The Turban Warriors: Fighting for their Right

Sikhs have long battled for the right to keep their religious identity intact.

Sikhs across the world wear distinctive headwear, turban, or dastar, as a part of their identity and association with Sikhism. The colors vary from saffron, maroon, subtle pinks, and bright yellows to sky blue. It was around a decade ago, when an Indian-American entrepreneur Gurinder Singh Khalsa who was flying from Buffalo to Sacramento, during the security check at the airport, was asked to take his turban off. Asking a Sikh to remove one of their most revered article of faith is a gesture of disrespect. 

Gurinder remembers the day vividly, and he shares, “I was told under the new TSA (Transportation Security Administration) guidelines that any headgear has to be removed.” He further added that he explained to the officials that he has not set off any alarms, and the turban was an article of Sikh faith. Upholding his beliefs, he refused to remove it. 

Instead of giving in, Gurinder drove across the border to Toronto, where he met a friend who had his own television channel. Observing other people's experiences live on television, Khalsa realized he was not the only one. “There were senior Sikhs who had no choice,” he says. They had no choice but to board because they had to travel for a funeral. Some Sikhs had tears in their eyes when recounting their experiences, where they have to remove their turban and store it in the same box as their shoes to get through security.

Sikhs fighting for their rights to wear their crowned glory 

Gurinder was intent on fighting for the freedom to wear a turban. So, he returned home and contacted his representative and senator to initiate a campaign. To start a petition, they needed around 20,000 to 25,000 signatures. While most people signed it agreeably, others questioned what the petition was all about. Some even asked if it was just for the Sikhs who were asked to remove the turbans. He explained, “I am not requesting Sikh turbans or my own turban; rather, I am advocating for faith and religious liberty.”

Everyone across the globe should have the right to follow their faith, and belief systems, until and unless it harms others. Supporting the cause, people came forward and signed the petition. 

With sufficient signatures, the US Congress convinced the Department of Homeland Security to modify the rule in 2007. Even former US president Barack Obama, who was a senator at the time, signed the petition. Under the new policy standards, no one has the right to touch the turban at all. The rule said that only the Sikhs wearing the turban were allowed to touch it, after having their hands swabbed. With a hint of pride, Gurinder said that the swab is then tested for residue, and if found to be fine, the person is given security clearance. In the year, 2019, Gurinder was presented with the Rosa Parks Trailblazer Award for his initiative to speak up and fight for the rights that were due. 

This struggle and fight for upholding the Sikh identity is not unique or the first of its kind. In 2018, Navdeep Singh Bains, the Canadian minister for innovation, research, and economic development was asked to remove his turban at an airport in the United States. After he showed his diplomatic passport, he was permitted to board the plane.

Turban-ed with pride

For quite some years now, Sikhs have fought for the freedom to maintain their religious identity intact. Gursoach Kaur joined the New York Police Department in 2018, becoming the agency's first Sikh woman to wear a turban. 

Mejindarpal Kaur, international legal head, of United Sikhs says,“ In the 1950s and the 1960s, there were the voucher migrations 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.”

Given little choice, a large percentage of the Sikh community followed rules, there were exceptions. In 1969, Tarsem Singh Sandhu refused to follow the rules. As a bus driver in Wolverhampton, he sowed the seeds of a revolution by refusing to cut his beard or remove his turban. He was asked to go home. So, he marched with 6,000 others, invoking the precedent of Sikh troops in World Wars who fought valiantly while refusing to wear helmets. The community finally gave in when he threatened to immolate himself. Today, the city is home to England's second-largest Sikh community.

The rebellion had just started at that point. In 1978, a Sikh boy's enrollment to Park Grove Private School in the UK was initially denied due to his father's insistence that his son wears a turban to school. The Mandla case, as it is now 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 color, race, nationality or ethnic or national origins” Intriguingly, neither religion nor politics nor culture is included in this definition. It's quite legal to show bias against Roman Catholics, for example, communists or hippies, or even against those who just don't share your political views. The absence of bifurcation, and the inability to identify the Sikh community as a different religion, can be one of the major reasons why it took long for Sikhs to hold their position and religiously adorn their articles of faith in society beyond boundaries. 

Indian Sikhs voicing their right to wear the turban 

A similar incident occurred in India, which is home to the world's largest Sikh population, in 2018. A French business affiliated with Audax India Randonneurs (AIR) excluded graphic designer Jagdeep Singh Puri from an endurance cycling event. Puri appealed his exclusion to the Supreme Court. Jagdeep, who began cycling in late 2013 as a kind of exercise to stay fit, adds that when he reached the event location with his bicycle the officials examined his paperwork. He said, “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.”

To prove his point, Jagdeep decided to go from Panipat to Delhi at his own risk. However, every rider needs to sign a waiver. So, he wrote to AIR to explain the significance of the turban. Finally, he went to court with the help of United Sikhs since he wanted a proper settlement. However, to no avail, since the Supreme Court declined to intervene in the dispute. 

To counteract this discrimination and bring more attention to the Sikh community, Puri founded Turbanators, a cycling group for Sikhs who want to ride but have been discriminated against. However, the group, which has completed five long rides so far, is open to everyone, possibly to prevent discrimination. As a religious minority, Sikhs have a long history of fighting for the freedom to maintain their traditions and customs.

A symbol of pride: From its origin to Guru Gobind Singh Ji 

Nobody knows the specific origins of the turban, however, Mesopotamia and ancient India include allusions dating back over 4,000 years. There is little agreement on its appearance and how it should be worn. It can be any color, wrapped tightly around the head or sitting freely, have a peak, flat top, or even be slanted, and when unfurled it can be anywhere from a few feet to over 40 meters in length.

However, among those who wear a turban, only the Sikhs continue to wear it even now. They have made it into a significant symbol of identity. Guru Gobind Singh Ji, the tenth and final human guru of Sikhism, gathered his disciples to the city of Anandpur in the north Indian state of Punjab in April 1699 to celebrate Baisakhi, the annual harvest festival. There, he established the Khalsa, a brotherhood and sisterhood of baptized Sikhs, and issued several edicts that molded Sikhism into what it is today.

The turban usually called dastar or pag in the Punjabi culture, a tenet of the Sikh faith, stands for equality, honor, respect for oneself, bravery, spirituality, and piety. It is worn by Khalsa Sikh men and women to conceal their long, uncut hair and to uphold the Five Ks (one of which is kesh or hair). The dastar is seen by Sikhs as a crucial component of their distinctive identity. Today, one of the most recognizable images of Sikhism wearing a turban and having kesh

Sikhs continue to stand strong to their faith 

Sikhs have been questioned, as well as asked to remove turbans since it is distinct, and not known across the world. It is a cultural and religious practice that is gradually being known by people. With social media, television, and media, the Sikh turban is also associated with other religions like Muslims, and even extremist groups like Taliban and ISIS sympathizers. 

However, one of the most differentiating factors is the type and style of the turban, which is usually accompanied by a Kada ( a silver or steel bangle worn by Sikhs, usually on their right wrist). Different Sikh groups have also started running awareness campaigns to reduce hate crimes and establish the pureness of faith followed in Sikhism. Regardless of the obstacles that the Sikh turban faces, it is likely to remain the indelible emblem of history and faith that it was designed to be.

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