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This Press Release may be read online at: http://www.unitedsikhs.org/PressReleases/PRSRLS-16-07-2009-00.htm

Press Release: 16th Jul 2009,          1st Saavan (Samvat 541 Nanakshahi )

Press Release

European Court Rules Against the Sikh Turban in French Schools

"Today is the day, 264 years ago, when a Sikh martyr, Bhai Taru Singh, was scalped alive, by the oppressive rulers of the day, because he refused to give up his faith that required him to wear his hair unshorn. Ironically, today, our lawyers learnt that the European Court of Human Rights has dismissed Jasvir Singh’s right to wear his religiously mandated turban to school, denying him a right to practice his faith,":Mejindarpal Kaur, UNITED SIKHS legal director

"Sikhs are striving for a society in which all faiths coexist in harmony, where the expression of religion and culture is a celebration of diversity. By contrast, the Court’s decision allows states to suppress expressions of religious diversity, apparently as a means of promoting peace. It is a depressingly negative view of the state’s role in promoting religious tolerance. The UN Human Rights Committee, which is also considering this issue, has called on France to justify its ban on the wearing of religious signs.": Stephen Grosz, UNITED SIKHS London based lawyer.

STRASBOURG, France: The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) dismissed last month the first legal challenge, since France passed a law in 2004 banning religious signs in schools, filed by UNITED SIKHS on behalf of Jasvir Singh. The decision, against which there is no leave to appeal, and which was communicated to UNITED SIKHS lawyers today, has strengthened the resolve of the Sikh community globally to rise to the challenge and defy odds to regain their right. The Court, without requiring France to respond to Jasvir Singh's legal arguments, has following the decision it made last November in the Islamic headscarf physical education cases (which pre-dated the 2004 law), by ruling that the ban on turbans is a proportionate response to the aims of protection of the rights and freedoms of others and the protection of public order.


Jasvir Singh wearing his discreet Keski

UNITED SIKHS filed, last December, another legal challenge before the United Nations Human Rights Committee on behalf of Bikramjit Singh, who was expelled from the school with Jasvir Singh when they refused to remove their turban in school. France has filed a response to Bikramjit’s claim and our lawyers are preparing a reply.

Jasvir Singh was 14 years old when he, along with two other Sikh students, was expelled from Michel High School in Bobigny for wearing a keski. The keski is a small, discreet piece of cloth, which acts as an under-turban, covering the unshorn hair that is considered sacred in the Sikh religion. It is frequently worn by young Sikhs as a prelude, or as an alternative, to wearing a larger turban.

In the appeal filed to the ECtHR, UNITED SIKHS lawyers had argued that the 2004 law interfered with Jasvir’s human rights in a way that was disproportionate to the aim of the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. The lawyers added, that there was no pressing social need which dictated that members of the very small Sikh minority in France should not be able to wear a discreet head-covering. Moreover, a Sikh’s uncut hair is a much more conspicuous sign of adherence to the Sikh religion than the keski which covers it. Accordingly, requiring a Sikh pupil to remove his keski, revealing his uncut hair tied in a tress knot, makes his religious affiliation more conspicuous rather than less.

The principal of the high school had asked Jasvir to stop wearing the keski to school, but he declined to do so because it represents a fundamental aspect of his religion, beliefs, and identity. Jasvir was initially removed from the classroom and made to sit in a separate study area in order to pursue his education. He was placed in the school canteen, where he undertook self-study and was provided with educational materials by a teaching assistant if he requested them. No teacher taught him during the period of three weeks that he spent in the canteen. This separation continued for three weeks before he was excluded from school altogether.

Commenting on the decision, Mejindarpal Kaur, UNITED SIKHS Director for International Civil and Human Rights Advocacy stated, "Today is the day, 264 years ago, when a Sikh martyr, Bhai Taru Singh, was scalped alive by the oppressive rulers of the day because he refused to give up his faith that required him to wear his hair unshorn. Today our lawyers learnt that the European Court of Human Rights has dismissed Jasvir Singh’s right to wear his religiously mandated turban to school, denying him a right to practice his faith."

"Yet we have faith that we will win the battle to win the hearts and minds of the French government," she added. You may read an unofficial translation of the judgment here.

Jasvir Singh’s London Lawyer, Stephen Grosz of Bindmans LLP stated, Sikhs are striving for a society in which all faiths coexist in harmony, where the expression of religion and culture is a celebration of diversity. By contrast, the Court’s decision allows states to suppress expressions of religious diversity, apparently as a means of promoting peace. It is a depressingly negative view of the state’s role in promoting religious tolerance."

Commenting on Bikramjit Singh’s case before the UN Human Rights Committee, he added, "The UN Human Rights Committee, which is also considering this issue, has called on France to justify its ban on the wearing of religious signs."

Comments from Sikh leaders on this judgment

Singh Sahib Gurbachan Singh Ji, Jathedar Sri Akal Takhat Sahib, head of the 400 year old temporal seat of 25 million Sikhs globally: "This decision has hit the Sikh community in a much bigger way than France has gained from it. Sikhs have always defended the rights of others by making the ultimate sacrifice. Now the time has come for us to turn to all religious leaders to work together to put an end to this attack on religious freedom. The leaders of all the five Takhat are meeting at the Akal Takhat on 20th July when we will take a decision on the way forward."

Avtar Singh President, Shromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committe (SGPC), the largest elected body of Sikhs: "The solution now is at the political level. We have left no stone unturned to achieve a result through the courts and diplomatically. There is no choice for Sikhs except to turn to the Indian Prime Minister to do the right thing."

Paramjit Singh, President, Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (DSGMC) "We will fight the decision politically through the Indian Government. If the French government can honour the turban wearing Indian PM during their national day parade recently, we must surely be able to convince them that the Court’s decision cannot stand."

Gurdial Singh, a French Sikh community leader and father of Jasvir Singh, bitterly disappointed with the decision, said: "The judges didn’t listen to the voice of their souls or humanity when making this political decision. They will regret one day that they have made a grave mistake by hurting humanity and snatching away from a peace loving community their right to practice their faith. On our part, the battle continues."

Kuldip Singh, UNITED SIKHS President: "The Sikh community will have to respond with all its strength. You don’t have to be a numerical majority to bring change through social politics. Guru Nanak was in the minority when he preached love for humanity to the majority communities of his day," he added, dismissing any doubts that France will take Sikhs seriously.

Dr. Pritpal Singh, Coordinator, American Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee: "We condemn the judgment. We call upon all human rights organizations to stand by us. As Americans, we will seek a meeting with the Secretary of State to seek her help to make our case to the French government that we are peace loving people whose identity is under attack."

Jassi Singh Khangura, MLA, elected representative of the Panjab state assembly: I am very disappointed with the European court’s decision, coming in the 21st Century, on behalf of a developed country. The Punjab assembly has passed a resolution in favour of fighting for the turban and we will carry on fighting. There are strong economic ties between India and France and we will lobby through them. It is time to move the Sikh youth globally who will have to move French youths, the future decision makers in France."

Kashmir Singh, a French Sikh community leader: "The judges have shown themselves to be partial by not requiring France to reply to our case. The French government knows that the turban is part of the Sikh identity. We should work with politicians in the USA, Canada and the UK to bring a change of heart in France. In the in the end, we will change the law."

You may read a previous UNITED SIKHS' press release on the Right to Turban campaign at: http://www.unitedsikhs.org/PressReleases/PRSRLS-15-12-2008-00.htm



Issued by:
Rishipal Singh
Director, International Civil and Human Rights Advocacy
UNITED SIKHS
Ph: +44 7709830442

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