Where Unity Is Strength

We are delighted to have launched the Sikh Messenger podcast series last month.

In the first of the series we interviewed Harbakhsh Grewal about his roles at the UK Punjab Heritage Association (UKPHA) and publisher Kashi House. We ask him about the seminal volume Warrior Saints, by historians Parmjit Singh and Amandeep Singh Madra, and the popular exhibitions hosted by UKPHA at the SOAS Brunei gallery – including The Sikhs and World War 1 in 2014. You can listen to the interview here.

Later in August, as part of the Catch ‘Together Against Hate’ 2020 project we interviewed Billie Boyd a Hate Crime Support worker at the charity Galop. We find out about her role and how she has made a tangible difference for her clients who have suffered discrimination and hatred for being part of the LGBT community. You can listen to the interview here.

As part of the same series – we then had the pleasure of talking to our Director Lord Singh of Wimbledon who told us about his early life in Britain, the challenges with racism at that time, which later included a backlash against Sikhs post 9/11 in so called ‘mistaken identity’ attacks. Lord Singh reveals how he used humour to deal with racism during those early years. You can listen to the interview here.

We then spoke to Suresh Grover, Director of the Monitoring Group in Southall – a veteran anti-racism campaigner who has led campaigns to help the families of Stephen Lawrence, Zahid Mubarek and Victoria Climbie. He talks about ‘Paki bashing’, the history of Southall and the role of the Punjabi community during the tumultuous period following the racist murder of schoolboy Gurinder Singh Chaggar in 1976. Listen to part 1 of the interview here: Listen to Part 2 here.

In our most recent interviews, we talked to our Deputy-Director Hardeep Singh who has co-authored a volume titled Racialization, Islamophobia and Mistaken Identity: The Sikh Experience, and also Chief Supt Raj Singh Kohli who surprised us with the prejudice he has faced over the years – from his early years at school, through to post 9/11. But he didn’t take it lying down – his story is both uplifting and remarkable. We will be uploading the interviews onto both Anchor and YouTube soon.

If anyone has any suggestions on who we should interview and the topics they’d like to hear about, contact us: info@nsouk.co.uk

We have reproduced in full (below) notes of minutes circulated to members of The Sikh Federation UK (SFUK) run All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for British Sikhs.


Notes on Meeting held 23-7-19 to examine the Supposed Rationale of referring to Sikhs as an Ethnic Group

Venue: The meeting took place 9.45 am Room W4

Attendees: Preet Gill MP, Pat McFadden MP, Dominic Grieve MP, Mike Gapes MP, Tanmanjit Dhesi MP (joined halfway through the meeting), Lord (Ranbir) Suri, Lord (Indarjit) Singh of Wimbledon.

(Initials will be used to attribute comments in this Note).

Background to Meeting

IS, concerned that the Federation, the successors of the formerly proscribed ISYF were misleading Members of House, had for months been asking for an opportunity to present a view on ethnic monitoring that was consistent with majority Sikh thinking and with Sikh theology. PG, averse to open discussion initially tried to prevent this, and later, successfully minimised attendance by delaying the meeting to a relatively early hour close to the recess. Correspondence also shows that her office had repeatedly refused to provide a list of MPs (who had supposedly signed support for the Federation), for them to be sent briefing documents and a note on the importance of open discussion on the issue.

The Meeting

At the start of the meeting, PG questioned the credentials of IS to speak on this issue and IS began to respond saying he was Director of the Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) the largest umbrella body of gurdwaras in the UK. When IS began to detail some of the main areas of activity, PG interrupted to say that was fine. [Details of NSO Activities are appended]

The Presentation

The detailed presentation, for which there was general agreement and appreciation, is appended.

Ethnic Group

In response to a statement by IS that no other world religion called itself an ethnic group, MG said that the Jewish community (which unlike Sikhs, accepts converts only through marriage), could be considered an ethnic group. IS agreed, saying that Jews had considered this but saw no advantage. It was noted by all that Jews and Muslims had gained much more by successful lobbying.

Supposed Practical Advantages of calling Sikhs an ethnic group.

PG said we should not bring Sikh theology into discussions on calling Sikhs an ethnic group. IS disagreed saying Sikh teachings must underpin all policies affecting the Sikh community.

PG, supported by PMcF, raised the issue of Sikh families who had come to her area of Smethwick from Italy, and their difficulties over housing. IS said that they deserved support, but masking religion as ethnicity would not help. Public sector housing is allocated on need and not on supposed ethnicity. Also, many Sikhs would feel it insulting and contrary to Sikh teachings to have a world religion open to all, reduced to a single ethnicity tied to Punjab. They would put their country of origin in the ethnic tick box and tick Sikhism under religion. It was, in an aside, agreed by all, that Sikhs had an above average home ownership.

Reality behind Federation demand for calling Sikhs an ethnic group.

IS explained that the Federation were deliberately conflating a misunderstanding of the limited nature of the Mandla case under the (now repealed) 1976 RR Act), to claim that Sikhs were an ethnic group per se, so that Sikhs could call themselves a nation (see their website). This would, in the Federation’s view, help them advance the case for a homeland in India. DG concurred that he was aware of this political dimension.

The downside of pursuing an ethnic category for Sikhs.

This is detailed in the attached Presentation.

At the meeting, IS also stressed that obsessional focusing on ethnic monitoring is diverting attention from unfairness and discrimination being suffered by Sikhs for being members of the Sikh Faith. The Government’s Hate Crime Action Plan gave 45 examples of hate crime suffered by members of the Abrahamic faiths. There was no mention of the suffering of Sikhs, Hindus and others. A FOI request by the NSO showed that the Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group paid expenses to 11 members as well as supplying considerable government support. IS asked where is the Anti-Sikh Hatred Working Group? IS continued by reminding the meeting that the MET records most attacks on Sikh as Islamophobia. He also noted that the NSO was alone in their successful campaign to exclude Sikhs from being described as a Dharmic Faith in MHCLG correspondence. He added that no support was given to the NSO by the Federation in other areas of concern. He did not elaborate as DG indicated that he had another meeting to go to and because these issues were more internal to the Sikh community. Further information can be given if requested.

At the conclusion of the meeting, DG commented that the debate on ethnicity could be academic if the Federation won their case. He thanked IS for an informed and thought-provoking contribution.

The meeting ended at 10.35 am.

PC Garcha with Lord Singh

Around 2,000 people gathered at Westminster Abbey yesterday for a memorial service dedicated to the victims of the Westminster terror attack.

On 22 March Khalid Masood killed three people when he drove into crowds and stabbed a policeman to death before being shot dead at the UK Parliament.

The service was led by the Dean of Westminster, the Very Reverend John Hall, and was attended by the Royal Family, the Mayor of London, MET Police, faith leaders and survivors of Khalid Masood’s murderous rampage.

Our Director, Lord Singh attended in his capacity as a faith leader, something he does routinely at civic occasions like the Commonwealth Service and the Remembrance Day Service at the Cenotaph.

American tourist Melissa Payne Cochran who lost her husband during the terrorist incident was also in attendance with her parents. She had been celebrating her 25th wedding anniversary with her husband on the day of the terror attack.

In a moving tribute to those who had lost their lives, Prince William read a passage from the Bible about the Good Samaritan. The Home Secretary Amber Rudd read from the Book of Jeremiah and PC J Garcha, a serving officer in the MET Police read from the Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh scriptures).

Some representatives from the Sikh Federation and Sikh Council were also among audience members.

Keynote address: Lord Singh of Wimbledon, Secretary APPG for Religious Education

Religious literacy, once desirable, has now become absolutely necessary in the smaller world of the 21st century. It can help society in two important ways.

Firstly in combating irrational prejudice. Such prejudice is all too common. Let me tell you about an unfortunate but basic aspect of human behaviour. Indarjit’s law, It states: when two or more people find sufficient in common to call themselves ‘us’, they will immediately look for a ‘them’ to belittle, to strengthen their sense of unity.’

You see it when a group of people are chatting together on a street corner or in a pub, and one leaves. Those remaining will almost certainly find something negative to say about the person that has just left, to strengthen their new sense of togetherness. You see the same sort of unity, through negative attitudes to others, on the football terraces in the chants of rival supporters. Shakespeare in Richard the second has John O’Gaunt talking about this precious isle ‘set in a silver sea to guard against infection and the hand of war’, Infection here, does not refer to a disease like BSE but to contamination by foreigners; those different to us.

Religions are not immune to similar irrational prejudice against sister faiths. For some, superiority and exclusivity are almost central tenet of belief. In a recent ‘Thought for the Day’ broadcast on Radio 4, I referred to the Sikh teaching, ‘that no one religion has a monopoly of truth’. I received a prompt rap on the knuckles in an email from a Jewish lady, saying I was wrong, because God himself said so in the bible.

We all have a right to believe what we like, but it goes wrong when we begin to disparage others to show our superiority. Even today, the dictionary definition of heathen is ‘those not of an Abrahamic faith’- so you can see where that leaves me!

We all know that in a fog or mist, familiar everyday objects can assume threatening proportions. It is the same when we allow prejudice to obscure our understanding of different faiths. Prejudice and assumed superiority can all too easy to blind us to important commonalities, and cause us to look negatively at the religious belief and practices of others.

The first reason for a need for greater religious literacy, is then, to remove distorting ignorance and assumed superiority and see different religions as they really are: overlapping circles of ethical belief, in which the area of overlap is importantly, far greater than the smaller area of difference.

For example, lines of a favourite Christian hymn:

To all life thou givest to both great and small
In all life thou livest the true life of all

have their parallel in the Sikh teaching:

There is an inner light in all and that light is God

In my Thought for the Day broadcasts, I regularly draw attention to such commonalities. At one time, negative attitudes to others didn’t matter too much. We could refer to those with different faiths in a superior and disparaging way because they lived in far off countries and rarely came into contact with us. This disparaging of distant people perversely enhanced our own sense of cohesiveness. Today in our smaller world, our immediate neighbour is often from some other country having a different faith, and importantly, the same applies to our children’s classmates in school.

In the words of a well-known hymn, ‘new occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth’. We all need to adjust to a changed world. Countries like the USA and France which pride themselves in a refusal to allow the teaching of religion in schools, are simply allowing children to grow up ignorant of the beliefs of those around them, and easily influenced by the irrational prejudices of their parent’s generation. With ignorance of other faiths being the norm in the States, it’s not surprising that the first person shot in anger at the 9/11 outrage was a Sikh in a case of mistaken identity, and that a Sikh gurdwaras was subsequently attacked and innocent people killed.

In comparison to many other countries, Britain has done much in recent years, to teach children about the beliefs of other faiths. But we need to go further. All too often in the teaching of other faiths, the focus is on peripherals rather than the actual ethical teachings. There is still an undue emphasis on rituals and artefacts: on the shape and layout of places of worship and even in radio quiz, the number of arms of a certain Hindu goddess. Such things may be quaint, but they have nothing whatever to do with the ethical teachings of the founders of our different faiths.

We see then, that greater religious literacy is not simply desirable, but necessary for true understanding of sister faiths and greater community cohesion. This leads me to the second reason for greater understanding and cooperation; the true role of religion, which, in the Sikh view, is to highlight norms for responsible living. Norms that should influence both individual behaviour and public policy.

Parliament spends considerable time and allocates billions of pounds in trying to remedy the effects of careless, selfish and irresponsible living. This is seen in daily reports of neglect of the elderly or infirm and neglect of parental responsibility, leading to children put in supposed care often ending up in as victims of abuse, or drawn towards crime.

A report this week revealed that 80,000 children a year suffer from depression unable to cope with the complexities of modern life, with 17,000 attending Accident and Emergency, I could go on. Religions, all religions, in their own way try to teach right, wrong and responsibility; vital ingredients for greater social responsibility. We can make a real difference by working together to make responsible behavior more of a norm, saving the country huge sums addressing the consequences of irresponsible living.

Religion then can be a powerful force for good. In today’s increasingly unstable world. If not properly understood, it can, as we see again and again, lead to dangerous conflict and horrendous suffering.
To be truly effective, we need to go easy on divisive talk of exclusive and superior special relationships to the one God of all creation, and work together to embed the ethics of the founders of our faiths into more considered policy making, for a fairer and more contented society, and a more peaceful world.

Response to questions from the Audience.

Question: Can greater religious literacy help in the fight against extremism and radicalisation?
Reply: In order to move to greater religious literacy, we need to be wary of words like: extremism, radicalisation and fundamentalist, being used pejoratively or to obscure meaning and cloud debate on important issues. Let me give an example:

In 1984 the Indian government attacked the Golden Temple in Amritsar killing well over 1000 pilgrims. In the propaganda of the day, wanton killing of innocents, was an attack on ‘extremists’. Sikhs abroad were outraged. A few months after the attack, I was visited at home by two Scotland Yard Officers, They asked me if I was an ‘extremist’ or a ‘moderate’. I replied I was extremely moderate. Then they asked me if I was a ’fundamentalist’. I paused and replied, ‘I believe in the fundamentals of Sikh teaching such as: the equality and oneness of the human race, a stress on the full equality of women, respect for all religions and a commitment to help the poor and underprivileged. Yes, I am a fundamentalist’. My plea is for clarity in debate so that we can discuss real concerns.

Question: Some defend questionable behaviour by saying that it is supported by their scriptures which are ‘the word of God’. Can such attitudes be questioned without giving offence?

Reply: Sikhs believe that it is important to question beliefs and practices that appear to demean people or seem contrary to common sense. Guru Nanak and other Sikh Gurus often criticised superstitious or demeaning practices, such as the caste system and the treatment of women in the faiths around them.

Scriptures like the Old Testament and the Quran have a substantial historical element that relates to particular circumstances at a particular time, many hundreds of years ago. For example, the Quran accepts slavery in giving advice for their better treatment, but today, slavery itself is widely condemned, and could never be the will of God. Historical texts must be interpreted in the context of a particular time. To me as a Sikh it is, to say the least, wrong to blame God for ungodly behaviour.