Who speaks for British Sikhs?

Jasjit Singh, University of Leeds

This article is featured in Public Spirit’s special theme on Who speaks for us? The ‘who’ and ‘how’ of faith representation

JasjitBIGSince the first British Sikh organisation was formed in 1908, a complex array of Sikh groups have been set up to offer expertise, provide services to government or campaign on one or more political issues. To date, though, no Sikh organisation has managed to command legitimacy across the whole Sikh community. Factionalism has been common, but despite this Sikhs have managed to occupy a distinctive position in the history of multiculturalism in Britain and have often been the first group to negotiate opt-outs relating to religious dress.

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Those watching the funeral of Margaret Thatcher on 17th April 2013 may have been surprised to see a host of orange flags sporting the symbol of the Sikh Khanda waving in the background as the funeral cortege drove past Downing Street.[1] The flags were part of a street protest organised by ‘Kesri Lehar’ (literally, the ‘Saffron Wave’ or ‘Wave of Justice’),[2] a grass roots campaign focusing on human rights abuses of Sikh political prisoners in India. On 6th August 2013 it was announced that the 117 day-long protest would be coming to a close as it had succeeded in ensuring that the Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office would be taking up the issue of Sikh political prisoners with the Indian Government.[3]

This very recent example highlights the continued impact and influence of Punjabi homeland politics on British Sikh political engagement. Kesri Lehar was formed on 12th April 2012 following the dismissal of an appeal for clemency on behalf of Professor Davinderpal Singh Bhullar, convicted for plotting a car bombing in New Delhi in 1993.[4] Focusing on the fact that the conviction was based on a retracted confessional statement[5] the campaign began with a drive to gather 100,000 signaturesin order to instigate a parliamentary debate on human rights abuses in India.[6] The completed petition was presented outside Downing Street on 10th December 2012[7], leading to a debate in the House of Commons on Thursday 28th February 2013,[8] and another in Westminster Hall on Wednesday 13th March 2013.[9]

RR JS 2The Kesri Lehar campaign raises a number of questions: what was the need to establish a grass roots campaign which circumvented many of the already established British Sikh organisations and how does this campaign relate to previous British Sikh mobilisations? In their analysis of British Sikh political engagement, Gurharpal Singh and Darshan Singh Tatla observe that many British Sikh organisations have some link to the politics of the Punjab.[10] Given that the political system in the Punjab is based on leaders controlling factions, factionalism is endemic in many Sikh organisations ensuring that most ‘have a short shelf-life, regularly undergo multiple reincarnations or reinvent themselves with grandiose titles’.[11]  They also note that as British Sikhs have to date failed to establish national and local institutions that command legitimacy across the whole community, collective action usually takes place on single issues, because these are more likely to reward a leader and a faction with status in the community while simultaneously undermining other factions and groups. Despite this factionalism, however, Sikhs have managed to occupy a distinctive position in the history of multiculturalism in Britain and have often been the first group to negotiate opt-outs relating to religious dress, in particular the wearing of the turban and the 5Ks.[12]

Arvind-Pal Singh Mandair notes that the ebb and flow of Sikh political activism can be usefully divided into three phases: the pre-1984 stage, the Khalistani phase 1984-1992 and the post Khalistani and 9/11 phase.[13] In the rest of this article I will examine how Sikhs in Britain have engaged with politicians and policymakers through these three phases and explore which groups and individuals have spoken for and are currently speaking for British Sikhs.

The pre-1984 phase

Although the oldest Sikh organisation in Britain, the Khalsa Jatha of the British Isles (KJBI), was established in 1908, Sikh activism remained modest until after the Second World War. The increase in the number of turbaned Sikhs entering the labour market in the late 1950s and 1960s led to tensions relating to the accommodation of turbans in company uniforms, particularly those of bus companies. The campaigns involving Gyani Sundar Singh Sagar in Manchester in 1959 and Tarsem Singh Sandhu in Wolverhampton in 1967 became the very first mobilisations around markers of Sikh identity, with both individuals’ cases being successfully supported by their local gurdwaras. Sandhu’s case also involved the local Indian Workers Association (IWA) and the emerging UK branch of the Punjab-based political party the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD).[14] A statement was also released at this time by a Dr A K S Aujila of the ‘Supreme Council of Sikhs in the UK’,[15] an organisation which no longer exists today.

British Sikhs march in June 2011 to commemorate the 1984 attack on the Golden Temple in Amritsar, north India

These turban victories were relatively short lived as in 1973 the government introduced a law making it a compulsory requirement for all motorcyclists to wear a helmet. Those mobilising against this law included Baldev Singh Chahal, General Secretary of the Council of Khalistan, UK[16] and MPs of constituencies with large numbers of Sikhs, in particular Sidney Bidwell, the MP for Southall.[17] In his speech to Parliament on 28th January 1975, Mr Bidwell recalled that he had become aware of the issue following a visit from representatives of the Singh Sabha gurdwara in Southall, both of the Shiromani Akali Dal parties and the Sikh Missionary Society (UK).[18] In this speech Mr Bidwell also noted that ‘the Sikh has never been called upon to discard his turban in favour of the war hat or tin helmet worn by other soldiers under battle fire’,[19] which highlights one of the main reasons why Sikhs were so successful in negotiating opt out clauses relating to the turban, as many of the policymakers in the 1970s and 80s retained a collective memory of turbaned Sikh soldiers fighting for the British in the first and second world wars.

These cases were both forerunners for arguably the most important legal case in British Sikh history, on which many subsequent cases have relied, Mandla vs. Dowell Lee. The case arose in 1978 when a Sikh student, Gurinder Singh Mandla, was refused admission to Park Grove School in Edgbaston, Birmingham, on the grounds that his turban was not in accordance with the school uniform.

On 10th October 1982 a major procession was organised in London supported by Sikhs from all over the UK[20] and led by Sant Puran Singh, head of Birmingham-based Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha (GNNSJ).[21] Unlike most Sant-led groups[22] which rarely involve themselves directly in political issues, the GNNSJ has often become involved in Sikh campaigns with their current leader Bhai Mohinder Singh being a key Sikh representative, especially involved in interfaith activities.[23] The main outcome of the Mandla case was the defining of the Sikhs as an ethnic group, meaning that they were, like Jews, brought under the protection of the Race Relations Act.

RR JS 1Also involved in the Mandla case was Indarjit Singh (now Lord Singh) of Wimbledon who has since become one of the most important Sikh personalities in the UK. A civil engineer by profession, Indarjit Singh first came to prominence as the assistant editor of the Sikh Courier before establishing the Sikh Messenger in 1984.[24] In addition to providing evidence in the Mandla case[25], Lord Singh has advised a number of official bodies including the Commission for Racial Equality and the Home Secretary’s Advisory Council on Race Relations, and since 1984 has regularly appeared on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’.[26] Before his rise to prominence in the UK, it is important to note that Lord Singh was already writing about Sikh issues in Indian newspapers under the pseudonym of Mr V. Pendry in order to ensure that his articles would be published. The lack of forums available in which views on the treatment of Sikhs in India could be expressed led him to establish ‘The Sikh Messenger’ in 1984.[27]

The Khalistani phase 1984-1992

The events of 1984 which culminated on an attack on the Golden Temple by the Indian army during Operation Bluestar sent a shock through Sikh circles. For many Sikhs, Operation Bluestar and the violence against Sikhs in Delhi following the assassination of Indira Gandhi permanently changed their relationship with the Indian state. A number of Sikh organisations assumed the leadership of the Sikh community in Britain at this time, in particular the Council of Khalistan (COK), the International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF), the Babbar Khalsa (BK) and the Dal Khalsa (DK).[28] Though they commanded large numbers, Singh and Tatla note that membership of these groups was limited primarily to Jat Sikhs.[29] All campaigned for a separate Sikh state, Khalistan, targeting Indian politicians through regular demonstrations outside the Indian High Commission in Aldwych. Of these, the impact of the ISYF remains, despite it being banned by the British government as a number of organisations were branded ‘terrorist’ organisations following the events of 9/11.[30]

The post-Khalistani and 9/11 phase

Organisations that provided a Sikh voice to British policymakers in the mid- to late 1990s included the Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) established by Lord Singh in 1997,[31] which claims to link over one hundred UK gurdwaras and Sikh organisations. The 2006-2007 annual report of the NSO highlights their involvement in a number of Sikh issues relating to the representation of Sikhism in education curricula, the wearing of Sikh symbols in schools and in the Sikh chaplaincy service.[32] Other organisations including the Sikh Human Rights Group (SHRG) were established in response to the increasing number of human rights abuses in the Punjab reported by Amnesty during the early 1990s.[33]

Sikh marchers gather in Trafalgar Square

The rise of hate crimes against Sikhs and the overnight banning of the kirpan by the British Airports Authority[34] in the aftermath of 9/11 led to the formation of a number of organisations that wished to raise Sikh issues with the British authorities. These included the British Sikh Consultative Forum (BSCF) established in 2002, which soon split into an ‘open’ BSCF and a ‘closed’ membership only BSCF.[35] The Sikh Federation (UK), the first political party for Sikhs, was formed in 2003,[36] with a number of ex-ISYF members on its executive committee.[37]

The formation of these organisations led to the establishment of an All Party Parliamentary Group for British Sikhs which officially launched on 12 July 2005[38] chaired by labour MP Rob Marris, the then MP for Wolverhampton South West.[39] Many of the post- 9/11 Sikh organisations have presented themselves as having strong links to politicians and policymakers by regularly organising events in the Houses of Parliament.[40] The BSCF were also invited to run a consultation on the kirpan, which they carried out by holding national consultations in gurdwaras across the UK.[41]

A number of other British Sikh organisations, including United Sikhs, have emerged in the post 9/11 period. Led by its director, Mejindarpal Kaur, United Sikhs have fought a number of legal cases in particular relating to the wearing of the kara and kirpan in British schools.[42] The number of issues related to the wearing of Sikh religious symbols in schools and workplaces, and the growing recognition that these issues were continuing despite the large number of Sikh organisations in existence, led to the establishment of the Sikh Council in 2010. Formed after 6 months of consultations, the Sikh Council is an umbrella body whose aim is to, in its own words, ‘deal with issues affecting the Sikh Community in UK and Europe as a united voice and single platform’.[43] The Council was launched officially on 22nd June 2011 at the Houses of Parliament and has since enjoyed recognition by MPs. Indeed, in a parliamentary debate of 13th March 2013 Chris White, the MP for Warwick and Leamington, stated that

the Government should take the opportunity to work with organisations such as the Sikh Council UK…. We should recognise the potential of working with democratically elected bodies such as the Council, so that Sikhs feels that their voice is being heard.[44]

The Sikh media is also carving out its space in representing Sikhs with the recently established Sikh TV stations Sikh Channel and Sangat TV campaigning for recognition of the turban following the introduction of manual checks at airports across the European Union in February 2011.[45] This culminated in the Sikh Channel organising a Dastaar (turban) day protest outside Parliament on 25 Sept 2011[46] following an incident at Milan Airport involving a Sikh golfing coach being required to remove his turban during a security check.[47]

RR JS 3Conclusions

So what can be said about Sikh political representation? Since the Sikhs arrived in Britain there have been several individuals and institutions all claiming to present the Sikh voice. They take a number of forms – those campaigning on single issues (Kesri Lehar), those offering professional expertise (the legal expertise of United Sikhs), those providing services to government (the NSO providing Sikh Chaplaincy Services) and those seeking to raise Sikh issues with policymakers (the Sikh Council).

Despite the vast number of Sikh organisations in the UK, new groups are continually being established. Young British born Sikhs are now forming their own organisations with few links to those that already exist. The City Sikhs Network (established in 2010), for instance, consists of young City of London-based Sikhs who are forging relationships with the Football Association and who recently released a ‘British Sikh Report’.[48] Other such organisations include ‘Sikhs against the EDL’, which aims to highlight differences between Sikh values and those of the English Defence League.

Unlike many of the organisations described above, these new youth-based organisations have few links to gurdwaras, the traditional arenas where Sikh organisations and policymakers look to engage with Sikhs.  Indeed, it is important to note that few Sikhs formally become members of Sikh organisations or even their local gurdwaras. Those organisations that claim to have the support of large gurdwaras in particular are therefore seen to have the support of the large congregations in these gurdwaras by proxy rather than through formal membership.

As my research on the religious lives of 18-30 year old Sikhs found,[49] as many gurdwaras tend to cater for and attract older generation congregations, increasing numbers of young British Sikhs are engaging with their tradition at camps, university Sikh societies, and online. Indeed, when looking for a Sikh voice, the BBC Asian Network now regularly turns to young Sikhs including Kirat Raj Singh (who is heavily involved in student activities)[50] Harwinder Singh Mander (who set up the Sikh radio station Naujawani.com)[51] and Jagraj Singh (a young Sikh who preaches in English on Youtube).[52]

So who does speak for the Sikhs? From the analysis above it seems that the answer is nobody – and everybody. Given that Sikhs are regularly referred to as Sardars (leaders), and given that the Sikh Gurus strongly promoted egalitarianism, this is not surprising. As identifying as a Sikh means representing oneself and the whole Sikh community at the same time, the opinion of any Sikh individual becomes as valid as any other. As the Gurus challenged those in power and encouraged their Sikhs to do so, any sort of hierarchy established within Sikh circles is by definition bound to be challenged at the earliest opportunity, most probably by Sikhs themselves. Although they are happy to campaign together on particular issues, Sikhs remain fiercely independent. Those who wish to engage with ‘the Sikh voice’ should therefore be encouraged to try to engage with a variety of different ‘Sikh voices’, and conversely those Sikh organisations which allow individual expression are likely to be the most successful.

Jasjit Singh is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Leeds. He recently completed a PhD examining the religious lives of 18-30 year old British Sikhs. He has spoken about his research on a number of occasions on the BBC, and has published several articles and book chapters on young Sikhs in Britain. His current research focuses on the role of devotional music in identity formation.

[1] A photo of the flags behind the cortege can be found here: http://dalkhalsa.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/sikhs-protesting-against-death-sentence.html

[2] The ‘Kesri Lehar’ website can be found here: http://www.kesrilehar.co.uk/

[3] The press release can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151585618997081&l=0488007e58

[4] http://www.indianexpress.com/news/supreme-court-rejects-devinderpal-singh-bhullars-mercy-plea/1101423/

[5] This fact was also recognised by an Indian public prosecutor. See: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/the-death-sentence-of-devinder-pal-singh-bhullar-must-not-be-carried-out-it-will-divide-india-8607706.html and http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2013-04-18/india/38646410_1_home-ministry-m-b-shah-terror-case

[6] http://www.kesrilehar.co.uk/100000-petition.html

[7] http://www.sikhalliance.com/2012/12/event-pics-kesri-lehar-wave-for-justice.html

[8] http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmhansrd/cm130228/debtext/130228-0002.htm

[9] http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmhansrd/cm130313/halltext/130313h0001.htm

[10] Singh, Gurharpal, and Darshan Singh Tatla, Sikhs in Britain: The Making of a Community (London: Zed Books, 2006), p.94

[11] Singh and Tatla, Sikhs in Britain: The Making of a Community, p.95

[12] Singh and Tatla, Sikhs in Britain: The Making of a Community, Chapter 6

[13] Mandair, A. S., Sikhism: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), p.193.

[14] Singh and Tatla, Sikhs in Britain: The Making of a Community.

[15] http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/april/9/newsid_2523000/2523691.stm

[16] http://centralsikhmuseum.com/today-in-sikh-history-5th-june/

[17] Singh and Tatla, Sikhs in Britain: The Making of a Community, p.130.

[18] http://www.sikhmissionarysociety.org/sms/smspublications/theturbanvictory/chapter1/#SPEECH%20on%2028th%20JANUARY,%201975

[19] http://www.sikhmissionarysociety.org/sms/smspublications/theturbanvictory/chapter1/#SPEECH%20on%2028th%20JANUARY,%201975

[20] http://www.sikhmissionarysociety.org/sms/smsarticles/advisorypanel/gurmukhsinghsewauk/sikhcouncilukandsikhissues.html

[21] Singh and Tatla, Sikhs in Britain: The Making of a Community, p.133

[22] NB: Sants are charismatic personalities, usually male, who attract an informal following of disciples. For further details see Nesbitt, E.M., Sikhism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p.94

[23] For instance, see http://interfaithharmonyweek.info/speakers/129-bhai-sahib-bhai-mohinder-singh.html

[24] Indarjit Singh, Sikh Channel Interview, 08/11/2012. Available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z4J2TW8C-oA

[25] Indarjit Singh speech, available at http://www.nsouk.co.uk/downloads/Transcriptions/Transcription Indarjit Singh.doc.

[26] Indarjit Singh speech, available at http://www.nsouk.co.uk/downloads/Transcriptions/Transcription Indarjit Singh.doc.

[27] Indarjit Singh, Sikh Channel Interview.

[28] For an excellent analysis of these groups see Singh and Tatla, Sikhs in Britain: The Making of a Community, Chapter 5.

[29] Singh and Tatla, Sikhs in Britain: The Making of a Community, p.109.

[30] http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2001/mar/01/ukcrime.humanrights

[31] According to the Charity commission records: http://apps.charitycommission.gov.uk/Showcharity/RegisterOfCharities/CharityFramework.aspx?RegisteredCharityNumber=1064544&SubsidiaryNumber=0

[32] http://nsouk.co.uk/publications_item.asp?NewsID=25

[33] http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/ASA20/011/1991/en/1898adad-ee56-11dd-9381-bdd29f83d3a8/asa200111991en.pdf

[34] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/720475/Air-security-poses-threat-to-Sikh-beliefs.html

[35] http://www.sikhreview.org/july2003/culture.htm

[36] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/3104948.stm

[37] http://www.standard.co.uk/news/mayor/kens-adviser-is-linked-to-terror-group-6640438.html

[38] Singh and Tatla 120

[39] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4675079.stm

[40] For instance see this event organised in Parliament by the Sikh Federation: http://www.sikhsangat.com/index.php?/topic/68716-30-october-event-in-the-uk-parliament-about-the-november-1984-genocide/ and this one organised by the BSCF: https://www.facebook.com/events/212003922150016/?hc_location=stream

[41] http://www.akj.org/forum/viewtopic.php?f=11&t=6988

[42] For instance see http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/london/8304088.stm and http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/south_east/7083315.stm

[43] http://sikhcounciluk.org/

[44] http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmhansrd/cm130313/halltext/130313h0001.htm

[45] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-12558996

[46] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8EYqrDUBP5g

[47] http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2011-06-04/india/29620413_1_turbans-religious-symbol-italy

[48] http://www.britishsikhreport.org/

[49] For further details see www.leeds.ac.uk/sikhs

[50] http://www.bcusu.com/blogs/blog/Kirat%20Raj%20Singh/

[51] http://www.naujawani.com/harwinder-singh-mander

[52] http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLAE49FC4ACE1080D5

The image of marchers commemorating the 1984 attack on the Golden Temple is included courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The image of the marchers gathering on Trafalgar Square is included courtesy of Mark Ahsmann. Both images are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

3 Responses to “Who speaks for British Sikhs?”

  1. Simran Singh

    This article makes some very legitimate points. Most revealing is the determination of the Sikh Federation ( formerly International Sikh Youth Federation ) to maintain the total lie that they are the largest group. This is clearly not the case. The rise of the Kesri Lehar has given the youth an alternative form of mobilisation. This is a positive step. Time for new faces and new ideas. Those who have failed the Sikhs for 29 years need to step back. That includes Sid Sihu and his thugs.

  2. Simran Singh

    One other point: even the author has been misled by the lies that the Sikh Federation issue. They are NOT the UK’s first and only officially registered political party. A search of then Electoral Commission reveals that they are not only not registered, they never submitted an application. Just one example of how they dupe officials, the media, and even the Sikhs.


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