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The Turban Fighters

Khalsa’s story is not unique nor is his struggle.

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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.

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“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.”

I told [US security officials] 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. 

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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.”

Determined to fight for the right to wear a turban, Khalsa came back, contacted his Congressman and senator and launched a campaign. “I was told that we needed to start a petition with 20,000 to 25,000 signatures,’’ he says. Standing outside malls, he urged people to sign and garnered over 67,000 signatures. “A majority of people are kind-hearted. They asked what is this for,” says Khalsa. “[I told them] I am not asking for Sikh turbans or my turban, I am standing for faith and religious liberty. Everyone wants that.”

In 2007, the US Congress, with the signatures, got the Department of Homeland Security to make a change to the rule. “Even [former US president] Barack Obama signed the petition; he was a senator then. Since then, under the new policy guidelines, you cannot even touch our turban. We can touch the turban and they swab our hands, and we can get cleared,’’ says Khalsa, with a hint of pride. The swab is then tested for residue and if found to be fine, the person is allowed to walk through. This year, Khalsa was awarded the Rosa Parks Trailblazer award.

Khalsa’s story is not unique nor is his struggle. Last year, Navdeep Singh Bains, Canada’s minister of innovation, science and economic development, was asked to remove his turban at a US airport. He was finally allowed to fly after he produced his diplomatic passport.

Over the years, Sikhs have fought for the right to keep their religious identity intact. In 2018, Gursoach Kaur became the first turbaned Sikh woman in the New York Police Department. “In the 1950s and the 1960s, there were the voucher migrations,’’ says Mejindarpal Kaur, international legal head, United Sikhs. “These people found work in bakeries or as bus drivers where there were rules of uniform. They gave in. It was a generation that was required to fit in for economic reasons.’’

However, there were exceptions. In 1969, Tarsem Singh Sandhu refused to obey the rules. A bus driver in Wolverhampton, he sowed the seeds of a revolution by refusing to shave his beard or take off his turban. He was sent home. He took to the streets with 6,000 others, citing the example of the Sikh fighters in the World Wars who fought bravely and refused to wear a helmet. After he threatened to immolate himself, the town finally gave in. Today, it has the second largest Sikh population in England.

The rebellion had only just begun. In 1978, an incident of a Sikh boy being denied admission in Park Grove Private School in the UK because his father insisted on him wearing a turban became the rallying point of debate. The Mandla case, as it is known, went up to the House of Lords, which held that the Sikhs were not a racial group, that is a “group of persons defined by reference to colour, race, nationality or ethnic or national origins”. It is interesting that this definition does not include religion or politics or culture. You can discriminate against, say, Roman Catholics as much as you like without being in breach of the law, or against the communists or hippies as much as you please without breaking the law.

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.

Mandira Nayar
November 02, 2019

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