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British Sikhs and Multiculturalism
A review of Sikhs in Britain: The Making of a Community by Gurharpal Singh and Darshan Singh Tatla (Zed Books; October 3, 2006; pp. 288; $29.95).


The Hindu, Oct. 31, 2006

Photo: Sikhs in Britain

Are there any lessons that Muslims can learn from the Sikh experience? The 'war on terror' may have complicated matters.

No debate on British multiculturalism can ignore the experience of early Sikh immigrants who were the first to confront many of the issues such as those of identity and free speech that Hindu and Muslim groups from South Asia were to face later. Indeed, according to a new study, the very roots of present-day multiculturalism in Britain can be traced to the role the Sikh community played in gaining greater public recognition of the cultures and traditions of minority ethnic groups.

Today, Britain's more than 300,000 Sikhs, though not exactly in the big league, are one of the biggest success stories of Asian immigrants making it good in a foreign country. They are also often cited as an example of a well-integrated community, but I am not quite sure if that is entirely true. On the face of it, yes. Having already won their demands through a prolonged struggle, they now tend to keep a low profile and are not as often in the headlines as, say, the Muslims. But the truth is that they remain deeply insular and fiercely protective of their religious and cultural identity. London's Southall area is little more than a glorified Sikh ghetto (as Tower Hamlets is a Muslim ghetto) where the talk is mostly about religion, community, and Sikh politics.

It has been a long and rocky journey for immigrant Sikhs, going back to the middle of the nineteenth century when Maharaja Duleep Singh settled down in Britain. There was a time when the Sikh 'question' sparked the same sort of controversies that the Muslim 'question' does these days. Even now, the issues to do with Sikh identity and religious sensitivities have not completely disappeared and, as two liberal Sikh academics Gurharpal Singh and Darshan Singh Tatla argue in Sikhs in Britain: The Making of a Community (Zed Books), the battle is far from over. This was illustrated by the furore, last year, over the play Behzti when angry Sikhs in Birmingham turned violent and forced the play to be abandoned alleging that its depiction of a rape scene inside a gurudwara was an attack on their religion.

The book claims to be the 'first comprehensive study of the Sikh community in Britain.' I am not able to vouchsafe for that, but it is an important work as it raises questions that have a bearing on the current debate on issues such as diversity and the pressure on immigrant faith groups to embrace the 'values' of their adopted liberal societies while abandoning practices that their 'hosts' find uncomfortable or alien.

Professors Singh and Tatla teach religion at the University of Birmingham and having themselves lived through the Sikh 'experience' they are able to bring a personal perspective to the challenges faced by minority groups in Britain.

In the context of the 'burqa' controversy, which has dominated media headlines in recent weeks, the most important part of the book is the one that recalls the Sikh community's own battles with Britain's legal and political establishment over its 'dress code.' Through the 1960s and 1980s, Sikhs fought a series of bitter and long drawn-out battles over their right to have beards, wear turbans and carry kirpans.

Professor Singh told me that there were 'clear parallels' between what Sikhs had to endure and the controversies surrounding the so-called Muslim 'dress code.'

'In the 1960s, when Sikhs began to campaign for the right to wear a turban at work, there was great deal of opposition. Some commentators at the time described the early Sikh settlers as 'strangers in a strange land' who were badly equipped to deal with the 'complexities of a modern civilisation,' ' he said pointing out that in some ways the Muslim 'struggle' was a continuation of the campaigns fought by Sikhs on this issue.

Are there any lessons that Muslims can learn from the Sikh experience?

According to Professor Singh, Muslims have tried to emulate some of the strategies that Sikhs deployed when they fought to retain their sartorial customs but their approach has been 'less sophisticated.' Sikhs were relatively more successful because they were able to create a 'highly organised lobby' in the political establishment by drawing on their colonial links, especially with the British army.

They also made full use of legal channels to question laws that they believed were discriminatory. Perhaps their biggest - and most enduring - victory was the recognition of the Sikh community as an 'ethnic group' by the House of Lords in 1983. This gave Sikhs special rights that other religious groups such as Muslims and Hindus still do not enjoy.

The Lords' ruling flowed from a case involving a Sikh student who was refused admission by a school because his insistence on wearing a turban went against its dress policy. In their book, Professors Singh and Tatla note that by designating Sikhs as an ethnic group, the verdict gave a 'formal stamp of approval to the dominant discourse of Sikh identity.' 'Sikhs were brought, like Jews, within the protection of the Race Relations Act - a protection which continues to elude other religious groups,' they write.

One criticism levelled against Sikhs is that for all their claim to have contributed to 'deepening' the idea of multiculturalism beyond the chicken tikka masala and Indian curry syndrome they have essentially focussed on single issues, mostly relating to their faith. They have been very good at winning concessions for themselves using their political clout in areas where they are concentrated and can deliver crucial votes at election time. This book acknowledges that Sikhs are seen as a 'paradigm case of a special-interest group that can always negotiate an opt-out from general rule-making.'

But Sikhs are not alone in this. The fact is that there is no longer such a thing as 'class' solidarity among immigrants. Since the collapse of the anti-racist coalition between Asians and Africans in the 1980s most immigrant groups have been fighting their own individual battles. Within the larger 'immigrant-natives' divide, there are now deep divisions among ethnic communities themselves with Indians fancying themselves as superior to Pakistanis; affluent Hindus seeing themselves as a cut above other - less prosperous - Indians such as Sikhs and Muslims; and Asians treating newly arrived Africans with a touch of almost racist disdain.

Rise of religion

The rise of religion as the defining factor in identity is also something that worries liberal commentators. 'Since the early 1990s, religion has come into the mainstream, notably with the rise of Islamophobia after the Rushdie affair following the controversy over Satanic Verses. As a result, but also related to other developments in India like the rise of the Hindutva and Khalistan movements, Hindus and Sikhs have been increasingly identifying themselves in religious terms. This process has been further reinforced by global events and the struggle for competition between minority groups at the local government level, where religion now is a more powerful currency than ethnicity or race,' says Professor Singh.

I asked him where British multiculturalism was headed in the light of Prime Minister Tony Blair's assertion that in the wake of 9/11 and the London bombings the 'rules of the game' had changed and that ethnic groups would not be allowed to use it as a licence to do their own thing. Professor Singh's answer reflects the growing fear that multiculturalism is in danger of becoming a casualty of the 'war on terror' with immigrants likely to come under increased pressure to conform to what are loosely described as 'British values.'

He said: 'Multiculturalism as a public policy is effectively dead, and some argue it has been killed off by militant Islam. The new idea of Britain emphasises non-negotiable British values. However, implementing this is going to be difficult, as we saw over Sikh protest following the play Behzti and Muslim protests over the cartoons of Prophet Mohammed.'

It is a pessimistic prognosis but pretty much in line with the prevailing mood. The head of Britain's Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips, has called for a fresh look at multiculturalism saying the country risked 'sleepwalking' into racial segregation if it allowed people to live parallel lives in the name of multiculturalism.

So, where does it leave us? Mr. Blair vaguely talks about striking the right balance between multiculturalism and integration, while others, mostly on the Right, are pushing for full integration. This book does not point the way forward - it was not intended to - but what it does is to show that even communities that played a role in pioneering multiculturalism and have benefited from it are disillusioned with the idea today.