December 23, 2010 | By Sikh Siyasat Bureau
By Indira Prasht*
LAST week marked the International Day for Human Rights, a theme that will continue throughout this weekend in Surrey at the third Global Sikh Civil Rights Conference organized by the United Sikhs organization. The goal of the event is to bring together human rights lawyers, academics, activists, community leaders and youth to address issues that have impacted the Sikh community across the globe, according to Hardayal Singh, one of the organizers with United Sikhs from New York who I met this week to discuss the conference.
“Protect Our Identity” is this year’s theme of the conference theme. Singh said: “Essentially, if you look after 9/11 how the landscape changed, this has impacted Sikhs in particular since they are very visible and therefore, more subject to being profiled at airports in the United States.”
He said that this treatment not only impacts the average Sikh male or female, it also affects the children. When children are traveling and observe that Sikhs who wear turbans are systematically singled out while other passengers just go through, one has to ask how they can make sense of this. Singh spoke about how this witnessing can impact Sikh children psychologically with respect to their Sikh identity and instill fear about wearing the turban. This no doubt has resulted in Sikh youth forsaking their turban and opting to assimilate into the dominant culture to increase their social prospects and be treated as an equal citizen.
Singh said the freedom for Sikhs to express their identity has impacted Sikhs on gradient levels worldwide and referred to several cases around the world. He pointed out the laws that had been passed in France regarding the profiling of Sikhs which have had a devastating effect on Sikhs. He noted: “Unfortunately, some Sikhs are not taking the right path a Sikh should take.” Rather than confront these policies that infringe on their human rights, they opt to cut their hair or parents send their kids to study in other countries.
Singh also pointed out the case of Shingara Singh of France who did not get a driver’s license because he refused to take a photograph without his turban, and the barriers some Sikh kids face in schools in Pakistan if they wear a turban. The xenophobic and racist climate has intensified across Europe and has been especially salient in Germany. In this context, Singh spoke about how Sikhs are experiencing difficulty accessing jobs especially in serving in the police or armed forces.
THIS is not surprising especially with German Chancellor Angela Merkel telling members of her Christian Democratic Union party about the failure of multiculturalism and stating: “We feel tied to Christian values. Those who don’t accept them don’t have a place here.” This indeed has been a common sentiment expressed by several Germans, which I have noticed increasing at an alarming rate in my annual trips to Germany to visit family there.
While multiculturalism is subject to severe criticism in Europe, in Canada it continues to be promoted. However, there are divided views here about the politics of multiculturalism and who it really benefits. On a positive note though I wish to illuminate the high profile case a few years ago involving Sikh student Gurbaj Singh Multani from Montreal to have the freedom to wear his kirpan to school. Reshan Singh, a member of Montreal’s Gurdwara Guru Nanak Darbar that helped fight the case along with United Sikhs and World Sikh Organization, pointed out to me when I was in Montreal how touched the Sikh community was when they learned about the time and care taken by the judges to study Sikhism before their judgment that resulted “in a unanimous decision to permit [Gurbaj] to wear the kirpan to school.”
This illustrates the importance of approaching Sikh issues from the standpoint of Sikhism rather than through a Eurocentric lens, which has been the dominant frame of reference used to evaluate cases. The value and importance of this case was the precedent that was set for other Sikhs to have the right to wear a kirpan to school. This really mattered for Gurbaj, who told me: “When the case went to the Supreme Court, the goal was so others can refer to this case where the kirpan was permitted in schools without having to go back to the courts. For me, my religion is more important than anything else and that is what I stood for.”
Indeed, this case is symbolic and illustrates how the Canadian system relative to other western nations supported Sikhs to express their faith through changes in the school policy rather than forcing Sikhs to relinquish aspects of their religious faith (though the current laws in Quebec involving articles of faith have been alarming for Sikhs).
While Sikhs have openly expressed concern over their rights being violated in the U.S. and European nations, others are also raising the issue for Sikhs in India. They include Gurbaj who said to me: “We are not independent in India and I don’t have the freedom as a Sikh expressing my religion and if I am in Canada, the reason is because we have a problem in India.”
THIS issue was identified in a press release this week from the Sikh Students Federation that condemned the “derogatory practice of forcible removal of turbans” and noted that these problems also occur in Punjab and other parts of India as well.
When I contacted Parmjeet Singh Gazi, President, Sikh Students Federation, in Punjab this week on this issue, he noted: “Forcing Sikhs to remove their turban and remain bareheaded for so-called security reason in police station’s confinement cell, is practiced throughout India to humiliate Sikhs. It is notable that neither the Police Act, Criminal Procedure Code nor any other law authorize the police to compel Sikhs to remove their turban before confining them to confinement cells situated in police stations.”
Gazi believes this practice is highly derogatory in nature and infringes on the basic right of Sikhs to freely practice their faith. “Our concern is that this extra-legal practice must be stopped and (the question must be answered) why it was practiced,” he added.
INDEED, there are many questions and issues being raised globally concerning Sikhs and the freedom to practice their faith. With Sikhs being such a giving and helping community around world, some Sikhs feel this is being taken for granted and when it comes to Sikhs wanting the simple right to practice their faith, they have all these laws in place to stop them.
Singh said that what is not only frustrating but humiliating as well is how Sikhs are being used, adding that Sikhs had lost their lives fighting in the world wars. He said: “At that time, there were no questions asked and Sikhs were allowed to serve in the army. But now there are all these restrictions. I bet if there is a war tomorrow, they would want the Sikhs to fight. So why is there this one-sided affair?”
It is these issues, barriers and questions currently facing Sikhs which Singh hopes will be addressed at the three-day conference, followed by the completion of their third report on human rights for governments and UN officials to use as a reference.“ We also need to ask, where do we stand and what we can collectively do to raise these issues with the governments, ambassadors and NGOs [Non-Governmental Organizations] to arrive at solutions.
* The author is Instructor of Race and Ethnic Relations at Department of Sociology, Langara College, Vancouver.
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