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The APPG for British Sikhs has over the Past 12 months made successful efforts to keep Sikhs in the Lords excluded from its deliberations. By chance I learnt of Tuesday’s AGM and accompanied by Lord Suri, attended the AGM to try to get the Group to issue a statement of concern over the bullying attitude of the Department for Education (DfE) in giving of a 2-week ultimatum to withdraw funding and move to a closure of a Sikh school, Seva School in Coventry unless it agreed to be run by Nishkam. Nishkam is a group regarded by many Sikhs as outside mainstream Sikhism, with a spiritual Head to whom some followers owe total allegiance.

Lord Suri and I were surprised at the poor attendance at the AGM, with one MP brought in for a while to make a quorum. After Preet Gill MP asked the 5 MPs present to confirm her as Chair, I spoke about the widespread concerns of parents, governors, staff, the Council of Gurdwaras in Coventry, the Sikh Council and the Network of Sikh Organisations and others. I also mentioned that an earlier complaint made by me of racist behaviour towards the school (in which Sikh teachings were labelled extremist and negative) had been upheld in an investigation by Sir David Carter a top civil servant with the DfE, with a promise of more supportive behaviour by the minister Lord Nash.

Unfortunately, the harassment has continued culminating in a 2-week ultimatum of a cessation of funding unless the school agreed to be run by Nishkam.

Preet Gill MP seemed irritated by both my presence at the meeting, and because I had raised an issue about which she had clearly not been briefed by the Sikh Federation UK, the official secretariat of the APPG. She expressed her admiration of Nishkam. However asking a mainstream Sikh school to join Nishkam with its different ethos, is like asking a Church of England school to join a group led by Jehovah’s Witnesses. She then queried my credentials in raising the widespread concerns of the Sikh community. Ignoring the need for urgent action, she said that she would have to carry out her own investigation and consult local MPs, as if their views counted for more than those of the Coventry Sikh community and two national Sikh bodies.

Lord Suri and I, were perhaps, even more disappointed by the mute subservience of the 5 MPs. There was no discussion about the DfE’s bullying and racist behaviour, or the need for government to understand a little about Sikhism and the Sikh community. The MPs expressed no sympathy or concern over an issue affecting Sikhs and the education of our children.

Lord Suri and I left the meeting with the knowledge that the APPG exists only to further the interests of the Sikh Federation UK, and not those of the wider Sikh community.

Lord Singh of Wimbledon

Graphic symbols of different religions on white

[Graphic symbols of different religions]

It matters that people learn about religion. The Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) has long stressed the importance for us all to have a basic understanding of all the major faiths, which in turn, motivate the behavior and attitudes of significant numbers of people in Britain. In understanding the role of religions in society, we provide ourselves with an informed platform to better engage with others.

Last week our Director Lord Singh asked the government, “What steps they are taking to combat religious extremism and to promote a cohesive society by enhancing religious literacy at all levels of government.”

Minister of State, Baroness Williams of Trafford responded by informing peers the government is countering extremism through Prevent. She said, “We are working closely with faith groups to understand the impact of policies and to improve religious literacy in government. The Home Secretary and the Communities Secretary hosted a round table for representatives of all faiths last November.”

Unsatisfied with the Minister’s response, Lord Singh added: “The Government paper on the hate crime action plan contained no mention of non-Abrahamic faiths. That suggests something about the religious literacy there. Does the Minister agree that democracy implies being attentive to the legitimate concerns of all sections of the community, not those of a single religious or other majority?”

He went on: “Does she further agree that teachings and practices that go against human rights must be robustly challenged, but that we need to know something about what we are challenging before we can do that? Programmes like Prevent cannot be effective without such knowledge. One final point is that I have put the basics of Sikh teachings on one side of A4 at the request of the DFE, and that can be done for other faiths as well. Should that not be essential for religious literacy in government departments?”

The Minister responded thus: “He said that the hate crime action plan did not specifically refer to non-Abrahamic faiths, but the tenets of the action plan cover points on hatred on the basis of religious belief, disability, sexuality and so on. It is therefore implicit within it that, for example, Sikh communities are included.”

She added: “As for the understanding of religious literacy within both government and wider society, both the Home Office and DCLG engage widely and often with faith communities. Shortly after the referendum, I myself met people from different faiths, including Sikhs, in Manchester to discuss religious literacy, the outcome of the referendum and the corresponding hate crime attached to it.”

It is encouraging to hear the Minister often engages with faith communities. However her response didn’t acknowledge the government’s failure in including faiths outside the Abrahamic traditions in Action Against Hate – the government’s four-year hate crime plan. The NSO believes that improving religious literacy in government circles can only enhance policy development, and prevent any future exclusion of minority faiths that aren’t as vocal in their approach to lobbying.

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