(NSO Comments in italics)
Bloom: ‘The British Sikh community is one of the oldest minority communities in the UK, but the first major immigration of Sikhs to the UK was in the 1950s. Many settled in London and the West Midlands, and by most measurements British Sikhs have successfully integrated into communities across the whole of the UK. According to the 2021 Census results, there are approximately 524,000 people in England and Wales who identify as Sikh.’
Data included in Bloom shows that British Sikhs have:
- high rates of employment and home ownership.
- Sikhs have high rates of high-skilled occupation.
- In 2018, over 39% of Sikhs had higher education qualifications compared to 30% of Christians.
- British Sikhs tend to place a high value on family life and providing direct support for extended family, especially when they are old or in poor health.
- According to the 2018 British Sikh report, only 2% of Sikhs in Britain have elderly family members living in care homes.
- 45% of respondents own their homes, 29% are in the process of buying, and 79% are employed or self-employed.
Bloom’s ‘areas of concern’
‘The first area of concern is the power struggle within some areas of British Sikh communities over who will represent them at official levels and be recognised as the preeminent Sikh body in the UK. Government should take a pluralistic approach to engagement, and the COVID-19 Sikh roundtable set up in May 2020 is a good example of how this can be done. The approach also avoids ‘gatekeeping’, which limits government’s capacity to engage a particular faith in all its diversity and diminishes its integration within wider society.’
Yes, but groups invited should have some tangible record of contribution to society and social integration. The report warns against self-proclaimed representatives who bring the community into disrepute.
The second concern
‘The division between some British Sikh communities which is caused by an extremist fringe ideology within the pro-Khalistan movement, a separatist movement seeking to create a sovereign homeland for Sikhs in the Punjab region. It is important to note that the promotion of Khalistan ideals is not itself subversive, but the subversive, aggressive and sectarian actions of some pro-Khalistan activists and the subsequent negative effect on wider Sikh communities should not be tolerated.’
Only a very small minority of Sikhs are involved, but unfortunately, they cause disproportionate disruption. Gurdwara Management Committees should be alert to such groups seeking power and funds for negative activities.
‘The third area of concern is the activities of some individuals and organisations that are demonstrably fuelling sectarianism and anti-Muslim sentiments, as well as legitimising discriminatory and misogynistic behaviour.’
The report ignores the fact that anti-Muslim sentiments generally result as a reaction to the behaviour of Muslim grooming gangs towards Sikh girls, and other non-Muslim girls. Misogyny exists in all communities, but is less in Sikhs, because of Sikh teachings on gender equality, which are followed by the majority.
Quote from anonymous participant in Bloom: ‘Only minority Sikhs are causing divisions and hate, [the] majority are peace loving but these minority are controlling the leading Sikhs temples in England and using funds raised for worship for propagating Khalistan and openly do that on social media. All are allowed to express their views and raise concerns of any injustice in India but spreading hate and brainwashing Sikh youth is a matter of serious concerns and many Sikh Temples are allowing [organisations to have youth camps where some are trying to recruit youth to follow their hate, terror and division agenda.’
Bloom concludes: ‘Although these three areas of concern are different, they are sometimes conflated by self-appointed ‘community leaders’ seeking prestige or power.’
The statement is essentially correct and a cause for concern, but the use of words like ‘hate’ and ‘terror’ agenda, are a little over the top in describing this undemocratic seeking of power and authority. (although we understand why the respondent chose to be anonymous, for fear of backlash).
Bloom says, ‘numerous respondents were deeply concerned about the division and distress caused by some activist groups aggravating communities and painting an unduly belligerent picture of the Sikh faith. These groups can associate themselves with mainstream Sikh communities, but their intimidatory and subversive methods are considered by most to be alien to the basic tenets of the Sikh faith. Respondents warned that if government doesn’t distinguish extremist agendas of power, control and subversion from mainstream Sikh communities, it would result in the UK turning a “blind eye towards religious extremism. This review’s evidence gathering also found repeated cases of individuals being intimidated and threatened by aggressive Sikh activists, either directly or indirectly through family members, for openly standing against them. The difficulty in Sikhs speaking out has been previously noted. In the 2019 report for the Commission for Countering Extremism, ‘The changing nature of activism among Sikhs in the UK today’, some potential respondents reportedly refused to participate because they feared backlash and others chose anonymity. It is important to note that Sikh identity and outlooks can be defined by historic events.’
He goes on: ‘Any study of Sikh activism today must take account of the Sikh historical context, including in relation to persecution and survival. This context can evoke powerful emotions of injustice and duty which can be used to lend relevance and legitimacy to actions. Any investigation into aggressive Sikh activism or extremist behaviour must therefore seek to understand the historical and philosophical root causes, while firmly setting parameters for what is and is not acceptable activity or behaviour in the pursuit or promotion of ideals. This reviewer urges government to consider the proposed recommendations with this in mind.’
Who represents British Sikh communities?
Bloom says, ‘for the government to engage with British Sikh communities in both a constructive and productive way, it is vital to address the issue of who is best placed to represent British Sikhs. This issue was raised repeatedly in written comments throughout the call for evidence, with many Sikhs concerned that the genuine interests of their communities are at risk of being overlooked due to public officials’ insufficient understanding of intrafaith dynamics.
The structure of Sikh communities in Britain differs significantly from some other religions because there is no official leader or religious authority for Sikhs in the UK. Instead, there is a plurality of councils, communities and groups. This complexity can create a power struggle over who will be the pre-eminent Sikh body at official levels, in government bodies.
These tensions can play out publicly, but they are not always clear to the average observer. As part of the evidence gathering for this report, politicians, public figures, academics and officials provided evidence, some of whom are high profile. Because of their fear of retribution, they spoke under the condition of anonymity, but their stories were all very similar. At times they have felt disparaged, victimised, harassed or threatened by aggressive Sikh activists who do not hesitate to abuse or bully anyone who either criticises them or does not follow or support their opinion. Many have been intimidated and called ‘traitors’, ‘impure’, ‘nastic’ (infidel) and ‘patits’ (heretics).
Members of different political parties who have served in public office have given examples of how they felt pressured to do what these activists wanted, and how some Sikh activists claim to have power over not only the ballot box, but also the selection processes of different local parliamentary and political bodies. One public servant said they would “live in fear” of retribution if they were to speak out against the ideological narrative of the activists. Others have confirmed that investigations into this type of extremist behaviour, which this report aims to present, are long overdue.
The government must take special care in understanding and wisely navigating these aspects of Sikh communities. Through improved faith literacy training for public servants, outlined in recommendation 4 of this report, government and the Civil Service will be able to more effectively discern between those who can genuinely represent the Sikh faith and those who are exploiting theSikh faith as a vehicle to promote divisive interests which fracture communities at home and abroad.’
Bloom writes, ‘The Khalistan movement is a Sikh separatist movement seeking to establish an independent and sovereign Sikh state called Khalistan (Land of the Pure) in the Punjab region of India. The movement grew in power and influence in the 1980s and 1990s. Many acts of violence and extremism occurred in the aftermath of Operation Blue Star, which remains a highly emotive issue for many Sikhs.’
The report should have put the idea of Khalistan in context. Operation Bluestar was an attack on the Golden Temple by the Indian army on one of the holiest times in the Sikh Calendar, designed to humiliate Sikhs. Thousands of Sikhs were killed or tortured to death. It was followed later in the year by the government supported genocide of Sikhs throughout India with the burning of Sikh homes, the torture and burning alive of Sikh men and the rape of Sikh women.
The revulsion to the government backed genocide in which the Indian Army declared that all practising Sikhs were legitimate targets, was, if Sikhs are treated in this way, we’ll seek a separate homeland. The reality however is that Sikh teachings which emphasise the equal rights of all communities, do not support the idea of a Sikh religious state where Sikhs have more rights than other communities. This hasn’t stopped disreputable elements in the Sikh community exploiting the still lingering sense of hurt for their own selfish ends.
Bloom continues: ‘There is a small, extremely vocal and aggressive minority of British Sikhs who can be described as pro-Khalistan extremists. This reviewer is of the opinion that every individual has the right to protest both here and abroad and values the importance of doing so within a democratic state. The promotion of pro-Khalistan ideas does not have to be subversive. There are many democratic avenues for political persuasion which do not involve manipulative threats or intimidation. However, this reviewer is deeply critical of any group which uses physical, psychological or political coercion and abuse to further its interests. While these extremists reflect a tiny minority, they attract disproportionate amounts of attention and stoke divisive sentiments in sectors of Sikh communities. This reviewer heard views that some of these groups or individuals have sought to artificially inflate their influence and legitimise dubious positions or tactics by using the ‘Sikh’ label to lobby political bodies. By circumventing democratic order, some groups compete for power by masquerading as human rights activists, presenting a false appearance of legitimacy. The use of various aliases which attempt to divert public attention away from a central umbrella organisation is a common strategy used to subvert the British political order.’
The issue of secessionist political agendas
Bloom adds: ‘Subversive activity in the UK agendas within the Indian diaspora was highlighted during the controversy over calls for an additional tick box option in the 2021 Census. The Office for National Statistics concluded that including ‘Sikh’ under ‘Other ethnic groups’ prompted concerns and suspicions about why Sikh was being separated from the Asian or Indian tick boxes, as the majority of those answering ‘Sikh’ to the religion question in the 2011 Census and the 2017 ethnic group question test ticked the ‘Indian’ ethnic group box. This was still the case when a Sikh tick box was added to the ethnic group question in testing. Attempts to change the Census have come from members of Sikh communities, but they are not reflective of the whole faith community.
Some respondents to this review claimed that the tick-box controversy bears all the traits of an extremist interpretation of pro-Khalistan ideology and has no relation to the ancient Sikh teachings of oneness, which they said contains no endorsement of an exclusive ethno-religious state called Khalistan.
Whether or not this is the case, government must have the clarity and confidence to ensure neither the Census nor the British political system become entangled in divisive or subversive agendas.
A prominent Sikh in public life, Lord Singh of Wimbledon, has also alleged deliberate ill-treatment aimed at silencing him in his recent evidence to the House of Lords Conduct Committee. He was responding to a complaint against him brought by Preet Gill MP to the House of Lords Committee on Standards’.
Preet Gill MP, a prominent Sikh Federation UK (SFUK) supporter irked by Lord Singh’s contention that Sikhism was a world religion not tied to a part of Punjab, took out a vindictive complaint against him with the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. In it, she claimed Lord Singh was rude to her in front of an ONS official. This was totally denied by the official in evidence, and the case was thrown out.
Bloom writes: ‘It is difficult to prove given the complex structures and multiple aliases of various groups, but conversations with academics and political figures have given this reviewer grounds to suspect that there is at least overlap of membership between some Sikh groups operating in the UK and proscribed (or previously proscribed) groups.
In particular, this report recommends that the MPs who are in the All-Party Parliamentary Group for British Sikhs consider the findings of this report. The parliamentary authorities must do what they can to ensure that the parliamentary estate is not unwittingly hosting organisations and individuals who have been linked to bullying and harassment at best, and subversive behaviours at worst, which are antithetic to the parliamentary estate’s own values of truth, justice, peace, tolerance and democracy.’
This is an important recommendation which requires urgent action.
The APPG under the chairmanship of Sikh Federation UK (SFUK) supporter Preet Gill MP, stifled hearing of opposition voices or an open discussion with MPs on the APPG on issues like the SFUK’s ‘Sikh’ tick box Census, which might question SFUK’s stance.
The narrow focus of the SFUK on the pursuit of political power led to the APPG’s Chair and secretariat’s failure to consider the implications of the Offensive Weapons Bill (p51 of the report) on the Sikh cultural practice of presenting a full-length kirpan to an individual for making a significant contribution to the Sikh community. Nor did the Sikh Chair of the APPG pick up the omission in Parliamentary debate.
When the Bill moved to the Lords, Lord Singh of Wimbledon tabled an amendment which won the support of all parties to the annoyance of SFUK who lobbied a government minister to state in debate on the Bill that she had been fully briefed by SFUK. The implication was that she believed that this fringe body which failed to understand the implications of the Offensive Weapons Bill spoke for the wider Sikh community (At a conference in Estonia, Lord Singh, who suggested the amendment, was introduced by the then British Ambassador, as ‘the man who brought Guru Nanak to the breakfast tables of Britain’).
Bloom says, ‘The right to hold certain beliefs should always be upheld, as should the right to freedom of expression of those beliefs. But government must take extra care to ensure that the beliefs and subsequent behaviours of individuals or organisations do not conflict with or undermine democratic order.
Government must allow for the proper level of engagement with British Sikh communities, but it must also impede the advance of subversive groups which attempt to fracture majority Sikh communities and negatively affect the stability of our society. It is important that government neither overlooks nor fails to be discerning when it comes to concerns regarding extremist ties when selecting the individuals and groups responsible for representing British Sikhs at official and political levels.’
Sectarian or discriminatory behaviour in the UK
On Sikh marriages, he says ‘For generations, many Sikhs have been able to marry outside the community, including interfaith marriages, without any problems. However, some groups have sought to aggressively pressure Sikh leaders and gurdwaras to ban the use of the Anand Karaj (the Sikh marriage ceremony) for interfaith marriages. In 2007, arsonists attacked the house of a gurdwara leader in Birmingham in what was believed to be a reprisal attack for allowing a mixed marriage (despite the fact that the gurdwara claimed the man voluntarily chose to convert ahead of the wedding). During an interfaith marriage at the Leamington Spa gurdwara, a group of more than 50 men protested against the marriage. Those present at the gurdwara subsequently complained of the protestors’ very aggressive language and behaviour.’
A church marriage can only be between Christians and marriage in a Mosque between Muslims. Similarly, marriage in a gurdwara should be between those with a commitment to Sikh teachings. The Anand Karaj marriage ceremony in a gurdwara is a public commitment by both partners to live true to Sikh teachings, pledging mutual support in service to the wider community.
A marriage in a gurdwara where one, or both parties have no intention of living true to the requirements of the Anand Karaj is hypocrisy bringing the gurdwara into disrepute. Unfortunately, some gurdwaras, turn a blind eye to such a charade in pursuit of additional income. While violence and unruly behaviour is to be deplored, gurdwara congregations should do more to hold management to account.
Sikh teachings have nothing against an interfaith marriage where one partner is a non-Sikh, but this should take place in a registry office. If the bride or groom wish it for family reasons, a reception could follow in the langar hall, or the bride and groom could opt to receive a blessing from a granthi (priest).
Bloom continues, ‘Several Sikhs have previously alleged that advocacy against grooming is being used as a guise to promote anti-Muslim hatred. Some members of the Sikh community have expressed concerns that others are focusing on the reported grievance of Muslim men grooming or sexually exploiting Sikh women, sometimes with the intention of converting them, to the exclusion of other types of intra-community abuse which they worry may be going ignored.
Furthermore, a small minority of individuals connected to certain Sikh groups appear to have had historical associations with white nationalist groups such as the English Defence League and the British National Party (despite protestations to the contrary). These are likely to have centred around a common anti-Muslim agenda, including on tackling alleged Muslim grooming gangs.
Online and media content Sikh extremists and their supporters often upload videos and other materials onto social media platforms such as Facebook, iTunes and YouTube which contain alarmingly dangerous and offensive imagery, language and the glorification of extremist behaviour. There are videos that incite violence and hatred towards Muslims, Hindus and even other Sikhs who disagree with the minority extremist ideology. To avoid publicising such material, the detail is not included here.
Some of these videos depict the graphic abduction, torture and murder of Indian leaders, and multiple other videos inciting violence, retribution and the glorification of dead pro-Khalistan militants and AK47 machine guns. Some YouTube channels which spread such material have subscribers in the tens of thousands. In February 2021, Khalsa Television Ltd, which served Sikh communities in the UK, was fined £50,000 by Ofcom for failing to comply with broadcasting rules. The channel aired a music video indirectly calling for violence (including murder) and a discussion programme which provided a platform for views that amounted to indirect calls to action that were likely to encourage or incite crime or lead to disorder. The discussion programme also included a reference to proscribed terrorist organisation Babbar Khalsa, which could be taken as legitimising and normalising its aims and actions in the eyes of viewers. In 2022, Ofcom took the decision to suspend and eventually revoke Khalsa Television Ltd’s broadcasting license following multiple breaches of broadcasting rules:
“This was the third time within four years that this licensee had been found in breach of our rules on incitement to crime due to programmes inciting violence.” This involved promoting violence, including murder, as an acceptable and necessary form of action to further the pro-Khalistan cause. But crucially, there is no sign that YouTube or the UK’s counter-terrorism bodies have investigated the explicit glorification of violence and terrorism being promoted by Sikh extremists on YouTube channels and social media platforms. However, in November 2020, the government granted Ofcom the responsibility of regulating video sharing platforms.
This reviewer is of the opinion that extremist videos uploaded to the internet should be dealt with in a similar way to content that incites violence on television stations. Indeed, should the Online Safety Bill be approved, there will be ample scope for directly addressing extremist content spread by aggressive ethno-nationalist groups. 356 The impact assessment of the Online Safety Bill specifically recognises the risk of extremist content as part of the rationale for intervention, ensuring online platforms are held to account for violent, harmful and abusive content.’
Tackling the problem
‘These subversive, sectarian and discriminatory activities do not reflect the true nature of the majority of British Sikh communities, who, for the most part, are the ones adversely affected by this behaviour. There have been previous attempts to curtail this sort of activity. For example, Babbar Khalsa International was proscribed in 2001.
Babbar Khalsa International is known for its use of violent force and planned terrorist attacks, which has led to multiple arrests of suspected members in India, Canada and the United States over the last 20 years. However, International Sikh Youth Federation, which has also allegedly been responsible for assassinations, bombings and kidnappings targeting Hindus, moderate Sikhs and Indian government officials, was de-proscribed by the UK government in 2016 following an application to remove them from the list of terrorist organisations in the UK. The International Sikh Youth Federation has been banned in multiple countries and is still listed as a terrorist entity in Canada.364 As this report has previously stated, several members of Sikh communities believe there is overlap between some Sikh groups operating in the UK now, and proscribed (or previously proscribed) groups. This is extremely difficult to prove given the complex structures and multiple aliases of various groups. But nevertheless, this reviewer urges government to investigate and reconsider some of its previous conclusions regarding the activity of these groups.
This reviewer does acknowledge that it would be difficult to proscribe specific groups unless they meet the clear threshold for terrorist behaviour. But this leaves a significant policy gap that must be plugged. Government needs to take steps to define and deal with the subversive and sectarian behaviour described in this chapter, which in the opinion of this reviewer should be viewed as harmful extremism, to ensure it cannot continue or be emulated by other faith-inspired ethno-nationalist groups. Democratic order, the fabric of our society, and the ability of faith communities to live cohesively and peacefully is at risk if this is not addressed.’
‘Government should clearly define and investigate extremist activity and identify where this exists within the Sikh community, taking steps to develop a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding of subversive and sectarian Sikh extremist activity. Government should ensure that unacceptable and extremist behaviours are not inadvertently legitimised by government or parliamentary engagement. The reconsideration of previous decisions regarding the activity and legality of certain groups should be included. This will require improving faith literacy across government and the parliamentary estate, particularly on intrafaith issues, so government can be more discerning regarding engagement and representation within British Sikh communities.’
|NSO Concluding Comment
1. Notwithstanding the clarifications referred to above, the Bloom Report paints an accurate picture of a largely hard-working successful Sikh community living true to egalitarian Sikh teachings of service to others and care for the elderly
2. The Report expresses concern and sadness that this positive image is marred by various groupings with limited support who exploit Sikh sentiment for political power and financial benefit, irrespective of the harm to the Sikh community
3. The report is a timely wake up call to the wider Sikh community to guard against the boorish behaviour of self-seekers, with no commitment to Sikh teachings, some of whom play on Sikh sentiment to gain political leverage, all too often through the use of gurdwara funds, but also via fund-raising activities through public campaigns on Punjabi/Sikh television channels. (There is no suggestion that this statement refers to individuals, or groups named in our wider comments on Bloom).
4. We wrote to all members of the APPG for British Sikhs (including the Chair Ms Gill) asking them for comment on Bloom, on 12th May 2023, but have not heard back. Bloom’s recommendation, ‘that the MPs who are in the All-Party Parliamentary Group for British Sikhs consider the findings of this report’ is significant and a key point from the report. We will be following up with the MPs to get a response, or will be escalating the matter, if we do not.
5. Perhaps most important of all, the Bloom Report recognises a ‘woeful lack of religious literacy’ among civil servants who advise Ministers on faith issues. There are many examples. The advice given to a government minister at the time of the Lord’s amendment on the Offensive Weapons Bill, that the Sikh Federation UK truly represented the Sikh community, is a case in point.