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Sikh Recognition in the West

"Legal recognition of Sikhs as (ਕੌਮ).. is long overdue in every country of the world." 

Scotland and New Jersey (USA) Recognise Sikhs as a Religious and Ethnic community or Qaum (ਕੌਮ)  

“On May 7, the Census (Scotland) Regulation 2020 was laid in the Scottish Parliament which included a prompt for Sikhs and Jews in the “Other” response option to the question “What is your ethnic group?”. (Times of India, 29 June 2020*).

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This means that when the Scottish Sikhs fill the 2021 Census form they will be reminded to write “SIKH” under the “Other” option. The Sikhs will be counted and monitored independently as “Sikh” in Scotland and not e.g. “Indian” under the compulsory “Ethnicity” heading. From the outset of the campaign to get such recognition, an expression, “If you are not counted, you do not count” has become popular amongst UK Sikh activists. The great importance of this historic recognition of the Sikh community is explained below.

In 1983, based on historical, cultural and religious reasons, through unanimous verdict the 5 Law Lords of the UK’s House of Lords recognised the Sikhs as an ethnic group (a distinct qaum or nation) for the purpose of the Race relations law. Later, in the consolidating Equality Act 2010, “race” can mean your colour, or your background nationality. It can also mean your ethnic or national (qaumi) origins. Sikhs and the Jews are specifically mentioned as ethnic communities in the Act. So, it is not clear why some Sikhs themselves are trying to confuse the Sikh position with reference to the UK’s Equality Act 2010.

Ethnic Groups in the UK are defined in the same sense as qaums in India.

The word qaum refers to any distinct people. According to the ethnicity characteristics defined in the Mandla case, all Sikhs share the community history the memory of which they keep alive e.g. in prayers and through annual events; they have own culture and tradition; they are a global community which includes those who join through conversion or marriage etc but they all recall their common geographical origin, Punjab the birthplace of Guru Nanak Sahib. The Sikhs originate from Panjab but were joined by converts from all over the Indian sub-continent and beyond during Guru Nanak’s time; they have a common cultural language which others may share; they have own distinct literature; a common religion; and they are treated by other communities as a distinct people.

They include all those who regard themselves as members of the community.  So, the whole legal concept of ethnicity is wide and inclusive, yet defined by certain shared characteristics. Despite some misleading information being spread by vested interests, the UK courts continue to refer to the Mandla Case (1983) as an authority to show that the Sikhs are a distinct ethnic community.

To quote a British Sikh Federation post on the forum Sikh News Discussion:

“Sikhs will be monitored, both, as a Religion and as an Ethnic Group, wherever each category is required to be monitored in Scotland. This is what 96% of the Sikhs at the Office for National Statistics Consultation Meeting in London supported, with only 4% voting against”

That meeting of 23 October 2017 has been recorded by the Office for National Statistics.**

In New Jersey in USA, Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 118, of 22 June 2020 states:

“Sikh religion and history are extremely distinct and altogether different from other religions and ethnic groups.  Therefore, the State of New Jersey finds it is crucial to recognize the Sikh religion and its history in promoting peace while declaring Sikhs as a distinct ethnic and religious minority.”

The ground level impact on the Sikh position of New Jersey legislation will become clearer in due course. It is being celebrated as an important Sikh Amrican milestone.

In the UK, distinct sizeable communities are counted and monitored as ethnic communities by some 40,000 public bodies, hundreds of thousands of private sector organisations and employers when recruiting for jobs, promotions, job grades, Executive Board level positions, pay levels, allocation of grants, and so on. The Scottish Sikhs have won an important human right to be counted and monitored as a distinct community.

That cannot be against Guru Nanak’s universal Sikhi values as some imply when arguing against Sikhs being counted and monitored for their rights under any current statistical system whether based on religion or the wider concept of ethnicity as defined by UK Law Lords as above.

Sikhs always had that historical and legal right. It has been said that a right is not what someone gives you but it is what no one can take from you. However, it is also true that states do attempt to circumscribe the just rights of minority communities so that they have to resort to court actions. Senior politicians drop in at Gurdwaras to seek Sikh votes and are full of praise for the Sikhs as law abiding, hard-working loyal citizens making a net contribution to the national economy. However, for decades they have failed the British Sikhs numbering over half a million, to be counted and monitored on the same basis as other communities. One of the most visible and respected communities has been lost in statistics and made invisible so that there is no proof of any mistreatment in any sector.

The officials in the Office for National Statistics have ignored glaring evidence collated through consultations. They have allowed other vested interests to influence their advice to the ministers. Ridiculous arguments like negative impact on trade relations with India have been used by some to oppose Sikh right to own community identity, count and monitoring to ensure a level playing field in diverse sectors and full participation in the life of the nation. 

Only statistical information kept by thousands of bodies about distinct communities like the Sikhs can provide evidence to stop discrimination. It takes a long time and cases of mistreatment of minorities as in the Floyd George case in the US , for institutional discrimination to be recognised by the establishment.

As for those who continue to deny the inalienable Sikh right to be counted and monitored as “SIKH” by giving all sorts of arguments against: religious, political (Sikh separatism) and even trade-linked relations with India, one can only quote Abraham Lincoln: "You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time"

Legal recognition of Sikhs as an independent people (ਕੌਮ) for the purpose of equal opportunities and treatment through statistical monitoring, is long overdue in every country of the world. 

Gurmukh Singh OBE
E-mail: [email protected]

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Editor's Note: The author has detailed more about the Manlda case here: UK's race relations law, "Ethnicity" defined

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*Times of India news report: UK Sikhs fighting for ethnic tick-box in census claim victory in Scotland

** ONS website link below for a consultation meeting held in London on 23 Oct 2017: Summary of the meeting with the Sikh community October 23rd 2017

 

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