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United Sikhs presents a world view of Sikhs in the First Global
Civil Rights Report 2008
Feb 25 , 2009


Focussing on the Rights of the Sikh people spread far and wide, United Sikhs has come out with the first report, entitled Global Sikh Civil Rights Report 2008, chronicling the state of affairs of Sikhs living in many countries.  It is a good first attempt and is surely the harbinger of more exhaustive and compelling reports in future which the international community will find difficult to ignore.  

Compiled by a host of volunteers from across the world led by Lawyers, activists and writers Jaspreet Singh, Gurminder Singh, Gurpreet Singh, Dhani Ram Sapkota, Mejindarpal Kaur, Gurbachan Singh, Dr. Inderjeet Singh and Joga Singh, the report seeks to address the various civil, political and economic issues faced by Sikhs and urges governments and the United Nations to listen to the voice of the Sikh people in this year, which marks twenty-five years of anti-Sikh policies in India impacting the life and times of Sikhs all across the globe. 

Specifically for the United States, this pioneering report presents the situation after 9/11 and takes up the challenge of hate crime on the streets and in a cross section of the media.   

Perhaps, it is time for all similarly aligned and oriented Sikh organizations to share and pool their manpower and other resources to ensure that the delivery of solutions to various challenges becomes a reality. 

Every country and individual has a duty to defend human rights and help spread democracy’s blessings. The United Nations helps countries develop democratic institutions that will ensure human rights are respected over the long term. UNITED SIKHS calls upon countries to honor their international obligations to protect human rights. UNITED SIKHS stands in solidarity with the courageous men and women across the globe who live in fear yet dream of freedom to enjoy their fundamental human and civil rights as established in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

By defending and advancing human rights, civil rights and democratic principles, we keep faith with the world’s most cherished values and lay the foundation for lasting peace. While working to uphold the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and working to build vibrant communities worldwide, we understand that it may take generations to achieve peace, but it is work of the utmost urgency that cannot be delayed.

World View

Sikhism recognizes the universal truths that underlie all human endeavors, religions and belief systems, though people differ in how they institutionalize those beliefs into a code of conduct and a way of life. Much as Sikhs love their religion, Sikhism is equally respectful and tolerant of another - a non-Sikh - who loves his or her own religion in his or her own way. Sikhism asks a non-Sikh to discover and live the essential message and meaning of his own religion so that a Christian can become a better Christian, Jew a better Jew, Hindu a better Hindu, while a Sikh becomes a better Sikh.

Civil Rights Issues Facing Sikhs: The events of September 11, 2001 significantly changed the state of civil rights globally. Many countries tightened their borders, there was a marked global increase of arbitrary and illegal detentions, use of torture was well documented, and there has been a general constriction and conservative interpretation of basic freedoms. Commonly heralded as countries that were at the forefront of human rights, the United States and United Kingdom are being accused of many human rights violations in conjunction with the Iraqi conflict, the Afghan conflict, and the war on terror.

Sikhs have a long history of defending civil and human rights. Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith, sp oke out against the social and political injustices of the time. He fought state-sanctioned religious pers ecution and condemned discrimination against women. Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Sikh Guru, sacrificed his life for another's right to choose his/her faith. 

The general consensus among Sikh advocacy organizations is that there is severe underreporting in the Sikh community, especially when it comes to bullying in schools, employment discrimination, mishandling by security officers at airports, mistreatment by police, and verbal harassment. As Sikhs are also part of a diasporic community, the underreporting stems from a variety of factors, some of which are a lack of trust of police, immigration status, language barriers, and general lack of understanding of the services and remedies available to address these problems. 

Sikhs were significantly affected in the aftermath of 9/11, as reports collected from around the globe indicate that Sikhs face an increase of racism, discrimination, and xenophobia, primarily due to a lack of education of who Sikhs are and stemming from Sikhs' distinctive appearance. While it has been difficult for the Sikh community to deal with these trends, 9/11 also served as a wake-up call for the community that imminent action was required. It is a critical time for Sikhs as it is often for the first time that issues regarding Sikhs and Sikh practices are being legally challenged or protected, and it is a time where Sikhs are being required to legally defend Sikhism as a bona-fide religion as well as Sikh practices.  

The point of recognition as an official religion is an interesting one being raised by parties to a case in Belgium dealing with a school-boy’s right to wear his dastaar (Sikh turban) in school. It is important to note that India, where the largest community of Sikhs lives, Sikhism is not officially recognized as a separate religion, but rather as a sect of Hinduism under the Constitution. This is despite the fact that Sikhs have been in existence since the 15th century and established a completely separate identity that was well-documented from that time forward. Sikhs are identified as a distinct religion in historical documents of the time of the Mughal Empire, as well as during the British Empire. Also, common-sense dictates that it is blatantly discriminatory that Sikhs are not recognized as a separate religion in India. In 1984, Sikhs faced religious violence in Delhi and Panjab, India, where mobs singled out homes and shops of Sikhs to kill and otherwise destroy families, as well as singling out Sikhs on buses and trains, identifying Sikhs by their distinct appearance.

The dastaar (Sikh turban) has been a particular point of contention in many countries and Sikhs often trace the discrimination against them to the dastaar. For example, despite the death of over 80,000 and injury to over 100,000 Sikhs in WWI and WWII while fighting in Europe for the Allied Forces wearing the dastaar instead of helmets, as is required by Sikh practice, in 2004, the French government passed laws banning ostensible religious symbols in schools and on photograph identification documents. These laws thereby caused the expulsion of Sikh students from French public schools and Sikhs are unable to renew identification documentation containing photographs when wearing the dastaar. After having exhausted domestic remedies in France, UNITED SIKHS, with the support of the global Sikh community, is filing cases on these important issues before the United Nations Human Rights Committee on December 15th.

As Sikh practice does not allow the removal or covering of the dastaar to wear a helmet, Sikhs often face discrimination within military and quasi-military service, jobs requiring hardhats, and the ability to ride motorcycles. Sikhs have successfully advocated for the right to serve in certain militaries around the world including the UN peacekeeping forces, India, Canada, Britain, Australia, Malaysia, Thailand, Sweden, and Iran, but other countries, such as the United States, forbade the enlistment of Sikhs wearing turbans. Questions regarding employment as a turbaned police officer have arisen in various places, including Canada, New Zealand, Britain, the United States, and Ireland. Of these countries, all have conveyed the right to become employed as police-personnel except Ireland.

There is widespread discriminatory treatment of Sikhs globally in airports, where the dastaar is treated very suspiciously by airport security officials. In the west, the turban has been linked to terrorism by media portrayals of men in turbans as terrorists. Sikhs are often asked to remove their turbans while traveling, and incidents have been reported spanning the globe from Spain to Antigua to Australia and the United States. Sikh advocacy organizations and leaders have worked hard to address this issue at various airports globally, but reports continue as trainings are insufficient to completely stem the discriminatory conduct. In an incident in November 2008, three famous Sikh musicians were kicked off a USAirways flight in Sacramento, California when a pilot refused to fly with the three on board.

The civil rights issues facing the Sikh community vary in severity from country to country, but the overall themes of discrimination are the same. These issues can be significantly affected through community empowerment, political participation, advocacy, education, and a continued commitment to the core concept of Sarbat da Bhala (for the good of all) and that most eloquent of Sikh maxims, to Recognize the Human Race as One.

Sikhs regularly face religious discrimination in relation to their kakaar (five articles of faith carried at all times by initiated Sikhs), primarily in relation to the understanding and implementation of the right to wear the kirpan (a short steel or iron blade that is carried as one of five articles of faith). Many non-Sikh authorities view the kirpan solely as a weapon as opposed to an article of faith which has a strict code of conduct associated with it. Post-9/11, Sikhs are rarely if ever allowed to carry the kirpan on board an aircraft, and many Sikhs are harassed and even arrested for wearing the kirpan in a public place. Numerous incidences of harassment or arrest involving the kirpan have occurred world-wide, including in countries that have laws or court rulings protecting the right to wear the kirpan.

This year, for example: In the United States, Sachdev Singh was arrested and humiliated for entering a courthouse in Connecticut with his kirpan. In Portugal, Gurmail Singh’s kirpan was confiscated at a British Embassy and he faced the possibility of charges for carrying a weapon before police recognized the religious significance of the kirpan after UNITED SIKHS intervened. In the United Kingdom, where the wearing of the kirpan is protected under enacted law, six Sikh youths were refused entry into Drayton Manor theme park while wearing the kirpan. In Canada, a thirteen year old was suspended and arrested prior to any investigation of the allegations surrounding the incident. Despite the complete recognition of religious freedom as a basic right by the UN, Sikhs wearing the kirpan were denied entry into the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, France, ironically when seeking admission into an event marking the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Issues with other kakaar continue to arise as well. In July 2008, in Wales, a High Court ruled that the Aberdare Girl’s School had broken the law in permanently excluding a 14-year-old Sikh girl for wearing a kara (a steel or iron bangle worn as one of five articles of faith), on the basis of the UK Race Relations Act 1976 and the Equality Act 2006. Prisoners’ rights cases can constitute some of the most egregious of religious rights violations. In July 2008, Jagmohan Singh, an inmate in Duval County Jail in Jacksonville, Florida, USA had his previously unshorn hair forcibly cut by jailors. It is against a Sikh’s religious practice to cut his/her hair, as kesh(unshorn hair) covered by a dastaar (Sikh turban) is one of five articles of faith which a Sikh must keep at all times. Historically, kesh and the dastaar have been a central feature of the Sikh identity and Sikhs have faced severe persecution in relation to their unique identity in South Asia and elsewhere.

For example, in the 17th and 18th century in undivided India, Sikhs were facing forcible conversion by tyrannous rulers and one of the methods used for forcible conversion was the cutting of a Sikh’s kesh (unshorn hair). As a result, the forcible cutting of the kesh is perceived as one of the most humiliating and hurtful physical injuries that can be inflicted upon a Sikh. Sikhs specifically remember those martyrs who willingly sacrificed their lives rather than giving up their kesh, within their daily prayers. Jagmohan Singh’s need to keep his kesh intact, covered with a dastaar must be understood in this context. Despite the submission of a petition that garnered over 4,000 signatures and various suggested remedies, jail officials refuse to stop cutting his hair or transfer him to a facility that will allow him to keep his religious rights intact. In another prisoner’s rights case, Navdeep Singh, an inmate in a New York, USA jail is not being allowed to have a dastaar or kara, and is only being given a very limited number of kacchera (traditional undershorts worn as one of five articles of faith). He has also reported that prison officials have shown a great deal of disrespect and lack of care while handling his religious texts.

Incidents of discrimination and harassment against Sikhs are commonplace in many countries. Sikhs regularly report incidents of verbal harassment where they are called a variety of racial epithets. For example, a Sikh student in medical school in the Caribbean reported that when he traveled through non-school and non-tourist areas, he would be called “Osama” or “Bin Laden” two to three times in a single trip. Physical assaults related to discrimination against Sikhs are most commonly reported in the United States, and are often referred to as hate or bias crimes, as there are federal laws and laws in some states which provide harsher punishment for those crimes committed with discriminatory intent. Two of the more notable attacks this year, completely separate incidents, involved Sikh men over the age of 60, where the attackers were significantly younger and attacked the men completely unprovoked.

Assaults and physical harassment are also often reported in school, by children who are being bullied due to their dastaar or kesh. While reports of this are also received in many countries, it is important to highlight two separate incidents earlier this year where two Sikh children were assaulted by having their hair forcibly cut by bullies. The forcible cutting exhibits an understanding yet utter disregard of the religious importance of the kesh, and the specific ill intent of the bully towards the Sikh faith. There is a problem with the issue of enforcement of hate crime statutes in the United States, where police and prosecutors are often unwilling to prosecute crimes as hate crimes.

As a minority community in every country, Sikhs have often not been afforded equal protection under the law. In India, it is generally difficult for minority communities to receive justice in the court system, where corruption often dictates outcomes or problems with enforceability. In June 2008, during peaceful protest in Mumbai, Sikhs faced police brutality as they were protesting the shooting of a Sikh by the bodyguards of a controversial sect leader. In the United States, there were two incidents of police brutality that are of note. In the first, Nirvair Singh, a Sikh visiting from India, fell ill and went into a bank to ask for assistance. Due to the language barrier he was unable to effectively communicate with bank employees, and he sat down to take rest due to his illness. Bank employees, observing that he had a turban, beard, and luggage with him, assumed that he was dangerous and called police, after which police also assumed that the man was a threat and used severe tactics including attacking him with a police dog.

In another incident in the United States, a Sikh family in Houston called the police when their house was robbed. Police proceeded to arrest all the family members, and began questioning them regarding the terrorist attacks this year in Mumbai, India. In Belgium, a Sikh Gurdwara was raided as part of a city-wide immigration raid while services were in progress, and thirty individuals were arrested. Despite the protest of the Gurdwara management that a special 48-hour continuous reading of Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, known as an akhand paath, was taking place and that the granthi (person conducting the prayers) immediately displayed valid immigration papers, police arrested him as well and stopped the prayers. All the individuals arrested there were released, and the Sikh community was particularly incensed that a Gurdwara was targeted in this manner when no other religious establishment was raided.

Due to their distinctive appearance, employment discrimination has been a recurrent civil rights issue for Sikhs world-wide. Most cases of employment discrimination against Sikhs stem from the dastaar (Sikh turban) or kirpan (a short steel or iron blade that is carried as one of five articles of faith). In California, USA, Sarabjit Kaur, a security guard at a hospital was told that she could not wear her dastaar at work. After UNITED SIKHS intervened, she was able to wear her dastaar, but her employer then began to retaliate against her in other ways, including unfairly changing her schedule, delaying her pay-raise, and assigning her to standing posts while she was pregnant, unlike other employees. In another case involving a Sikh security guard in Texas, USA, a company told Sukhdev Singh that he had to shave and cut his hair to fit a “quasi-military appearance.” UNITED SIKHS has received reports of employment discrimination in Canada, Denmark, Russia and Spain amongst other countries. In all these incidents, Sikhs were told asked to choose between the dastaar and the job. Sikhs in India also report employment discrimination and university admission discrimination.

General Global Recommendations

In order to consistent and effectively advocate to resolve these issues, there is a need for global monitoring and data collection with regard to incidents such as those described above. Government agencies and leaders should be especially careful about the speech they use connecting terrorism or other criminal acts to particular religions, races, or ethnicities. Furthermore, there is a need for more responsible media as well, as it is often the combination of sensational media and a lack of education that lead to discrimination against minorities.

In most places there is a lack of significance given to articles of faith and general lack of respect for religious practice. There is urgent need for educational programs to be instituted in schools, governmental offices, and in the private sector to educate students and staff on diversity issues, critical thinking, and to inform students and staff about Sikhs and other minority communities. Discrimination should be aggressively prosecuted and the penalties imposed should be large enough to deter such practices in the future. Finally, in terms of security, government agencies should implement specific procedures that do not profile particular individuals and should base security policies on factual data rather than speculation.

The civil rights issues facing the Sikh community vary in severity from country to country, but the overall themes of discrimination are the same. These issues can be significantly affected through community empowerment, political participation, advocacy, education, and a continued commitment to the core concept of Sarbat da Bhala (for the good of all) and that most eloquent of Sikh maxims, to Recognize the Human Race as One.

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