of the past in trying to prevent future conflicts.

Looking from the perspective of time, it seems that that the 14-18 war had much to do with strategic interest, with one side seeking to extend theirs and the other to defend the status quo. As a concept, defending one’s strategic interests seems fine. The trouble is that such interests are not mutually exclusive, and often conflicting, at a time when more and more countries are flexing their economic and military muscles.

The famous scientist Albert Einstein was typically blunt in his view of strategic interest or nationalism, calling it ‘an infantile disease, like measles’. We know that he had good reason to fear rampant nationalism, but his blunt words have relevance today as we look at continuing conflicts around us. We have marvellous international bodies like the UN and the Security Council designed to reduce conflict but all too often see so-called ‘strategic interests’ of member states preventing necessary action.

Guru Ramdass the 4th Guru was similarly concerned. He wrote:

All powers men make pacts with

Are subject to death and decay

False are all factions that divide men into warring groups.

The Gurus taught that focussing on social justice and human rights is the best way of ensuring lasting peace. Something we should reflect on in next year’s commemorations.

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