VIEW: It is an internal matter of France

25 Jan 2008

Sikh organisations want Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to urge French President Nicolas Sarkozy to relax the ban on turbans in government-run schools in France. They argue that this is not a Sikh issue but a case of human rights. The ban, they claim, violates French ideals of equality and fraternity. The protestors may well have a case, but it is for the French to decide on public policies in their country. It is not for India to take it up with France.

The ban is a natural fallout of the French model of hard secularism that advocates a ban on the display of religious symbols in public institutions. The turban is a symbol of Sikh identity and hence comes under the purview of legal provisions that define secularism. Sikhs in France have started a public campaign against this policy and sought exemption for turbans. A legal challenge has been raised against the French government in various international human rights forums. That's the right way to go about it. It is for these groups to convince the French state that the hard secularism model it follows could contravene the rights of religious minorities and so should be relaxed.

However, any attempt by India to raise it at diplomatic forums can impact Indo-French ties negatively. It could be interpreted as an intervention in the internal affairs of France. How would New Delhi react if a foreign country questions the plight of riot victims in Gujarat and Mumbai or human rights issues in Jammu and Kashmir, Manipur or Nagaland?

Human rights groups do take governments to task over these issues and rightly so. Civil society, here and in France, have the right to contest the French definition of secularism and public policies enforced by the French government. But that ought to be done in appropriate forums. A meeting between the Indian prime minister and the French president is not the occasion to debate these issues.

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