Where Unity Is Strength

Image courtesy of Biteback Publishing

If ever you need a reference point on one man’s battle against institutional racism, then we recommend you get a copy of Gurpal Virdi’s book out today – Behind the Blue Line.

It is fair to say Virdi has been through it all. In 1998 as a police Sergeant in the MET he was falsely accused (and dismissed) for sending racist e-mails to himself, and other BAME officers and was subsequently exonerated. On his reinstatement to work, he says his career was essentially over because he’d spoken out and challenged racism in the police. However, what would have deterred a lesser man didn’t stop Virdi. He has successfully taken the MET to two industrial tribunals for discrimination, and bravely gave evidence to the Macpherson inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence – when he knew of the consequences. He is also the subject of the VIRDI inquiry report.

After his retirement, in 2014, he decided to enter local politics as a Labour candidate. Just before the election, he was falsely accused by the MET of a sexual offence against a minor and abandoned by many of his friends, so called colleagues and the Labour Party. He stood and won as an Independent. In 2015, a jury took 50 minutes to clear him of charges from an alleged incident in 1986. The presiding judge, His Honor Judge Andrew Goymer said a conspiracy may be behind the case. Despite his lengthy battles for justice and equality, Virdi remains a man who encompasses the Sikh ethos of chardi kala, or everlasting optimism.

We at the NSO have worked with Gurpal Virdi for many years and collaborated with him during his role at the Metropolitan Police Sikh Association (MPSA). Our Director, Lord Singh of Wimbledon was incensed at the allegations leveled against Virdi in 2014 and supported him during the trial.

We don’t often give book recommendations, but Gurpal’s journey in Behind the Blue Line is the rare exception as an injustice can happen to any one of us.

The Mirror’s recent article on grooming gangs highlights the best of British journalism, but we have filed a complaint to IPSO regarding use of the term ‘Asian’

The term ‘Asian’ continues to be regrettably used as a euphemism, when it comes to the identity of those convicted in the majority of Britain’s sexual grooming cases. The report in the Mirror last Sunday focusing in on Telford, rightly describes this horrifying issue as an ‘epidemic’. Whilst we are indebted to the investigative journalists behind this important report, the continuing smearing of ‘Asians’ per se is appalling, as the term encompasses swathes of communities from across the Indian subcontinent. This cowardly non-specific description of the perpetrators continues to be used in the British press, to describe men of predominantly Pakistani Muslim heritage convicted in grooming gang cases. We believe this is in part due to the fear of offending Muslims.

The media’s reluctance to describe perpetrators of these despicable crimes with clear and honest language, has elicited angry responses from Sikhs and Hindus, who’ve contacted us to express their outrage following the Mirror’s article. It has upset Pakistani Christians too. To put it frankly, the word ‘Asian’ gives the false impression gangs of Indian, Thai, Japanese or Korean men are rampaging across Britain sexually abusing underage white girls on an industrial scale. Is that fair? We suggest that this vague terminology isn’t only an insult, smearing innocent communities, but also serves to mask the fact that girls from Hindu and Sikh communities have historically fallen foul of grooming gangs themselves. The common denominator in such cases is the deliberate targeting of non-Muslim girls, which we believe should be categorized by the police as a hate crime.

Although we applaud the bravery of Nick Sommerlad and Geraldine McKelvie for their excellent journalism in the Mirror’s report, the NSO has reluctantly chosen to file a complaint to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), because of the liberal use of the word ‘Asian’ in the article to describe the identity of the offenders. Given the importance of their work, we did not take this decision lightly. However, we believe use of the word ‘Asian’ to describe sexual grooming by men of predominantly Pakistani Muslim heritage, whilst being both irresponsible and inaccurate, masks the real identity of those perpetrating these heinous crimes.

Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO)

Back in 2008 Faith Matters, the organisation behind Tell MAMA (the Muslim hate crime monitor) organised a ‘cohesive communities’ project for British Sikhs and Muslims to address, ‘the growing gulf between Sikhs and Muslims in certain localised areas of England’. It was held in Corrymeela (Ballycastle) between 4th-6th July 2008, a centre famous for conflict resolution at the height of sectarian troubles in Northern Ireland. According to FOI disclosures seen by the NSO the project cost the taxpayer £33,600.

Following the residential course four (out of nine) of the Sikh participants felt disgruntled enough to publish what they called an ‘Alternative Report’, (dated 1 October 2008) to express their concerns. They wrote: ‘In the view of many Sikh participants, the whole exercise proved faulty and dysfunctional; and failed to enable a wholesome and engaged dialogue on the critical Sikh-Muslims issues.’

In the same year the founder of Faith Matters, Mr Fiyaz Mughal, talked about the project in an article published by Faith Matters titled: ‘Cohesive Communities: Bridging Divides Between Muslim and Sikh Communities.’ He writes: ‘As the name suggests, the Cohesive Communities project was a chance for key issues to be aired and a start to the interaction process between both faiths. It was not meant as a basis to provide legitimisation for either community to use the report or its findings against the other and we firmly adhere to this principal.’

Despite the assurances given above, in June 2012, the following tweets (which were later removed following a complaint) making derogatory references to Sikh participants in Corrymeela were published by @FaithMattersUK.

We understand Faith Matters/Tell MAMA has recently organised a ‘round-table’ to discuss hate crime with Sikhs. This is in fact an area in which Sikhs led by the NSO have made significant progress, firstly by unearthing a breakdown of data from the MET police (through FOI) that shows significant numbers of non-Muslims, or those of no recorded faith (in 2015 and 2016) are being recorded under the ‘Islamophobic hate crime category’. In addition, we have a firm commitment from policy makers on a specific project for Hindus and Sikhs with True Vision – the police hate-crime reporting portal, which we hope to progress with our partners in the Hindu community this year.

We believe the 2012 tweets made by @FaithMattersUK, particularly the comparing of Sikhs who entered interfaith dialogue in good faith with Faith Matters to the EDL, and the accompanying hashtag #wolvesinsheepsclothing, are simply not compatible with the aim in creating harmonious relations between British Sikhs and Muslims, or promoting the concept of ‘cohesive communities.’

In the circumstances, it is our advice that Sikh groups should be wary of any partnerships, given what we view to be a previous betrayal.

Network of Sikh Organisations

The issue of extremism and indoctrination in schools was debated in the House of Lords this week following a question tabled by Lord Storey who asked the government, ‘what steps they are taking to ensure that children and young people are not being indoctrinated in schools.’

Peers discussed Ofsted’s initiative in identifying unregistered schools, which resulted in the closure of 34 or so schools, the establishment of a counter-extremism hotline, which has been utilised by educators a total of 450 times since April 2015, and difficult situations in which teachers have faced intimidation when they try to address extremism or indoctrination.

The issue indeed has wide implications for British society, and has affected amongst others Sikh educators. During the time of Trojan horse affair in 2014, it was reported that a Sikh heritage principal Balwant Bains, stepped down from Satley School and Specialist Science College due to relentless criticism from a Muslim dominated board. Last month another British born Sikh, Neena Lall head of St Stephens School in Newham received a backlash following a board of governor’s decision to ban the hijab for girls under the age of eight. Following a concerted campaign by conservative elements, (part of which included a spoof video in which Lall was compared to Hitler), the school reversed their decision. This resulted in an unprecedented intervention in support of Lall from Ofsted’s chief inspector Amanda Spielman.

Contributing to the debate Lord Singh, the Director of the Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) said, ‘My Lords, does the Minister agree that all the main religions should be taught in schools and that if a school is not doing that, it is a failing school? Should not the teachings of religion be in the context of today’s times rather than literally in the language of outdated texts, which can be manipulated for the purposes of extremism? Does the Minister further agree that the teachings should focus, not so much on customs and rituals, but on the underlying ethos so that it becomes self-evident that the different religions are all pushing in the same direction?’

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Department of Education – Lord Agnew of Oulton stressed extremism had no place in British society, and a change in law meant all schools must actively promote British values. He said, ‘If there are any allegations of schools promoting ideologies or discrimination in the classroom, we will not hesitate to take action.’

The Home Affairs Committee inquiry into hate crime and its violent consequences have published our second piece of written evidence which can be viewed here.

We are delighted that one of our policy recommendations from last year was heeded by Ministers, but it still needs to be implemented. We will be pushing for action on this specific commitment to Hindus and Sikhs, and would like to see the initiative implemented this year.

Despite this limited success, the NSO continues to be disheartened by the government’s lack of parity when it comes to the suffering of non-Abrahamic faith communities. Especially given FOI disclosures to us (for 2015 and 2016) from the MET police revealed significant numbers of non-Muslims including Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Atheists and Agnostics are being recorded as victims of ‘Islamophobic hate crime’.

We will continue to hold the government to account on what has clearly become a bias and ‘Abrahamic-centric’ policy approach to hate crime.

Baroness O’Loan during debate on conscientious objection

Our Director Lord Singh has supported a Bill designed to afford necessary protection for careers of medical practitioners who choose to object on grounds of conscientious objection when it comes to matters of life and death such as assisted suicide.

The Conscientious Objection (Medical Activities) Bill introduced by Baroness O’Loan had its second reading in the House of Lords last week. According to Baroness O’Loan the Bill ‘seeks to affirm as a matter of statute that nobody shall be under any duty to participate in activities they believe to take a human life. That means either in the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment, or in any activity authorised by the 1967 and 1990 Acts (including activity required to prepare for, support or perform them).’ Baroness O’Loan believes such reform would re-establish legal protections for medical conscientious objectors, reaffirming Article 9 rights.

Lord Singh the NSO’s Director who has previously opposed Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bills, in favour of ‘assisted living’ said:

‘My Lords, I support this important Bill. It is a timely recognition of the importance of conscience and ethical belief in looking at the end-of-life decisions, and the increasingly complex issues and personal dilemmas, that many face in their daily lives. Speaking from a Sikh perspective, I fully support the Bill’s sentiments as well as its aims and objectives. Majority opinion can, at times, be unthinking and we need to be wary of being pushed, or pushing others, to support debatable attitudes that at times affront ethical and moral principles.

This year, as has been mentioned, while commemorating the centenary of the end of the carnage of World War I, we should pause and reflect that it was also a war in which conscientious objectors were ​brutally treated—or even shot—for their belief that it is wrong to kill.’

He went on: ‘Something of the same dilemma was faced by Sikh soldiers when the Indian army attacked the Golden Temple in Amritsar in 1984. This attack on the holiest of Sikh shrines, on one of the holiest days in the Sikh calendar, was clearly political. Soldiers were ordered to shoot innocent pilgrims. Not surprisingly, some Sikh soldiers refused and were accused of mutiny. Some were shot, others were cashiered out of the army and some were to spend years in prison. They were accused of treason and disloyalty to their oath of allegiance to the state. True, yet in refusing to shoot non-combatants they were being true to the ethical teachings of their religion. This requirement to be true to our conscience is embedded in Sikh scriptures.

Guru Ram Dass, the fourth Guru of the Sikhs wrote:

“All human powers men make pacts with
Are subject to death and decay
Righteous teaching alone prevails”.’

Lord Singh continued: ‘In the Nuremberg trials at the end of the Second World War, many Germans accused of war crimes against the Jews and others pleaded that they were duty bound to follow orders, however questionable. The court held that the requirements of any state were secondary to the overriding norms of civilised behaviour.

Rapid advances in the field of medicine and today’s increasing tendency to overfocus on the rights of an individual can easily lead us to ignore the rights of wider society, and the ethical dilemmas that sometimes questionable procedures pose for those immediately involved. The downside of what we do is not always immediately apparent. The initial, clearly limited and humane objectives of the Abortion Act 1967 have, over time, been largely ignored. Abortion has become contrary to the original intentions of the Act and the ethical teachings of most religions and beliefs. It has simply become another method of birth control. We must have the right to object and to not take part in what we consider to be the unnecessary taking of human life.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, which legalised embryo- destructive forms of research, the rapid expansion in molecular biology and new genetic modification techniques can impinge on deeply held ethical beliefs, and people should not be compelled to do anything that they believe is contrary to respect for life. While conscience clauses were included in the initial legislation, they have been continually eroded by social pressures to conform. Those involved in procedures that impact on sincerely held ethical beliefs must be given the right to opt out.

The need to respect conscience goes beyond the field of medicine. Yesterday, I was invited by the DfE to give a Sikh perspective on relationship teaching in schools. As a Sikh, I am appalled at the undue emphasis on sexual relationships and sexual identity currently being taught in school. Young children are led to question their gender and are unhelpfully offered support to make permanent potential differences, which are generally passing phases in growing up. Parents and teachers should have a right to question or opt out of such teachings.

Today we should heed the words of the great philosopher James Russell Lowell who wrote:​
“We owe allegiance to the State; but deeper, truer, more
To the sympathies that God has set within our spirits core”.
This Bill is timely, well considered and necessary. I give it my full support.’

The full debate can be read here https://nsouk.us12.list-manage.com/track/click?u=0f788213c84a862348b0c4265&id=8882ff4ae1&e=39e8e2ed33.

The Bill will now pass on to a committee stage in the House of Lords.

Background: Iain Bell Deputy National Statistician for Population and Public Policy at the Office for National Statistics (ONS) had been invited to the gurdwara over the weekend to discuss concerns felt by the committee over attempts to categorise the Sikh community as an ethnic group. This was as a private meeting to be held with a few members of the committee. An invitation had also been extended to Lord Singh of Wimbledon. As he was not a member of the committee, he first obtained clearance from Iain Bell that it would be OK for him to attend.

On the day of the event a number of people from The Sikh Federation (SFUK) turned up uninvited at the gurdwara demanding to be heard. Ian Bell felt he’d already heard the SFUK’s views on a number of occasions, and wanted to hear the views of other parts of the Sikh community. The President of Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha Hounslow generously allowed in individuals from the SFUK to join the meeting.

Iain Bell proceeded in giving a short presentation about the census and its importance. The meeting was then opened for general discussion. In an abuse of hospitality, the SFUK began recording proceedings and taking over the meeting, stating Sikhs were an ethnic group and must be monitored as such. Lord Singh of Wimbledon explained that the House of Lords in 1983 had allowed for Sikhs to be counted as an ethnic group solely for protection under the 1976 Race Relations Act. This this was done because there was then no protection against religious discrimination, but the situation today was different because all religions are protected by legislation. He explained that Sikhism was a world religion, which should not be confined to those of Punjabi ethnicity.

Iain Bell confirmed that there was no substantial under-recording of Sikhs in the response to the question on religion. In response to a question on the possible misuse of data, he also confirmed that that there were rigid checks in place to prevent this.

Lord Singh, emphasised that all Sikh organisations should use their influence to get the fullest possible response to the religious question. He reminded the meeting that at the time of the 2011 census some Sikhs had ill advisedly campaigned against identifying Sikhism by Sikhs as a religion.

In reply to a question Iain Bell of the ONS explained the importance of ethnicity in providing appropriate medical and other services to those from different parts of the world. Members of the Hounslow gurdwara management committee were unanimous in their view that Sikhs were members of a world religion that was not limited by constraints of ethnicity and people could be Sikhs from different ethnic backgrounds. Some of the arguments advanced by SFUK, varying between the questionable and ludicrous are given below:

  • One gentleman stated that he had seen figures that gave the Sikh population in Hounslow as 25% and he felt it should be higher. The gurdwara president who explained that the Sikhs formed no more than 10 per cent of the population of Hounslow corrected him. (We have since corroborated this with official ONS figures.)
  • Another argued that ethnic monitoring was necessary to protect Sikhs against discrimination, but failed to explain where such discrimination was taking place.
  • Another argued that the Sikhs should be given a favoured status because of the contribution Sikhs had made to Britain over the years.

Some of the arguments used by those who felt Sikhs should be recorded as a religion only are given below:

  • Ethnicity is linked to genetic makeup and that trying to tie religion to ethnicity leads to absurdities. A Committee member asked the SFUK, does a person’s ethnicity embody DNA change if he or she converts to Sikhism? This was met with silence from the SFUK representatives.
  • The Sikh Gurus have always taught against dividing people into different groups and races, emphasising we are all members of the same one human race.
  • Guru Nanak travelled the length and breadth of India and to different countries to emphasize the universality of Sikh teachings. People from any part of the world can become Sikhs.
  • No evidence had been produced to show that Sikhs would gain in any material way by being classified as an ethnic group, but even if there were, it would be wrong to try and gain material benefits by compromising Sikh teachings.
  • Lord Singh reminded the meeting that the Mandla case in the early eighties was fought to protect the rights of a Sikh schoolboy to wear Sikh religious symbols. He explained that ethnic monitoring could prevent such protection. He gave the example of a large organisation like the BBC being shown to have the right number of ethnic Sikhs, masking possible discrimination against those that wear Sikh symbols.
  • Lord Singh said there was considerable discrimination against Sikhs in the provision of services by the government and various government bodies. Communities like Jews and Muslims were being given additional resources, not as a result of ethnic monitoring, but because of effective lobbying, (neither community is categorised as an ethnic group by the census). Today, hate crimes against Sikhs are still being recorded under the ‘Islamophobic hate crime’ category by forces like the MET and other agencies. Ethnic monitoring cannot help remove this blatant discrimination.

In response to calls from SFUK members to arrange more meetings, Iain Bell said that he would like to reflect on what he’d heard, and if whether or not an effective case had been made for a Sikh ethnic tick box or not. Members of the gurdwara committee made clear they saw no sense and only confusion in a separate Sikh ethnic tick box. Bell confirmed the ONS had received legal threats from certain sections of the Sikh community if the ‘ethnic Sikh tick box’ wasn’t included in the 2021 census.

The meeting concluded with the President Gurmit Singh Hanzara and all present thanking Iain Bell of the ONS for coming to Hounslow from South Wales on a Saturday, and wishing him by a comfortable journey back home.

Satvinder Singh Joint General Secretary at Hounslow gurdwara said:  ‘Gurdwara, Sri Guru Singh Sabha Hounslow (SGSS) held a successful meeting on 16 December 2017 with the Office of National Statistics (ONS). The object of the meeting was for SGSS Managment to understand the overall situation and provide its view, which was in the main generated via a previous internal meeting.’

He went on: ‘In view of continued progress on the issue of ‘authenticity’, the Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) not only kindly accepted our invitation to attend but also helped immensely by providing structure and input to the event. We are most thankful to Lord Indarjit Singh and the NSO for their contribution and assistance.’

[image: book launch – 1984: India’s Guilty Secret, where Lord Singh said, ‘Guru Nanak’s teachings state truth is high, but higher still is truthful living but for the British government, truth is high but higher still is trade.’]

Following the 2014 disclosures from The National Archives under the 30-year rule, there are two things clear about the Thatcher government’s role in events leading up to the storming of the Golden Temple in 1984. Firstly, the then government dispatched an SAS officer to provide military advice to the Indian Army in the run up to the attack in Amritsar (codenamed Operation Blue Star). Secondly, the British dispensed with human rights in order to secure lucrative military contracts with India, in particular the Westland helicopter deal. We believe there is little more to be gained from a full public inquiry into the Thatcher government’s role into 1984. We already know Sikhs were betrayed for financial gain, because trade trumped human rights. The real focus must surely be justice for the victims, by lobbying for a UN-led inquiry into human rights violations by the then Indian government, on similar lines to one supported by Britain for Sri Lanka’s massacre of Tamils. Why are groups like the Sikh Federation (SFUK) aiming for the wrong target?

Chronology of events and background

Following the 2014 disclosures David Cameron instructed Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood to conduct an internal government review of documents related to British involvement in the run up to Operation Blue Star. After the Heywood review, Lord Singh was invited to meet the Cabinet Secretary on 21 January 2014. He explained the hurt and sense of betrayal felt by UK Sikhs over the revelations of British government involvement. The Cabinet Secretary’s response was that his task was simply to look at all documentation and report accordingly.

When Lord Singh mentioned he’d seen documents showing the only concern of the then government seemed to be a lack of support for the Indian government might jeopardise arms exports, he received the astonishing response from the Cabinet Secretary that he and his team, ‘were unaware of any arms trade implications in the papers.’ Lord Singh responded that he had seen several references to arms sales to India being under threat, and at the Cabinet Secretary’s request, gave his office details of a Cabinet document dated, 22 November 1984, referring to a five billion pound arms contract.

Sir Jeremy Heywood was additionally informed that Lord Singh had met a former Cabinet member back in November 1984, to express concern over the UK government’s silence over the widespread organised killing of Sikhs throughout India. The staggering response was, ‘Indarjit, we know exactly what is going on, it’s very difficult; we’re walking on a tightrope: we have already lost one important contract’. 

On 4 February 2014, Sikh representatives met Baroness Warsi. Prior to the meeting Gurmel Kandola (Sikh Council UK) contacted Lord Singh suggesting the NSO’s Director should lead on behalf of Sikhs. However, at the meeting, Kandola maneuvered himself into position of chair, ignoring Lord Singh throughout, but giving ample opportunity for others to speak. Lord Singh was forced to interject. He unequivocally criticised the Heywood review as a ‘whitewash’ and ‘a cover up job’. Warsi responded, ‘If that’s an argument I can fight.’ Others presents including the otherwise vocal Sikh Federation were remarkably silent. A Sikh present unhelpfully felt it necessary to tell Warsi he was planning to stand for election on the Lib Dem ticket; another oddly provided a totally unrelated history lesson on Amritsar’s shrines. In an undated letter following the meeting, Warsi writes: ‘on the allegations that the UK military advice was linked to defence sales, there is no information to suggest the UK, at any level, attempted to use the fact that military advice has been given on request to any commercial objective.’

Deeply unsatisfied with Warsi’s response Lord Singh tabled a debate on the 3 March 2014 in the House of Lords. Concluding his speech he said, ‘I urge the Government to add their support for an open, independent inquiry into the massacre or genocide of Sikhs in 1984 in the same way that they are backing a UN-led inquiry into the killing of Tamils in Sri Lanka. Against this, all offers of government assistance and offers to talk to Sikhs pale into an unnecessary distraction.’ Making no commitment to Lord Singh’s request, Baroness Warsi reiterated views expressed in her undated letter following the 4 February 2014 meeting – in short SAS advice was not given for commercial gain.

Later that month on 26 March 2014, during Prime Minister’s Questions, David Cameron was asked what more Britain could do to get justice for victims of 1984. He responded by saying the events in Amritsar continue to be a ‘deep source of pain to Sikhs everywhere’ and ‘a stain on the post-independence history of India.’ He went on, ‘The most important thing we can do in this country is celebrate the immense contribution that British Sikhs make to our country, to our armed forces, to our culture and to our business life and celebrate what they do for this country.’ It was this blanket dismissal of Sikh human rights, which led to the NSO’s decision to boycott the Downing Street Vaisakhi function that year. Unsurprisingly other’s shamefully attended for photo opportunities.

We have studied the SFUK’s recent report ‘Sacrificing Sikhs’, which was launched at the APPG for British Sikhs by Preet Gill MP on 1 November 2017. It provides a significant amount of detail from previously undisclosed papers, supporting what we already know about the then British government’s foreign policy agenda – that is trade with India trumped Sikh human rights. The author Phil Miller, who was commissioned by the SFUK, says the British government is yet to declassify documents relating to India after 1985. The SFUK are pushing for further disclosure, and a full inquiry into the then British government’s involvement. We see little point in lobbying for a full inquiry or disclosure of further documents. Here’s why: Lord Saville who chaired the ten-year Bloody Sunday Inquiry and sits with Lord Singh as a crossbencher, dismissed any further inquiry into the UK role as futile. He said thirty years of looking for further information would get us no further forward.

Justice for surviving victims and their families

We urge Sikhs to rather focus their attention on getting justice for the surviving victims and their families via a UN-led inquiry into human rights abuses of the then Indian government. This is achievable, as its already been done for Sri Lanka, and Britain had an important role in lobbying for a UNHRC probe into the massacre of Tamils. Those with vested interests in UK party politics will no doubt continue to lobby Theresa May’s government for a full inquiry into the Thatcher government’s role – but they are willfully misguided.



2. Operation Bluestar was the codename for the Indian Army’s assault on the Golden Temple complex in 1984
3. http://nsouk.co.uk/uk-government-involvement-in-the-attack-on-the-golden-temple-and-its-failure-to-respect-the-human-rights-of-sikhs-in-the-genocide-of-1984/
4. Letter on file addressed to Gurmel Kandola of Sikh Council UK from Baroness Warsi (intended to be distributed to all attendees of the 4th February 2014 meeting), was not disclosed to us for some time, and received by the NSO from a source other than the Sikh Council or Gurmel Kandola
5. https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2014-03-03/debates/14030340000202/SikhCommunity#contribution-14030340000102
6. http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/04/07/sikh-uk-vaisakhi-downing-_n_5102896.html

On Monday evening representatives from the NSO participated in an Office for National Statistics (ONS) meeting in London regarding the Sikh Federation UK’s ongoing lobbying for the inclusion of a Sikh ‘ethnic’ tick box in the 2021 census.

Notably, the ONS informed audience members they had widely consulted Sikh groups, namely the Sikh Federation UK, the Sikh Network and the APPG for British Sikhs. To anyone outside the Sikh community this would on first inspection appear to be something of a community wide consultation. However the truth is all the aforementioned groups are in reality inextricably linked. Perhaps unbeknown to the ONS, Dabinderjit Singh is an advisor to the Sikh Federation UK, founder of the Sikh Network, and the Sikh Federation UK is the current secretariat to the APPG for British Sikhs. Preet Gill MP, Chair of the APPG remains an active board member of the Sikh Network. We take the view that this has therefore been far from a representative consultation with British Sikhs, but rather with the Sikh Federation UK, its affiliates and friends.

At the start of Monday’s discussion, our Director Lord Singh asked the ONS if they had taken into consideration Sikh teachings, and specifically the edict of Guru Nanak who rejected the labeling of individuals on caste, ethnic, race or any other lines of perceived difference. Sikh teachings emphasise the equality of all human beings. Lord Singh provided a robust Q&A on ‘Sikhs and ethnicity’ to the ONS at the meeting, which can be read here.

During the event another NSO delegate raised the issue of evidence-based research on South Asians (Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans) that shows they are at more risk of strokes and heart attacks. He said healthcare professionals offer advice on lifestyle modification and prophylactic therapies, and ethnicity is an important risk factor for them to consider. We take the view that in such cases involving cardiovascular risk, it would be irresponsible and furthermore dangerous to deny one’s Indian heritage. The risk factor for a Sikh convert of Caucasian heritage would of course be different. We are confident the ONS will take this into consideration.

After careful deliberation, we’ve decided to speak out about some further concerns. In short, we were taken aback by the conduct of some of the delegates at the meeting. Amrik Singh, Chair of the Sikh Federation UK openly boasted that his organisation had previously sued the ONS, spending £10,000 in doing so. He did not however clarify the outcome of the litigation. After the event, some delegates (who have chosen to remain anonymous) informed us how the meeting environment had made them feel intimidated. One was aggressively told to ‘shut up’ in Punjabi. We are aware that some individuals subsequently flagged concerns with the organisers. Regrettably, our Director was also heckled and jeered for simply putting forward his point on Guru Nanak’s teachings.

Embarrassingly others accused the ONS of being like some kind of modern day extension of the British Empire, and playing ‘divide and rule’. An attendee told The Sikh Council supremo Gurmel Kandola to leave the room for not respecting the meeting format. Another supporting the Sikh ‘ethnic’ tick box proposal, oddly suggested that the whole idea of Sikhism as a great world religion was an invention of the British. There appeared to be significant numbers of Sikh Federation supporters at the meeting, but regrettably very few Sikh women. We would like to take the opportunity to commend the ONS for their patience, expert facilitation and professionalism at an event fraught with difficulty and tension from the outset. They themselves faced significant vitriol from some of those present.

Importantly, the ONS shared their own quantitative research on the Sikh ‘ethnic group’ question, which was conducted with Sikhs in both Hounslow and Wolverhampton this year. These areas were chosen because of their sizeable Sikh communities. Summarising their findings the ONS concluded, there was no indication that the inclusion of the proposed box ‘provides any additional information over the religious question about the Sikh population’. Moreover they said the research, ‘indicated that the religious affiliation question better captures the size of the Sikh population’.

Lord Singh of Wimbledon

The Sikh Federation is always looking for a campaigning issue. The latest, is the inclusion of Sikhs as a distinct ethnic group in the next census. Predictably, Federation supporters, like Gurmukh Singh (Sewa UK), cite the Law Lords Ruling in the Mandla Case to justify an assertion that Sikhs are a distinct ethnic group. We are not, and to say we are shows a lack of understanding of the Law Lords’ findings, the meaning of ‘ethnicity’, and worse, ignorance of the teachings of the Sikh Gurus.

The Mandla case

The initial meeting to fight the Mandla case, with Seva Singh Mandla and the barrister Harjit Singh, took place in my house. Harjit Singh explained that the then Commission for Racial Equality wanted to protect the right of Gurinder Mandla to wear a turban in school. They wanted me to help them prove that Sikhs were a distinct race. I explained that to call Sikhs a race, would be going against Sikh teachings.

Our Gurus taught that all humans are of the same one race, and that man made divisions based on caste or race are divisive and false. I advised that protection under the category of ethnicity would be a better option. Ethnicity simply recognises the reality that people living in particular parts of the world can share common characteristics such as language, culture, and religion and a generally common diet, as well as a common propensity to certain diseases and comparative resistance to others. My argument was accepted and I then helped set out the case for protection of Sikhs on the grounds, that most Sikhs then in the UK were born in Punjab, had a common culture, wore the symbols of a distinct faith as well as sharing similar genetic characteristics.

I was asked to be the expert Sikh witness in the case and spent a day and a half being rigorously cross-examined in court. In the end, the case went all the way to the House of Lords where we eventually won. To understand the limited significance of the ruling, it is helpful to think of a dirty big box marked ‘ethnicity’. The Law Lords ruled that SOLELY for the purpose of protection under the 1976 race relations act, Sikhs could fit into that box, Nothing more, nothing less.

It is dishonest to say the Law Lords stated Sikhs were an ethnic group per se. The Law Lords, who I met at the time, were a clever lot, but it was not in their gift to alter geography and nature, or the social environment in which a community has its roots. Nor can the much-boasted signatures of 100 MPs make any difference. 

Harjinder Singh who now lives abroad, is a good practicing Sikh. If he lived in this country, he would be protected under the 1976 Race relations Act. As far as propensity, or comparative immunity to disease and illness goes, he remains an ethnic European. Most Sikhs in the UK are in the true meaning of ethnicity, ethnic Punjabis, and as such, have a greater propensity to diabetes and heart and liver disease. The Law Lords cannot change a person’s DNA.

Nor can they alter the Gurus’ teachings. This is what those obsessed with ethnic monitoring are effectively trying to do by extrapolating the Law Lords clearly limited ruling, to arrogantly pronounce the falsehood that Sikhs everywhere belong to a distinct ethnic group. Living in Europe, Harjinder Singh is a Sikh with European ethnicity. Ethnicity is not a matter of personal choice.

Is ethnic monitoring either practical or necessary?

The Sikh Federation maintain that having an option to write Sikh in the ethnic category will somehow give Sikhs a greater share of goods and services. Really? There is no evidence of ethnic monitoring being used to benefit any distinct community in the UK. Muslims and Jews, on the other hand, do well enough without it. As a former Labour Minister put it, ‘it’s the wheel that squeaks that gets the oil.’

Negative effect on practising Sikhs

Even if ethnic monitoring of Sikhs were a practical proposition, some Sikhs would probably declare their ethnicity as Indian, resulting in under-counting.

More seriously, in employment, ethnic monitoring would worsen the position of practicing Sikhs. Much of existing discrimination against Sikhs is on the basis of visible appearance. Monitoring of ‘ethnic Sikhs’ could mask and give legitimacy to discrimination towards turban wearing Sikhs. For example, a large organisation like the BBC might pass the ethnic quota test with few if any practising Sikhs. The irony is that the Mandla case was fought to protect our right to wear the symbols of our faith.


Some Sikhs naively believe that calling ourselves an ethnic group (which we are not) will strengthen the case for Khalistan, an emotionally attractive homeland for Sikhs. Forgetting the political impediments, there are two reasons why talk of Khalistan is nothing more than a campaigning slogan:

  1. Absence of a contiguous area, in Punjab where Sikhs will always be in a majority.
  2. A religious State, on the lines of Israel or Pakistan, where Sikhs have more rights than those of other faiths, would be totally against the clear teachings of our Gurus.

Talking of Khalistan is an understandable way of vocalising our anger over the genocide in 1984; it is an excellent rallying call for generating unthinking emotional following and funding by groups like the Sikh Federation, but as a practicable or desirable proposition, it is a complete nonstarter.


Lord Singh of Wimbledon, Director – Network of Sikh Organisations.

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