February 2, 2015 | By Sikh Siyasat Bureau
Sikh organizations of UK recently released “The Sikh Manifesto 2015-2020“. The document is released ahead of general elections for the British parliament. It is considered to be first document of it’s kind by the Sikh diaspora in England. Sikh Siyasat News has decided to serialize this document for it’s readers. Text below is verbatim reproduction of “Introduction” part of the Sikh Manifesto (pp. 1 to 5 of the original document). – Editor, Sikh Siyasat News.
In less than seventy years the British Sikh community has grown from fewer than 2,000 to over 700,000. Sikhs are a role model community and provide an exceptionally interesting example of successful integration whilst maintaining a very visible and distinctive religious identity.
Evidently, Sikhs have historically made a huge contribution to British Society and remain loyal to Britain. Recent surveys have shown that 95% of Sikhs in Britain are proud to be identified as British. Sikhs have proved to be an integral part of British multicultural society and make an immense contribution in all spheres of public life in the UK through honest hard work, promoting equality and tolerance towards others, charitable work and interfaith dialogue.
There is much discussion at present on the impact of immigration and the integration of minority communities within British society to promote harmonious relationships so that everyone can live and work successfully alongside each other. British Sikhs have openly practised their religion by welcoming people of all faiths to participate in their Gurdwaras, events and celebrations. Sikhs are a positive example of the current debate around super-diversity and multiculturalism in Britain.
This journey has not been without its challenges and struggles. When it became absolutely necessary, Sikhs have not been reluctant to assert their right to defend religious sensibilities through peaceful protests, lobbying and legal action. This was clearly demonstrated twelve months ago by the revelations relating to British involvement with the events of 1984 in Amritsar, Punjab. The deliberate stigmatisation of the visible British Sikh minority continues to be an issue for Sikhs who have continually been unfairly targeted by the Indian Government.
Sikhs have successfully campaigned to secure amendments in legislation to allow them to wear the Sikh turban, for example:
- Motor-Cycles Crash Helmets (Religious Exemption) Act 1976: exempts a Sikh who wears a turban from having to wear a crash helmet on a motorcycle.
- Employment Act 1989: exempts a turban-wearing Sikh from any requirement to wear a safety helmet on a construction site.
On a number of occasions, British Sikhs have had to take legal action to tackle discrimination against the wearing of their turbans. The historic Mandla vs Dowell Lee case in the House of Lords in 1983 led to the legal recognition of Sikhs as an ethnic group. More recently a case in the High Court in 2008 ruled in favour of a fourteen year old Sikh school girl in South Wales to wear her Kara (a steel or iron bracelet that constantly reminds a Sikh of the all pervading nature of the Divine and the importance of righteous actions).
Today, although Sikhs have excelled in commerce, education and medicine, they have yet to fully interact, participate and engage with the democratic institutions through the UK political system with similar dedication. They have not been truly represented in relation to their population or contribution.
Sikhs must be allowed to become part of the DNA of the British nation and become directly involved in the decision making processes that impact on their daily lives. Sikhs will only have integrated successfully when they have fully interacted and participated both with and within civic society through local, regional and national democratic institutions and organisations.
The current political representation of British Sikhs is somewhat of a paradox given the “Miri-Piri” principle in Sikhi. This key Sikh concept accentuates the close relationship between the temporal and the spiritual components of life that influence a Sikh’s religious and political thought and governs their social structure, political behaviour, organisation, leadership and politics. Sikh organisations, such as the Sikh Federation (UK), and the umbrella forum, the Sikh Council UK in more recent times, have tried to address this issue through increased social and political activism amongst British Sikhs. As a result, presentation and awareness of Sikh issues has considerably improved and the British Sikh community are acknowledging the need to lobby Parliamentarians and to participate through political parties at local and national levels.
Britain is one of the most tolerant multicultural countries in the world in which everyone can enjoy the glow of true democracy, as well as the freedom to practise one’s own religion. Ongoing dialogue between representatives of minority religious communities and the British establishment, including the Parliamentarians and the Government, is important to ensure harmony in a plural society. In the Sikh case, due to lack of elected or selected Sikh representatives, it is our duty to provide as much information as possible about the community’s concerns to ensure continuity of religious and human rights freedoms.
In May 2001, the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said in his Khalsa Vaisakhi speech in Birmingham:
“Today we celebrate the creation of a nation who’s Gurdwaras open up to all – rich and poor, male and female, old and young. We celebrate a religion that respects all other religions. And a people who seek to lead a life of compassion, humility, piety and justice.”
Role of the Sikh Federation (UK), Sikh Council UK and the Sikh Network
Recognising the needs of a growing British Sikh community, the Sikh Federation (UK) was launched in September 2003 as the first and only Sikh political party to represent Sikh issues and concerns and also to facilitate consultations by the Government and main political parties on issues of national interest.
It is now widely accepted by the UK Government, political parties, UK politicians and European institutions that the Sikh Federation (UK) represents a model political organisation for minority communities wishing to participate in the democratic processes and the life of the nation. British politicians from across the political spectrum and media recognise and respect the grassroots level network which the Sikh Federation (UK) provides for effective British Sikh political engagement. This is evidenced not only by the headlines made by Sikh issues through the work of the Federation, but also by the progress in genuine dialogue between the Federation representing Sikh interests at grassroots level, and the Government and senior politicians of the main parties.
The Sikh Council UK was established in December 2010 as a common platform for membership Gurdwaras and Sikh organisations to meet and discuss issues of common concern. The Sikh Council UK has been active in relation to a number of issues and points that have also been highlighted in the Sikh Manifesto. For example, they contributed to the consultations around the legislation on caste discrimination and have been instrumental in extending the exemption for turban-wearing Sikhs from any requirement to wear safety helmets beyond construction sites. However, there is a danger that the De-Regulation Bill, if enacted as it stands, will introduce into legislation for the first time the possibility of discrimination against turban wearing Sikhs in the armed forces, police forces and fire services.
As an important next step, an inclusive Sikh Network has been set up through collaboration with Sikh organisations, Gurdwaras, youth groups, professionals and individual activists.The Sikh Network comprises over 1,000 members and includes Sikh activists from existing Sikh organisations, human rights and political activists, lawyers, academics, researchers, journalists, public sector professionals, management consultants, marketing and PR professionals, charity workers and students. All members of the Sikh Network are invited with the opportunity to fully participate and contribute, even those who wish to remain in the background.
Significance of the Sikh Manifesto 2015-2020
In the last decade the approach of the community led by the Sikh Federation (UK) has been politically transformed from radical immigrant class politics to a leader of the Sikh Diaspora in professional lobbying on a comprehensive range of issues. The Sikh Manifesto 2015-2020 is widely viewed as a crucial development reflecting the political maturity of British Sikhs.
At the National Sikh Convention in September 2014 it was decided to establish the Sikh Network and launch a Sikh Manifesto for the 2015 General Election so that the main political parties seeking Sikh votes are made aware of the Sikh objectives during the next Parliament.
Members of the Sikh Network have worked with the Sikh Federation (UK) to produce the Sikh Manifesto which provides politicians and the wider public with a better understanding of the Sikh contribution, as well as the challenges which Sikhs continue to face due mainly to their distinct religious needs and identity. The Sikh Manifesto is about empowering the UK Sikh community to engage with the UK political system and create partnerships with democratic institutions. The Sikh Network will monitor progress against the Sikh Manifesto over the next five years and discuss and agree changes in strategy and approach to help deliver against the issues set out.
The ten-point Sikh Manifesto is unlike the manifestos of the political parties. All Sikh organisations can relate to all or part of the Sikh Manifesto as a briefing document. It is based on the widest possible consensus and collates the most important areas in which challenges remain for British Sikhs and progress is required. All Sikhs can relate to and adopt most or all objectives set out in the Sikh Manifesto and will use it to challenge candidates and political parties to clarify their position prior to the May 2015 General Election and also judge their backing for Sikh issues after being elected.
This Sikh Manifesto is based on nationwide consultations through meetings and networks and is written with the May 2015 General Election in mind. Some issues can also be raised with members of the assemblies and parliaments of London, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales and with members of the House of Lords and the European Parliament.
The Sikh Manifesto has been welcomed and endorsed by leading members of the Sikh community as well as all the major political party leaders. With the Sikh Manifesto we will test the commitment of the main political parties and individual politicians to the British Sikh community, and the Sikh Federation (UK) through the Sikh Network may advise Sikhs to vote for certain parties or MPs if they have a good track record in looking after the interests of the Sikhs, or if they are committed to work with Sikhs on points raised in the Sikh Manifesto. Hopefully, it should also promote openness and accountability on the part of those Parliamentary candidates who are seeking Sikh votes to get elected.
The Electoral Commission has highlighted that Sikhs participate in the British voting process more than most other communities. However, to make the Sikh vote count we should strongly bear in mind the prior commitment of the party or the candidate to the issues and concerns raised by the Sikh community through the Sikh Manifesto.
Building on the close Anglo-Sikh relationship developed over 200 years
The genesis of the British Sikh community can be traced back to the complex Anglo-Sikh relationship that developed over 200 years ago at the start of the nineteenth century. This relationship was formalised when friendship treaties were signed in 1805 and 1809 CE with Maharaja Ranjit Singh the ruler of the formidable Sikh empire who ruled from 1801 to 1839 CE.
Following the Maharaja’s death and a period of instability in Punjab, there were two Anglo-Sikh Wars in 1846 and 1849. Some famous battles were fought during these wars between the Khalsa army and the combined British and Indian forces. Following these wars the Sikh kingdom was annexed in 1849.
Whilst the legality of the ‘annexation’ by Lord Dalhousie remains in doubt to this day, the Sikhs won the respect of the British military commanders, politicians and scholars alike. In 1849, J D Cunningham, a commander in the British army and a historian, wrote ‘History of the Sikhs’ as a result of his admiration for the theo-political Sikh nation founded on the egalitarian universal ideology of Guru Nanak. However, his candour about the British duplicity cost Cunningham his promising career. Nevertheless, according to the publishers of his book ‘no serious student of Indian history can do without’ reading this classic record of a great people.
The British rulers of India studied the Sikh religious history and their proud military tradition. They realised that the Sikhs would make loyal allies. Sikh regiments were raised during the colonial period in the second half of the nineteenth century. Sikhs played a key role during the disorganised 1857 Indian mutiny. India was saved from return to the pre-colonial chaos and power struggles. The sub-continent was still evolving towards some sort of a semblance of nationhood – a concept alien to hundreds of Indian princes and feudal lords at the time. Anglo-Sikh bonds were further strengthened by North-West frontier battles like the epic battle of Saragarhi.
Later thousands answered the call of Britain and the Allies in both world wars with over 83,000 turban-wearing Sikhs sacrificing their lives, with over 109,000 wounded, all for the freedom of Europe and the western world. Sikhs, who made up less than 2% of the Indian population accounted for at least 20% of the Indian volunteer army, the largest ever in action.
The success of immigration of Sikhs to Britain
The first recorded Sikh settler in Britain was Maharajah Duleep Singh the last ruler of the Sikh kingdom, and the son of Maharajah Ranjit Singh. He was dethroned after six years’ rule, and exiled to Britain in 1849 at the age of 14, after the Anglo-Sikh wars. Despite the early arrival of the Maharajah, the first Sikh Gurdwara was not established until 1911 in London. Gurdwaras are the main institutions for Sikhs and central to community-building.
The first Sikh migration came from the Punjab in the 1950s and 1960s or from East Africa slightly later. It was mostly of men from the Punjab seeking work in British industry, which had a shortage of unskilled labour. Most of the new arrivals worked in foundry and textile industries. These new arrivals mostly settled in London, Birmingham and West Yorkshire. The first batch of Sikh migrants usually removed the outward religious symbols (turban, hair and beard) as racist prejudice in Britain was a major obstacle in securing employment.
Sikhs left Punjab not just because there was a shortage of industrial and agricultural jobs, but also because of the chaotic aftermath of the 1947 division of ‘British’ India into the secular but largely Hindu state of India and the Muslim state of Pakistan. The frontier between India and Pakistan divided the Sikh homeland of the Punjab.
There was bloodshed and destruction as millions tried to cross the border to the safety of their own communities. The Punjab changed from a settled and prosperous area to a violent and overcrowded frontier zone. Many Sikhs migrated from what was to become West Punjab (Pakistan) to East Punjab (India) whilst others left India altogether. East Punjab was disrupted again in 1966, when India further subdivided it into three parts, with the creation of the states of Punjab, Haryana, and Himachal Pradesh.
The migration from East Africa was the result of the move to Africanise countries like Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya, depriving many Asians of their work, and in many cases expelling them altogether. The Sikhs from East Africa took a robust attitude to the outward symbols of Sikhism and continued to wear them.
Since they had been living as an expatriate community in Africa for over 70 years they were accustomed to being a highly visible minority. They also had the further advantage of usually being highly skilled and employable, in contrast to those from Punjab.
The presence of a group of Sikhs who radiated pride in being members of the Khalsa encouraged others to externally display their Sikh identity through the five Kakkars (often referred to as the 5K’s). These are the external markers of the Khalsa Sikh Identity which continue to strengthen the visibility of the British Sikh community. In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s British Sikhs campaigned tenaciously to safeguard their religious identity thereby leading the way in terms of British multiculturalism.
50 target seats and more . . .
The opinion polls and the emergence of UKIP make the Sikh vote crucial to all the main political parties in the May 2015 General Election. Based on the results of the 2010 General Election there are sufficient Sikh voters alone to determine who will be elected in around 80% of the 50 target seats.
High voter registration, one of the highest turnouts and the ability to influence non-Sikh voters in large numbers through a focused campaign combine to make the Sikh Manifesto, the 50 target seats and voting strategy a powerful vehicle to secure positive change for the British Sikh community.
For the purposes of the Sikh Manifesto we have drawn a line at 50 target seats. There are however other marginal seats, such as, Nuneaton and Manchester, Withington where the local Sikh vote although relatively small will matter. In addition, there are also numerous safe seats, such as Birmingham, Selly Oak; Ealing Central & Acton; Huddersfield; Leicester South; Ealing North; Birmingham, Ladywood; East Ham and Barking that each have thousands of Sikh voters who can not be ignored.]
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