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The Turban Headache in France

France-based Sikhs bring the turban issue to Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, hoping for a larger support from the diaspora, says SUJATHA SAMY

Photo: Shailendra Pandey

Photo: Shailendra Pandey

At the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, this year, there were three men on a mission. Although they came from France, you can think they were just regular Sikhs wearing a turban. In fact, this is notreally the case. Their dastaar (turban) is a major source of headache in their new homeland.

The reason? A French law requiring that all people be “bare-headed” on the photographs submitted for identification documents such as ID cards, passports or even as simple as a public transportation card.

For most Sikhs, removing their turban even for a picture is a sacrilege. Most of the France-based Sikhs I spoke with claimed their headgear is part of the identity and without it they would look completely different. Hence, they could not see the relevance of the requirement.

Unfortunately, in their cases, no exception could be made. Sikhs refusing to submit pictures “bareheaded” end up without papers. Among those cases, the one of Shingara Mann Singh is unique. He is a French citizen but because of the current requirements, he has no valid ID. “I am the only French without papers,” he jokes when asked about it.

He becomes tense when talking about his fate in the coming months. He owns a taxi agency and drives regularly. His driver’s license is about to expire and he knows his turban will bar him from getting its renewal. In his case, it could mean that he will be jobless pretty soon. His bank has also warned him that they would not be able to renew his debit card if he cannot prove his identity.

His friend Ranjit Singh has a legal political refugee status. The man has severe health issues but without valid papers, he is unable to get his social security benefits and has to pay full price for any medical treatment. He is also not able to apply for housing.

So far, the local Sikhs are leaving no stone unturned. They have filed cases in local courts and appealed court decisions, but without much success. They have written to local MPs, ministers and politicians in India. But no one took up their case. They then decided to bring their problem to the European Court of Human Rights. Here again they met with disappointment.

In 2004, a delegation of Sikhs from France was even sent to India. They spent days, meeting as many officials as they could. Sonia Gandhi was also on the list. After speaking with them, she assured that the issue would be taken up through the diplomatic channel. So far, the French Sikhs say, they have not seen any movement.

Even during the visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during the French Bastille Day, last July, Sikhs claimed they were ignored. No Punjabi association was invited to the official reception, whereas 200 other Indian associations were part of the function.

So what about the future? In New Delhi, the delegation brought a memorandum explaining their difficulties to the members of the Diaspora. They also collected 4,000 signatures from other Sikhs here (French law does not allow statistics based on race or gender, but here are an estimated 12,000 Sikhs in France). However, they have no illusions about a positive outcome from the conference but still have the hope that a solution could come out from political intervention.

On the legal front, United Sikh – a UN-affiliated NGO fighting the Sikh cause – had turned to the United Nations Human Rights Committee in 2008. They are expecting a decision soon.

The turban issue is far from being a simple one – Neither for France nor India.

France has a tradition of “integration”. The country expects its immigrants “to blend” into French society. However, what “integrate” really means remains unclear nowadays. Does it mean that in order to fit in, all individuality or unique community symbols have to be erased? Another question to ponder is: Unlike the burqa – a commission is currently studying the possibility of a legal ban on the burqa in France – one can see the faces of the men wearing a turban. So how is the turban posing an identification problem?

No society can function properly without a fair set of boundaries. However, France has to come to terms with the changing face of its society and opt for more nuanced laws that would not alienate its minorities. This would be a good step to attain the much coveted integration objective.

India is not in a comfortable situation either. What much can the Indian government, even headed by a dastaar-wearing Sikh, can do when those people have become foreign nationals? What could be done beyond basic education and information? The local Sikhs blame the Indian inertia on lucrative business prospects. Could that be the only reason?

In the middle of so many questions, to which answers could never come, the Sikhs in France have no intention of ending their struggle. Love them or hate them but their resolve cannot leave you indifferent.

Sujatha Samy is a Paris-based journalist


Source: Tehelka