Sikhs urge Sarkozy to lift turban ban
By Jo Johnson
25 Jan 2008

New Delhi -
French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who is visiting India at the head of a large trade delegation, is coming under pressure to exclude the Sikh turban from the ban on ostentatious religious symbols in France’s schools.

It is the latest side-issue to distract attention from Mr Sarkozy’s own agenda for the visit – the development of stronger trade and investment ties with the world’s second-fastest growing big economy – following weeks of discussion of his love life.

“Prime minister Manmohan Singh, a Sikh never seen without his turban, is the best evidence France needs to be convinced that a Sikh is inseparable from his turban,” said Manjeet Singh, president of the Akali Dal (Panthik), a political party in Punjab.

Indian foreign ministry officials, known for their fastidious attention to protocol, had been irritated by Mr Sarkozy’s failure to state whether Carla Bruni should be treated as a normal member of the delegation or given the status due to a president’s wife.

Coverage of his visit in the Indian press has been dominated by his romance with the former model, with many wondering whether he might be planning to propose to her at the Taj Mahal. Mr Sarkozy, who is the guest of honour at India’s Republic Day parade today, in the end decided to leave Ms Bruni behind in France.

The visit started badly on Friday when Mr Sarkozy was grilled on the stability of the French financial system in the wake of the record fraud perpetrated against Société Générale by a rogue trader. He tersely replied that its “solidity and reliability” was unaffected.

In a speech to Indian businessmen, he expressed support for an Indian seat on the United Nations Security Council and for civil nuclear co-operation with India, but also pointedly urged New Delhi to “assume its responsibilities” in the fight against climate change.

Sikh groups, which have been holding protest marches in New Delhi, yesterday distributed grainy black and white photographs of turban-wearing soldiers in the Champs-Elysées in 1919. About 80,000 Sikhs fought in France during the two world wars.

“Today Sikhs are fighting for their right to wear the turban in the same country,” said Mejindarpal Kaur of United Sikhs, an advocacy group. “The prime minister of India must raise the turban issue with the president of France.”

Intended to affirm the neutrality of the French state vis-a-vis all religions, the 2004 law prohibited “ostentatious” religious symbols – taken to include the Sikh turban, the Muslim hijab, the Jewish Kippa and Christian crosses – in public schools in France.

Visiting French politicians have in the past promised to find an acceptable compromise that satisfies both secular fundamentalists at home and France’s tiny Sikh community, but failed to follow through on that commitment, Sikh groups say.

Sikhs in France complain they are accidental victims of legislation intended to curb what was perceived to be the growing trend for Muslim schoolgirls to wear headscarves. There are an estimated 5m Muslims in France and 6,000 Sikhs.

Sikhs say the turban is not a religious symbol but an integral part of their way of life. Sikhs are prohibited by religion from cutting their hair and complain that the ban is tantamount to forcing them to give up their religion.

(Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008)

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