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How a Sikh cyclist’s legal battle against the helmet rule goes beyond matters of religion or safety

The choice of whether, and how, to wear a turban cannot be reduced to a single source.

A Sikh cyclist’s claim that mandatory helmet rules impinge on the constitutional right to freedom of religious expression has thrust the niche sport of endurance cycling into the centre of a Supreme Court controversy.

In July, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Delhi resident Jagdeep Singh Puri’s plea that the government create guidelines to prevent violations of religious freedoms by private entities. Puri initiated this case with the help of United Sikhs, an international non-governmental organisation, after he was prevented from participating in an endurance ride in August 2015 because he refused to take off his turban and wear a helmet...

...The Supreme Court judges have distilled the case into the question of whether wearing a turban is religiously mandatory for Sikhs. But the problem with asking what is or is not mandatory in Sikhism imposes a uniform code on heterogeneous religious practices, turning faith into a set of unchanging laws and customs. Over the centuries, people have adapted religious belief to requirements of self-preservation in all sorts of ways. Visual evidence from the 1700s to the early 1800s shows Sikh soldiers wearing steel helmets, turbans over helmets, helmets over turbans, even a steel helmet crafted to resemble the pleated fabric of a turban. Of course, all of these ingenious workarounds – documented in the website “In Search of the Sikh Helmet” – reflect context-specific choices...

....Journalist Amandeep Sandhu says the case in the Supreme Court is partly the result of a “historical sense of persecution Sikhs feel, in India and abroad – a feeling of being neglected and not being understood”. However, waging this symbolic battle in the courts has the potential effect of “reducing the vast and heterogeneous sea of Sikh thought and practice into a corporatised idea of religion”, he added. The problem is that in legal battles such as this, the loudest voices emphasise sharp distinctions, inflexible boundaries and enduring truths. For instance, the Asia Samachar report quotes the judges in the case asking Jagdeep Singh Puri’s lawyers questions like, Is a turban an “essential part of your [religious] practice”? Citing the example of Sikh athletes who wear patkas, the bench adds, “It seems to us that wearing a turban is not mandatory but covering your head is.” But the decisions Puri, Inderjit, Rupinder and other Sikh cyclists make, like all sartorial decisions, are contingent and contextual. They are about intimate bodily practices that are personal, rather than clear-cut reflections of adherence to, or rejection of, religious dogma. Like the choice to commit to cycling hundreds of kilometres over multiple days without any sleep, the choice of whether, and how, to wear a turban cannot be reduced to a single source.

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