Where Unity Is Strength

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.

There has been a bit of a spat over the last few days over a new government proposal for nurses to work for a year as health care assistants to teach them care and compassion. The government’s suggestion is a reaction to the poor standards of care found at the Staffordshire hospital – though critics say there are real issues to address around cuts in resources and training. It seems we have moved a long way from the cosy picture of the NHS seen at the opening of the Olympics last summer.

The reality to this growing sense of crisis in a health service, once the envy of the world, is the escalating cost of looking after a rapidly growing elderly population, the high cost of expensive new drugs and procedures, as well as growing expectations. To me, those with a stake in a satisfactory resolution of these real concerns are not only the government and health care providers, but also the rest of us. We too have a part to play in ensuring all sections of the community enjoy good reliable, care services.

Looking beyond ourselves to the wellbeing of others is a central part of Sikh teachings. Gur Har Rai the seventh Guru started a free dispensary for the poor and needy and expanded on the concept of langar or free food for all who come to a gurdwara. His son Gur Harkishan died while administering aid to victims of a smallpox epidemic in Delhi and Guru Gobind Singh the 10th on the proper care of enemy soldiers in battle. Today many of our larger gurdwaras fund medical care in India and other countries.

All our different faiths remind us that a duty of care and compassion should not have to be taught in hospitals, but should be an essential part of how we live move and have our being. Guru Nanak declared that looking to the wellbeing of others through giving -in particular the giving of time – as the most important of the three pillars of Sikhism. Today, we can all do much more to make care in the community a reality rather than a euphemism for an absence of care, and, as Sikh teachings remind us, in so doing, get a more lasting sense of wellbeing ourselves than we do from our sometimes more selfish, questionable and costly lifestyles.

This week Sikhs are celebrating the spring festival of Vaisakhi; a day on which the 10th Guru, Guru Gobind Singh tested the readiness of the infant Sikh community to stand on its own without further Gurus.

We recall how, as crowds were celebrating the gathering of the winter harvest, the Guru came out of a tent and asked for volunteers who were prepared to put their life on the line defending the principles of Sikh teachings. Sikhs readily came forward and, discarding any previous allegiance to caste, took Amrit or baptism as the first members of the Khalsa or community of equals. The Guru then asked them to give him Amrit. Master and disciple were one, and the line of living Gurus ended. Sikhs were told that in future they should follow the teachings of Sikh scriptures as they would a living Guru. The teachings or principles that the Guru considered so important can, in essence, be summed up in two words: responsibility and equality.

Responsibility means earning by honest effort and helping the less fortunate. It implies a duty to stand up to the bully, whether in the school playground, the office or workplace It also includes a requirement for Sikhs to speak up, as the Gurus did, against social injustice and political oppression. Opposing injustice requires courage and commitment and two of the Sikh Gurus lost their lives in pursuit of this ideal.

The other requirement emphasised in Sikh teachings, is belief in the equality of all members of our human family, including the dignity and complete equality of women. On that historic Vaisakhi day, the Guru took gender equality a step further by giving women the title ‘Kaur’ or ‘princess’, emphasising not only their dignity and worth, but also that they were individuals in their own right and did not have to take their husband’s name.

Today, these concepts are widely accepted and we rightly have legislation against discriminatory behaviour. But I believe there is a danger of legislation sometimes being used to enforce sameness and undue conformity, when the one fact of life is that we are all different. The message of Vaisakhi today is, that while working for equality of respect and opportunity for all, it is important that we also respect the rights of those who question, or choose to differ from, transient social or political norms.

A favourite poem I used to read to my children begins:

Six wise men from Hindustan to learning much inclined

Went to see an elephant, though all of them were blind

Each touches a different part of elephant like the trunk, tusk or tail and comes to the instant conclusion that an elephant is like a serpent, spear or rope. The poem reminds us of the dangers of looking at an issue from too narrow a perspective.

I was reminded about this by two reports this week on the widespread use of drugs. One by a group of parliamentarians says current criminal sanctions do not combat drug addiction and only marginalise users. They want possession and personal use of all illegal drugs decriminalised and the least harmful sold in licensed shops, with labels detailing the risks The second report from the BMA also says that there is too much focussing on criminality and goes on to suggest that drug taking is like an illness and those with serious problems shouldn’t be inhibited from seeking urgent treatment.

Both these reports look at different facets of a common problem, but they don’t give us an understanding of why drug use has become a major problem in recent years. The reports focus on symptoms rather than addressing underlying causes. People start taking and become hooked on drugs for sometimes complex reasons, but I believe a key issue that is often overlooked in the debate is that of lifestyles that move us away from responsibility to and support from those around us, to a more selfish and isolated pursuit of personal happiness. It’s a bit like chasing a mirage; we never quite get there, and drink and drugs are sometimes seen not only as a remedy for disappointment, but as an end in themselves.

Sikh teachings and those of other religions remind us that life has both ups and downs, and of the importance of developing equanimity and a sense of resilience in balanced and responsible living. In a memorable verse Guru Nanak taught that the lasting sense of contentment in looking outwards to actively helping those around us and working for a fairer society far exceeds the short term buzz from drinks and drugs.

The parliamentary and BMA reports on drug abuse are useful contributions as far as they go, but the underlying problems lie in lifestyle and expectations. These are far harder to change, but we do need to look at and reflect on the wider picture.

Later this morning I’ll be going to a conference organised by a local gurdwara and the police to alert young Sikhs to the dangers of sex grooming and trafficking. While the plight of vulnerable white girls has made the headlines, few outside the community are aware that Sikh girls, particularly those entering college and university, have also been targeted

Crimes against women and their unequal treatment have long existed in all societies throughout the world. We were reminded of this by the horrific rape and murder of a young medical student in India; a country with a long history of less than equal treatment of women. Crimes of this nature are said by some to be related to the affection lavished on male children whilst girls are treated as lesser members of the family.

Guru Nanak the founder of the Sikh faith was appalled by the lowly position of women in Indian society. In a memorable verse he wrote women give us birth, nurture us in our infancy and give men companionship; it is women that give birth to kings and rulers. Both he and successor Gurus took concrete steps to ensure the full and equal treatment of women in religious worship, education and other walks of life.

Last Saturday Sikhs celebrated the birthday of the 10th who took the work of earlier Gurus further by giving Sikh women the name Kaur, literally ‘princess’ to emphasise their dignity and complete equality. The Guru had to fight many battles for the survival of the infant Sikh community, and insisted that even in the heightened passions of battle; Sikh soldiers treat women as sister, daughter or mother,

Sadly, despite such teachings, the sub continent culture of male superiority still affects some Sikh households and gives a ready excuse to rebellion prone teenagers to seek attention and affection elsewhere. I have no doubt that today’s conference will remind those attending of the dangers of internet chat lines and predatory behaviour in pubs and clubs But I believe the best safeguard is for parents to live true to teachings of equality and responsibility and give their children a sense of self esteem and self worth to help them distinguish between genuine friendship and false and dangerous relationships.

We’ve just come back from a wonderful holiday exploring glacial valleys and stunning mountain scenery. We also experienced warm and kind hospitality despite our distinctly our foreign appearance. It was in Norway and we left the country on the same day that Anders Breivik launched his murderous assault. Since then, I’ve been asking myself how could such an outrage have taken place in such a wonderful and tolerant country?

There is a well known verse in Sikh scriptures which says
There is a the inner light of God in all and it becomes manifest as we reflect and act on religious and ethical teachings, centred on a belief in the oneness of all humanity..

Unfortunately the opposite is also true and, as we saw in Norway, we can also carry within us, ungodly concerns and suspicions about those who appear different , especially newcomers to our country, despite evidence that immigrants generally bring new skills and vigour into a community. Fear of possible economic or social disadvantage, can all too easily lead to irrational prejudice and hatred, and I believe it’s this is that triggered the recent carnage in Norway, as it has done in countless other hate fuelled outrages throughout history.

Travel can help us develop more enlightened attitudes to others, when we see people in different lands with similar concerns and aspirations, laughing, joking, rejoicing and, grieving at the same sort of things.

But, we don’t really have to go very far to understand this truth ; we can see it in the lives and concerns of those of different cultures who are our near neighbours—if we care to look! I remember the suspicion and stand off a few years ago when Sikhs sought planning permission to extend a gurdwara in Southfields in London. There was no dialogue between Sikhs and local residents and rubbish was sometimes thrown into the existing gurdwara premises. A few of us decided to knock on every door in the immediate neighbourhood and invite the residents to discuss their concerns over refreshments. To our surprise, most came. Few concerns were raised and much of the discussion was about recipes for making chapattis.

We are told that it is good to talk, and dialogue between different cultures helps understanding, but both settled communities and new arrivals need to make an effort to change prejudice and misunderstanding into mutual respect.

As we have learnt this morning, the wanton violence and looting seen in Tottenham and other parts of London over the last few days has now spread to places like Birmingham and Bristol. It has its origins in the police shooting of a member of the public in still confused circumstances. But while the mindless violence has taken the headlines there are legitimate concerns over the balance of the right to life and freedom of individuals and how far the police should go in the course of their duty.

In a different area of the balance of rights and freedoms, the Equality and Human Rights Commission chose last weekend to suggest that the banning of satellite dishes in conservation areas may infringe an individual’s human right to freely practice their religion by denying the right to services beamed from abroad.

Both these examples show the importance of getting a sense of perspective on human rights. When the Human rights Act was first brought in, it was generally seen as an overdue protection of fundamental freedoms, but today many see it, and associated European legislation, as undue interference in the right of our country to its own interpretation of individual rights. I doubt if many will see access to a satellite dish as high on the scale of national priorities.

Over-focussing on comparative minor infringements of religious liberty simply blurs real issues.

For many of us religion is much more than formal worship. For Sikhs and I believe for most faiths the essence of religion is responsible living. This is something far removed from, and perhaps an antidote to, what has been termed ‘the recreational violence’ seen on our streets over the last few days.

Religion takes us away from a narrow obsession with self and my rights, to concern for those around us and respect for our surroundings. It is because of this that I believe that it would make for a more contented society if rights were seen in their true perspective, and the proposed new Bill on Human Rights framed to encompass both rights and responsibilities.


Yesterday, in a sombre response to last weeks riots, Prime Minister David Cameron spoke of a slow motion moral collapse that Britain had suffered in recent decades. In a hard hitting speech he attacked society for ‘twisting and misrepresenting human rights’ to undermine personal responsibility. He went on to say policies on education, welfare, parenting and drug addiction would be examined to help mend a broken society. Opposition leader Ed Milliband, in a parallel speech, drew attention to what he saw as the effects of economic deprivation and lack of job opportunities.

Curiously, religion and the role of faith communities hardly figures in this comprehensive call for action, although religion addresses many of the issues involved: such the family, and the harm done to both the individual and society by greed and selfishness. It’s a reminder that religion, at one time recognised as the main determinant and arbiter of moral values, is now seen as largely irrelevant,

For me the riots were not only, what the Prime Minister described as, ‘a wake up call for the country’, but also one for our religious communities. The problem is that there has always been a disconnect between religious teaching, and living true to religious values. Living true to such values is not always easy as seen in the death of Jesus Christ, and the later martyrdom of Guru Teg Bahadhur, whose anniversary of Guruship falls this week. Even when life is not threatened it’s not easy to stand up to the bully, or to look to the rights of others at the expense of benefits to your own.

The initiatives announced by the Prime Minister involving government departments are a welcome step in bringing sanity back to society. But religious communities also have a responsibility to translate lofty teachings on right, wrong and responsibility, to positive action to address underlying needs of society.

Today there are many initiatives by religious charities to tackle social deprivation. Sikhs have the institution of langar to feed the needy and the concept of seva or service to others. I believe there can be a huge multiplier effect if our different religions combine their individual efforts, in joint initiatives to bring respect, responsibility and cohesion back to all levels of society. In doing this we will simply be doing what the founders of our different faiths taught us to do.

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