The Turban Fighters

Sikhs have always fought for the right to keep their religious identity intact

It was more than a decade ago. But Indian-American entrepreneur Gurinder Singh Khalsa remembers the details vividly. He was flying from Buffalo to Sacramento. He had cleared security, yet he was asked to take off his turban.

“I was told under the new TSA [transportation security administration] guidelines that any headgear has to be removed,’’ says Khalsa over the phone from the US. “I told them that I had not set off any alarms and that my turban was an article of my faith. They wanted me to take it off. I refused.”

Khalsa instead drove across the border to Toronto, where he met a friend who had his own television channel. On live TV, Khalsa realised that he was not alone; other people had similar experiences. “There were senior Sikhs who had no choice,” he says. “They had to go for a funeral and had no choice but to board. They were literally in tears, saying that they were forced to take off their turban and put it in the same box as they put shoes and go through security.”...

...Last year, in India—home to the largest number of Sikhs in the world—a similar battle was fought. Jagdeep Singh Puri, a graphic designer, went to the Supreme Court because he was disqualified from an endurance cycle event organised by Audax India Randonneurs (AIR), associated with a French company. “When I reached with my bicycle at the event, they checked my papers,’’ says Puri, who started cycling in late 2013 to keep fit. “They pointed out to me that I needed to wear a helmet. I told them that I cannot take off my turban, that it is part of my religion.”

Puri chose to complete the journey from Panipat to Delhi “on my own risk’’ to prove a point. “They take a waiver from each and every rider anyway,’’ he says. Puri, who tried to write to AIR to explain the position of the turban, finally went to court with the help of United Sikhs. “I wanted a proper settlement,’’ he says. “There is a racing event in America that allows turbans.’’ The Supreme Court, however, refused to interfere in the matter.

And to ensure that Sikhs are not left out of sports and to raise awareness about the community, Puri has started Turbanators—a cycling group for Sikhs who want to ride but have been discriminated against. The group, which has done five long rides till now, however, is open to everyone, perhaps to avoid any discrimination.

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