Turban, a matter of pride and honour

PRIDE and honour make a potent potion and the turban evokes these feelings in those Sikhs who wear a turban. People have been wearing turbans since time immemorial and you find individuals wearing turbans in many nations in Asia and Africa. While for some turbans might be an optional, formal, attire, for the Sikhs wearing a turban is a religious imperative.

Turban-wearing Sikhs stand out in a crowd, for good or bad, and there are many documented cases, spread over centuries and spanning the globe, when the Sikhs have faced discrimination and worse because of their turbans.

Often prominent people would stand up for their rights. When the question of Sikhs wearing turbans and refusing to wear steel helmets came in front of the British parliament, Sir Winston Churchill said it was “a matter of deep regret that consequent to contemporary cynicism, people had been toying with many precious social and religious values, but those who want to retain and maintain them with due respect should receive our appreciation as well as help. The Sikhs need our help for such a cause. We should help them willingly. He who is familiar with Sikh history knows the Sikhs’ relationship with England, the high degree of their achievements, and must help them with full strength. The Sikhs should be exempted from wearing steel helmets because it hurts their religious feelings”.

Especially in the final decades of the last century, the Sikhs would take recourse to the legal systems of the nations that they faced discrimination in, and more in time would be granted relief since courts worldwide recognised the fundamental right of the Sikhs to wear an item of their religious attire. This was so in Britain, Canada and the US, to name just three major nations.

In France, however, it was the state that discriminated against Sikh school students and banned them for wearing turbans to school, because turbans were seen as “conspicuous religious symbols”. It enacted an all-embracing law against “conspicuous religious symbols” in 2004 and enforced it vigorously. Others affected by the law include Muslim girls wearing headscarves, Jewish boys wearing scull caps and Christians wearing large crosses.

The logic behind this decision is to take secularism not as equal respect for all religions, as it is seen in India; or a separation of the church and the state as is practised in most of Europe and the US, but a particularly narrow and strident interpretation that seeks to stamp out religion and religious symbols to preserve secularity.

French courts have supported the government in this and now the principle is being extended-the Sikhs are being asked to uncover their heads while being photographed for driving licences. Recently, United Sikhs, an international charitable organisation that has also been fighting for the cause of the turban, reported that its appeal regarding Shingara Mann Singh, 52, a French national who was refused a replacement driver’s licence because he did not take off his turban, was turned down by a top French court. Similarly, appeals by eight French students, who have sought to be allowed to attend school, have met with a similar fate.

The forthcoming visit of French President Nicolas Sarkozy has drawn attention to this issue again. The issue of banning turbans in French schools has been raised , protest marches have taken place, and vigils are being planned.

It is a historical fact that 80,000 Sikh soldiers fought for France and many lost their lives during the two world wars, fighting major battles in Ypres, La Bassée, NeuveChapelle, Festubert, Loos, Givenchy and Somme.

The late Hardit Singh Malik was granted the French Legion of Honour Award in 1952. He had served as a fighter pilot for the French Air Force, and won nine aerial battles in World War I. The turbaned Malik also served as Indian Ambassador to France soon after India became independent.

The issue is neither the contributions of the Sikhs to the freedom of France, nor the ties they have with France and the French people. What is at stake here is a fundamental matter of giving people the freedom to profess and practise their faith.

The following are excerpts from a statement by the French President Nicolas Sarkozy speaking at the UN General Assembly in New York on September 25, 2007, which is being circulated on the Internet:

“Attachment to one’s faith, to one’s language and culture, and to one’s way of life, thought and belief – all this is natural, legitimate and profoundly human…To deny that is to sow the seeds of humiliation. A ‘clash of civilisations’ will not be averted by forcing everyone to think and believe alike; cultural and religious diversity must be accepted everywhere and by all.”

Quite so, Mr President.

This article was published in the OpEd page of The Tribune on January 23, 2008