Letter To The French President

International Human Rights Organisation Head Office: New District Courts, Ludhiana-141 001 (India)
Tel & Fax: 91 161 240 2453, Cell: 91 98147 02089

Saturday, December 27, 2003
His Excellency
Mr Jacques Chirac
President of France

Your Excellency Mr Chirac:

Reference: Your Excellency's call for legislation to ban the wearing of religious articles of faith in public schools and to regulate their wearing at the workplace

The International Human Rights Organisation (IHRO) is a NGO, with national focus and overseas network. It agitates both in India and internationally for protection of peoples' rights irrespective of their caste, creed or political views. It strives to bring together all those who cherish democratic values in all spheres of life- social, economic and political, and takes active steps to preserve, defend and strengthen democracy.

The IHRO, thus, has decided to seek your attention to the emergent situation that would be arising out of enforcement of proposed law banning Islamic headscarves and other religious symbols in state schools, thereby making a distinction between school children on the basis of religious bias. I hope your Excellency know that most the countries have suitably amended their laws to allow the Sikhs to freely follow and practice their own religion.

Do your Excellency know, when some leaders tried to enforce the use of helmets on the Sikhs at the outbreak of the World War, the Sikhs resisted the move and decided that Sikhs should not wear the helmets, because it is an act of apostasy? So, the Sikh soldiers were allowed to wear their turbans.

In UK, USA, Canada, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and Saskatchewan, the Sikhs, as a religious community, have been exempted from wearing the crash-helmets, and in UK Road Traffic Act 1972 was amended, and the amended Section 32(2) was known as Motor Cycle Crash Helmets (Religious Exemption) Act, 1976.

I am quoting some of the extracts from the proceedings of the Sikh Case in the British Crown Court and British Parliament, where in the House of Lords, the Bill to exempt the Sikhs from wearing crash-helmets was presented by Hon'ble Lord Eric Avebury (now IHRO European Advisor) in 1976. Eminent Sikh scholar late Dr Trilochan Singh appeared as an expert witness in Aylesbury Crown Court of Hon'ble Judge Lawrence Verney, on February 18, 1976, in which he argued the case at length; some relevant portions are being reproduced:

"My Lord, the question here is not of the turban and the crash helmet, as the prosecution sees it. The question there is of law, which has caused grave injury to the sanctity of the turban. A Hindu, could not, under any circumstances, accept a law, which compels him to take beef, nor a Muslim to obey a law compelling him to take pork if the government proves that it is done for their physical well being…. For a Sikh to wear a cap, a hat or a crash helmet is an act of apostasy. A Sikh who does so is an apostate from Sikhism."

The case was decided by the British Crown Court on the basis of statement of late Dr Trilochan Singh and Lt. General Sir Reginald Arthur Savory, and Hon'ble Judge Lawrence Verney brought out two points in his historic judgement:

  1. That he was convinced that the Sikhs would not wear helmets under any circumstances,
  2. That the Sikhs were not consulted before the Bill was passed.

Mr. Winston S. Churchill, MP for Stretford (grandson of Prime Minister Churchill) also supported the cause of the Sikhs and said: "It is universally accepted in the House of Commons that the immigrant communities must be treated equally and without discrimination… However, I think that we must go a step further than saying that they must be treated equally and without discrimination. It is important in this age of cynicism and breaking away from religion and traditions of the past that those who wish to respect those traditions and religions should be allowed to do so. It is important that we in Parliament should uphold that right and respect their religious beliefs. The bill was passed in the House of Commons on Friday, July 16, 1976 with overwhelming majority of 40 to 11 votes.

Lord Avebury introduced the Bill in House of Lords on October 5, 1976 at 2:58 a.m. and here too the bill received overwhelming support from the members of House of Lords. Lord Mowbray and Stourton supported the bill and said:

"The study of other religious systems is not one that can be mastered in a short time, and this is perhaps particularly true of the great oriental religions. However, as in all cases involving religious convictions of others, we must respect even when we do not necessarily understand. Also we ought to be guided in matters, concerning other faiths by the members of those faiths themselves."

In U.K. the British Parliamentarians, who knew very little about Sikh religion, advocated the cause of the Sikhs admirably taking into consideration religious freedom and tolerance.

UNITED SIKHS, a Sikh organisation working for the betterment of 25 million Sikhs globally, has taken up this cause, regretting your call for legislation to ban the wearing of religious articles of faith in public schools and to regulate their wearing at the workplace.

This proposed law, if enacted, will ban Sikhs from wearing their distinctive Turbans in addition to banning Islamic head coverings, Jewish skullcaps and oversized Christian crosses in public schools and workplaces.

It violates fundamental human rights, including freedom of religion and the right to education. Wearing a Turban is not optional but a mandatory requirement of the Sikh faith. Such law will deny approximately 7,000 Sikhs, residing in France, their fundamental right to practise the Sikh faith.

Mr President, your Excellency is fully aware of the fact that United Nation's 'Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, enshrines:

"Article 18: Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice worship and observance."

And interestingly, Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1976, also says that Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. No one shall be subject to coercion, which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice. And the States Parties to this Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.

We will, therefore, appreciate if your Excellency could know the gravity of the situation and the aspirations of the worldwide Sikh community and others, and reconsider your decision on this Sensitive Issue.

Thanking you,

yours truly,

(D S Gill)